Sunday, December 22, 2013

CHAPTER 20: Of Reverence at Prayer

     When we go to visit someone powerful, we do it with courtesy and respect.  How much more courteous and respectful should we be when we visit the Lord God of all things? Let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in purity of heart and tears of contrition that we are heard.  For this reason prayer ought to be short and pure, unless, perhaps it is lengthened by the inspiration of divine grace. At the community exercises, however, let the prayer always be short, and the sign having been given by the Superior, let all rise together.

     Two of the greatest writers in American history—Earnest Hemingway and William Faulkner—used to fight over whose writing style was superior.  Hemingway liked to write in short, choppy sentences with words that everyone understood.  Faulkner preferred long, flowing sentences and fancy words.  (In one of Faulkner’s novels, a single sentence went on for thirty-five pages!)  Once, in an interview with a magazine, Faulkner made the mistake of criticizing Hemingway’s writing in this way: “Earnest Hemingway has no courage,” he said, “he has never climbed out on a limb...has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary."
William Faulkner and Earnest Hemingway
     A few days later, Hemingway responded, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”  Both were right in their own way, of course.  A thirty-five page sentence can be tedious, but so can a whole book of sentence fragments.  The key is to do everything—even prayer—in moderation.  Although Saint Benedict might be more of a spiritual Hemingway, he allows for the possibility that the Holy Spirit may inspire you to pray longer.  Nonetheless, it is a great error to confuse quality with quantity.  Your prayer isn’t better just because you use a whole bunch of words.  God is easily pleased, but not easily impressed.
     Speaking of which…I was visiting a parish not long ago when I noticed a kid in line for communion wearing a t-shirt that said, “Jesus is my homeboy.”  I guess I can see how that might help to break down some barriers when it comes to cultivating a personal relationship with the Lord; but remember that Jesus is also the author of the universe.  Would you really wear a t-shirt and shorts to go see a guy like that?  Then maybe it’s not such a good idea to dress that way for Sunday mass.
Which bring me to one final observation: In all of Benedict’s talk of prayer and perfection, one thing is conspicuously missing.  For hundreds of years, commentators have worried over why Benedict never leaves instructions for the one perfect prayer without which none of this would be possible, namely, the Mass.  He refers to it in passing, but has no advice as to how or when his monks should celebrate it.  Most scholars think that the reason he left this out was because the Church already had so many rules in place.  There just wasn’t any need for him to make more.  But I myself wonder if perhaps the mass was so central to Benedict’s life that it never occurred to him to write about it.  I once asked an old monk what the Eucharist meant to him.  He just looked at me, bewildered, and said, “What does air mean to me?  What does the beat of my heart mean to me?  I can’t say.  I just know that my life would stop without it.”
    Pray as often as you can and as sincerely as you are able.  But remember that it all boils down to that one perfect indispensable prayer that Jesus gave us on Holy Thursday: THE EUCHARIST.  All other prayer finds its source and summit in that.