catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 6 :: 2008.03.21 — 2008.04.04


Cursing and hoping in the night

For as long as some Christians have lived “apart from the world” in monastic settings, some other Christians have sought to learn from monastic practices and adapt them to living “in the world.”  Recently I continued that custom by leading a group of friends on an exploratory retreat at a monastery.  There was a strong element of curiosity in our motivation to visit the monks, but it wasn’t curiosity alone that led us there.  We were there to experience something of their way of life in the hope of imagining ways to reshape our own lives “in the world,” investigating their values and practices in order to adapt them to the contexts of our own lives.

The pulse of our monastery experience was our participation in the community’s seven daily prayer services, each one built around particular psalms and other scriptural readings suitable to the different hours of the day and night:

 Vigils         3:30 a.m.
 Lauds         6:30 a.m.
 Terce         9:15 a.m.
 Sext          11:45 a.m.
 None          1:45 p.m.
 Vespers       5:30 p.m.
 Compline     7:30 p.m.

What follows, in the remainder of this essay, represents the convergence of this shared prayer experience and my own experiment in the role of group leader, adapting to our own circumstances (and to my own abilities) the ancient monastic tradition of the community leader offering reflective instruction on the dynamics of the community’s life (in the Benedictine monastic tradition, these reflections are called “chapter talks”).  I wrote this reflection on the Vigils service later in the day, during one of the times we had set aside for quiet, solitary reflection, and shared it with the rest of the group during a late-afternoon community meeting in the guest chapel underneath the monastery church.

Vigils is often described as a service of quiet, hopeful watching and waiting; the imagery used for these descriptions is borrowed from Jesus’ story of the young women who, in eager readiness, waited for the coming of the bridegroom to begin the wedding feast.  With that expectation, our experience at Vigils was somewhat surprising, even jarring.  The Vigils service we prayed was populated with several angry psalms (as well as a difficult reading from the prophet Isaiah)—open declarations of affliction and impatient demands for God to do something about it.  This selection doesn’t match our initial expectations of what quiet, hopeful watching and waiting should feel like—but then again, perhaps it’s more deeply appropriate than we expected.  Sometimes it’s hard to allow ourselves to pray those songs of vengeance, but when better than at an hour when we are acknowledging our own powerlessness, our own waiting for God to show up?  It is not our action, but God’s, that will set things right and bring ultimate vindication to this world.  That’s what we found ourselves watching and waiting for.

The other-directedness of the petitionary prayers at Vigils also puts a helpful and hopeful turn to these difficult texts.  Why get up in the middle of the night and gather with other Christians to voice frustrations, worries, and curses?  Because precisely at that hour there are those who need our prayer, and especially the hope for deliverance that undergirds those voiced frustrations, worries and curses.

Soon we’ll leave this place and go back to our regular places in the world.  Chance are that 3:30 a.m. Vigils won’t remain part of our pattern, if for no other reason than that our callings and stations in life frequently require us to be available to others late in the evening, long after we would need to go to bed if we expect to get up for 3:30 prayer.  Nevertheless, chances also are that we will sometimes find ourselves awake in the wee hours, at two, three, four in the morning.  Notice the four categories of people who were named in Abbot Brendan’s pastoral prayer near the end of Vigils:

  • those who are working
  • those who cannot sleep
  • those who use the night to do evil
  • those who fear the day to come

For all those kinds of people, Abbot Brendan led us in the prayer that they would come into the light of God’s day.

I can easily populate that prayer with people I know.  Those who are working: my wife’s cousin Joseph, who’s a police officer in the next village over from ours, and who, the last time I talked to him, was working the shift that begins at 11:00 p.m. and continues through the night.  Those who cannot sleep: my former teacher, now my colleague and at all times a dear friend, who habitually leaves phone messages at the office for me in the middle of the night.  Those who use the night to do evil: he’s dead now, but our next-door neighbor Tony K. was a drug addict who brought all kinds of chaos into his own life and the lives of others through the things he would do at night; on more than one occasion, and to our great discomfort, our baby monitor picked up his phone calls to his dealer at one, two, three in the morning.  Those who fear the day to come: this is a difficult year for my wife, as she’s working out the details to get her ailing, elderly parents settled into an assisted-living facility; often, these days, her nights are soaked in fear of the day to come.

And it’s not just others; we can easily see ourselves in this prayer, too.  As I said before, chances are that we will sometimes find ourselves awake in the wee hours during the nights of the months and years to come.  We will be those who are working: that reading, writing, or household task that simply must be finished for the next day, no matter how weary we are.  We will be those who cannot sleep: maybe we will be keeping ourselves awake, or maybe we will be exhausted but will find that there’s someone else who needs our care and attention in the middle of the night anyway.  We will be, God help us, those who use the night to do evil: I don’t suspect that any of us is dealing in drugs in the middle of the night, but maybe you, like I, sometimes find that the night time is an occasion to engage in more subtly destructive acts.  And we will be those who fear the day to come: I don’t think I need to say anything more on that account.

In the nights of the months and years to come, when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night for any of these reasons or countless others, take heart!  Someone is praying Vigils—praying for you, using God’s own angry psalms to voice the frustrations, worries, curses that you may not even be able to put into words, and pleading with hopeful expectation that you would come into the light of God’s day.

Thanks be to God.

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