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work and pray

St-Benoit-du-Lac Abbey.
Image from www.tourisme-memphremagog.com
Last weekend I organized and participated in a women's retreat. For those of you who know me, you know that I am not particularly fond of all-women events, but this turned out to be a lovely, restful, rejuvenating, and fun time. Ten of us spent two days at a quaint bed and breakfast in Magog, and there was plenty of free time to relax, read, take a walk around town, sit on the porch in the sun, chat with a friend, or go on a hike to a local lookout point. Each evening we gathered together to pray for each other, and these were precious times of laughter, honesty, and encouraging one other.

On Saturday afternoon we all piled into cars and headed to a nearby monastery, Saint-Benoit-du-Lac which is a Benedictine abbey situated on Lake Memphremagog. The abbey is remote, nestled in the countryside and at this time of year, surrounded by bright, colourful foliage. We wandered around the grounds in the cool fall air, bought cheese, honey, chocolate, and apple sauce in their shop, then all came together for Vespers (evening prayer), entering the chapel as the bells chimed above our heads. Most people who visit monasteries remark on the incredible peace they feel there, and our group made similar observations. As we joined together with others in the chapel and quietly took our seats, an expectant silence hung in the air.

About 35 monks in long, black robes filed in and took their seats in the chancel. What followed for the next 40 minutes was prayer in the form of Gregorian chant, primarily in Latin, but I did catch portions which were in French as well. At times the monks stood, at times they sat, at times they faced each other across the centre aisle, at times they faced the altar, and at different times in the prayer they all bowed low (I believe it is when the three persons of the Godhead are mentioned). Sometimes the prayer was chanted by a single cantor, at other times all the monks sung together. Some of the people in the chapel joined with the monks as they sat, rose, or bowed. Others were content to sit in silence without moving.

Participating in a time of prayer in which most of the words are unfamiliar and unintelligible can be a freeing experience. Because you are not trying to follow or understand the words, you begin to engage at a deeper and perhaps simpler level with the spirit of God. Praying ceases to be a mental exercise and moves toward being a posture of receiving and resting, of simply being in the presence of God and staying there.

Saint Benedict, who wrote the Benedictine rule which is followed by many monastics, coined the phrase ora et labora. This means "pray and work," and indicates that Benedict viewed these two elements as partners. Work should never be done without prayer, and prayer must find its way into action. The monks at St-Benoit-du-Lac meet for prayer in the chapel seven times a day. This pattern of prayer is known as the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. For them, Vigils (or Matins) is said at 5:00 am, Lauds is at 7:30 am, Terce is at 9:45 am, the Eucharist Mass is at 11:00 am, Sext and None are at 12 noon, Vespers are at 5:00 pm, and Compline is at 7:45 pm. Times between prayers are filled with taking meals together, study, Bible reading, work, and social time. What might seem like a restrictive schedule to those of us used to a bit more free time and the occasional day to sleep in, is actually an attempt to develop a rhythm which draws one into an awareness of the presence of God in all that one does, each and every moment of the day, individually and as a member of a community.

What one notices at St-Benoit-du-Lac is that there is a steady, slow pace to life. There is no frantic rush to get things done, no pressure to produce, no competition, no threat of rejection. And yet, there is simple confidence in their work and prayer, a consistency and quality to all they do (their cheeses have won numerous world class awards), and an overall simplicity and beauty which is a testimony to careful stewardship and generous hospitality. For the monastics, work is not interrupted by prayer; it is infused with life because of it. Prayer is not work or obligation; it is worship, it is supplication, it is rest, it is communion.

Since I returned from the visit to St-Benoit-du-Lac, I have not only enjoyed some good cheese with Dean, I have also found myself more at peace, more prone to fuse work with prayer, and less frantic even during a particularly demanding week. It is true that in confidence and quietness one finds great strength. In prayer and work much is accomplished.

God bless the monks at St-Benoit-du-Lac who freely open their doors to visitors so that we might experience silence, peace, beauty, and in simplicity of mind and heart, take time to enjoy the presence of God.

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