A Monk's Perspective by Brother Paul Rowe
A monk of Our Lady of Guadalupe - Trappist Abbey
Here I will say something about my own understanding and experience of prayer, while laying no claim to “expertise.” I will focus on personal prayer, leaving aside the consideration of liturgical prayer which, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11; Sacosantum Concilium 10), and which in some sense makes possible all Christian prayer.
In my own walk with God, the metaphor of “gazing” seems especially fitting. At a certain point in my life, I became increasingly aware that I was always in God’s sight, and I believed that he held me in a loving gaze. Yet it struck me that I returned his gaze all too rarely, distracted as I was by so many concerns, by objects and interests clamoring for my attention. And I came to the conclusion that I would find no rest, no peace of soul, unless I acknowledged God’s love by trying to respond to his love more fully, to meet his gaze more habitually. This in turn meant, among other things, living a life of prayer. But since I could not find a means of praying attentively and constantly (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17) in a context of noise, busy-ness and chatter, I found myself drawn instead to the life lived here at Guadalupe.
So here, in this place of prayer, how do I try to meet God’s constant gaze? Oftentimes, in order to focus my wandering mind on the God revealed to us in the Old and New Testaments, I spend time ruminating on some passage from Scripture, especially from the gospel, where we see God in the face of Jesus Christ. Sitting in church and taking some time to reflect on a particular psalm, or on a scene from Jesus’ life, can help me to enter into the quiet of God’s presence and to abide there. This mediation on the inspired Word of God presupposes a prayerful encounter with that Word, both as proclaimed in the liturgy (the Mass and the Divine Office) and in the slow, reverent reading of the Bible known as lectio divina. This process begins with reading, continues with meditation on what is read, which then gives rise to prayer, and may—it is to be hoped—finally bear fruit in the grace of contemplation. The medieval Carthusian monk, Guigo II, offered the following explanation of this quintessentially monastic approach to prayer:
Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one’s powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good. Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.
(The Ladder of Monks, II)
It may happen, however, that during some hours of prayer, and perhaps even during whole periods of one’s life, that discursive and imaginative meditation proves unhelpful or even impossible. At such times, I simply try to “practice the presence of God” (as recommended by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection in a book thus entitled), wanting him and awaiting him, fending off distractions by repeating a word from Scripture or, more often, the name of Jesus. With solid biblical warrant (cf. John 14:14; 16:23-24; Acts 4:12), Eastern Christianity has given pride of place to the Jesus Prayer, wherein the Name is continually remembered and repeated as a lifelong mantra. Though I am not so faithful as that, I try to bring the Name to mind as often as I can.
Also, in keeping with the teaching of the 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, I practice what is now called “centering prayer” in our beautiful and serene meditation hall. This prayer consists in sitting still in God’s presence and summing up all the intentions of one’s prayer in a single predetermined word (“God,” “Jesus,” “Love,” “Help!” etc.), spoken softly within the heart. This is a prayer of letting go of one’s own controlling grip in order to open up to God’s transformative activity in the soul.
In order to cultivate my relationship and devotion to Mary, Mother of God and our Lady, I say the rosary daily. The rosary, along with other forms of Marian piety, is a commonplace in Cistercian monasteries such as ours, though never forced upon anyone. Marian devotion springs up spontaneously within this Order that has enjoyed Mary’s patronage from its inception, all our houses being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.
Finally, lest I give a false impression, I should mention that the monk does not restrict his prayer to specially allocated time-slots. Throughout the day, the monk makes use of the pervasive quiet to recollect himself and call on the name of the Lord, to offer brief interior prayers of petition and intercession, or to invoke the help of Mary or of the other saints. Indeed, the monk seeks to arrive at the point of praying without cease, that his entire life may be spent in the awareness of God’s presence, an offering of the heart poured out continually for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.
The monk who has become a living prayer is the fullest embodiment of the contemplative life, having been so transformed and divinized by the grace of God that, in the words of the 12th century Cistercian Father, William of St. Thierry: “In a manner which exceeds description and thought, the man of God is found worthy to become not God but what God is, that is to say man becomes through grace what God is by nature” (The Golden Epistle, XVI). Such a monk enjoys that vision of God in everything and every circumstance of life that belongs to the pure of heart (Matt. 5:8). And those who meet him find in him the very likeness of Christ, in all the gentleness of his bearing and the warmth of his love.
+ Br Paul