Thursday, November 10, 2022

“Liturgy, Devotions, and Mental Prayer in the Christian Life” — Guest Article by Dom Alcuin Reid

The following was written by Dom Alcuin Reid OSB and published as part of the Monastère Saint-Benoît’s Time After Pentecost Newsletter 2020. Given its pertinence to the discussion sparked by my article on Monday, I thought it would be appropriate to share it with a wider audience—which we do with Dom Alcuin’s permission. PAK

A number of enquiries have been received recently regarding the place of mental prayer and devotional practices in Christian and monastic life. These responses are published in the hope that they may be helpful.

Your observation that attempts at mental prayer can often become self-centred even when using methods to focus on God or His mysteries, etc., points to all too true a reality. I am meditating, I am doing the doing &c. Of course this is in order to place myself in and under God's gaze and grace and to open myself to His doings, but it seems all too easy not to get to this stage, or to be distracted from it by preoccupations, etc.

And yes, praying the Divine Office or assisting at Holy Mass or another liturgical rite is quite different. It is a different dynamic, a different psychology, because—almost regardless of me—the Church is doing the doing and what I must do is 'plug myself into' that doing, into that objective reality, become caught up in it, in Christ acting in and through it, and thereby be brought into that encounter which is in fact prayer. That, of course, is why the richness and beauty of the rites are so important: so as to 'catch' our various psyche's in the differing states they are in today and transport them (us) into this encounter. One catches more bees with honey, than vinegar... Spartan rites connect with and catch up fewer people... (And in the current crisis, with most having practically no liturgical life, one must wonder just what damage is being done. We are essentially liturgical creatures. Without this being lived out we could easily become rationalistic protestants...).

What you wrote earlier about modern devotions and forms of prayer rings very true in monastic ears. There is, really, no such thing as “monastic” spirituality; rather monastic spirituality is that of the Church herself—of drinking deeply from the living streams of grace flowing through the Sacred Liturgy, including of course the reading of the Sacred Scriptures in their proper ecclesial context, including the mediation on them by the Fathers and the mediation of them by the Sacred Liturgy as developed in Tradition. Personal or private prayer wells up from this and, in silence and recollection, digests or contemplates the riches into which the Church immerses us in her Sacred Liturgy. This is Christian prayer, liturgical and private, connected and integral. The two should be connected.

Of course the Church has blessed and permitted spiritual and devotional practices which can seemingly be not so connected or integrated: to be sure they are not of themselves bad, and indeed in many circumstances these may be the best one can do. But one can do no better than to be immersed in, to be truly living from, the Sacred Liturgy, and thereby to be optimally empowered to live it out in one's particular vocation. This is something that the authentic liturgical movement had sought to recapture for all of Christ's faithful (not excluding the clergy!).

Practically speaking, pray parts of the Divine Office. The Office is the prayer of the Church, it is the Sacred Liturgy. Of course, its sung celebration is the norm. Whether lay, religious or cleric, whoever prays it— even ‘privately’—prays it with the whole Church as part of the Liturgy. Frustration with devotio moderna practices is not unique at all. It is a sign of a soul that seeks much more than 'stop gap' measures.

Some groups, even “traditional” ones, give the impression that individual mental prayer is the fundamental starting point for all Christian life. This can sometimes be the case in post-reformation devotio moderna communities or orders. But that is an error. To take part in the Divine Office and Mass, to live the sacraments and the sacramental rites, blessings, processions, etc: that is the staple diet of any Christian. That is where we read the Scriptures, where we sing the hymns developed in Tradition, serenade Almighty God with the verses and canticles that have arisen out of the Church’s love and supplication over the centuries. That is prayer. Christian Prayer. Ecclesial prayer. Full stop.

From fully and consciously praying the Sacred Liturgy optimally celebrated various sentiments and desires should arise in each of us, depending on our circumstances, vocation, maturity, etc. And in those concrete circumstances, if recollection is preserved, we find ourselves contemplating (digesting/ingesting) the riches upon which we have been fed in the Sacred Liturgy. This is most sublimely done in lectio divina, of course, where we probably don't need that much more than the liturgy itself as a stimulus. And retaining this sense of recollection and its fruit, contemplation, which is surely the end of Christian and monastic life, enables us to live the liturgy and to live from it, as we engage in 'other' works and duties throughout the day.

Engaging in what moderns call “mental prayer” can seem to be at best an effort to ‘produce’ contemplation by means of a short cut (i.e. without the liturgical life and nourishment that is its true source) for people who do not have the necessary recollection in their life and work. In so far as this goes, it can be a good. At worst it can be a denial of the normative manner in which the Church prays and be posited as an alternative or almost Pelagian ‘direct’ means of reaching God, without the need for ‘mere externals’ such as the liturgy. If one goes too far down that path one eventually arrives at Protestantism.

So, pray the Sacred Liturgy as fully and as richly as possible, and then give Almighty God space through the allocation of digestion time (lectio divina) and preserve that recollection as best as possible throughout the day so that the interiorization process can continue and nourish you further. That should lead to all that “mental prayer” includes, and a lot more besides, and indeed it will do this more naturally and ecclesially, in a manner thoroughly integrated with the liturgical life of the Church.

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