Five times a day…

I remember so clearly my first experience in the city of Istanbul — the sound of the call to prayer coming from the beautiful Blue Mosque as the day was done. Of course, my travel companion and I were sitting in a rooftop bar sipping from a glass of hot apple tea, having just arrived in the city and experiencing jet-lag beyond belief.  But each and every day, five times a day, we were drawn by that sound — a sound simultaneously foreign and comforting to us .  We laughed at the time, saying that we thought perhaps we should initiate a call to prayer from the bell tower at our church, the Calvary Baptist Church.

Maybe that was not a joke after all.  At least, this many years later, it does not seem like a joke to me, because, it turns out that fixed hour prayer is, well, a Christian thing too.

If you continue to study the history of your Christian faith and of the earthly church, eventually you will encounter (more than once) the story of the of the practice of fixed prayer. And perhaps if, like me, your faith has been nurtured in that rich vein of church traditions built upon the history  of the protestant dissent movement that was the Great Reformation, well, you might dismiss fixed prayer without consideration, you know, as something the Catholics do, in those silly and now historically irrelevant monasteries. Funny how seriously the property lust of one English king 500 years ago can continue to influence our theological understanding of worship.

But if you keep studying, maybe just maybe, that knee-jerk-learned-prejudice might just fall away. You might encounter Sr. Joan Chittister and learn more and more about the ways of St. Benedict and all that it has to say to our post modern culture. You might meet Dr. Roberta Bondi and hear first person testimony about work.5424991.1.flat,550x550,075,f.icon-of-st-benedict-and-scholasticathe importance of fixed hour prayer in the face of a life filled with gender discrimination in the academy. Or you might meet Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (the monastic order of the Episcopal Church) or Brother Emmanuel of the ecumenical community at Taize…and you cannot help but begin to question those old prejudices.

And then, you find the work of Glenn Hinson.  Glenn Hinson, church historian and to some, a Baptist heretic (being part of the split in the Southern Baptist Convention that led to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), produced an amazing book,  Baptist Spirituality: A Call for Renewed Attentiveness to God (2013) in which he recounts the Baptist journey away from the contemplative formation practices of their Puritan forbears towards a type of conversionist spirituality based in the transactional nature of 19th and 20th century American business practice. He calls for a return to our contemplative roots and a spirituality rooted in attentiveness to God in our lives and not the numbers in our pews. While he proposes no specific spiritual practice,  he too has been influenced by the teachings of St. Benedict and more directly, by the work of Thomas Merton, with whom he studied.

It was Phyllis Tickle who provided me with the final push towards the idea of fixed prayer as a possible practice. Tickle’s writing usually disrupts my theology (particularly my ecclesiology) so drastically that I find it difficult to complete whatever book of hers I am reading, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up one of the volumes in her Divine Hours series, a collection of books that contain reworked versions of the Benedictine prayer book.  You may or may not know that Ms. Tickle is walking through a very serious illness right now and doing so as the beloved public person of faith that she has been for many of us. This news caused me to thumb through my collection of her works only to pick up my copy of her Divine Offices and begin to skim through the introduction.

Skimming turned to deep reading as I encountered ideas like these…that the practice of fixed prayer comes to us not from the Catholic Church and early monasticism but from our Jewish faith ancestors and the life of the Temple now destroyed and comes to us through the pages of the Bible which we dissenters hold do dear. And the other mind blowing concept for this Protestant? FIXED PRAYER IS A FORM OF WORSHIP. How often do we think of prayer and worship as separate activities? In truth they are not. In truth there are private and public iterations of both.

And so, my friends, here I am.  Each day for a month, I have followed Ms. Tickle’s breviary, Prayers for Summertime:  A Manual for Prayer (Divine Hours).  No monastery, no habit, just me, my book, and a cup of tea.  Not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but new to me and my lived faith. I am still failing at achieving the five-times-a-day pattern each and every day, but even with my human failing of irregularity, I feel the value of the practice.  Instead of meaning less to silently recite the Gloria Patri or the Lord’s Prayer, it means more.   The prayers begin to live in your bones, not just in the words.  I guess that is the true meaning of practice.

Breaking the silence with another’s words

Yesterday, as I worked cleaning out the garden and preparing it for the winter ahead, I had to pull out a plant that I had nurtured for at least six years.  Years ago, at a local garden center, there were bargain plants in these tiny blue boxes for $0.99.  At the time, I really didn’t understand much about gardening and so I thought that I would buy four or five different ones and that would be enough.  I did not know anything about arranging plants or about how far they might spread when they grew, etc. and so forth.  And from that tiny, tiny blue box, eventually, a six foot wide carpet of beautiful pink flowers grew.  It returned to fill that garden patch each spring, leaving behind a beautiful carpet of green when the flowers flowersandjulie 019went to seed, filling that garden spot throughout the summer and and into the fall.  And now, that carpet is no more.

With all the changes of the last year and in particular, of the last six months, I have been more internal and more quiet than usual; but as I removed the remains of my little blue box plant and added them to the compost pile, I realized it was time to talk again.  Right now, however, the words of the Psalmist and of a great theological writer, Sr. Joan Chittister, express my thoughts for me better  than I can for myself.

Sr. Joan wrote a wonderful little devotional book centered around the Psalms called Songs of the Heart:  Reflections on the Psalms.  We have been reading it as our morning devotional during this time when it feels like the earth is shifting beneath us and the sky swirls angrily above us.  And yesterday, the reflection centered on this verse from Psalm 52:8:

I am like an olive tree, growing in the house of God.

That verse, is paired with a quote from Charles de Foucauld:

The absence of risk is a sure sign of mediocrity.

To paraphrase Sr. Joan’s words would be to do them a disservice.  Therefore, I will quote from them here, with correct attribution, of course:

Life is not about going through the motions from birth to death.  Life is about the development of self to the point of unbridled joy.  Life is about trusting our talents and following our gifts.  But how?  Olive trees hint at the answer even today.

Olive trees are a very important and very meaningful image in Jewish literature.  To the Jewish mind, to grow like ‘an olive tree’ is no small thing.  It isn’t easy to grow trees in the Middle East.  Sand is hardly a conducive environment for forestry.  Yet, there is one wood that seems to thrive on the difficulty of the process.  There is one tree with a natural talent for life in the middle of nowhere.  The olive tree grows hard wood on barren ground, with little water, for along, long time.

To ‘grow like an olive tree’, then, means to grow without much help, to grow hardy, to grow long and to grow on very little nourishment.  The olive tree doesn’t need much to develop; it gives good wood at the end of a long, slow process of growth; and it doesn’t die easily, sometimes not for thousands of years.  The olive tree has a talent for life.  There are some olive trees in the Garden of Olives, in fact, that scholars estimate were there the night of the Last Supper when Christ went there to pray.  Startling, isn’t it?

In this culture, in this age, on the other hand, the temptation is to think that everything –including our own natural abilities–ought to come easily.  We want fast service and quick results.  We want a log for nothing.  We want the greatest degree of return for the least amount of effort.  And we want out of whatever doesn’t work the first time.  There is very little of the focuses, the hardy, the persistent olive tree in us.  There is very little talent for talent in us.

Yet talents that lie dormant in our souls destroy us from the inside out.  If we do not learn to slowly, patiently, and painfully (if necessary) let them come to life in us, we risk our own robotization.

We give ourselves over to the pain of a living death.  Talent is the gift that will not go away. …

Vladimir Nabokov wrote with great insight, ‘Genius is an African who dreams up snow.’  Genius, in other words, always does the undo-able.  Don’t be afraid of the new ideas that come from strange places.  Sift every one of them carefully, but sift them with the hope that comes from searching for diamonds in white sand.  (Songs of the Heart, 82-85)

I do not know what translation Sr. Joan quoted from, but her version misses an essential and important word in the Hebrew text:olive-tree

But I myself am like a green olive tree in the house of God (my own translation)

The meaning of the two translations is essentially the same, but the phrase “green olive tree” says something that the idea that I am “growing” does not…”green” says something about how young I am, how far I have to go, how much I have to learn that, to me, is an important reminder in this text.   The word “green” also says to me that all the potential of life is still present if I will but grow.

And her reflection does not address the all important second strophe:

I trust in the steadfast love of the Lord forever (NRSV)

For me, as a student of the Hebrew language, that is where the real nature of the olive tree comes to life.  The word for “steadfast love” in this second strophe is the all-important Hebrew word חֶֽסֶד־ (hesed), that great, nearly untranslatable word that speaks to the depth of love in the covenant between YHWH and the people of God.   To grow like the green olive tree in the house of God is, above all,to experience all the potential that a life in God’s love offers: the opportunity and yes, the responsibility,  to grow in faith, to grow in love, and to grow in understanding.

Dare to be like an olive tree.  I intend to do just that.