Pray with us during the Year of Consecrated Life
In the diverse work that monks may do, the liturgy is the one work common to all of them
Q. I know that you are a member of St. John’s Abbey. During this Year of Consecrated Life, I was wondering how you see the role of liturgy in your own life and in your religious community.
A. St. John’s Abbey was at the forefront of the renewed study of patristic theologians and early liturgy that led to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council (Dec. 4, 1963).
The monks of St. John’s had already concretized (literally) their liturgical ideals in the new Abbey and University Church designed by Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus tradition and completed in 1961, a worship space that anticipated many of the requirements of the post-Vatican II liturgy. Breuer’s work was consonant with the best of Christian and monastic tradition, and it is enduring testimony to the importance of the praying assembly.
The vernacular liturgy was just finding its voice in prayers and songs for the Mass during my college years at St. John’s University (1968-1972), when I enjoyed worshiping with the monks at Sunday Eucharist and sometimes at evening prayer in that church. The rich and full liturgy they celebrated there drew me to join the monastic community and later become a graduate student in liturgy and teacher of liturgy on the graduate and undergraduate levels.
Everything liturgical that brought me to St. John’s Abbey over four decades ago is still there, and everything that made me a teacher and student of the liturgy is still there. I’m grateful for that. But my community’s liturgy now feels and sounds very different from when I entered the monastery and even from the 1980s and 1990s. Unofficial creativity has deferred to official norms and texts as found in the present Roman Missal. The liturgy at St. John’s will continue to evolve as my community’s members become fewer and older, but I like to think that the church bells will continue to resound in their hearts as they gather for worship.
The liturgy at St. John’s and elsewhere, especially with the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, remains a premier way for me to express my faith and deepen it as I pray it with others. Today, I remain its servant as director of liturgy for the monastery and its disciple as well. In a way, the liturgy provides lifelong formation for me and my confreres at St. John’s.
This is because living together in a religious community and worshiping God together there has been intertwinedsince the fourth century. Early monastic households grew together as a family whose communal prayer unified their common life.
The prayer of monastic communities in the Egyptian desert and urban settings was known to St. Benedict (480-547) and had its influence on the structure and content of the “Divine Office” in his Rule for monks. Benedict spent about one-seventh of that Rule organizing communal prayer for his monastic family in the best way he knew how. And, it was daily prayer that shaped Benedict’s monastic family into a liturgical family, a liturgy-centered family.
“Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” Benedict wrote in chapter 43 of his Rule, thereby establishing the surpassing value of communal prayer and its primary place in the life of each monastery and of each monk.
Perhaps this is why the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey and those of other monasteries have responded to the instinct to devote generous amounts of time, finances and personnel to the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist, for they know it is central to the life of their religious family. Here, as in other activities of the monastery, the talents of many different persons, placed at the service of all, help to create something larger and grander than any one person could create alone.
No matter how diverse the kinds of work that monks may do, the liturgy is the one work — the “work of God” — that is common to all of them. This is certainly true in my monastery, and it is a daily source of spiritual nourishment for me and my confreres. Perhaps this is why Benedictines and other religious who have savored the Liturgy of the Hours have been such strong promoters of this form of prayer for all Catholics, especially communally in parishes.
When one spends a lot of time in communal prayer each day as monks do, one sings a lot of hymns, hears a lot of Scripture and prays a lot of prayers, especially the Psalms.
The monastic liturgical spirit, nurtured in silence and contemplation, has often flowered in an abundance of sacred music and liturgical poetry. From the artistic genius of medieval monks sprang the treasures of Gregorian chant, which Benedictines like my confrere Father Anthony Ruff have helped the church preserve.
But in accord with the post-conciliar permission to prepare their own forms of the Liturgy of the Hours (within certain limits), monks continue to produce versions for their monasteries that blend the old and new. Our area is blessed with the work of hymn writer Benedictine Sister Delores Dufner, of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, and composers Fathers Henry Bryan Hays and Jerome Coller, my confreres at St. John’s Abbey.
The monastic style of worship at St. John’s is like the church where it takes place. The liturgy there reflects a certain humility, simplicity, authenticity and dignity, but also a certain richness and lavishness reflecting the splendors of the liturgical feasts and seasons.
Benedictine communities find it easy to understand that physical hospitality to guests, which is a hallmark of monastic life, is closely linked to liturgical hospitality — the divine hospitality shown to God’s people in the beloved Son is to be mirrored in our hospitality to each other, and never more so than in the liturgy.
Through its continuing attention to the outward forms and inner spirit of worship, my monastery hopes to be an oasis where those who “are to be welcomed as Christ” (Rule of Benedict 54:1) can drink from the wellsprings of communal prayer and be refreshed for their journey of service in the world.
So, I invite you to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville during this Year of Consecrated Life. These daily prayer services include hymns, psalms, readings from Scripture, other writings, responses, Gospel canticles, intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer and a concluding blessing.
Morning prayer is at 7 a.m. every day; evening prayer is at 7 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it is at 5 p.m. These services last about a half hour. Midday Prayer is at noon each day except Saturday and Sunday, and lasts about a quarter of an hour.
A host monk is present at these services to assist visitors in taking a seat in the guest section of choir stalls and using the various books found there. If you would like to come in a group, please let me know so that I can make arrangements.