A Contemplative Presence

By Abbot Andrew Marr OSB

 A Life of Sincere Devotion in the Rule of Benedict

The Rule of Benedict may not appear to be the most promising source for tracing the development of the meditative prayer that has led to the widespread practice of centering prayer in our own time. There are only two brief passages in the Rule that specifically touch on meditative prayer, and they both say roughly the same thing. Compared to so much rich literature elsewhere in early church writings, these chapters are rather disappointing. Or, so they seem. But if we look carefully at the Rule as a whole and the basic thrusts of its spirituality, it becomes apparent that Benedict structures the monastic life so as to create what I call a contemplative presence, a presence based on the constant remembrance of God, of constantly remembering that we live in God’s presence. A term borrowed from Buddhism but very applicable for Christians is “mindfulness.” The difference in Christianity is that in Buddhism, the noun is intransitive (if we can speak of such a thing). That is one is mindful for the sake of being mindful. In Christianity, mindfulness is transitive in that we are mindful of God and of the world God has made. When we examine the contemplative presence created by monastic practices, the brief references to meditative prayer in the Rule take on much more depth.

Benedict establishes the top priority of a contemplative presence based on the memory of God in the first step of humility, that we should keep the fear of God always before our eyes and never forget it. That is, we must be constantly mindful of living in the presence of God. This admonition is amplified by this chapter’s position in the Rule of Benedict where it is the culmination of the basic teachings of spirituality that precede the practical legislation. Moreover, this is the longest chapter in the Rule, and this first step of is by far the longest out of twelve steps. These considerations should be enough to alert us that being consistently mindful of living in God’s presence is one of the defining teachings of the Rule, perhaps the defining teaching. It is, however, God’s prior mindful presence to us that makes our presence to God so important and so all-consuming. Benedict quotes Psalm 139 to remind us that God knows all of our thoughts, and he goes on to say that angels are reporting our deeds to God day and night. The angels provide a communal dimension of this step of humility, and it suggests that we have to be as busy as the angels in monitoring our thoughts and behavior. But lest we think God needs a bureaucracy of angels to know what’s going on down here, Benedict quotes Psalm 14 to add that God looks directly down from Heaven to see if any of us seek to understand God. In the twelfth and final step of humility, Benedict circles back to this need for mindfulness of God’s presence by saying that we must show humility in our outward bearing as much as in our hearts, whether at the Work of God (corporate worship), in church, in the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else. Benedict leaves us no loopholes. That is, we must keep up the remembrance of God every hour, not just 7/11, but 24/7.

These first and last steps of humility tend to sound oppressive, sort of like Big Brother watching us, but I think that is because we tend to project our own judgmental attitudes toward other people on to God and then imagine God to be a frowning puritanical pilgrim up in the sky. But, in other steps of humility, Benedict makes it clear that the God who looks down on us from Heaven is the God revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. The second, third, fourth, and sixth steps of humility all provide a Christological basis for this virtue and the discipline of mindfulness of God’s presence. Benedict quotes Jesus’s words in John, that he has come, not to do his own will, but the will of the Father, to show us that Jesus himself is the model of humility. That is, in Christ, God is even more humble than we are. Benedict then spells out Jesus’ modeling of humility through the Paschal Mystery, where Jesus was obedient even unto death, as stated in Philippians 2. In the fourth, sixth and seventh steps, we follow Christ by enduring the same “hardships and unjust treatment” that Jesus suffered. What this tells us is that the God whom we are asked to remember every hour, every minute, is the God who lived a human life and suffered injustice at the hands of human beings like us. This suggests that when forced to be “content with the lowest and most menial treatment,” the sixth step of humility, we have a special opportunity to remember God as the victim of sinners. Not only does God look down on us from Heaven, but God walks in our footsteps as one of us.

It is one thing to establish the importance of maintaining a contemplative presence, one we are admonished to sustain 24/7. The question that follows is: How do we accomplish this? Benedict’s Rule gives us two primary methods of developing this contemplative presence: 1) The Work of God, that is, corporate prayer with private prayer as an extension, and 2) work in service to others. I will start with worship.

Recitation of the psalms was a staple of the desert monastics and John Cassian tells us that these monastics would use key verses from the psalms as brief prayers to help them turn continually to God. In the Rule of Benedict, the Divine Office serves as a similar and more structured backdrop for living a contemplative presence. By praying seven times during the day and again in the middle of the night, and doing every psalm at least once in a week and some psalms every day, the psalms would become very familiar to Benedict’s monastics and key verses would serve as material for recalling the memory of God’s presence. After Benedict has designated which psalms should be done at which office, he refers back to the first step of humility by saying in Chapter 19. “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked. But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office.” Benedict then goes on to quote Psalm 138: “In the presence of the angels I will sing to you.” As in the first step of humility, the angels are part of the community along with God and humans. Again, we are reminded that the basis of our being present to God is God’s presence to us. Only then does Benedict admonish us to be mindful of praying in the presence of both God and the angels and to behave accordingly. Benedict implies that he realizes that although God is totally present to us everywhere at all times, we are not so totally present to God and so we need special times of prayer that will remind us of God’s presence to us and our need to remember our presence to God. With its structure, the Divine Office may seem mechanical, and it is a process that moves in a prescribed way. But there is more to the Divine Office than its mechanics. Benedict suggests that when we consider how “we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels,” we will pray the psalms “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”

In the Prolog to the Rule, Benedict challenges us to enter and re-enter a life of perpetual conversion to God. The implication of this challenge is that we forget God continuously and need to be constantly reminded to turn back to God. There are several psalm verses that Benedict quotes to call us to the remembrance of God, verses that throw down the gauntlet for conversion every week, sometimes every day. Psalm 34, for example, poses this question: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” The opening verse of Psalm 14 calls us back to God by asking us: “Who will dwell in your tent, O Lord; who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” This psalm goes on to list the qualities that turning back to God’ remembrance instills in us, such as dealing with people justly and speaking the truth from the heart and acting accordingly. Constant reciting of these psalms should lead us to remember these questions so that they constantly call us back to the memory of God’s presence. It is also significant that the Rule is itself also a liturgical document of sorts in that it is read to each monastic community three times a year. That means that monastics hear echoes of the liturgy when the Rule is read, and the psalm verses that are tagged by the Rule to stand out when they occur in the liturgy, thus increasing the chances that monastics will recall them at other times of the day to aid the remembrance of God.

Another Psalm that calls us to conversion on a daily basis in the Benedictine office is Psalm 95: If you hear God’s voice today, do not harden your hearts. This verse plunges us into the call to remember God’s presence in the midst of human relationships, especially difficult ones. The context of this verse the desert journey of the Israelites after their escape from Egypt. At the bitter waters of Meribah, the Israelites disputed with Moses over the privations they were suffering in the desert, serious enough that they even threatened to lynch him. The return to the remembrance of God, then, is also a turning away from human contention and violence. The hardening of hearts in this verse is not only a hardening of heart against God, but also a hardening of heart against other people. Benedict suggests that remembering God’s presence will offer an alternative to strife with others by putting God between the quarreling parties. Benedict’s use of this psalm on a daily basis indicates its importance for community life.

In the fourth and sixth steps of humility, quotes from the psalms build the christological basis of following Jesus in his sufferings further. When called upon to endure unjust circumstances, Psalm 27 admonishes to be brave of heart and rely on the Lord. Sounds simple, but it is amazing how easily we rely on our own resources and especially our own anger and vengefulness in dealing with such situations. In Psalm 66 we are tried as silver is tried by fire, and led into a snare with afflictions placed on our backs. Turning back to God and relying on God curbs vengeful reactions and bring us in line with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which is quoted later in this step. These psalm verses go a long way in giving definition to the God whom we should remember constantly, namely a God who suffers with us in our trials and in the trials we afflict upon others. The ongoing practice of living in God’s presence is not necessarily, or even usually, a matter of enjoying the serenity of a still, clear, pool! The Good News, though, is that God is present to us when we need God most. These are also the times when we have the greatest need to be present to God.

Benedict singles out the Our Father for special attention. This is a prayer that should be so familiar to us that its petitions come to mind easily during the day to help us remember God’s presence. It prayer begins by drawing our attention to our Father in Heaven, but it brings us down to earth quickly when we pray that God’s will be done on earth and that God grant us our daily bread. Much as we depend on God to provide for us materially, we depend on God all the more for help in navigating difficult human relationships such as those experienced at the waters of Meribah. Very much aware of this need, Benedict emphasizes the petition “forgive as we forgive” because “thorns of scandal are likely to spring up.” Scandal does not refer to tabloid papers, but to stumbling blocks that we create for each other when we become contentious. It is the same word Jesus used when he warned us against being stumbling blocks for his “little ones.” The image of the thorns, of course, reminds us of Christ’s suffering, with the suggestion that our contention causes us to both suffer and inflict the unjust suffering Jesus endured. Benedict hopes that this petition, used to turn us back to the remembrance of God, will cleanse us all of this vice of becoming a scandal to others.

John Cassian singled out the opening verse of Psalm 70 for special attention: O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us. It seems likely that living alone in the hostile environment of the desert made the early monastics fearful of what could happen to them which was conducive to feeling their constant dependence on God, especially at night. On top of that, there were the heightened fears these monastics had of their inner lives as they experienced temptations that made them aware of disquieting potentialities they probably did not know they had. One gets the idea from John Cassian that use of psalm verses were used as something like what we now call centering prayer, and that this verse of Psalm 70 was a favorite. Cassian says that every monastic “who longs for the continual awareness of God should be in the habit of meditating on it ceaselessly in his heart.” The verse “takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack.” It is applicable to everybody at all times because we always need God’s help “not only in hard and sad affairs but also and equally as much in favorable and joyful ones.” The importance of this verse for remembering God at times when things are going well is very significant. Unfortunately, it is all to easy to abuse good times when we are not seriously troubled by temptations by forgetting that it is God who has brought this about. We grasp at good things that come our way without thanking God for them. Maybe we think we enjoy them more if we don’t bring God into the picture. But things go bad very quickly when we forget God, as we all know, and then we become desperate to call on God with this verse. The thing is, when we remember God with this verse all along, then God’s help in times of trouble and temptation is all the stronger.

This verse is a longer prayer than the one-word mantras championed by John Main or the single-syllable prayer words enjoined by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, but it has a good rhythm to it and perhaps, for some people who might do better with a slightly longer prayer, it could be useful in centering. Benedict gives this same verse a prime position by using it at as a versicle and response that begins all of the day hours of prayer. Thus, this cry for God’s help sets the tone of the Divine Office and its repetitions have the affect of causing this verse to come to mind very quickly when one begins to experience even the smallest difficulties. It can be a powerful verse for those experiencing tensions such as those at Meribah where the Israelites disputed with Moses and where Christians today continue to dispute with each other.

It is possible to think that remembrance of God at all times would pull us away from the affairs of daily life, that God competes with the things of the world for our attention. However, Benedict’s teachings on stewardship and service make it clear that remembrance of God intensifies and deepens our involvement with the things we work with and the people we encounter. God did not create the world to compete with the world; God created to world out of interest in and concern for everything God created, and God wishes us to be just as interested in creation. It is not, then, a matter of choosing between God and the world, but one of choosing to live in the world in God. Benedict makes the connection explicit in the small liturgy he prescribes for the blessing of outgoing and incoming table servers. The outgoing servers say: “Blessed are you, O Lord, for you have helped and strengthened me” This conflation of a verse from Daniel with the final verse of Psalm 86 is an act of thanksgiving for God’s help throughout the week in serving the community. The incoming servers than say the opening verse of Psalm 70 which has already been given such prominence in the Divine Office. By beginning a week of service with the same psalm verse that begins each office, the server has this verse close to the heart to strengthen the remembrance of God in the course of server’s ministry.

Benedict is insistent that the tools, the clothing, and all other material goods of the monastery be “cared for” and “collected after each use.” Anyone who fails to take proper care of a tool is subject to reproof and punishment. The implication is that God cares about how we treat material goods. The cellarer, who has the responsibility for monitoring the use of material goods, is admonished to treat the tools as if they were “the sacred vessels of the altar.” This is one of the most powerful sentences in the entire Rule of Benedict, one packed with spirituality and sacramental theology. The connection with worship is clear. Far from being some kind of refuge from “real life,” worship teaches how we should act in “real life.” To treat the vessels of the altar when preparing for the Eucharist and celebrating it with anything less than the greatest care is unthinkable. But do we treat tools and plants and other material goods with the same care? Maybe we are careful with an expensive I-pod or something of the sort, but Benedict is clear that all material goods must be treated with care and reverence because they all come from God and all have sacramental value. If we treat our tools as we treat the sacred vessels of the altar, we will be mindful of God as we go about our work.

If inanimate material goods are to be treated with such care so as to make us mindful of God, then our treatment of other people is of all the greater importance. Benedict impresses this importance upon us by identifying three groups of people most particularly with Christ: abbots, the sick, and the poor. Surely this short list is not meant to be exhaustive! The implication is that this identification with Christ applies to everybody and all social relations. Every encounter with another person is an opportunity to increase our remembrance of God. Social relations came up in some of the psalm verses quoted in the Rule to emphasize their importance for living with the memory of God. Verses that pointed to situations of strife, such as the disputes with Moses at the waters of Meribah, are calls to penitence so that we can avoid acts that cloud our remembrance of God. Benedict’s admonition to see Christ in other people has a positive emphasis in that it gives us a sense of direction of what we should do for other people and, in so doing, remember God.

Benedict identifies the abbot with Christ to inspire obedience on the part of monastics. But – when Christ himself is the model of obedience, we are far from a military-drill-sergeant type of obedience. Being genuinely mindful of God means being ready to do what God asks at any time. This willingness is fleshed out by being willing to do what the abbot asks as soon as one is asked. This also applies to the abbot, who must be ready to serve any of the monastics or guests just as quickly and willingly. While the abbot is at the top of a monastery, the other groups of people identified with Christ are at the bottom: the sick and the guests, most especially those who are poor. That is, the weakest and most helpless, as specified in Matthew 25. Seeing Christ in these people requires attention to the people themselves so as to see their genuine needs. Only if these people are seen as individuals is Christ seen in them. It is this ability to see the individual needs of people that Benedict instructs the abbot to show when he says that the abbot should treat each member of the community in a way appropriate for that person, “threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be.” Benedict’s admonition to see Christ in the abbot and then in the sick and the guests are often understood as being on two separate tracks, but I have become convinced that they are closely connected. If all three stand in for Christ in a special way, then the obedience one should show to an abbot is precisely the obedience that should be shown to the needs of the poor and the sick, those most in need.

If tools and other material goods should be handled as carefully as if they were the vessels of the altar, then surely human beings, who are identified with Christ, should be treated with the same care, attention, and delicacy. Benedict makes clear that this is the case in his lengthy description of how the cellarer of the monastery should treat people in the process of dispensing the material goods of the monastery. The cellarer should not annoy the other monastics and if another monastic “happens to make an unreasonable demand,” the cellarer should “reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” Moreover, the cellarer “must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor,” the very people Benedict most especially identifies with Christ. The cellarer should not create artificial difficulties, a vice some bureaucrats are prone to, but should provide for peoples’ needs “without pride or delay” so as not to become a stumbling block to them. That is, the climactic petition of the Our Father should preserve the cellarer from falling into the “thorns of scandal” while interacting with people and their needs. Interestingly, this admonition directly precedes Benedict’s admonition about handling the goods of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar, another indication that the two are closely connected. We see Benedict make this same connection again when he says that the if the abbot must dish out punishment, the abbot should be prudent and avoid extremes as “otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.”

With this background, we can better appreciate chapter 20 in the Rule, “Reverence in Prayer.” As already noted, this chapter is short and hardly amounts to an in-depth discussion of meditative prayer. But if one has developed a contemplative presence as enjoined in the Rule, then this short chapter packs a bigger punch than one might think. Benedict zeroes in on the proper attitude one should have in prayer, suggesting that cultivating the right attitude is half the battle, maybe a lot more. Benedict begins with the analogy of presenting a petition to “a powerful man” who requires humility and respect, “for fear of presumption.” This analogy tends to make God seem more distant than God really is, and it doesn’t take note of how eager God is to meet any requests that are appropriate, but we certainly should be respectful of God. If all of us, like the cellarer are to treat all people with respect, especially the weakest and most helpless, then we should approach God with the same respect. Moreover, prayer made with “sincere devotion,” is prayer that is fully committed to sustaining a contemplative presence. More important, God does not regard “our many words,” but “our purity of heart and tears of compunction.” These are two of the most loaded phrases in early monastic literature. “Purity of heart” is a particularly powerful virtue taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, a virtue that allows us to see God. It is purity of heart that strengthens our sincere devotion in prayer. Compunction is the goad that prods us to renew our commitment to achieving purity of heart. Compunction is the salutary sorrow, even leading to tears, that come of regret over how far short we fall from a contemplative presence, and thus spurs us on to renew our longing for purity of heart by turning back to God and neighbor with deep respect. In Chapter 52, Benedict says that after the Work of God, one should leave in silence “and with reverence for God,” implying that we take reverence with us as we leave the church. Those who wish to pray privately should not pray loudly, which could disturb others, but pray “with tears and heartfelt devotion.” This chapter doesn’t really add anything to what Benedict said in Chapter 20, but it does reinforce his basic point.

Benedict ends Chapter 20 by saying that prayer should be “short and pure” unless “prolonged by divine grace.” This seems to refer to praying privately since Benedict goes on to say that in community, presumably during the Divine Office, prayer should always be brief, ended by a signal from the superior. There is some debate as to the exact practice envisioned here, but most likely it refers to the custom of having a brief period of silent prayer after each psalm, a practice noted in the writings of John Cassian. This practice shows interior prayer to be a response to the psalms, a response intended to be carried outside the times spent in corporate worship. Many of us today find that the best way to carry out this practice of prayer is to have set times for meditation, such as centering prayer as developed by John Main, Thomas Keating, and others. The Rule impresses on us the importance of supporting centering prayer with a rhythm of psalmody, preferably in corporate worship when that is possible and through cultivating the contemplative presence that alerts us to the presence of Christ in the people we meet.

Where does this take us? Ultimately, it takes us into the Kingdom God has prepared for us. But Benedict knows that, especially at times when we share in the sufferings of Christ, we need a stronger encouragement than the promise of Heaven, and we get it. In the Prolog, Benedict says that when we progress on the “path of God’s commands,” our hearts will overflow “with the inexpressible delight of love.” At the end of his chapter on humility, the virtue that does so much to develop a contemplative presence, Benedict promises us that we will arrive at the perfect love of God which casts out fear, a love strengthened by good habit, and therefore also strengthening our good habit so that we delight in virtue. That is, humility leads us to “the inexpressible delight of love.” The “inexpressible delight of love” is the fruit of cultivating a contemplative presence year after year, day after day, minute after minute.

 – Andrew Marr OSB