By Brian Keepers
For my blog post today, I’d like to share a reflection I wrote in my prayer journal on Wednesday, October 19th while on a retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan.
The church bells ring– deep, slow bongs that slur one into the next. The sanctuary door creaks open, and six monks parade in. They’re Benedictines, dressed in long black robes (cowls), arms folded and hands tucked in their sleeves. They walk with a sense of unhurried urgency, pulled into the rhythm of liturgical time, poetic time, where the ordinary and the sacred meet in beautiful mystery.
The sanctuary is dark, a simple elegance devoid of opulence, and shafts of light from the morning sun break in through shuddered windows near the ceiling. The monks enter the chancel, bow to the cross and to one another, find their seats and flick on their reading lights. Slowly, carefully, the leader calls us to prayer with these words: “Lord, make haste to help us…”
This service is “Terce,” and it’s the third of seven (or eight) daily prayer periods as part of the Divine Office. As we sing the psalms antiphonally, gather around the table to receive holy communion, and offer prayers of intercession, one of the things I’m present to is the sharp contrast between the words spoken here and the words that have clamored all around me leading up to this retreat. It’s Wednesday, and later this evening will be the third and final presidential debate. I will miss it since there is no television, no cell coverage, even minimal internet connection.
Perhaps it’s better for my soul, not watching the debate tonight. There have been so, so many words. Angry words, violent words, careless words, manipulative words, empty words. To my own embarrassment, I realize that I’ve been whipsawed between utter disgust and addictive intrigue, constantly scouring social media, daily turning on the news, drawn into all the drama of the words surrounding this election. Words that have seeped into my own spirit like “the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone” (George Steiner).
But here I am, sitting in this sanctuary in a monastery ensconced among rolling hills and fields golden brown and woods exploding with the colors of autumn. And here is the gift of this liturgy, of these words sung and spoken, led by monks who have surrendered to a life of obscurity, their days and hours marked by prayer.
These words of Scripture and the liturgy are such good words. Words that cleanse my soul and flush out the toxins of the vitriol rhetoric and debased language that has characterized this election cycle. Words that bend the heart toward God and one another in gracious longing. Words that open up new possibilities and orient us towards a better world, a kinder world, a more hopeful vision. Words fashioned into prayers such as:
For all who fear God and believe in you, Lord Jesus Christ, that our divisions may cease, and that all may be one as you and the Father are one, we pray to you, O Lord.
For the peace of the world, that a spirit of respect and forbearance may grow among nations and peoples, we pray to you, O Lord.
For those in positions of public trust, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, we pray to you, O Lord.
For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger; that they may be relieved and protected, we pray to you, O Lord.
For our enemies and those who wish us harm; and for all whom have injured and offended, we pray to you, O Lord.
For ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the grace of the Holy Spirit to amend our lives, we pray to you, O Lord.
For all who have commended themselves to our prayers; for our families, friends and neighbors; that being freed from their anxiety, they may live in joy, peace and health, we pray to you O Lord.
Let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life to Christ our God. To you, O Lord our God.
Yes, these words have the power to cleanse and reshape my crooked heart, to draw me into deeper intimacy with God and increase my love for others and for the world. Eugene Peterson is right (as he often is): language at its best goes beyond information and manipulation to serve as tools for relationship–tools not for getting and doing but for being and becoming. Words, at their best, are prayers. Answering the God who calls, blesses and sends us.
Tonight, millions will tune in to watch two presidential candidates use their words to attack, deflect, defend, blame, spin, hide, and fight it out.
But these six monks, sitting in the darkness of a sanctuary hidden among fields and forest, will sing and pray words of truth and life. No one will see them or hear these words. But God does. And I believe that these words are not just words but somehow, mysteriously, they flutter on the Spirit’s wings and participate in the Word that is making all things new.
So let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life to Christ our God. To you, O Lord our God.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.