“Monks will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given...to arrive at the work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum.”
Rule of Saint Benedict 22:6
Here at Saint Meinrad the monastic community gathers in church five times each day for communal prayer – we gather for Vigils and Lauds at 5:30 a.m., Eucharist at 7:30 a.m., Midday Prayer at noon, Vespers at 5 p.m., and Compline at 7 p.m. These services constitute what St. Benedict calls the “Work of God,” the centerpiece of our monastic practice and observance.
When I was a novice, I used to dread hearing my alarm go off at 5 a.m., 15 minutes before the church bells call the community to Vigils, the first liturgy of the day. It was even worse when I was assigned to ring the bells, then I had to get up at 4:45! It was so tempting to shut off my alarm and roll over in bed for another hour or two of sleep – I could confess missing vigils to my novice master later (he’d have known it anyway!) and he’d assign me a psalm to pray as penance.
To help strengthen my motivation for morning prayer – something more profound than “because we’re supposed to” - my novice master suggested I reframe the situation by thinking of my participation in the daily liturgy as self-gift. Try to hear the call to worship as a summons, he suggested, to give myself again to the community by freely choosing to be present as part of the “praying Christ.”
By coming to church to join them in prayer, I give myself to my brothers and to Christ at the same time. Choosing to be present with the community at prayer, I connect with who we claim to be as vowed religious and as men for whom communal prayer is the centerpiece of our vocation in the Church – there is no better way to start one’s day than this!
Now, some 30 years into my monastic life, I have little trouble getting out of bed to join the community in prayer. My body still rebels a bit, but in my heart and mind I have come to realize that being present with my confreres, gathered in prayer, is vital to my identity as a Christian monk. The liturgy is a privileged time and place wherein I connect with my deepest sense-of-self and purpose as a Benedictine called to faith, hope, and charity through a shared life centered on prayer.
Being ready to “arise at the signal without delay” and head off to the church for the next liturgical service can only come easy when we begin to realize that this work is not ours, it belongs to Christ – it is the Work of God, St. Benedict says. It took a lot of practice, over many years, for me to begin believing that the most important work we do as monks is not the work we do in our apostolates – teaching, administration, retreats – as important as this is.
And it’s not the work we do to earn income, or to clean, care for, and maintain our household and our buildings, as important as that, too, is to our way of life. It is God’s Work that matters most – for Benedictine monks, “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43:3) – not our personal goals and agendas, nor comfort and ease, and especially not an hour or two more in bed!