Saturday, July 12, 2014

CHAPTER 45: Monks Who Make Mistakes During Prayer

     If someone makes a mistake while he is reciting a psalm, a response, an antiphon, or a lesson, and then refuses to humble himself there before all by making some sign of his regret, let him undergo a greater punishment, since he would not correct by humility the harm he did through his carelessness.

     If you ever come to visit our monastery and watch the monks as they chant, you will notice that every once in a while, one of them will gently strike his chest with his fist.  This means that he made some sort of small error while he was singing.  If the mistake is really obvious, you will see him rise from where he is sitting and genuflect.  That is our way of acknowledging that we’ve slipped up.  Of course, all the kneeling and chest-thumping may strike the modern sensibility as slightly strange.  Surely God is happy with whatever prayer we have to offer, right?  Does He really care that much if our prayer has a mistake in it?
     Well…yes and no.  On the one hand, we are all imperfect beings.  If we only prayed when we thought our prayer was going to be perfect, it would never happen at all.  On the other hand, Jesus himself said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).  So we should at least try.  In fact, if there is any one area of our life where we should shoot for the top, it is in our religious devotion.  Sloppiness and laziness in our prayer points to a lack of respect for God Himself—and a serious confusion of priorities.
     Not long ago, I had to get my computer fixed, and that necessitated a trip to the mall.  I brought along one of my brother monks, Simon, who has been living as a hermit for several years, building stained glass windows in a small cottage behind our school.  He needed a watch, I think.   When we got to the mall, though, all the noise and bustle made him nauseous, and he had to sit down.  “You know,” he said, after he had regained his composure, “back in the Middle Ages, a village would invest all its resources in building a church.  They really knew what was important.  The marketplace may have been a little grimy, but it was functional.  The local church, however, was full of marble and gold.  Today, our churches are grimy and functional, but our shopping malls are full of marble and gold!”
     Saint Benedict never confuses his priorities.  Sloppy prayer, like sloppy work, demands a penalty.  Benedict’s legislation may sound strict, but it drives home the monastic conviction that prayer is our most important work, and that work should never be careless.  You’d pay a penalty for messing up your tax return, and this is far more important, isn’t it?