April 3, August 3, December 3
Chapter 52: On the Oratory of the Monastery
Let the oratory be what it is called, a place of prayer;
and let nothing else be done there or kept there.
When the Work of God is ended,
let all go out in perfect silence,
and let reverence for God be observed,
so that any sister who may wish to pray privately
will not be hindered by another’s misconduct.
And at other times also,
if anyone should want to pray by herself,
let her go in simply and pray,
not in a loud voice but with tears and fervor of heart.
She who does not say her prayers in this way, therefore,
shall not be permitted to remain in the oratory
when the Work of God is ended,
lest another be hindered, as we have said.
No ambiguity here. Quiet rules in the oratory. Would that it did so in our churches. Ah! Silence! The effect of leaving a church service in silence is incredibly moving. It doesn’t happen very often, because as soon as the closing words have been said, people want to start having fellowship with their fellow parishioners and the whole church becomes a buzz of chatter. No one listens to the recessional.
This never happens after the evening service on Maundy Thursday, when the church is stripped of all decoration and all the lights turned off except the tabernacle flame. Filing out of the church in silence gives such a sense of awe, such a sense of God’s presence – God in all his glory.
Staying in the oratory after the Work of God in order to continue in prayer is also to be encouraged only if the pray-er does it quietly and modestly. Loudness is unacceptable. This reminds me of the Gospel passage in which Jesus criticises the Pharisees for standing up and praying in a loud voice. As he says, ‘they have their reward now, but you – go into your closet and pray to God in private.’
To the person who can do this comes a different kind of reward: a deepening in spirituality, a closeness to God that increases throughout life. This person is not praying as a show of personal righteousness or the ability to compose beautiful prayers, but is simply opening up the heart to the Lord, not surreptitiously saying, ‘Look at me’, because the whole focus is on God.
Furthermore, someone who prays loudly and at length does interfere with other people’s dialogue with God. I remember working in my office with 13 others I know only too well how hard it is even to carry on an intelligible telephone conversation when all around me others are talking at the tops of their voices.
I often yearn for silence – we live in such a noise-filled world – and silence for prayer and meditation is a great blessing.
Another thing is, too, that when we pray loudly and volubly, we are dominating the conversation with God. It’s not a dialogue, it’s become a monologue. In silence, we can hear the ‘still, small voice’.
So a silent oratory – or a silent chapel – or even a silent bedroom – in which to commune with the Lord in peace and privacy is possibly even more needful in our rushed and riotous 21st century than it was in St Benedict’s day.
Have any of us an oratory in our home? Doesn’t have to be a separate room. It could be a corner or even a chair in which nothing happens but prayer. I use a bit of my bedroom. Using suction cups I’ve hung a cross and icons on the window glass. On a table I have my Bible, Book of Common Prayer, everything I need to pray the Offices. I also do my lectio there. There is also a prayer candle from the 99 cent store.
I’d love to know what others have done to create a prayer space in their homes.
My experience is that silent prayer is so intimate and meaningful that, once embarked on it, it is hard to stop, hard to imagine how you’d managed without it before. My circumstances of late have made it extremely difficult to find a quiet, undisturbed time and place for silent prayer and I seriously miss the closeness to God that such confidential prayer times establish, not to mention the steady development of a profound relationship with him.
Isn’t it scary how life changes can impact so deleteriously on our relationship with God, making conversation and consultation most difficult just at the time when we need the comfort and wisdom of his presence the most?
Another Advent resolution for me must be to find again that warm and life-giving flow of silent dialogue.