A delightful tour through the monastic hours
Reviewed in the United Kingdom 🇬🇧 on 7 April 2013
An absolutely delightful read. Below are some notes I made on each of the "hours" that Brother David talked about.
Vigils: held in darkness. The darkness reminds us of the great mystery - of all that we don't know, of all that is outside of the boundaries of our light. But the light shines midst the darkness (John 1:1), sanctifying the darkness around it. We need not fear the darkness just because we don't know what is there. Vigils is also a reminder of the watching and waiting in our lives. "Wait, not yet" - expectant listening before the word or song. Vigils calls us to set aside time outside of the practical demands of the day and reminds of us the great mystery in which the light shines.
Lauds: Lauds takes us out of darkness and into the light of a new dawn. We are sent forth by our senses, our of darkness and into light, life. The dawn is breaking forth and the music of life is about to begin. It has come unbidden by us and creates a new start every day - light filling our lives afresh. We are called to be awake, to celebrate, to be awake to the opportunities the day brings and to enjoy, and be grateful for, the gift of being alive. The time for sleepwalking has stopped. When we are truly awake a drink of spring water is full of flavour. The prevailing mood is joy, not the type of happiness that depends on current circumstances, but the whole-hearted response to the gift of life. We cultivate a sense of gratitude and awe, starting from the beginning of our day. We make a choice - shall I be niggardy today, or generous? Shall I rub or bathe another's wounds? Shall I brink lightness or darkness to others today? We are sent out to carry the light to the world. The dawn also reminds us of the cock-crowing for Peter - what has gone on in the night is revealed in the light of day. Yet the light is a merciful one - we confront what has occurred in the dark trusting in the mercy of the light.
Prime: Work activities are given out at prime - it is time to start the work of the day. Work is very much part of our life, and our work is always intertwined with others even when we don't see it directly. We're working together. We work deliberately, steadily, not rushing to get it over with - work then becomes a joy and a prayer. At prime we pause to make a commitment to work in this steady, mindful and prayerful way, committing ourselves properly, authentically and surely to the work of the day. Like the conductor of the orchestra we pause momentarily before the music begins; the little pause prevents rushing in chaotically. Each prime is a new start to the working day - a new start with lessons learned from past errors. Little by little we may give work it's proper prayerful attention. Then it's time to go - working together, out of love.
Terce, the third hour. Peter said "we are not drunk, it is only the third hour". And so the third hour, a break in our work, celebrates the blessing of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The day is still young, energy and enthusiasm are high. Life flows through us as a blessing that flows out of us and onto others. We greet others with joy and kind smiles. As we receive blessing we pass it on. The Holy Spirit is the breath of life - as we breathe in we must also breathe out. For St. Benedict the utensils used in the kitchen and garden was as precious as the chalice used on the alter - those working in the kitchen, garden, or elsewhere bless others with their work and experience the blessing of bringing in the harvest or cooking with the harvest. We honour God by honouring His gifts. We are nourished by His gifts so that we may nourish others. With mindfulness and tenderness we care about the details of our work - it is taking time with the details that we are blessed and bless others. We are vital, we are alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit and are called to enthusiasm - Terce is a loud hour of praise! In terce we take a short break, we pause to appreciate the blessings of the morning and to share those blessings with others.
Sext: Sext is the hour about which the day turns. It is an hour of recommitting to the day or it can be an hour of the 'midday demon' of lethargy and despair. The Angelus bell rings and it is time to celebrate the coming of the eternal into the our time. People out in the fields would hear the Angelus bell and pause, praying a prayer for peace. At the instigation of an Abbot of a Zen monastery in New York a wrist-watch alarm went off in the middle of the ceremony. Everyone looked around to see who had been so careless. It was the Abbot's wrist-watch. The Abbot said "This was my wrist-watch and it was not a mistake. I have made a vow that regardless of what I am doing, I will interrupt it at noon and think thoughts of peace. I invite you to join me in thinking thoughts of peace for a world that needs it". How beautiful it is to have a bell ring to call people to pray for peace. Praying for peace reminds us that peace begins with us. The noon meal in a monastery is taken together, often with the monks together listening to a book read. The monks take it in turn to serve the others. The noon-day meal is a meal of sharing and serving. We pause at noon to gather strength to commit to the second half of the day, summoning the courage to stay on course. We meet this challenge one step at a time; sometimes we just have to do what we're doing and get through to the next resting point.
None: Mid-late afternoon the day begins to wane and shadows are lengthening. The day has risen and is now declining - we face the little death of each passing day. This hour's message is that death and impermanence are part of life. Temporal things will fade and we must be connected to something transcendent. The monk is back in his cell, facing himself, confronting himself, and forgiving himself and others in the light of God's unlimited forgiveness (the "taking" of taking offence is replaced by the "giving" of forgiveness). The afternoon hours of our life may be a time especially of forgiveness, creating peace for the evening of our lives. The cell is place to face reality, be forgiven, and make peace. The monk is now "alone with the Great Alone". As each day comes to a close, so must each life. The monk prays for a peaceful and holy death, bringing full circle and completeness to life. To face death peacefully requires that we have lived, that we have appreciated the "eternal now" we have lived in. When we continually appreciate we don't live forever we learn to live all the moments of our lives. We all need a cell, a place apart, to face and embrace our reality. None is an hour of sweet melancholy - looking to the end helps as appreciate the now. After the day's activity we turn in and to stillness.
Vespers. The lighting of the lamps is celebrated as evening descends. Our work day, tools and clothes, are behind us and we come freshly dressed for the celebration of the coming of evening, coming physically together again after the day's work. It is the hour of peace at heart, of serenity. The time just after sunset is a magical time for poets, as the world around us takes on an intense beauty in the glow of the sky after sunset. It is a wonderful time to walk and to pray as the silence of night falls after a long day - this is a gentle hour where the strife of the day is put aside. Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool evening, Isaac prayed quietly, our Lord was laid to rest after His Passion. The high point of Vespers is the chanting of the Magnificat, praising God for the salvation of the lowly. As we light candles at Vespers we are reminded that we may also light candles in the world (rather than curse the darkness). What candle can I light?
Compline - completing the circle. In compline we re-enter the fullness of light, back into the silence of the mystery. We review our day, ask for forgiveness for when we have failed, and ask for a peaceful night and a perfect end. We also ask for the strength to face our weakness in the dark recesses of our soul. In faith we cling to God, putting ourselves under His protection as we transition into sleep. We look forward to falling into the peace of the night's sleep. This gentle and quiet hour completes the daily circle of hours.
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