“At the hour of divine office, as soon as the signal has been heard, let the monk leave whatever he may have in hand and make great haste, but with due gravity, that levity find no occasion; for let nothing be preferred before the Work of God.”
(Chapter XLIII, the Rule of Saint Benedict)
Just as nothing is to be preferred to the love of God, nothing is to be preferred to the work of God. In the life of the monk, just as in our own lives, it is easy to be consumed by our labors. We will even justify the priority which these labors take over disciplined and constant prayer with the justification that we are, in fact, doing the Lord’s work. But, for Benedict, in the balance between work and prayer, it is the work of prayer which always must triumph. There is some room for the monks to be late to the offices of prayer, but at a certain point, the monk must sit in the back. He will be assigned a public penance later.
Of note is the fact that Benedict treats lateness to the Divine Offices and meals in the same chapter. Benedict wants the brothers to see the connection between the common life of table fellowship and the life of communal prayer. Of course, each meal begins with a short prayer. But, if the monk continually arrives after this, he is to eat alone and be deprived of his ration of wine.
What is the desire here? Then, as now, the challenges posed to the spiritual life by individualism are many. The monk must, as part of the life of conversion, learn to live, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the community. He must learn to live in submission to the community. Furthermore, he must learn that his own endeavors, even his own time, all belong to the Lord. He could be working on the greatest book that has ever been written, and when the bell rings, he must drop his pen and head to the chapel. He might be very tired, and desire to skip a meal. He might not be hungry. But, he is reminded that his life is not his own.
All of this is firmly in place so that in preferring nothing to the love of God, the work of God in worship (which is how we love God), can remain the highest priority.
In the life of a parish church, especially an Anglican one, there is nothing more important than the priority of Eucharistic worship and the Divine Office. We remember this every time the Eucharist is celebrated:
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
(Page 106, the Book of Common Prayer 2019)
What we are being reminded of by this reference to the Summary of the Law (Matthew 22:37-40) is the priority of worship and obedience to the Lord. This is not to say that these two loves are in conflict, only that worship must be the highest priority of the gathered community, even over and above evangelism or catechesis. Put another way, if we place love of neighbor above the life of obedient and steadfast worship, we are of no good to our neighbor. But, if we are constant in the work of God, we will most certainly love our neighbor. In fact, what we find is that the liturgical life of the church forms us in love of neighbor.
Let me describe what I mean.
In seminary at Nashotah House, the students sat in the choir of the chapel, facing one another. There would be times when we would face the altar, but for the most part, we had to look across the aisle. This was a mirroring of the Benedictine tradition of monks facing one another in choir. As I learned it, the reason for this arrangement was not merely to facilitate the chanting of the Psalms or to make sure everyone was present and accounted for, but to make you face your neighbor, especially the one whom you found most disagreeable while worshipping the Lord. Think of it - looking across at the person who vexes you the most, while reciting the Offices, or the Creed, or the Gloria, or the Psalms. It is a great challenge! But, over time, it forms you to love God and love your neighbor!
For this reason, the public worship of God must be a priority. Without it, everything else suffers. We wind up offering nothing to this world but ourselves, and wind up worshipping ourselves. Even in this time of global pandemic, we all must recommit ourselves to the priority of public worship.
I will tell you that I believe you can attend Christ Church and do so safely. There are numerous policies and options which make that possible. For our older members, and those who are chronically ill, it is enough to say that this discipline is pared back. For others, I want to challenge you to return to the constancy of our common life. It is utterly essential for you and your children to be formed in the way of the Lord.
Please share with us your thoughts and concerns about returning to public worship by completing a short, 1-2 minute survey here: https://christchurchwaco.breezechms.com/form/9596ff