It’s 3 am and my alarm is going off. Well, it’s not my alarm; I guess it’s a monk’s alarm. I am in the tiniest, lumpiest twin bed ever built. Mary and baby Jesus scowl and throw what could be misconstrued as gang signs down at me from a painting above my bed. I click the lamp on to illuminate a room no bigger than a closet, containing only a desk, a chair, a night table, a wardrobe, and this bed. I want to be charmed, but it’s too early.
Ten minutes, a teeth-brushing, and a dusting of makeup (I can’t help it; even non-judgmental, celibate monks don’t deserve to see under-eye circles that dark) later, I’m following the halo of light created by my dim flashlight down a crumbling concrete drive. I wander across a wooden footbridge, wind through a cluster of weeping yaupons and oaks, duck under some low-hanging Spanish moss, and emerge in the dark shadow of a beautiful chapel, lit from within by only a few candles.
The entrance to the chapel contains a large book which, I will discover later, is open to a page containing a single quote from Thomas Merton:
“Let there always be quiet, dark churches
in which people can take refuge…
Houses of God, filled with His silent presence.
There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least
they can be still and breathe easily.”
I curse the clacking of my hard-soled shoes and tiptoe to the stall to which Brother Paul directs me. I am surrounded by the monks, looking half-asleep and swaying ever so slightly in their own stalls (these are seats, separated by wooden panels, which fold up and down to let you stand and sit alternately during worship).
The monks begin to pray, to sing, to chant. Sometimes an individual reads Scripture or a quote from Chrysostom or Benedict, but largely they chant the Psalms back and forth to one another, accompanied by an acoustic guitar played most often by Brother Theophilus.
I am, I’m afraid, utterly lost. There are a number of open prayer, Psalm, and song books open in front of me, obviously set there in anticipation of a visitor such as myself, but I search in vain to find which one we’re praying, chanting, or singing from. Brother Paul, serene and kind with a ring of white hair around his largely bald head, hands clasped calmly behind his back, glides over to me. He turns a page in my book and points to the correct line. I smile gratefully at him, but he has already turned back to return to his stall.
I left Mepkin Abbey with the strange idea that this is how worship should be: A group of people who have devoted their lives to the worship of God praying and singing together. I am blessed that they allow visitors and that Br Paul was willing to help me (for over the course of my stay I continued to need near-constant help).
But what I got out of that experience was this: If no visitors were there, worship would still happen.
It’s sort of like a tree falling in a forest: If no one is there to see the monks pray, do the monks still pray? Yes, because they have given their lives to the worship of God. This morning, January 22nd, at 3:20 AM, the monks scurried from their beds through the cold night air and gathered in the chapel to pray, chant, and sing.
There may have been other worshipers there and there may not have been.
The monks continue in their worship all the same.
Sometimes I lament the great importance we put on the number of people in worship.
Sometimes I lament the great disparity in our worship between the percentage of words spoken directed at human beings and the percentage of words spoken that are directed at God.
We as clergy spend so much time greeting the congregation, making announcements, pronouncing forgiveness of sins, announcing hymns, and giving stage directions on when to stand, sit, turn and greet one another, etc.
And don’t even get me started on preaching: It could be argued that, in the sermon, the greatest chunk of the service (and the one to which most churchgoers ascribe the highest value) has nothing much to do with worshiping God, but only with one human being talking to other human beings about God. …which is good, but is it worship? Perhaps, but… perhaps not directly.
When people talk about the old Catholic churches where the cleric speaks in Latin and faces away from the congregation, they often do so disparagingly. “That’s so terrible and uninviting,” they say. Perhaps. But perhaps it is authentic. The priest is there to worship and serve the Lord. Why should he trifle with the people? Oh,
well, because we as clergy are not just tasked with worshiping God but also with teaching people to worship God. We teach people how to worship, guide people in worshiping, and invite people to participate more and more fully in worship.
I think the best way to do this, though, is not through more words: It’s not giving more directions and announcements and clearer transitions and written explanations. Those can be helpful, but those are not the most effective way of either teaching people to worship, or worshiping!
The best way to teach, guide, and invite to worship is to model worship.
When Brother Paul came over to help me find my place, that was all the invitation I needed. I was there to worship God. I was there to experience the worship of monks and to participate in it. I watched them and I was captivated by their devotion, their authenticity, their earnestness, and their faithfulness. Every morning, there they were, yawning but present.
The oldest monk is in his late 90s, and he powers along on his rolling walker– he made it to all but one service in the time I was there (did I mention they have 7 service daily?). He stood for everything that called for standing. He helped lead Eucharist mass. He sang every song loudly and with his voice shaking but strong.
What if we, as clergy, could teach by example more than by verbage? What if we could show, by our own devotion, authenticity, earnestness, and faithfulness, what worship can and ought to look like? What if we could find a way, by modeling our own passion for worship, that we’re glad our congregation showed up– however large or small the numbers may be– but that they’re not the reason we’re there? That we’re there to worship God. That they’re welcome to join, and we’ll help them as much as we can, but ultimately it’s not about them, or us, but about God?
What if we could find a way to tell our congregations, golly, we’re glad you’re here; but even if you weren’t, we would be doing this anyway, because we have been ordained (or commissioned, as the case may be!) to this work, to the work of worshiping God– and that means worshiping God ourselves…..?