A life of prayer

What is the meaning of prayer?

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“Prayer is the elevation of the soul towards God.” This is how John Chrysostom, a Greek Church Father, puts it. This means that, during prayer, we have to separate our spirit from everyday concerns and elevate it towards God.

St. Augustine said: “Your desire is your prayer: if your desire lasts, your prayer will be lasting as well.”

If prayer is the same as desire then praying should be easy. However, human desire is often impure; it is not directed where it should be. This is why we do not spontaneously desire what is good for us and for everybody. And this is what makes praying so difficult. Because, for example, we don’t necessarily receive what we feel we ‘must’ have.

Prayer is mostly listening. Above all, it is being open and grateful for what is given to us without having to ask for it. Praying is listening with our entire being.

The Psalms – the Church’s oldest prayer book – teach us that praying can be begging or asking, sometimes it can even be ‘swearing’. Nevertheless, a real prayer will always result in giving thanks and praising the Lord and will be finished in silence.

In all of the monastic communities – and in Westmalle – the Psalms are also sung as prayers of Christ.

The monks remember Mary in all of their prayers. After all, she teaches them that praying is listening to and agreeing with the Word of God. This is why the monks ‘listen’ to the Lord, who invites them every day: “Today, if only you would hear my voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95)

The purpose of prayer

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When we want to pray, words often fail us. We cannot find words, or perhaps not the right words. This is why the monks use mostly the words from the Psalms in their prayers. The Book of Psalms is an induction into prayer.

When the monks pray together, the prayer is reinforced. Some Psalms are used in prayer every day, others feature every week or every two weeks. At any rate, the Book of Psalms is prayed in its entirety every fourteen days as part of the Book of Hours.

Praying the Book of Hours is also known as Opus Dei – the Work of God.

Real prayer does not only involve praying during designated moments of prayer. The Christian tradition talks about ‘continuous prayer’. This means that, in fact, the brothers have to pray continuously in a never-ending attempt to live within and from the presence of God in everything they do.

These moments of prayer at fixed times of the day remind the monks that everything that happens - however meaningless it may appear – could turn into a privileged moment in which you meet God. To make this happen, they have to live mindfully and with a purpose. If you are living a good life, life itself becomes a prayer.

The Book of Hours

Traditionally, monks pray at every important moment of the day, and even during the night: during the nightly wake, at daybreak, in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, at dusk and at nightfall.

These prayer times still bear their traditional names, which are: vigil, lauds, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline.

These names refer to an ancient way of marking time. Nones for example – derived from the Latin word for nine – is the prayer allocated to the ninth hour of the day. This is where our word ‘noon’ comes from.

In his rule St Benedict proposes that these hours can be adjusted to allow sufficient time for work, reading and personal prayer.

The times for the Eucharist, the Book of Hours and meals are fixed. The monks may allocate the remainder of their day to fit their own roster. For example, if they are unable to fit in personal prayer because they work, they will pray later on in the day.

On the advice of St Benedict, free time on Sundays should be spent on reading, individual reflection, meditation and personal prayer.

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