For my J-term class this year, I chose to take Christian Daily Prayer, which is a class offered through McCormick Theological Seminary, the neighboring Presbyterian school with which LSTC shares classroom space and some community events. The first week of the class was spent on campus in Chicago, learning about Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim daily prayer, and praying in community with our classmates. During the second week of the class, my ten classmates and I traveled with our professor to New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, IA, a small community outside of Dubuque, so that we could experience monastic daily prayer firsthand. For over 150 years, the brothers of this Cistercian monastery have been living their lives according to a threefold rhythm of prayer, study, and manual labor. For a week, I was able to become immersed in this satisfying rhythm as well.
Although my classmates and I didn't get the chance to engage in manual labor like the monks do (they farm and make beautiful handmade wooden caskets to support themselves), we were able to participate in studying Scripture and praying through the book of Psalms during the seven daily offices of prayer. The daily offices happen at fixed times each day, and the monks order their time around these hours. Each morning, we began the day at 3:30 AM with Vigils, in the dark of the monastery's beautiful chapel, lit at times only by a single candle suspended from the ceiling, and on through the offices until we closed at 7:30 PM with Compline, again held in the darkened chapel lit by a single candle. It was different than anything I had ever experienced, and I found the week to be deeply meaningful.
There is something innately appealing about such a way of life. Rather than trying to fit in time for prayer in their busy lives, the monks instead begin with prayer, and structure everything else around it. Prayer comes first, and study and manual labor fit in the spaces between formal prayer. They do each have certain jobs and tasks to accomplish during the day, but they also realize that if they don't finish everything, there will be time the next day, and the next, to get it all done. They are masters of doing what they are able to do, and then giving the rest back into God's hands. This rhythm of doing what they are able to do and keeping their priorities in order allows them to live out their calling in a way that is holistic and authentic. It is this sense of authenticity and keeping first things first that has stayed with me since returning to Chicago.
As the new semester begins this week, I realize that it would be easy for me to thoughtlessly slip back into the normal busy rhythm of classes, work, study, friends, and so on, where time for prayer and God might get lost in the shuffle. But my time at New Melleray encourages me to think about my daily rhythm in a new way. What if I were to make time for prayer before the rush of the day begins, and to be mindful of God's work in my life throughout the day, rather than trying to tackle my to-do list first and then becoming frustrated when I run out of time for God? There is a lot of wisdom to this practice of praying first, as the monks have demonstrated over the centuries. It is one that I want to hold on to as the routine of the semester begins again.