From The Attentive Life
My alarm goes off at 3:00 a.m. I wake, close my eyes again a moment, then get up, lest I sleep in and miss the last Vigils of my retreat here at Mepkin Abbey. I dress without showering, brush my teeth and dab my wild hair with a bit of water, put on cap and windbreaker and step into the cool outside.
The moon is round and full as I walk toward the main buildings. Stars shine clearly and I whisper, “How excellent in all the Earth is thy name, O Lord.”
a distant train
an early waking bird
tiny feet brushing by bushes
chants of praying men
a word of God for Joseph
these are the voices
(Mepkin Abbey, March 19, 2002)
A brief stop in the dining room for a half-cup of good hot coffee with honey, and then on to the white Cistercian chapel, which I left only six hours ago. Joining a handful of others, I sit in my stall, waiting. Waiting is a natural part of our rhythm of life here – waiting for prayers, for meals, for dismissal after meals. When I have found my feet hurrying to prayers, something inside me reins me in, slows me down. So we wait. A few monks in white robes and cowls filter in.
Precisely at 3:20 a bell rings. We stand, turn, face the altar. We bow (profoundly, as we have been instructed). One of the monks invokes God’s blessing.
A single note sounds on the organ. The prayer leader begins: “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who minister by night in the house of the Lord.”
Someone has prepared our psalters, marked the night readings with ribbons to guide us. The first reading is Psalm 134, our psalm each morning this week. We each have our own beautiful copy on the stand in front of us, written out in calligraphy and printed at Genesee Abbey.
After the reading we bow deeply and sing the Gloria, as we do after each psalm and hymn. Thus each closes with, “world without end.” I am comforted to participate in an ongoing chorus of worship flowing through ages past and years to come. I am part of something bigger, wider, deeper than my individual experience.
The community of prayer aids my weakness. When I was mind-weary yesterday, I was helped through trusting others who prayed with and alongside me, around me, for me. My solo prayers were not the whole show. Performance mattered little. Participation mattered most. I realize that we are proclaiming the Word of God across the room to each other – we are all preachers, all hearers, no “stars.”
We sing antiphonally this morning, Psalms 103, 104, 105. One side chants, the other responds, two or three lines at a time. Two or three notes are all we use, carried by the murmur of the organ played unobtrusively by Abbott Klein, who was an accomplished musician. The organ notes almost echo our breathing, like the quiet motion of tides.
So we chant on: a hymn for Lent about our joyful fast. We are reminded that long faces do not attract God’s grace – he wants us to lift the load, help the broken on the road. And we are reminded who made us, gave us eyes to see the full moon and stars this night. This is a long psalm about Joseph and Egypt, so long that we break it up, chant and cease. An aged brother with a long white beard takes on the role of cantor. We sing again.
Lights dim. We listen to a long reading from Exodus about plagues of flies, about gnats all over Egypt – but not in Goshen! “This is the finger of God,” the panicked magicians tell Pharaoh. Has anything changed in the Middle East?”
We sit in night dimness, let the words of the story wash over us, flow in.
In the Moses-Pharaoh encounter I hear the lifelong struggle in my own soul between God’s voice and all the others. The little compromises – “Go, but not too far,” says Pharaoh – with which I deny reality, fudge the truth.
I think of the plagues on our lands. Traffic in drugs. Large numbers who experience depression. AIDS in Africa. Lord, when will we heed Moses?
Long silences. Waiting. No rush to fill emptiness with words. Time to think, pray. I am astounded at how clear my mind is at this hour in church!
A sermon is read – well – from Gregory Nazianzus, about God’s generosity, given which how can we refuse kith and kin?
I thank God for the ministry of World Vision. Think it is time to give again. Wonder whether Jeanie and I are generous enough to the larger family of God in the wills we are making.
Our final prayers. We stand, say the Our Father, commend ourselves to God. We remember those who work (or suffer) in the night, we ask that Christ be their companion. We remember those who have died in the Lord.
We leave as quietly as we came. But the Great Silence is not over.
We walk silently together to our rooms, across the open spaces, under the night skies, past the bowing live oaks.
There is no word.
I touch a fellow retreatant in unspoken greeting as he goes to his room and I to mine.
The silent communion goes on.
Tomorrow what will I be doing at 3 a.m.?