“Do ordinary things with extraordinary fervor.”

I saw an announcement that in response to the current crisis in the Catholic Church, a bishop has ordered all of the parishes in his diocese “to recite the St. Michael’s prayer after each Holy Mass.”

On one hand, this strikes me as an excellent plan.  These times call for powerful statements, and the bishop’s implied but powerful statement is that our primary responsibility is prayer.  By adding a prayer after Mass, the message is emphasized even more.

As a monk, though, I find this a bit difficult to understand.  (I refrain from mentioning the history of the St. Michael Prayer other than to dispel any notion that its recitation after Mass goes way back to the early Church or even to the Council of Trent.)  It reminds me of a story I heard about Benedictines who were praying the Office during a war.  (Let’s say it was World War II and they were Benedictines in France praying Vespers.)  Bombs from the enemies were falling closer and closer to the monastery, so the monks moved down to the underground chapel and—faithful to the Office—continued praying Vespers.  But the sounds of the exploding bombs grew closer and closer.  Then the abbot said, “Brothers, let us pray!”  So, all of the monks knelt and pulled out their rosaries.

For monastic spirituality, the liturgy—both the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharistic liturgy—is already the profoundest prayer the Church gives us and that we, if we respond to grace, can offer. Monastic reform movements have not been about adding things but going back to the simplicity of the Rule and the liturgy it outlines for us. Monastic reform movements are about doing the ordinary things with extraordinary fervor. (That’s the advice the abbot during my novitiate year gave me during my first monastic Lent. I had presented him with what I regarded as a heroically ascetical list of Lenten practices. “Semi-Pelagian” is a term one hears in many monastic novitiates!)

Had the bishop asked my opinion, I might have suggested that he ask all of his parishes to dwell in—not “to observe” but “to dwell in”—30 seconds of silence before saying the Opening Prayer and the Prayer after Communion at Mass and a minute of silence after each reading. This might not be successful at parishes where there are lots of rumbustious kids, not to mention the simple reality that many adults are unnerved by silence. But such a suggestion could, in theory, convince the faithful that they already have a treasure of inestimable value every Sunday. All they need to do is be still and listen. Indeed, I’ve been edified by a few comments from laity who have written in the blogosphere about how apt the lectionary readings are in relation to the trials we’re going through.

This is not a hill on which I’m willing to die, as the saying goes.  After all, lay spirituality (if I can pretend for the moment that there is such a thing) shouldn’t be held to the same standards as monastic spirituality.  That there are significant differences between lay liturgy and monastic liturgy goes all the way back to the 4th-century beginnings of the monastic movement (if not earlier).  But I would like to think that the present crisis is going to result not so much in more words, adding prayers to the liturgy, setting up new procedures, and so on as in more profound soul searching and more attentive listening to what God is already telling us in the liturgy.

(This isn’t to say I won’t welcome *certain words* from certain prelates!  But I’d rather those words not be spoken anywhere near the liturgy.)

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