The brothers will be my prayer
IN SEPTEMBER OF 2004 our Brother Laurence made the mistake of parking the backhoe he was operating on an incline and climbing out of it. No one saw it tip over onto him, pinning him to the ground. But that was how Brother Joseph found him. Laurence had to be airlifted to the hospital. His blood pressure was too low for the doctors to give him anesthesia, so they just asked the emergency room nurses to hold him down while they opened his wounds and cleaned them.
Laurence was in the hospital for months. He was not expected to live, so when he came home, wheelchair-bound but breathing, all of the brothers went in to see him. Father Francis, who, as abbot, was the spiritual guide and superior of the community, was last in line. Upon seeing his spiritual father, Laurence began weeping. “Father Francis,” he said, “I can’t pray.”
The abbot replied, “Laurence, from now on, don’t worry about prayer. The brothers will be your prayer.”
And, as I would soon find out: “The sisters will be your prayer.”
I heard this story a week before traveling to Esmeraldas, Ecuador. The Trappistine Nuns of Our Lady of Hope were poised to elect a new superior, and Father Stanislaus, recently elected Mepkin’s new abbot, had to go down to help the process along. I was preparing to profess simple vows and needed retreat time, so Stanislaus asked if I’d like to accompany him. Deciding that I remembered enough of my high school Spanish to function conversationally, I agreed to it with hesitant enthusiasm.
At Our Lady of Hope, though there were a few embarrassing mistranslations, I understood most of what the sisters said. I met with the novices and managed to tell my vocation story in Spanish and understand theirs. It was satisfying and absolutely exhausting.
I love the psalms, but to my mind, fumbling my way through singing them in Spanish didn’t qualify as prayer. After three frustrating days, while sitting in my room, a question arose with such force that I spoke it aloud: “How do you expect me to discern a call to Trappist life this week if I can’t fully participate in the liturgy?” A thought came that calmed my anxiety, one I’ve since recognized as God’s answer: “The sisters will be your prayer.”
Had the Lord’s response been audible, he would simply have whispered abandonment over and over again. God knew what kind of retreat I needed before I did: I had to rely on a group of women I didn’t know; I had to speak a language I’m not fluent in; and I had to trust that, as far as the Father was concerned, the sisters’ prayers sufficed for us both. True to form, God showed me the Savior is only relevant in my life to the degree that I allow myself to be in over my head, to admit it, and to call out to him.
Distractions set in
It is difficult for me to allow the brothers, particularly my superior, to encroach on my highly developed and utterly useless agendas. For the past three years, at the request of the abbot, I have been accompanying the various liturgical prayers on guitar. Practically speaking, the fact that the brothers need it elevates his request to a demand of holy obedience.
I am, in the first place, a poet; it was the psalms the monks chant seven times daily that drew me to the monastery. Their poetic value speaks to me, and if the one singing them has an open mind and an open heart, it’s not only his prayer to God, it’s also something God is saying to him. It’s the voice of Christ himself. The rush of that kind of communication, the desire for it, gets a monk out of bed and into church starting at 3:20 a.m.
But because that’s precisely when the distractions set in. For me the liturgical setting in which we pray the psalms requires more energy than it gives. To add to that, leading the Divine Office musically obliges me to concern myself with more than the words on the page. I gauge which side of choir is weaker, and I sing with them. Every once in a while a chord will come along that I don’t use much, and I have only a short time to remember how to play it. I’ll go through whole prayer services like that, always mentally two steps ahead of myself. Those details require so much of my attention that often I can’t remember which psalms we just prayed.
In one sense that is all very normal: Struggle and distraction are part of the human condition. On the other hand, God is speaking. If I were to take someone out for a romantic dinner and give her the kind of attention I give to God, I wouldn’t blame her for never calling me again. Certainly God’s patience is less fickle than ours, but that makes me want to change, not relax, my efforts.
The earliest monks taught that inattention could often come from an obstacle to prayer they called acedia. Acedia is a disease of extremes: It causes overwork and laziness. The early Desert Fathers taught that it is manipulated by the devil, who is trying to get us caught up in vainglory and pride. He wants us to do our own thing rather than pursue the community’s good. When acting out of such poor motivation makes us miserable, we end up lashing out at the brothers, wounding the order and peace that Christ has established in the monastery.
Then the devil suggests we simply quit the monastic life altogether. Nobody shows up with a red cape and horns; the devil works through the normal processes of the mind. To decide to leave the monastery is often a very logical conclusion. Many good monks have followed this suggestion. But leaving the monastery is seldom a healthy move.
Getting in tune
My job requires me, some Sunday mornings, to go over the Mass music with the four men who sing the harmonies. That can be nerve-racking. For one thing, the last piano lesson I had was in third grade, and I’ve had only a few lessons on guitar, so I am hardly qualified to do it. To add to that, I’m not comfortable having a position of authority over men who’ve been in the monastery since before my father was born.
But I suppose Moses would have preferred to be sent to Las Vegas and Jonah would rather have ridden his ten-speed into the Tigris River than preach repentance in Nineveh. So I work with our singers.
Mepkin’s Mass starts at 7:30 a.m. During a pre-Mass practice one Sunday, as hard as we tried, we were unable to sing the responsorial psalm correctly. By 7:12 I decided I could make better headway if I simply sang the song myself, and I dismissed the choir. I’ve long suffered from performance anxiety, and by this point I was working through the familiar choreography of absolute panic. By 7:17 I had figured out what had gone wrong on the refrain, and because Brother Joseph was the one singer I could find fast, I asked him to learn it.
It was evident that the refrain would go well after a couple of times through. I asked if we could sing it once more, just to firm it up, even though I still had to learn the verses.
I didn’t know what I was in for. At 7:25 Brother Joseph, who is rarely at ease soloing, launched from the refrain into a flawless singing of the verse. He’d had that part down all along; we’d just never gotten that far. He sang it just as well at Mass.
For me, to see Brother Joseph step so clearly out of his comfort zone was to see Jesus Christ. I didn’t know how the music would go that day, and it went beautifully. And it wasn’t because I’d given myself to the task, or because I’d prayed with intense purity. It was because Brother Joseph had been generous.
Let the reader understand: 33 Ecuadorian nuns and an old man of Mepkin taught me that finding a God I cannot see involves trusting the visible, all-too-human community. God has made the psalms he wants me to pray come out of the brothers’ mouths. He’s trying to teach me to listen.
Life at Mepkin can be a heavy enterprise, but I recognize God’s presence there, too. He holds me down, Christ cleans my wounds. The prophet Isaiah says: “So it will be when the Lord begins to heal his people and cure the wounds he gave them.” Amen, let it be! The brothers will be my prayer.
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