DC Abbey: Chants and Prayers

Welcome to Part 3 of a blog series ‘DC Abbey’, reflections on my 3 days at a Benedictine monastery in DC NE, St. Anselm’s Abbey. I share to hopefully inspire others to a monastic retreat. I value critical feedback, so please comment below.

In my previous post I shared what God taught me in the monastery’s silence. Only prayer broke the silence, and you may remember from Part 1 that our schedule called for prayer at least 3-4 times a day. Five minutes prior to the designated hour, a bell rang. We would enter the church and sit towards the back. The monks would enter opposite, bowing in reverence towards the altar and finding seats that faced each other. The processional is simple but orderly, clearly ancient and reverential. Then we began to pray the daily office.

It would be a long digression to explain the daily office, but it is, in short, a community prayer offered at least three times a day. It likely grew out of our Hebraic roots and came to be tied to fixed hours of the day, giving it the name the liturgy of the hours. What do we do? We chant the Psalms and offer up prayers to God.

First, about the Psalms. As a born and bred Evangelical, I’m often so disconnected from my history I look at those notes at the beginning of a Psalm that says ‘A maskil of David’ or something similar and view it as a modern editorial footnote. We often forget the Psalms are, in our modern parlance, worship songs. If the exact tune is unknown to us, lost to history or too outside our culture to imitate, chanting can be truly useful.

Some people find chanting mindless or creepy. There is, of course, no good reason for this as Christians have chanted for centuries. Chanting is just rhythmic speech tied with breathing; one breathes in, then breathes out slowly by speaking the Psalm verse at a rhythm. For example, each Benedictine monk begins the daily office with Psalm 69:2:

God. Come to my assistance
Lord. Make haste to help me

At the bolded word one starts to reach the end of his breath, giving a natural intonation. The speaker is not only able to speak the Psalm in unison easily, the rhythm helps with Scripture memorization, and it slows you down to a meditative state. If you’ve never tried to chant before, give it a whirl, and if you need help, I encourage you to visit your local monastery or church to join them for the liturgy of the hours. I picked it up in no time flat.

I will say here one beautiful point I’ve learned about prayer at the monastery. To set it up, you’ll be reminded that in the Apostles’ Creed we confess belief in “the communion of the saints”. We often say this, with no conception of what we say we believe. I get a beautiful picture of this whenever I find myself at Mass, or pray the standard daily office at the right time. Because in those moments I know millions upon millions of Christians also prayed the same prayers I did, word for word; they chanted the same Psalm, read the same daily reading, heard a homily on the same topic. We’re not talking about the person next to you at church, I mean a person we may never meet in Ghana, in China, in Australia, in Germany.

Taking it further, when we say together the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed, billions of Christians have joined me across the millennia. And God, unbound by time, hears us at the same time, though we are separated by a thousand years. It reminds me of Acts when it says the church prayed in a loud voice, the same thing, and afterwards the place where they were shook and the Spirit of God filled them with power.

I pray we all learn to pray the daily office together, united in one common prayer, one singular focus, joining our intents with others. May God shake the world with his power as he hears our prayer.

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