When a monk is away from his monastery, he should perform the Work of God in the fear of God and on bended knees wherever he happens to be. In a similar way, let those who are sent on a journey not permit the appointed hours to pass by; but let them say the office by themselves as best they can, and not neglect to fulfill the obligation of divine service.
There are two types of men who join a monastery: those for whom the monastic life suits their character, and those for whom it tames their character. The first sort have no need of a chapter like this. They will naturally say their prayers when the time comes—whether or not they are in the presence of the community. For the rest of us, though, it’s a real challenge to keep those hours from slipping by. It’s hard to say our prayers, especially when no one is watching. Sure, we have our good days and bad days, but sometimes, it just feels like a chore, and we can’t wait to get them over with so we can get back to whatever we were doing. Of course we recognize that prayer is necessary and good, but the day-to-day reality is often tedious. This is why we join a monastery and wear the funny-looking clothes. The rules and reminders and rituals are necessary because, without them, we are likely to backslide.
Saint Benedict was well familiar with monks like us, and so he adds this reminder that, even when we’re out on our own, we need to say our prayers with the same devotion as we would in community—not just muttering them to ourselves while we’re doing something else, but fulfilling the obligation “as best we can” and “on bended knee.”
When you’re away from home, your parents expect you to call in every now and then to let them know what you’re up to. That way, they won’t worry too much and you won’t fall out of touch. Likewise with the monk’s prayers. They are our a way of ‘calling home.’ The prayers keep us in touch with God and in touch with our community. And for this reason, they need to be done regularly and done right.
Not long ago, I overheard a conversation between one of our monks and the father of a boy in our school. “I drag my son, kicking and screaming to mass every Sunday,” he said, “but the kid just hates it. When we get there, he slumps down in the pew like a convict and acts like he’s sleeping. I wonder whether it’s even worth it, you know. After all, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
“You’re right,” answered the brother. “You cannot make the horse drink. But if you don’t lead the horse to the water, you can be certain it will die of thirst.”
And this is why we pray even when we’re not in church. This is why we pray even when we don’t feel like it. This is why we go to mass every Sunday. Because prayer is a well of grace. A fountain of grace. A spring of living water. All we need to do is show up and drink.