Praying bones

2011 re-post.

Taken from

I was speaking with a Trappist monk about prayer while I was on retreat back in the early 1990s. He’d been a monk for nearly 60 years. He told me what his view of prayer was now, compared to when he first entered. How often does one hear such a vantage? I tried later to collect all the ideas and, of course, blended them with my own. That, by the way, is how I do lectio divina — I take God’s Word, or another’s words about God, and allow them to infiltrate my own. The majority of my posts flow from this.

When I first entered monastic life, prayer was like an amusement park, filled with so many wonderful and thrilling new rides and moments of excitement. As the years wore on, it matured into a daily act of the will, an expression of fidelity. Though the original thrill still came now and again, the maturing of love was calling me to the hard work of daily perseverance through the ebbs and flows. Love shows itself in tedium more than in flashy moments of mystical prowess. The flashy gets you ready for the tedium. But it’s usually at the tedium stage, when the real work begins, that people give up on prayer…Between oscillations of health and sickness, sweetness and bitterness, whirlwinds and doldrums I began to see that God was excavating me to make more room in me for himself. I began to see God was far greater than any of my ideas or feelings. It was for me a new twist on St. Anselm’s Quod maior sit quam cogitari possit, “Greater than which nothing can be conceived.” Prayer went from being like an old and well-worn shoe to being…now it’s gotten into my bones and it can make them shake. As I get older, more frail, I feel my body’s being shaken to its foundations. I’ve long thought of the aches and pains of aging as a kind of dress rehearsal for the day death will rend my body and soul. And I long to see his face and live, but he said to see his face you have to die [Exodus 33:20]. Prayer is surrendering to death and life, letting God make me long for his face. God has led me to a cliff to look down at the sheer drop into his infinity. I see so clearly I’m just a grain of sand on a mountain, an atom in an ocean, so infinitesimally tiny. God, immense, without borders…Now prayer’s less like self indulgence, seeking myself in God. Not cajoling God to think highly of my requests. It’s more like succumbing to God’s steady approach, his nearing. Realizing it’s not about me. God stretches my stingy world to include everyone and everything and all of him. The desert fathers say your prayer’s authentic when you find yourself interceding for all. Caught up into Jesus’ preoccupation in eternity [Hebrews 7:25]…Prayer’s far more thrilling now than it was, but differently so. It’s far more terrifying. Not like terror that comes from fear of being harmed, but terror that comes from fear of being loved totally, absolutely. It’s the fear of coming to know God as God, and not our pathetic idol collection. I liked my idols, hated to give them up. My gods looked like me writ large and rarely disagreed with me. How sad. Ha! When you really pray you let God knock over your Dagons [1 Samuel 5:4]. And sometimes God’s way of smashing your idols can be just as ridiculous. The real God is love, infinite, selfless, terrifying love; but it’s the terror every human really wants deep down. We chase it all our lives. Thrill seekers and rebels are all seeking to fill that inner yearning for this terror. The paradox is, as soon as you finally succumb to the Terror of Isaac [Genesis 31:42], he casts out all fear. But it keeps you shaking … Stick to your prayer, every day. If you do, you’ll see what I’m saying; but in your own way. Don’t try to mimic what I’m saying. It takes years. Stick with it. One of the old monks here used to say to me when I was a novice, “In 30 years we can talk about prayer. First you have to do it.” I thought, Lord have mercy! But he was right … Prayer’s like my mother used to say of her marriage to dad after 62 years, “Even when you think it can’t, it gets better every year.” If your faithful to your vows, that’s true. If you’re not, it’s not. They didn’t have all fireworks, all sappy sweet. My dad was hard to live with and my mom was tough as nails. But they stuck with it, loved for the long haul. Talk about tedium. It fermented into a fine wine, intoxicating like only love can be. That’s prayer, when you get there to that point. Keep on…

Annie Dillard’s extreme critique of sacred liturgies grown dull, sleepy made me think of this monk. How unaware we can become of the wildly dangerous transactions liturgy, or prayer, places us in contact with…

The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.

Coptic Egyptian Liturgy, taken from

8 comments on “Praying bones

  1. Ona says:

    That monk’s commentary is fantastic. Thanks for reposting.

  2. Pam H. says:

    I would have said the exact opposite of Annie Dillard, of my experience. The “low” churches around here make me feel like I’m in a “celebration of Us” to which God is merely “invited”. I do like the quiet daily Masses more than the elaborate Sunday rituals, though. Maybe I misunderstood her.

  3. Anthony says:

    Beautiful post. My community just had a talk on prayer yesterday and the speakers covered some of the points he did but as something they read in a book instead of directly experienced. This was much more powerful. Reminds me of that wonderful book Asking the Fathers.

  4. Ona says:

    Ditto Pam’s question – I have never seen a Mass that might be considered “simple” in a monastic sense, such as a very austere but completely correct Mass. When I have seen “simple” that has always been code for “we’ve taken out anything that might make you uncomfortable, thrown away anything pretty, and added lots of happy clappy campfire songs.” If there’s some secret location where there are near-silent, austere Masses being said by sack-cloth-wearing monks in a cold crypt, for the love of God tell me where.

    • Dismas Dancing says:

      The places and events in which the Holy Spirit found me at my simplest and, therein, the most humble, were experienced at Mass in a “field” environment while in the Marine Corps. Taking place in numerous and varied places around the globe where it was just the priest (in field camouflage utilities with a simple stole around his neck–no other vestments) sans choir or any other trappings of “high” Mass, the altar consisting most often of an 18″ X 30″ field desk, and a variety of humble penitents surrounding him, kneeling in the dirt, mud, snow, begging God’s mercy and forgiveness–that, dear Ona, was as near to simple as one could get. I have long since retired from the Corps; but there remains in the depths of my soul, a longing to know that level of humility, gratitude, and magnificent proximity to Jesus in the Holy Sacrifice once again. Here, back in “the world”, escaping the “happy-clappy campfire songs” is extremely difficult. For me, in the quiet hours of the morning, I can take a look back at a nearly 30 year privilege of experiencing God on a “gut” level and ignore the feel-good “kumbaya” moments that simply don’t work for many of us.

      Thanks for your comment! It brought back some really fond memories of a closeness to Jesus that I struggle to maintain each day. God’s peace and blessings go with you.


      • Ona says:

        Thanks, DD. God peace to you, too.

      • Ona says:

        You know, DD, it occurs to me – in the Marines you’ve got a pre-selected group of people who bring some things to the Mass that the general population doesn’t. They know darn sure they could die, because their work involves grave danger. They are disciplined and obedient by training. They are trained to think of the needs of the group, and are serving a cause that’s not about their own interests. They live a renunciate life compared to civilians. So to say, one would expect that no matter the format or location, folks like that would come to Mass in a reverent and serious frame of mind almost by default. Have you ever considered monastic life?

  5. Dismas Dancing says:

    “That, by the way, is how I do lectio divina — I take God’s Word, or another’s words about God, and allow them to infiltrate my own. The majority of my posts flow from this.”

    That, my friend, is what your posts do for me!!!!!

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