I have an idea some people have a misconception when I tell them I am going on retreat to a place like the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I am this week. I know I’ve had such wrong notions in the past, especially in my free-church evangelical days.
This is especially true regarding the daily services of prayer in which retreatants may participate. I can hardly imagine what my evangelical friends would think if I told them the monks pray nine times a day and that I delight in joining them.
3:15 am Vigils
5:45 am Lauds
6:15 am Eucharist
7:30 am Terce
12:15 pm Sext
2:15 pm None
5:30 pm Vespers
7:00 pm Rosary
7:30 pm Compline
Can you imagine nine evangelical-style prayer meetings per day? No thanks. And if I were to tell those folks that the prayers being offered at Gethsemani were more of a written, liturgical style, I doubt that they’d grasp the purpose. They get together and chant nine times a day? You call that prayer? How does participating in that help you have a more intimate relationship with God?
In his excellent book, Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist, Ronald Rolheiser helps us distinguish two types of prayer, only one of which is understood in the evangelical world from which I come.
The first is public, or liturgical prayer, the second type is private, or devotional prayer.
These two types of prayer are not always apparent just by looking at them. Five hundred people can be together, each praying privately or together in a devotional fashion. Likewise, one person can pray the Daily Office by herself and it is liturgical prayer, the public prayer of the Church. These two types of prayer are not distinguished by how many people are praying, where they are praying, or whether or not they are praying together or individually.
In order to help us understand the difference, Rolheiser suggests we change the names of these types of prayer to:
- Priestly prayer
- Affective prayer
Priestly prayer is, in essence, not my prayer, but the prayer of Christ through his Church in which I participate. Rolheiser comments:
Our Christian belief is that Christ is still gathering us together around his word and is still offering an external act of love for the world. As an extension of that, we believe that whenever we meet together, in a church or elsewhere, to gather around the scriptures or to celebrate the Eucharist, we are entering into that prayer and sacrifice of Christ. This is liturgical prayer; it is Christ’s prayer, not ours. (p. 88)
Furthermore, this prayer is not for us but for the world. “In liturgical prayer we pray with Christ, through the church, but for the world” (ibid).
Affective prayer is different and serves a different purpose: to draw me as an individual closer to the Lord. In this type of prayer, I seek God in order to deepen my communion with him. As Rolheiser says, this type of prayer is designed “to open us or our loved ones up in such a way that we can hear God say to us, ‘I love you!’” (p. 89)
Both are necessary and important forms of prayer.
However, only the historic traditions grasp how essential the first type is. Only they grasp the significance of “common prayer,” prayer that is not immediately “relevant” to my life and my feelings, but which represents Christ and his entire church and is essential for the health of the world. Through such prayer the Church embodies and voices the priestly ministry of Christ, offering true sacrifices of praise and petition to the King who formed this world to be his dwelling place. Through it we experience the communion of saints throughout all time and in all places, and with them we cry out in lament and plead in intercession for the Judge of all creation to put the world to rights in Christ. Such prayer is most fully represented by the Psalms, and thus at places like Gethsemani the Psalms make up the majority of the prayers that are lifted up to God.
For the monks who chant the Psalms nine times daily, this is their primary work: they pray for the life of the world. Those of us who pray the Daily Offices throughout the world join with them and all the saints to share in that work.
Now I can also come to a place like Gethsemani to draw near Christ in personal devotion, and I hope I will, through various practices of reflection and formation. But Ronald Rolheiser has helped me distinguish what I do for my own spiritual well being and what I do for others in prayer. His distinction here helps me think more clearly about why I’m praying and participating in the various practices I engage in here and in my daily life.
As I wrote once before, the monks and the Church around the world, who pray priestly prayers every day at all times and in all places are the ones who are keeping the fires burning in the engine room of the world. And it is my privilege to shovel a bit of coal toward the Flame with them this week.