Immediately upon hearing the signal for the Divine Office, all work must cease.
What’s wrong with being late?
When I was at college we had a long term guest in the community from Lesotho (near South Africa). He was a wonderful man of God and it was a privilege to get to know him over the six months he was with us. He had one cultural tendency which is famous in this country; ‘African timing’. This was particularly evident at Morning Prayer when, fifteen minutes into a twenty-twenty five minute Office, in he would walk and take his usual place by the door.
He was once called up on this trait, to which he responded,
I pray everywhere and will join you when I join you.
There’s a few of things happening in this response which I would like to unpack in relation to this week’s chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict: how lateness can be interpreted, the reason why there are set times for prayer and why promptness is essential, so let’s take them one at a time.
On our wedding day, my father in law spoke about my wife’s lateness; she was born two weeks later than her due date and, my father in law commented,
She’s been late ever since!
Her brother, one of my best friends, is just the same and I’ve shaped my life around this different timing. At my less patient and understanding times I have responded to their lateness in, I suspect, a very natural way; I have found myself feeling unimportant to them. Why are they late? What has happened which has stopped them from getting here? Whatever it is must be more important than meeting me. When I discover that it is curling hair (that’s my wife and not my brother in law!) or cleaning a bedroom you can feel like a second thought. It’s as if they’d rather be doing something else than meeting me or being with me.
Of course they don’t see it this way and it is not true that they’d rather be vacuuming a house than making the allotted time for meeting me but when you’re the one sat twiddling your thumbs, unable to start something in case you get interrupted, you can feel powerless to their ‘whims’. This is the problem with lateness: it is a power play. Lateness creates an imbalance in a relationship because one person refuses to be changed by the desire of another whilst the second party has committed and become beholden to the first.
My Lesotho friend, without knowing it, insulted the rest of the community by communicating a lack of commitment to us, choosing, rather to prioritise his own desires above ours.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself,
But the set times of Morning Prayer are set, not by the community but by tradition and if it doesn’t work for a community then it should change. That time isn’t holier than other times!
It is true that many people ask for times for prayers and other community activities to change to suit the changing preferences of the current members but this opens up the second issue, the reason why there are set times for prayer.
Morning Prayer is not about us. Morning Prayer is not the time we arrange to suit us, it is a time that demands us to prioritise God over and above everything else. It may seem at times to be arbitrary but it trains us to be disciplined in our relationship with God. It may challenge some of us whose view of God is of a Being whose love for us accept everything we are and do and wouldn’t change us for the world. Unfortunately God demands everything of us and wants our commitment to Him because our relationship with Him is the thing which will change us and ultimately save us.
It may seem obvious to many to say this but, prayer is not about us turning to God and bending His will to get our way. Krish Kandiah in his latest post about the new Star Wars trailer, comments,
To be honest too many people try to use prayer in the same way that the Jedi and the Sith use the force. People often say prayer is powerful. But I know that in war time both sides will often be praying for completely opposite things. So unlike the force a Christian understanding of prayer puts all the power in God’s hands not in the person praying, nor in prayer itself but in God. Prayer is a means of speaking to God inviting him into a situation that his will is done. We pray asking not that some impersonal force is wielded by us, but rather we ask that God our heavenly father intervenes in our situation and we place ourselves at his disposal (Krish Kandiah, “5 things to learn from the force awakens trailer”, November 28 2014, http://www.krishk.com/2014/11/5-things-to-learn-from-the-force-awakens-trailer/
Morning Prayer, along with the other times of set prayer, are there to establish a rhythm to change how we structure our day, not around our own desires but around God’s. This is not about arbitrarily doing the will of an institution it is about a counter cultural denial of self and offering ourselves to the disposal of God.
In the communal life we should no longer consider ourselves doing anything alone but in corporation with others. This is particularly true in prayer. Yes, there is a need for private prayer but the set times of prayer are as much about placing our lives, as a community, into the will of God as our individual lives into it. We have, by our commitment to the community, begun the process of disposing of our own wills to the community which, to save it from being a cult, together hands it continually over to the will of God in prayer and study.
My African brother, despite admitting to always praying failed to see the significance of the communal aspect our prayers together. This leads to the third and final aspect to unpack about lateness to prayer, why promptness is essential.
Promptness in itself is not essential but it is rather about a deeper thing that promptness communicates: obedience. Terrence Kardong writes,
The circumstances of ancient life made punctuality quite a different thing than it does for us today. There were no mechanical clocks to keep an eye on, much less digital devices to regulate life down to the second. In the pretechnological age, life was lived by the rhythm of the sun, which changed from season to season. RB 47.1 indicates that the monastic horarium is personally controlled by the abbot, and so a response to the signal is not an exercise in the virtue of promptness but in obedience. Thus it is not entirely correct to characterize Benedict as someone interested in timetables and efficiency; he is more concerned about wholehearted willingness to answer the call of God in the moment. (Terrence Kardong, ‘Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary’ (Minnesota: The Order of St Benedict, Inc., 1996) p.353)
We see again and again in the Rule of St. Benedict that the heart of discipleship is obedience. The Christian community should be one that lives out the transformative life in the Spirit of the servant hearted Son of God, who looked to the will of his Father. We, like the first disciples, are called immediately to drop our lives, controlled by our vision and understanding, and follow Christ, obediently.
Obedience is a dirty concept in our increasingly liberal, anti-authoritarian culture. Those in positions of responsibility have betrayed our trust and those who are meant to be servants have gained power and use it unflinchingly to pursue their own wants and needs. The solution is not to create new sticking plaster remedies but to look to the insights and wisdom of tradition.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon, in a recent debate on the place of religion in society, made this helpful point,
Religious teachings are essentially preventive. Without such teachings we tend to look to sticking-plaster solutions. Today, the response to domestic violence is to build more refuges. The response to drunken and loutish behaviour is, “Let’s extend licensing hours”; to rising drugs problems, “Let’s legalise the use of drugs”; and, to an increasing number of people in prisons, “Let’s build more prisons”. Let us extend this line of thinking to the behaviour of little junior who greets visitors to the house by kicking them in the shins. Solution: issue said visitors with shin pads as they enter the front door.
He went on to suggest,
…we have thrown our religious instructions to one side in constructing remedies to social problems that ignore deeper issues of right, wrong and responsibility—the essence of religious teachings.
God created the Church, the community of disciples, as a means of protecting and growing His people. There are always criticisms that can be made of the Church, globally, denominationally, nationally and locally and it is not perfect (it will always be penultimate until the establishing of the Kingdom of God on Earth) but the solution is not to leave and start again. It is easy to criticise the Church as being irrelevant, petty or, at worse, abusive but for me the Church is really the people and that includes me as a member. The Church changes when we change and the greatest but most costly change is our obedience to one God and to one another. We must learn afresh what it means to commit to life in community.
A brief comment to some close to me who are currently debating the many failings of the Church:
The Church is a community of disciples who obey the call of God on their life. That call is to be daily renewed and transformed into the likeness of Christ who has lived the life which brings true freedom. We all, however, continually fail at this but we have committed to the work of transformation. This work is ongoing and can only be done in the cut and thrust of true relationship and godly society with others. The pain and heartache of these relationships require a commitment which holds us, sometimes imprisons us, to stay and deal with the conflict. It is too easy to leave and start again, forming a community around what we find helpful and befitting – it is not your Church it is God’s and He has called you to serve and not to be served. It is too easy to blame others for our inability to connect but the truth is we all must learn what obedience beyond our own preference and desires looks and feels like.
How quickly do we drop our lives and what we want to respond wholeheartedly to the call of God, however undesirable it is? Are we arriving late for God and assuming we are more important? Do we relegate God to following us round and serving our whims rather than the other way round?
Father God, accept my heartfelt apology for the many times I turn to you assuming you to serve me and my will rather than disposing myself upon your perfect and redeeming will. Correct in me my wayward heart and form to be a more obedient servant to you and your Kingdom.
Come, Lord Jesus.