Prayer Threatens Our Turmoil: Monasticism—Part I

A monk (left) and visitor (right)

A monk (left) and visitor (right)

Marilyn, an oblate with Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery in Pecos, New Mexico, showed me to my room. I was starting a four-day retreat.

The room was small and spare: a bed, an uncomfortable easy chair, a dresser, and a small desk with straight chair. A picture of Jesus and a cross hung on the wall. I had a private bath about the size of those in an average motorhome. The room looked out on hallways that had glass panels to the outside, which gave plenty of indirect light.

Regular readers will remember that I was traveling alone in the West, that I had driven across the South and through the oil fields of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico to Carlsbad Caverns. The next part of my journey was this retreat.


I had arrived in time to join noon prayers and lunch. Christ was nailed to the cross at noon, which was His work, and the monks pause their work at noon and offer it to God.

Noon prayers are part of the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, which is the recurring prayer life for religious persons. Priests, nuns, monks, among others recite versions of these prayers daily, and the prayers change day-to-day and season-to-season.

At lunch I joined the table reserved for staff. There was a group of other retreatants—three men—but they showed little interest in inviting me to join their lunch. The monks ate in silence in a separate room.

After lunch I was alone in my room. I checked the Internet signal in my room (strong), uploaded some photographs, checked email, and began writing for Later Living. Soon it was time for Vespers, or evening prayers. They are near the time when Christ came down from the cross. Vespers sanctify the end of day and give thanks for what we did well and what we received during the day.

When the monks enter the chapel, they divide into two groups, some sitting east of the altar, some west. Organ music fills the chapel and the monks begin prayer. They recite Psalms in most of the prayer session, alternating verses back and forth between two sides of the church. Visitors may join either side. A rhythm soon develops, back and forth, and you’re there, praying with the music, the words, back and forth.

I tried thinking about each verse in relation to my life, but it didn’t work. For example, here is the beginning of Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in company with scoffers.

Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy;
and on His law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;

Do I walk in the  counsel of the wicked? But before I could answer, we were on the next verse: no, I don’t meditate day and night, or do I? What is the water in my life? What feeds my fruit and leaves? I could not keep up thinking about each verse; I let go, immersed myself in the chant and simply conformed to the psalm.

The Effects of Prayer

In the few minutes with each Psalm, I reinvented myself as a religious man, enjoying new status in the Lord. It was mesmerizing, intoxicating, and then it ended.

Front entrance to monastery

Front entrance to monastery

At Our Lady of Guadalupe, the monks pray Vigils, Lauds and Mass between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Then they eat breakfast, then work, then join for Midday prayer at noon. At 4:30 p.m. they say a rosary and at 5:00 p.m., Vespers; then they eat supper at 5:30 p.m., and pray Adoration and Compline starting at 6:30 p.m. (An introduction to these prayers may be found here, here and here. Prayers for each day are here, or in more complete form but requiring a subscription, here.)

Such an intense prayer life must be transformative, I thought. A life of prayer that takes such large chunks of the day was radically different from lay life. Yet it was attractive because it seemed like a peaceful refuge from life’s common problems.

I grew a little scared: Although I could see real transformation in these prayers, seeing it and wanting it aren’t the same. I vowed to pace myself, to attend some prayers but not all, much as I might do with good wine at a dinner party.

I came to the monastery for renewal, not metamorphosis. Surely they were not the same?

Part II of this post will appear tomorrow.