The first one of these I want to write about is prayer. The thing that draws me to the Cistercian life, such as I know it and have experienced a little of it, is the incorporation of the Office into daily life. It’s easy, relatively speaking, to pray several times a day when I am on retreat, but back in my busy daily world I need structure and discipline for it. I don’t limit my prayer to the Office or the psalter, nor do I pray them nearly as faithfully as an actual monastic would. But they are there and I do pray them every day. The psalms have come to be something for me I never expected. They are a repository of everything. They include the whole gamut of human emotion and they seem to be full of so much of the heart of what it is to struggle in and with and towards the Body of Christ. Sometimes they are so harsh, angry, and intense, and they can be a little hard to say, even. What that internal dynamic calls me into is a remembrance that Christ already knows my heart, as does the Father. The psalms (and the Office in general, really, among other things) have also got me to thinking quite a lot about things I never used to ponder with any depth, such as the nature of the Trinity. I certainly don’t expect to figure out the nature of the Trinity. It is doubtless one of those things that will always remain a mystery. One of the things prayer is doing for me is helping me to be more comfortable with mystery, with paradox. I keep moving into new spaces of this and they are always challenging, sometimes even frightening. It’s really a whole new world for me.
I think I’m still a little intimidated by prayer sometimes. I have a “breath prayer” (God, help me trust you; or, more formally, sometimes Abba, plant your trust in me.) I often say a modified version of the Jesus Prayer, though not with the dedication or frequency that the Pilgrim did by any means, and I say the Our Father very often. Centering prayer, of late, brings me to tears within seconds. I am not entirely sure why. I think I am afraid of what prayer can do to and for my life. It has already changed it radically, or been a big part of the matrix of conversion that has changed it. I am not sorry for those changes and even cherish them. But they have also broken my heart a bit in places; I ended a relationship with a brilliant, kind man I had been with for just under three years and about whom I still care very much. I have not begun another and, though I believe ending the relationship was right, I find myself now struggling in solitude with the space around me from time to time. It is really a beautiful space, but it is quiet and mysteriously intense in ways companionship cannot be. It is pushing me into places of both healing and fragmentation that I never expected.
The abbot at Holy Spirit recently told a little story that helped me feel less singular and lonesome about my prayer life. This was last month, at a retreat on prayer and the image of God. The abbot spoke of how as a young monk he began to say the Jesus Prayer. Kallistos Ware, a noted Orthodox theologian with whose work I am slightly familiar, came to visit the monastery and told the young monk that he had been using the Jesus Prayer to keep God at arm’s length, so to speak, to actually distance God from his heart, as opposed to bringing Him in. The abbot went on to say that for some time he just had to repeat “God loves me. God loves me,” over and over. This story was reassuring to me in that it helped me see how my own often over-intellectualized systems and structures of prayer are not truly about opening to God’s presence in my heart, much of the time. Sometimes they are, but more often than not I think I am at least a little afraid of true intimacy with God. It’s usually easier for me to open my heart in prayer when I am on retreat or in church, for sure. (Or out in nature, hiking or watching the life of the summer forest happen around me.) So often I feel like my heart is a big open dry field, crackling under a sky about to burst with a beneficent wall of lightning that would burn it all up. That’s really okay, of course, if it’s true. But it is a terribly vulnerable feeling for me. I feel that same thing quite often in solitary centering prayer, too, but not always. As I said, lately when I begin to center tears stream down my face within seconds. I have had the tears show up in church (and in prayer and other times, too) at the monastery every time I have ever visited, and lately it has been with increasing frequency. The tears do not have to be attached to anything that’s being said or sung or that I am thinking, although sometimes they are, as in my response to Father Methodius’ Sunday morning homily after Father Malachy passed. I suppose it is “the gift of tears.” At times I wonder what the gift is and what it offers. A deeper movement into the heart of my conversion, I hope, though who knows? The tears are just there. Sometimes the tears make me wonder if my heart is not more aptly suited to being something like a Franciscan, with its apparent emphasis on heart and emotionality, in contrast to the Cistercian focus on the ordinary, on discipline, on simplicity. Perhaps that’s true. But for now what I think is this: Cistercian spirituality, insofar as I am just beginning to know its edges and corners, seems to offer me the solidity and structure that I need. It challenges the parts of my personality that are not dominant to begin to work with those that are in the work of deepening my life in the Body of Christ.