The ideal of true reverence in prayer
If in ordinary life we have a favour to ask of someone who has power and authority, we naturally approach that person with due deference and respect. When we come, then, with our requests in prayer before the Lord, who is God of all creation, is it not all the more important what we should approach Him in a spirit of real humility and devotion that is open to Him alone and free from distracting thoughts? We really must be quite clear that our prayer will be heard, not because of the eloquence and length of all we have to say, but because of the heartfelt repentance and openness of our hearts to the Lord whom we approach. Our prayer therefore should be free from all other preoccupations and it should normally be short, although we may well on occasions be inspired to stay longer in prayer through the gift of God’s grace working within us. Our prayers together in community, on the other hand, should always be moderate in length and when the sign is given by the superior all should rise together.
St Benedict never writes any step-by-step programme on how to go about attending to the practice of prayer, but this chapter gives a very rich guide on how our approach should be to God. It is completely correct that God is intimately interested in our lives and through the incarnation is not distant and aloof. He has involved Himself in the story of humanity that continues to unfold as the world continues to turn. However, the old saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ can also be at work in our spiritual life – if we focus solely on God as present as a good friend, as intimate as a lover, as easy to gain access to as our best friend on the phone, then we can deny some of the other aspects and it is good and right to be reminded that as well as being close, God is also our Master and our Judge.
It is easy to allow our spiritual disciplines to subside because they are not as tangible as the other aspects of our lives, and the commitment to God may not seem as pressing as the other demands upon our lives. If, in secular work, we are given a particular task to complete then we go about and get on with it – because we know that there are performance reviews, end of year deadlines or such like. Yet when we are asked to do something for God – it can very easily be put off. This is not approaching God with the reverence He deserves and it is the familiarity that can lead to this. How often are we happy to cancel plans with a friend because something comes up knowing that we will be forgiven and that they will understand? We are far more likely to do that than cancel a formal engagement or a meeting with someone we don’t necessarily know but has greater potential repercussions,
So Benedict warns that as our relationship with God deepens that we should not become sloppy in our engagement, not let the informality slip into a lack of concern or care. This is our King and He should be approached and engaged as such.
When it comes to praying Benedict reminds us that we should not be concerned if our prayers are short. In fact, that is somewhat preferable. This is the fruit of the intimacy and the positive aspect of a close relationship. Whilst we must be on guard against over familiarity the intimacy that allows a knowing understanding heightens communication even though the words may diminish. No doubt you have that close friend who almost seems to know what you are thinking just by a look or a word – the fruit of hours of developed closeness. So it can be with the Lord. We do not need to attempt to impress Him or convince Him to act by lengthy orations either aloud or in the silence of our hearts.
Benedict once again stresses the importance of the primacy of prayer – that we should not come to God distracted or have prayer with Him as an afterthought or as simply another chore or task that needs to be crammed into an already full schedule. We must make time to be in the presence of God. We must cultivate a lifestyle that allows that to happen. It is not something that can happen in an instant and must be the focus of the spiritual journey, as both the aim and the way.
The last part of this chapter of the rule is a warning, against competitive piety. When living in community especially and trying to cultivate a fruitful relationship with God there is a temptation to demonstrate the outer works of piety – to fast harder, to pray longer and to generally be seen to be doing more than others. So Benedict cuts through that. When the superior says community prayer is over – all rise together and leave together. No pious displays, no furtive looking around to see who is going first or who is staying the latest. The community builds in their relationship with God communally, not competitively – which builds nothing but contempt for one another and, ultimately for God.