Friday, January 13, 2006

Monastic and Cathedral prayer

Reflection on Two Ways of Praying

Paul Bradshaw presents us with two ways of categorizing our worship, specifically the action of prayer: “monastic” and “cathedral.” These are helpful categories in that they are more descriptive and hold deeper meaning than the usual worship wars buzzwords (“traditional,” “contemporary,” “blended,” “liturgical,” and the new kid on the block, “emergent”).

Monastic prayer is rooted in traditions attempting to pray – literally – without ceasing. The thinking behind this was not only the Biblical command, but also the idea that living this way would enhance personal spiritual growth. Hence the goal of monastic prayer is to grow closer to God as an individual through constant communion with the divine. Monastic prayer is spiritual education. Because of its focus on interior change through contemplation, monastic prayer can be performed with or without other people – the former may enhance the experience, but it works perfectly well either way. There is nothing inherent in the style that requires it being said by a special leader of a group in a particular place at a certain time using specific motions. Therefore, it allows for literal unceasing prayer because talking to God can be done at all times in all places by simply “going there” in one’s head.

Prayer in the cathedral tradition, on the other hand, is performed not to spur on individual growth but rather for God’s benefit. Praise brings God pleasure and intercession requests God’s help; in both these instances the one praying is not concerned with personal formation. Cathedral prayer also requires the gathering together of people, either in reality or in spirit, to offer corporately their concerns and praise – one cannot perform it alone. The prayer is led by designated (but not necessarily professional) ministers who have been trained to offer the most excellent sacrifice of praise through their particular giftings, making extensive use of what Bradshaw calls the “externals” of worship (movement, space, props, calendar, etc.). The ultimate goal is to focus on God’s greatness while holding before Her the needs of the world, which in Her greatness She is able to fulfill. Cathedral prayer is liturgical offering.

I come from a tradition that placed supreme importance on personal spiritual growth, attained through the monastic prayer device known as “daily devotions.” One’s strength as a Christian was measured by whether one was able to keep a daily personal appointment with God. In these sessions, the Christian reads the Bible and talks to God about his life (if intercession is made, it is primarily for personal illumination and secondarily for the well-being of one’s close friends and family). I was never good at spontaneously talking to God, and always felt lonely during private daily devotions. We all went to church on Sunday, but the true measure of Christian discipleship lay in the amount of time spent reading Scripture and praying alone – I had to keep trying, because I simply knew of no other way to grow as a Christian.

This focus on the individual may have roots in the early church, but it certainly has found its nexus in current American culture. The pioneering spirit of many of our denominations led to an eventual loss of ecclesial awareness altogether, causing the “personal relationship with Jesus” to take the foremost place in our discipleship. Because I was raised in an essentially non-denominational setting, we had very little awareness of a global Church. Praise was made through song, but even then the point was to learn from the words. We went to church to become better and more worthy Christians, certainly not because God needed anything from us.

I realized after some time my personal proclivity was towards a communal, carefully planned, ritualized setting for prayers. Thus I wound up at the Episcopal church, in a congregation that preferences the “cosmic story” of God in a mostly cathedral prayer atmosphere. Because we follow the Book of Common Prayer, our worship consists of prayers, hymns, and psalms said or sung by all together or responsorially. We use many “externals,” including incense, robes, and what we affectionately refer to as “pew aerobics” (up and down and kneel and sit!). Our intercessions, again guided by the book, concern the needs of the world at large and our own members, but we don’t pray much for ourselves (except at confession). There are a few monastic elements to our Sunday service: for instance, we hold a “period of silent reflection” after the lessons, psalm, and sermon. But primarily we share activities which could not be done alone, such as the passing of the peace. Other parts of the service could go either way, depending on the practitioner’s intent: the saying of the creed, Lord’s Prayer, even taking Eucharist could all be inward-focused and don’t necessarily require an ecclesial context. However, the majority of those who attend our services do so to offer praise to God and seek His mercy on the world, not for edification (though that is an avoidable benefit of good liturgy!).

I noticed another compromise we’ve established between the two ways as I took Eucharist this Sunday. All Saints’ distributes the elements differently in its two services: at 9:00, in stations, and at 11:15, at the communion rail. I realized that the former is a more monastic and the latter a cathedral way of receiving the bread and wine (previously I’d figured it had something to do with the different attendance levels at the two services – even though the later service has more people and uses the slower method!). My preference has always been the way it’s done at the 11:15, and now I know that is because of my disposition toward cathedral ways of doing church.

Finally, I would like to briefly share one way this study will influence my practice. At Easter vigil and services the next morning, our congregation (led by the priests) always raises their hands as we sing one particular song. Some of us joke about this being the one time it is “allowed,” and I used to question the authenticity behind it (having been raised to believe the orant position is purely an emotional affectation). Bradshaw addresses prayer posture, lamenting the fact that many churches have lost the temporal significance originally attributed to standing or kneeling (based upon day of week or time of year, not the words being said). This caused me to realize that when my fellow believers lift their hands on Easter, it is a meaningful way of marking this resurrection day as distinct and special (it is interesting to note that the one other day when this occasionally happens is All Saints’ Day, again a celebration of the resurrection, this time that of believers following their Lord’s example). This year I will proudly stand in the orant position to mark the liturgical significance of Easter, celebrating God’s cosmic plan in our cathedral-prayer church.


janinsanfran said...

This is quite wonderful. At least I think so because it is very much addressed to my current needs. My partner and I host a "house church" -- a voluntary subset of our Episcopal parish that is focusing its meetings on our prayer life. We are discussing and sharing our prayer practices in a pretty unstructured but quite intimate way. I would like to share what you've written here with the group in the hope that it sparks our next meeting. Hope that is okay with you.

Stasi said...

That's great - I'd be honored.
You might be able to find a used copy of the book to help.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Just wanted to add something to your exploration and unpacking of the monastic: the silence that happens is not merely reflection on scripture or other liturgical elements. It is in itself a type of prayer. When I used to hear about the concept of praying without ceasing I envisioned this non-stop dialogue to God in my head. I think now after practicing "Centering Prayer" for a number of years, that it is more about living in the stillness that happens when everything within me ceases to speak. That kind of meditation/prayer is deeply personal on a relational level as well as being deeply transformational on a personal level. I am also an Associate at an Episcopal convent and have been blessed with seeing the kind of dynamics you are referring to lived out by some really wonderful, loving, and holy women. If you haven't been exposed to the practice of Centering Prayer, I think you would find it very pertinent and life changing, especially to someone in the "biz"! Some great books on the subject have been written by Father Thomas Keating, himself a monk. As always, I really enjoy your posts! Blessings.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post; I really like the distinction between monastic and cathedral prayer, and your post makes me want to explore how this idea plays out in Jewish worship... :-)

Stasi said...

Right, the monastic prayer takes place in the silences in between the other elements, according to Bradshaw. His primary example of monastic prayer is Lectio Divina, but of course centering would also fit the bill.

I've never had much luck with any kind of monastic prayer...I am too antsy for them. Bradshaw's article was a welcome relief because I learned that my preferred ways of praying (which fall into cathedral terms) are not less spiritual than monastic.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to think about this distinction between monastic and cathedral prayer. Today I went to a Sunday service for the first time, and had what was maybe a monastic moment at a cathedral time; that is, I came to a realization of Christ's love for me personally, at a time when the entire congregation was signing a hymn.

Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding the two categories, or I as a newcomer to Christ am seeing everything in a personal, monastic way and still missing the cathedral aspect of worship.

Stasi said...

See there's nothing about Cathedral prayer, I don't think, that precludes one from being edified or touched or transformed by it. That's just not the primary goal. The focus is praise and intercession, both of which are in that hymn. The focus of monastic is personal faith boosting through time spent with God, particularly through study and contemplation.

They are definitely not cut-and-dried categories. But yes, we can personally be transformed by either one. That's what I want to say.