Prayers with the Brothers

“One monk, when asked about diversity in his small community, said that there were people who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes…”
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The St. John’s Abbey Prayer Schedule is this:

7am Morning Prayer
Noon Prayer
5pm Eucharist
7pm Vespers

In my stretch of silent days at St. John’s in August, the brother who filled the role of spiritual director for me suggested I join the brothers and community in prayer. He was careful to say it wasn’t a requirement, but an opportunity if I chose to take it. I felt pulled toward liturgy, toward a prayer setting where I wouldn’t have to think, but only follow and listen. When I finally decided to head to the Abbey Church for prayer, I delighted in the stained glass windows, especially the water details:


It wasn’t my first time praying with the monks. For two previous summers, I’d been part of the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops which involved residency at the Institute for a week. My first summer, many of the writers in my group went faithfully to prayer services at least once a day (my roommate went every morning at 7–I did not). My second summer, the writing group (made up of different people) wasn’t drawn to be with the monks. I was ambivalent, though I did go a few times.

Praying with the brothers last August felt odd and unfamiliar, as I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, and I spent my first experience shuffling books, craning my neck to peer at other’s pages in order to find my place. The chanting of psalms follows a different speech pattern than I’m used to, with long pauses between phrases, little vocal inflection and strange-to-me tone patterns. I kept peeking at the brothers, wondering at their traditional garb and scrutinizing whether they had the psalms memorized (some did). The pews are hard and cramped and it was a relief to stretch after we finished. Yet the Scripture for the prayers spoke to me.


I gazed at the monks as they stood up to leave, knowing they would be back again at the next prayer time. I pondered their feet treading back and forth to the chapel four times a day, many of them for years and years, over and over again, cycling through the Psalms every day until the words nestled in their memories and hearts. Many of them appeared to sleep during the prayers, closing their eyes and rocking forward, mouths moving seemingly without effort or thought. Scripture was a part of them. I marveled at how prayer became sleep, a deep rest many lack. How often do we fall asleep during prayer, our bodies finally letting go of the day, the moment, the weight of expectations, the rushed pace of life? Some may say it’s boredom that leads to sleep in prayer. But again–how often do we sit still long enough to let ourselves be bored?


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