Monday, October 10, 2005

Praying at St. Meinrad's

I have just returned from my annual trip to St. Meinrad's Archabbey in southern Indiana. Each year I take at least one class to Meinrad's to join in the cycle of daily prayer, roam the grounds, talk to the monks, and learn to listen to God's voice in the quiet of life "on the hill." I always am interested in how students respond to this choice that some individuals make which is so contrary to the values of our individualistic, celebrity-obsessed culture.

Perhaps the most jarring juxtaposition for some was to see monastics who, a few hours before, had been singing Vespers in the medieval plain chant, tossing back a few beers, eating pizza, and joining in the fun and frivolity of the "Unstable" (the local hangout). It reminds me of just how sharp are the distinctions that many make in life, siloing off their "religious" life from their "secular" life--as if God could be confined to some kind of box. Living a life of prayer does not mean excising joy from one's day. In fact, my experience has been that those who pray intensely are oftentimes those who know how to play with abandon.

On Saturday night we had the joy of dialoging with two monks: Fr. Simeon, an elder member of the community, and Br. Paul, a more recent addition. The former was able to share from the wealth of his experience extending back to the mid-1930's. He read a poignant account of what it was like to be dropped off at the monastery's door at the age of 14 and later to struggle with what it meant to serve others as a librarian. The latter, only in his early 30's, was able to speak candidly of his call to Christ and the Church in a way which seemed so reminiscent of my young charges who are also wrestling with issues of vocation.

Two issues were clarified for me that night. First, both spoke of the "magic of the hill," or what I oftentimes refer to as sacred space. That is, the need for places where God can be experienced in all of the nitty-gritty of life. I couldn't help but think of the place where I serve (which was similarly established in the 1850's by idealistic religious types!). Over the years, it is a joy to watch students and alums return and talk about how this was a place where they made important decisions that were to set the course for the rest of their lives. For both Simeon and myself, it becomes one of the strong reasons why "stability of place" is so important (for a more secular view of this same idea, try reading R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them all My Days). Second, though the barriers that separate Protestant from Catholic still remain, it has become clear to those of us engaged in ecumenical dialogue that we share so much common ground. As the monks spoke, I was reminded of "testimony time" in my own tradition where common people share what God is doing in their life. The search for meaning and the desire to find and please God in and through the gospel message of the cross and resurrection transcends boundaries of tradition or denominational stripe.

I am always thankful when I return home that I have brothers at St. Meinrad's who are praying four times each and every day. I lift my voice with theirs on fewer occasions, but recognize that we are a part of a much larger choir who believe that prayer is integral to the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ. Even if others consider such regular daily prayer irrelevant or quaint, those of us who practice it know that it is part of what sustains the world.