Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Sir 44:1, 10-15; Heb 11:1-2, 8-16; Mk. 10:24b-30
Ceaseless prayer is at the heart of Christian and monastic life. In Jesus’ parable about the widow and the judge, our Lord taught that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:7). By a happy conjunction of feasts, yesterday we celebrated the Conversion of St. Paul who teaches us to pray constantly, and today we celebrate the Solemnity of our Founders who sought to put this teaching into practice. But in what letter does St. Paul teach us to “pray always” ?
I can hear Sr. Anna saying, “It’s in First Thessalonians.” Sr. Nettie replies, “Oh, I think it’s in his letter to the Romans.” Then Sr. Rebecca says, “I remember seeing it in Colossians.” Sr. Martha’s voice rises above the others, “I’m sure this teaching is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.” And Sr. Joan responds in her shy, very soft voice, “Isn’t it in his first letter to Timothy, 5:5?” Sr. Ciaran replies, “She’s right.”
And so she is. Echoing the teaching of Jesus, St. Paul tells Timothy, “The true widow continues in prayer night and day.” But now I see Sr. Kathleen opening her Greek New Testament and backing up Sr. Martha as she reads from Ephesians 5:20, “Eucaristountez pantote uper pantwn“ which translated means “always for everything giving thanks.” Then Sr. Louise says, “Don’t forget Ephesians 6:18, ‘Pray in the Spirit at all times.'” Sr. Grace waits for a moment of silence and then quotes Colossians 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” Sr. Kathy, with a look of surprise on her face, replies, “Why those are almost the same words St. Paul uses in Romans 12:12: ‘…persevere in prayer.'” At this point Sr. Gail captures our attention with a commanding glance and agreeing with Sr. Anna she says, “The classic text has always been First Thessalonians 5:17, ‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.'”
Sr. Ann Marie marveling at the realization that everyone’s right, exclaims, “That means not once, but six times St. Paul teaches us to pray always. He must really mean it!” Sr. Harriet responds with a sweet smile and a fervent, “Yes!” At this point Sr. Myra, who is able to ask wise and difficult questions, says, “Why then does St. Benedict, who so inspired our Founders, teach us in chapter four of the Holy Rule, ‘To devote oneself frequently to prayer;’ why does he say frequently and not always?” Sr. Madeleine looks around, wondering who will reply.
There’s a shuffling of feet as many of the sisters look at the floor, communicating non-verbally, “Don’t ask me!” After an awkward silence, Sr. Carol, who teaches classes on the Holy Rule, offers a solution. She says, “St. Benedict uses the Latin phrase, ‘orationi frequenter incumbere,’ which literally means ‘to prostrate frequently in prayer.’ He is inviting us to frequently interrupt our reading or our work to bow down in prayer. It’s not possible to bow down or kneel or lie prostrate on the ground all the time. So he doesn’t write, ‘orationi semper incumbere,’ but, ‘orationi frequenter incumbere.’ By means of these frequent prostrations our holy legislator wants us to foster the spirit of ceaseless interior prayer.” Much impressed by this important insight Sr. Madeleine responds with a respectful, “Thank you, Sr. Carol.”
Then Sr. Christine, aware of her weakness, laments out loud saying, “I’m afraid the lofty height of ceaseless prayer is beyond me.” Sr. Martha sympathizes with her, saying, “Yes, who can do it?” And Sr. Harriet feels the same way.
Thank goodness for the wisdom of our seniors! Sr. Gail comes to the rescue. She looks around and says, “We need to keep both feet on the ground. Remember what the 17th century Carmelite, Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, teaches about the practice of the Presence of God. He writes, ‘God does not ask much of us, merely a thought of him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes asking for his grace, sometimes offering him your sufferings, at other times thanking him for the graces past and present that he has bestowed on you, and in the midst of your troubles to take comfort in him as often as you can. The least little remembrance is always pleasing to him.'” 1
Sr. Anna, expressing how much she agrees with this word of wisdom, supports Sr. Gail with a quote from the letters of a great spiritual director, Dom John Chapman, who writes, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”2 Several sisters nod their heads in agreement—at least I think that’s why their heads are nodding! At these comforting words, the newest members, Sr. Harriet and Sr. Madeleine, take heart and hope that with small beginnings they might someday receive such a great grace as to pray always, fulfilling the teaching of Jesus that is repeated six times by St. Paul, and practiced so fervently by our Founders: “Pray without ceasing.”
- Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, Image Books, 1977, p. 64
- Dom John Chapman, Spiritual letters, London, 1935; 109.