My silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in September provided an incredible, distraction-free week of prayer, reading, meditation, introspection, writing, and spiritual renewal.  It also provided a glimpse into the monastic life of the Trappists who live, work, and worship there.

As mentioned previously, the Abbey was founded in December of 1848.  Since then, the resident monks have observed 7 daily hours of prayer, rain or shine, summer and winter, in wartime and peace, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for the last 164 years.  While some European monasteries might still consider the Gethsemani monks as “new kids on the block,” 164 years is a long time in this country.

Having spent my entire life worshipping in a manner that would be categorized in ecclesiastical terms as non-liturgical and “low church,” it was enlightening to visit the guest chapel which adjoins the main sanctuary.  The seven daily services that make up the Liturgy of the Hours are Vigils (3:15 a.m.), Lauds (5:45 a.m.), Terce (7:30 a.m.), Sext (12:15 p.m.), None (2:15 p.m.), Vespers (5:30 p.m.), and Compline (7:30 p.m.).  These do not literally last an “hour” each.  Vigils is the longest at about 45 minutes or so, and all seven combine for 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours each day.  Mass is also celebrated every morning.

Over the course of the week, I attended each of these hours of prayer at least once, with the exception of Mass.  I attended Vigils on two mornings at 3:15 a.m. (partially to see what it was like to assemble at that hour of the morning) and Compline each evening at 7:30.  At the heart of each of these services were the Psalms, with all 150 of them being sung or recited every two weeks in a liturgical cycle that is repeated 26 times a year.  The services also include prayers, hymns, Scripture readings, and a commemoration of Mary (which will be further discussed in the next post).

Despite the very significant ecclesiastical divide that exists between Catholic theology and practice and my own understanding of Scripture and the life of the church, there was still much with which I was impressed in the Liturgy of the Hours.  First and foremost was the centrality of the Scriptures, whether in song, reading, or recitation.  It is only through regularity, rhythm, and repetition that the Word of God can truly become written on our hearts and etched into our consciences.  It takes an incredible amount of commitment and discipline to allow every single day of one’s life to be regulated by hours of prayer that begin at 3:15 a.m.  How often do I “rise before dawn” to commune with my God and Savior in prayer and the reading of His Word?  How frequently do I pause throughout the day to turn my heart, my mind, and my lips heavenward?

A beautiful doxology is sung several times during each service: “Praise the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, both now and forever; the God who is, who was, and is to come at the end of the ages.”

While the liturgy during the other hours of prayer differs every day in the two-week cycle, the Compline service is the same each evening, 365 days a year.  Psalm 4 and Psalm 91 are sung, which include the thoughts, “I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8) and “you will not fear the terror of the night…nor the plague that prowls in the darkness” (Ps. 91:5-6).  These are psalms of trust in the Lord and confidence in His protection.

Of particular beauty and appropriateness at the close of the day are two other songs which are sung during Compline each evening.  The first is an ancient hymn, the lyrics of which are attributed to Ambrose (c. 330 – 397 AD).

Before the ending of the day
Creator of the world, we pray
That with Thy gracious favor, Thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now

From fears and terrors of the night
Defend us, Lord, by Thy great might
And when we close our eyes in sleep
Let hearts with Christ their vigil keep

O Father, this we ask be done
Through Jesus Christ, Thine only Son
Who with the Paraclete and Thee
Now lives and reigns eternally

Amen

The other is “Antiphon for Canticle of Simeon”:

Lord, save us, save us while we are awake
Protect while we are asleep
That we may keep our watch with Christ

And when we sleep, rest in His peace

This service, about 15 minutes in length, seemed to effectively put one in a frame of readiness to retire for the night, which I suppose is extremely helpful if you have to be up at 3:00 each day!

The greatest personal “take away” for me from these services was a renewed commitment to delight in the words of Scripture and meditate on them day and night (Psalm 1:2) and to treasure His Word in my heart (Psalm 119:11).  If the monks at the Abbey can sing through the Psalms every two weeks, surely I could read through this book of sacred poems every week as part of a morning and evening devotional reading schedule.  It is one of the spiritual disciplines and goals that I am considering for 2013.

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous law.”  (Psalm 119:164)

I plan on bringing this Gethsemani Journal series to a close with another post or two in the next few days.

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