catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 6 :: 2008.03.21 — 2008.04.04


The hard work of living peacefully

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets

I’ve lost track of the number of times in the last decade that I’ve turned the wheel sharply to the right to shift the car onto the abbey road. Sometimes Eliot’s words have echoed through my mind, sometimes not. I should try to make a habit of it—they certainly describe my mission at the abbey as well as they did Eliot’s mission at Little Gidding, where one of the first Anglican religious communities had been formed.

All too often, though, I’m running late—usually just under the wire for actually attending a service. Still, as I turn into a parking spot, jump out of the car and walk across the lawn space to the church, the hush begins to steal over me. By the time I’ve carefully rested the thick door behind me, bowed and slid into one of the seats behind the monks’ choir stalls (knowing they’ve noted my presence and its timing), the peace of the place starts to steal into my heart and I realize once again how futile my efforts have been to keep it there during my absence.

The chanting of that first service starts to quiet me, to remind me that I am here to kneel and be still and know, but it’s only a beginning. “Work and pray,” is the Benedictine motto. I’m finally starting to get better at fulfilling the first part of that motto more literally during my times at the abbey—during the last few visits I’ve finally been able to do some reading and writing work.

But for most of my time at the monastery over the last years, the primary work for my monastic visits hasn’t been that from my daily life. Nor is it that which the monks engage in. Instead, my central task has involved the hard work of being taught to be at peace. Not “to verify, / Instruct [myself], or inform curiosity / Or carry report,” but “to kneel / Where prayer has been valid,” in a place where a dedicated few have been praying seven times daily for decades and hosting travelers who wish to kneel with them.

Although I’ve literally felt the pressure of my legs against the kneeling bench many times, the metaphorical task of surrendering to the peace has taken surprisingly long at times, especially in my early visits. What surprised me most about the task was how much the noise inside my head resisted the stillness.

I delight in attending five of the services a day now when I go, but especially in my early visits, sometimes I’d find that the quiet chanting of the Psalms during the monastery services grated against my itchy psyche. The combination of sleepiness (something I’ve found to frequently accompany the peace), unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the liturgy, and the similar sound of many of the services kept me from properly listening to and joining in the rich liturgical interplay and from sincerely offering prayer in the services. And so I had to work my way into eagerly looking forward to the occasions when the Lord’s Prayer is chanted in harmony at Vespers and to that fourth consecutive Psalm at the 11:30 a.m. service. (Even now, I’m by no means there yet—I find the 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. services make me cranky for the rest of the day, so I settle for joining the monks for the first time after 8 a.m.)

Even when I’ve been able to appreciate the services properly, I’ve found the internal noise from my worries and other spiritual issues hasn’t waved the white flag without being presented to the One who has calmed much larger storms. Even the discipline of a good monastery nap between services (kneeling by giving up the control waking life brings) has often produced a dream illustrating the spiritual baggage I brought with me. Many times it’s taken a prayerful walk in the abbey woods or slipping into the church between services for me to truly discover once again that it's possible to lay down my burdens in prayer—burdens that I too often become accustomed to carrying without even noticing.

Despite the hard work involved in surrendering, the blanket of peace that surrounds the abbey has been of inestimable importance to me over the last decade. Without my occasional forays into it, I wouldn’t have gotten as true a glimpse of the kind of joyful serenity that exists at the “still points of the turning world” (Eliot’s Quartets echoing again). Without that remembrance, I wouldn’t be as eager to experience that serenity in the rest of my life, or to help others glimpse the peace that the world cannot give.

No place is perfectly peaceful, of course, nor is any place perfect, and the monasteries I’ve visited in the last decade are no exception. All the same, there’s something special about them, something that draws me down the abbey road over and over again (and not only because the monks at my most-frequented monastery have gradually become my friends). The abbey is truly a place “Where prayer has been valid,” and I hope to continue kneeling there as often as I can. With hope, that discipline will eventually help me keep that peace within me wherever I go. In the meantime, the glimpses I’ve gotten are well worth the work.

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