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Praying the Monastic Office

Sister Cintra Pemberton, OSH

Psalm 62 says: "For God alone my soul in silence waits; from God comes my salvation." This is the prayer in my heart, said over and over, as I sit in the darkened chapel each morning before Matins. The time seems to fly by some days and drag by on others, but it's essential life-giving time nevertheless. As I sit alone in the silence, sometimes I feel the presence of the angels. I can hear them singing in some faraway place, calling me to join my voice with theirs, and when the time comes later in the day, I will try to do just that.

The bell for chapel rings. The lights come on; I have to shield my eyes against the sudden brightness. I move from my corner to my place in choir; the other sisters come in and take their places; we find the pages in our breviary. The Angelus rings: Hail, Mary, full of grace; God is with you. After the Angelus, we begin Matins: O God, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise ... and the day has begun.

Matins is just the first of the four daily offices for us sisters in the convent. After Matins we always celebrate the Eucharist, and then at noon we come back to chapel for the midday office of Diurnum; at 5:00 we have Vespers, and around bedtime we have Compline. That means we go to church five times every day. Many years ago, when I told one of my friends that, she was shocked. "Five times a day!", she gasped, "What on earth for?" I was taken aback myself-I hadn't thought about it that way-and I really didn't know how to answer. Why do I go to church five times a day? It was a while before I realized that I go not because it does anything for God -- God does not need my prayers -- but I go because of what it does for me. I need my prayers. It's what keeps me sane and balanced, and it's the steady discipline that helps me to grow into the person God created me to be.

I love the rich liturgical diet of the daily office. Besides celebrating the church seasons throughout the year, there are all the saints, major ones and minor ones. Every day is just a little different, so we need an ordo (an order of the day) to guide us. Every office has different readings from scripture, canticles, hymns, and prayers, but always at the heart-what is never different-are the psalms.

There's something mystical about the psalms. When I pray My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Psalm 22) every other Friday morning, I am right there with Jesus on the cross, because there are so many times when life is really tough and it's easy to feel abandonment-if not myself, then someone we know and love has been or is now suffering greatly and feels abandoned by God. Then I can remember my family or friends with cancer or the victims of Hurricane Katrina or the people of Iraq and pray for them-and I do.

Dozens of the psalms soar in their praise for God-they praise God for the beauty of the earth, for the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the glory of the sky; dozens of others thank God for great abundance and plenty; others beg God for help or for healing of wounds and hurts; still others rage at God in impotent fury against one's enemies-and who does not at times feel they have enemies-and we are called to pray for them, too. Every human emotion is in the psalms, and when you pray all 150 of them on a two-week cycle, day after day, week after week, year after year, they truly get inside your soul in an indelible and ineradicable way. That's what going to church five times a day does for you, and it changes your life at its deepest level.

Vespers, I think, is my favorite of the monastic offices, probably because we always sing it. Something indescribable happens when we sing the psalms, canticles, hymns, and prayers, but especially when we chant the psalms. We sisters are not trained singers, and it's not that we have particularly good voices-we're just average women with average voices who use our voices to pray. But because the sound is very unselfconscious and natural, sometimes people seem to think we're musically special. We're not. We are just doing our best with our voices to praise God, and God does the rest. We often make mistakes, but that doesn't matter very much. When I stumble, it's usually because my mind has wandered, and I like to think God has gently tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me to come back to prayer.

Praying in the daily office is not like praying in a parish church. We sisters strive to speak or to sing as one voice, to create one single blend of sound. No one speaks or sings faster than a neighbor, because it breaks the unity of sound, and there is no longer prayer in one voice. Nor is there any need for anyone's voice to be particularly loud. In a monastic setting, it is far better to speak or sing quietly and gently-God is not hard of hearing. For most of us, this takes real discipline: no forging ahead, no belting it out-but then no holding back, either. This is a kind of discipline that is life-giving, and we get to practice it five times each day. It's a kind of symbol of community: the more we are able to speak or sing as one voice, the more we are able to love and respect one another.

Singing in a monastic choir is not like singing in a church choir, either. First of all there's no conductor, and there is no sense whatsoever of performance. It's simply human voices together praising God. The goal, if one could call it that, is to find a balance between offering and listening. Each person must offer enough (i.e., sing loud enough) to be heard by the person on either side, but at the same time, each person must listen carefully enough to hear clearly the offering being made by the person on either side. It doesn't help anybody to sit in the choir and simply listen; the choir truly needs each person's offering. At the same time, if someone's offering is so loud that someone else's offering is drowned out, that's no good, either. Each person needs to listen to everyone else at the same time they are making their own offering. When the balance is exactly right-and often it is-there comes that precious mystical awareness of being surrounded by the angels. No one can ever predict when it will come, but that is what the choir always strives for: the balance that brings perfection and the Holy Spirit.

Of course there's even more than the balance between listening and offering and praying as one voice, because concentration and focus also come into play. If all the sisters sing on "automatic pilot" (and oh, what a pitfall that can be when you've been singing the office for many years!), on the surface it may sound fine, but if minds are somewhere else, that mystical perfection for which we strive will not happen-we won't hear the angels. If I (or anyone else, for that matter) am in turmoil on the inside because I am preoccupied with some project, or if I am at odds with one of my sisters, that mystical perfection will not happen. The same is true for all of us-that's why those moments of mystical perfection are so rare. But when it does all come together, the whole choir knows it, and there emerges an exquisite delicacy, a kind of crystal fragility of sound that one knows instinctively is the presence of God. We are surrounded by the presence of the angels and our spirits soar-and the praise of God is perfection itself.

So why do I sit quietly in the chapel before Matins each morning? Not only to prepare myself for the coming day, but also to prepare myself for the discipline of the daily office. The discipline of the office strengthens me and nourishes my soul. The discipline of trying to blend my voice with the voices of my sisters reminds me that I am not alone in the Christian walk; others are there with me, trying just as hard as I am to find that mystical balance of listening and offering which leads to true community, which helps me to grow in love. Why do I go to church five times a day? Because I hear the voices of the angels in some faraway place calling me to join with them in praising God; and in the repeated praising of God throughout the day, I grow more fully into the person God has created me to be.

Cintra Pemberton, OSH, recently completed eight years on the order's leadership council. Currently she is in charge of the house, kitchen and grounds of the convent in Augusta, GA. She has worked intensively with the order's Breviary Revision Committee, a five year project that resulted in the publishing of the Saint Helena Psalter. The Personal Edition of the Saint Helena Breviary will be ready for General Convention 2006; Sister Cintra contributed editorial leadership and wrote and/or adapted much of the music in it. In addition to all her other duties, Sister Cintra is well known for leading Celtic spirituality pilgrimages to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the North of England.

 

 
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