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From the May/June, 1998
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Prayer & the Work of God by Robert Louis Wilken

Prayer & the Work of God

Reflections on the Daily Office & the Prayer of the Heart

by Robert Louis Wilken

This article, originally titled “Opus Dei,” was originally given as an address by the author, June 2, 1997, for the Sixth Annual Banquet of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.

I spent last spring living at Sant’ Anselmo, a Benedictine house of studies and monastery in Rome. It was not, as some of the younger monks from contemplative houses elsewhere reminded me, un vero monastero, a genuine monastery, because monks came from all over the world and would return to their home communities, and they were not under the discipline of the local abbot. But for this visitor from the United States it had enough of the rhythms of the monastic life and its practices (breakfast in silence, reading at the evening meal, praying the office in choir) to give me a feel for un vero monastero.

My reason for going was that I wanted to spend some time living, to use current sociological jargon, in a thicker Catholic culture than central Virginia. One thinks that in being received into full communion with the Catholic church one is being received into a large international fellowship extending to every corner of the earth. But what I discovered was that I had taken up residence in the diocese of Richmond—what a friend once called a missionary diocese. So you can perhaps appreciate why I felt a strong urge to spend some time in Rome. Though I am embarrassed to say that the second Sunday after I arrived I visited the local parish church in Testaccio, the neighborhood down the hill from Sant’ Anselmo, and the first thing I heard on entering the church was the dispiriting sound of guitars warming up for the liturgy.

The chapel at Sant’ Anselmo is a late nineteenth-century Byzantine revival building with a spacious choir for singing the office and a large semicircular domed apse. The monks allowed me to participate fully in their daily prayer and on cold winter mornings—there was no heat in the church, fortunately I had the prescience to pack long underwear—as I took my place in the choir stall I would look up at the apse mosaic. Christ was in the center and to the right stood Saint Anselm and to the left St. Benedict, both bowing in adoration of the Risen Lord. Next to St. Benedict were written the words, “Nihil operi Dei praeponatur,” that is, “Let nothing take precedence over God’s work.”

The words come from Benedict’s Rule and the work (opus) that is at the center of the monastic life is praying the divine office, the daily recitation of the psalms. It is this phrase, “Nihil operi Dei praeponatur,” that I would like to speak about for a few minutes this evening.

Work is not a term we are accustomed to use in referring to prayer, at least not in the nonmonastic context. Perhaps obligation, responsibility, or from another perspective, “play.” Liturgy is something we do for its own sake, for ends that are within the action itself, as in playing a game; liturgy is not instrumental. But the term work carries other connotations that are appropriate to the monastic context, and to daily prayer in the lives of the faithful outside the monastery. As the months passed and I contemplated Benedict’s saying each day, I realized that here, as in many other things, St. Benedict had a profound insight into the Christian life.

One image can illustrate what I mean. Morning prayer was at 6:20 a.m. and a bell rang in the halls at 5:50. By 6:10 as I made my way to the church I would meet or pass monks scurrying to find their place in the choir or in one of the chapels in the cavernous building.

But before getting to my point perhaps I should say a bit about the daily schedule at Sant’ Anselmo. The language of prayer in the house was Latin and the offices were sung in plainchant except for morning prayer. Pope Paul VI had charged the Benedictines with keeping alive the Latin office in Gregorian chant and Sant’ Anselmo has taken on that responsibility as its own. But because the community of 120 monks is an international group, a few years back they decided to have daily morning prayer and weekday Mass in language groups (on Sundays they are in Latin). So each morning there is a Latin group, an Italian group, and French, German, and English groups for morning prayer and Mass.

The other offices are in Latin: midday prayer, which took place at 12:50 in the chapter room immediately before pranzo (which always began with pasta or risotto, meat or fish course, fruit—all accompanied by local white wine followed of course by a riposo); full sung vespers in the main chapel at 7:15, then cena, the evening meal with readings from the Rule and other books; and compline at 8:30 in the main church. I attended the Italian morning prayer and Mass in the church.

As the monks scurried about the building in the darkness of the early morning, thinking their own thoughts, I began to realize that “work” was the proper term to depict what they were about. They reminded me of workers walking silently in the cold morning darkness into a factory. The other image that comes to mind is that as the monks arrive in their stalls they busy themselves shuffling papers, opening books to the proper page, flattening out pages, putting in book marks—preparing, as it were, their tools for the task that is before them. The divine office requires a different kind of participation than the Mass, which can be done without a book in the hands of the faithful (something that has impressed me about Catholicism), and taking part requires preparation and organization.

But what made the deepest impression on me was the incessancy and regularity of the office. One of the monks there, Jeremy Driscoll (you may have seen his review of Aidan Nichols’s Thinking about the Liturgy in the May issue of First Things), is a poet. In one of his poems he speaks about his feelings as he stood in the chapel of his monastery (Mt. Angel in Oregon) on a hot August afternoon to pray the office all the while thinking of what others were doing to beat the heat:

The monks chant their prayer in the hot church
but their heart is not in it.
Only their vows bring them here and keep them
at the hot and useless task.

Gone are the sweet first good days
when prayer and singing came easy.
Gone as well many brothers
who used to stand here singing
the feasts with them.

They know there are ways to beat this heat
and that Americans everywhere are finding them
but they beat instead the tones of psalms
and, by beating,
fall through the layers of heat
and the layers of prayer
and are standing there now
only with their sound
and their sweat
everything taken from them
except the way that this day in August has been.

(Some Other Morning, Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1992)

It is easy to be romantic about monastic life until one sees it at close range. The permanence of it all is overwhelming to the mind. Day in and day out, week after week, month upon month, and year following year, the vocation of the monk is to be found at his place, organizing his books as he prepares his mind and heart for the work that is pleasing to God, the offering of himself in prayer.

At the beginning of the Antiphonale, the book of variable antiphons and hymns and prayers used at Sant’ Anselmo, one can find a prayer to be recited before the office begins:

Aperi Domine os meum ad benedicendum nomen sanctum tuum: munda quoque cor meum ab omnibus vanis, perversis et alienis cogitationibus: intellectum illumina, affectum inflamma; ut digne, attente ac devote hoc officium recitare valeam, et exaudire merear ante conspectum divinae Majestastis tuae. Per Christum Dominum Nostrum qui vivit et regnat in unitate spiritus sancti per saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Open, Lord, my mouth to bless your holy name. Cleanse my heart from all idle, distorted, and unsuitable thoughts. Enlighten my intellect, set fire to my affections that worthily, attentively and faithfully I may be able to pray this office and that my prayer will be worthy of rising before your divine majesty. Through Jesus Christ. . . .

The phrases that stick in my mind are “munda cor meum” and “affectum inflamma.” Cleanse my heart from all distracting and foreign thought and kindle my affections, set fire to my heart. If the office is a work, one would perhaps expect the accent to be on “will” and the prayer to read, “strengthen my will for the task ahead,” but it focuses on the heart and the mind.

On the first reading, “cleansing the heart” seems a far piece from “work,” yet the work that St. Benedict was speaking about is prayer, and without the heart there can be no prayer pleasing to God. Some months back I began marking the verses in the psalms that mentioned the heart. Each day as I read the psalms appointed for that day I found myself underlining the term “heart” when it occurred. To my astonishment, “heart” occurs, I estimate, in fully half, maybe even two-thirds of the psalms. I have not done a statistical study, nor have I consulted a concordance. I wanted to find out the old fashioned way, reading the psalms myself (so if there are any biblical scholars here you may be able to prove me wrong—but not by much). Here are a few examples chosen at random:

“My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed.” (Ps. 57)

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” (9)

“My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.” (13)

“I keep the Lord always before me. . . . Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices.” (16)

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (19)

“Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.’” (27)

“My heart became hot within me.” (39)

“Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (51)

“Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” (84)

“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (90:12)

“I incline my heart to perform thy statutes.” (199:112)

The activity of the heart even carries over into our sleep. “In the night my heart instructs me.” (16) Some of you may know the compline hymn, “To thee before the close of day” in Latin: Te Luci Ante Terminum. Notice the beginning of the second stanza: Te corda nostra somnient, te per soporem sentiant. “Our hearts dream of you, they have you in mind while we sleep.”

The heart is the organ of prayer, even when we are not conscious of what we are doing. Unlike the mind which is acquisitive, aggressive, critical, competitive, the distinctive mark of the heart is receptivity, openness, pliability—it is a place to be filled, a thing to be ignited. The mind receives on its own terms, always filtering, discriminating, judging, but the heart is patient; it waits, watches, listens, making space for what it is to receive. The heart thrives on stillness and quiet and delights not in its own cleverness but in the presence of the beloved.

Perhaps some of you know the little book by Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God. It was put in my hands by Robin Darling Young, my sponsor (in Italian, la mia madrina), when I was received into full communion. The Reed of God is a meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary, specifically on her virginity. Virginity in the minds of many is associated with negative qualities, childlessness, barrenness, impotence, emptiness, but, says Houselander, virginity means an emptiness that is waiting to be filled. It is the emptiness of the Marian “fiat,” “let it be done to me,” of humility and obedience and patience. Mary’s “fiat” is the voice of the heart. Houselander uses three images to speak of the heart that is waiting to be filled: the hollow in a reed whose narrow emptiness can have only one destiny, to receive the piper’s breath and utter the song that is in his heart; the curve of the cup shaped to receive water or wine; the round warm ring of a bird’s nest ready to receive the tiny egg.

Those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of their lives are often people whose lives are overcrowded and for whom “work” is the business of making admittedly laudable plans and carrying out the useful and necessary activities that occupy our days. What St. Benedict teaches us is that there is another work, far more important, far more enduring than what we call work: the quiet, patient, regular, repetitious, habitual work of cultivating the heart in prayer. St. Augustine says that the Christian life is a holy longing (pium desiderium), and just as a leather sack will stretch to make room for what we put in it, so the heart cultivated by the work of prayer stretches to make place for Christ’s dwelling within us, or in the words of the first great Christian poet, Prudentius, the “privilege of entertaining the Holy Trinity” (honorem Trinitatis hospitae).

The work of prayer is tutoring the heart, a quite different work than training the mind or disciplining the will. The more one prays the psalms the more one realizes that one will not learn anything new. One knows the meaning of the words, the ideas are familiar, the historical allusions commonplace. Why then keep repeating them? We say them again and again so that their words can become our words, but more, that their feeling, their affections, their desires, can become our feelings, affections, and desires.

Prayer is an apprenticeship in keeping the first commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . .” It is a work without ending, as necessary to our inner life as the rhythm of breathing is for our physical life, and it occupies us for a lifetime and beyond.

St. Bernard comments on “I have hidden your words in my heart.” “Keep God’s words in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your life. Feed on goodness and your souls will delight in its richness. Remember to earn your bread in this way or your heart will wither away.”

As for the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, I can only remind you of the words of the great monastic writer, Evagrius: “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” All our theological efforts, whether they be combating the forces of secularism in our society, or contesting apostasy within the church, will be in vain if we are not men and women of prayer, whose hearts are filled with yearning for the living God, and whose lives display the inner peace that comes from daily intercourse with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Reprinted from A Report from the Center, Summer 1997.

Dr. Robert Louis Wilken is a professor of history at the University of Virginia, and author of Remembering the Christian Past, published in 1995.

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