While planning our summer a couple years ago, I decided somewhat spontaneously that we would take a short retreat during the summer to spend time exploring ancient Christian monastic and mystical practices. If I am honest, it was as much an excuse for me to spend time studying the interesting subject matter as it was an attempt to create a mega-attractive youth retreat. And of course we would definitely be the only youth group in town doing anything like it.
Little did I know at the time, but the movement begun by the Rule of St. Benedict was going to do as Jonathan said it had always done. It was going to “change the landscape” in our area. I expected low attendance and was surprised when we had three times the number I initially expected. Having had enough students sign up, it was set. We would spend two days following Benedict’s hours, experimenting with all sorts of Christian mystical practices and living simply, without electricity.
The backbone of the whole experience was the divine hours. Though they had existed before, the Rule of Saint Benedict that Jonathan explores in his article codified them into a form that is still used today. Our goal was to do as Jonathan says and “root our Spirits in Scripture and prayer… [and] feed our bodies with good food and fellowship.” We began with a midday prayer service at noon then had midafternoon prayer at three followed by vespers at six and went to bed after our compline service at nine. We were awakened by one of our singers singing worship songs for prayer at midnight and three and then had morning prayer at six followed by mid-morning at nine.
What was surprising and beautiful was the way the hours provided a divine rhythm for the day, not just because we were stopping to pray throughout the day but because the prayers of each service reflected some aspect of what was happening with the earth or our bodies at that moment.
First thing in the morning, as we were waking up and bringing our brains back online, we repeated the refrain, “You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me.” Though I had experienced this moment every day for my entire life, I had never considered God’s design and provision in the process of waking up. It had never occurred to me that it was God’s design causing my mind and body to strengthen more and more.
At noon we prayed, “Almighty Savior, who at noonday called your servant Saint Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles: We pray you to illumine the world with the radiance of your glory, that all nations may come and worship you; for you live and reign for ever and ever.”
Just before we retired, we closed our compline service with a prayer that said, “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
This infused the day with recognition of the divine. After you prayed about Paul at noon you could not help thinking about the call of Paul as you went about your tasks. You could not go to bed without reflecting on the protection of God through the night. Your very sleep was enacting your prayers about watching and resting.
Whenever I talk to youth ministry friends about this experience, they want to know what happened at the retreat. I generally laugh a bit because, on the outside, not much happened. We studied history, we sat in silence, we prayed. And that was it. There was no emotional rush to the altar; there was no brilliant speaker or talented band. We didn’t play any stupid or outrageous games. We made no attempt to be relevant or cutting edge. We just studied, prayed and lived.
Yet there was something powerful in a different way that happened there. It was as if we were standing at the Grand Canyon together looking at the work that had been done by a patient flow over thousands of years. Because we were choosing to stop and look, we saw how these practices had shaped those who had gone before, and we were captivated. The more we stared at the beauty created by the stream of prayers, the more we longed to surrender to its slow sculpting. And the more time we spent in its shaping flow, the more willing we were to surrender to its non-21st-century pace.
What does that mean? We read prayers. Beautiful, complex, theological prayers. The kind of prayers we wish we could pray but cannot be developed by teens—or most anyone, for that matter—off the top of their heads. We were able to speak to God with words we’d always desired but never had, and we surrendered, if only for a couple hours, our individuality and spontaneity to something greater.
May the Lord bless you and keep you and cause his face to shine upon you from this day forth and forevermore. Amen.
There are several books full of these prayer services. Here's a link to my favorites: Pocket (Pictured above) Fall/Winter, Spring, Summer, Nighttime.