Warming Up to Prayer

I live in a community, Jesus People USA, a real-life intentional community with 250 other people. That means I experience a lot of connecting, but not much quiet.  In 2002, having lived in community for 10 years, I was so restless and distracted I could barely function. Communal living has so many blessings, but it also requires a lot of you, and for those of us with attention deficit disorders, it can be like living in a carnival that never stops. 


In “Earshot,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy slays a demon but is scratched in the process. As her crew are looking up this particular creature in their handy ancient Who’s Who of Demons, they discover that if you are wounded by this thing, you will take on “an aspect of the demon.” Buffy freaks the heck out thinking she is going to become a reptilian version of herself complete with scaly tail. But that’s not what happens.

These reptilian demons had no mouths. They were telepathic. So the aspect of the demon Buffy contracted? Telepathy. She could read people’s minds. At first she finds it humorous and empowering, but suddenly, it’s not just one person’s thoughts she can hear in her mind, it’s e v e r y o n e ‘ s. Every person. Every thought. At first she is psyched about it, as she expresses to Giles:  “Is this the thing? The aspect thing? Because I gotta say, if it is, it is way better than a tail. I mean, I have a hard enough time finding jeans that fit right.”

Angel, half love-interest, half nemesis, tells her:  “Buffy, be careful with this gift. A lot of things that seem strong and good and powerful, they can be painful.”

When she goes into the high school cafeteria, most of what she was hearing were not shiny, happy thoughts. She was hearing and feeling the anger, fear, anxiety, hatred, despair, confusion, and pain that overwhelmed these young souls.

The script describes it like this: “[Buffy is] looking around at all the students. Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. She puts her hands to her ears, trying to block them out. The camera spins dizzily. Buffy lets go of her ears and drops to the floor unconscious. Black.”


Sometimes community can feel like that. There are so many people and so many emotions and so many conflicts and so many needs. There are, of course, unimaginable blessings as well. But for the purpose of this post, I’m telling you what it can feel like on the hard days. So I was driven to distraction. Literally. I didn’t know how to rest anymore. I didn’t know how to find quiet, outside myself or inside myself. I was having difficulty concentrating, stringing sentences together, remembering simple instructions.

My friend Christa works with Emmaus Ministries, an outreach to men in prostitution, at the time located directly across the street from us. She invited me to go on their staff retreat. We went to The Mississippi Abbey in Iowa for a weekend. It was a mostly silent retreat since the nuns are cloistered, we even retreated from one another, so there was silence built in. We joined the sisters in their candle-lit chapel,  set off to the side of the sisters, the voices surrounding, ascending, then deepening, making me feel embraced and included, drawn up and drawn in. 

I was hooked. And haunted. I wanted more. It was there I also found a copy of the Cistercian Quarterly featuring an article by Mark Plaiss entitled “Lay Monasticism.” He wrote about people longing for the peace and call of monasticism in their everyday lives in the world. After experiencing the transcendence of communal silence and prayer, I was struck by how deeply this article spoke to me. It sounded like exactly what I was craving. I was drawn to the mystery and liturgy of the Catholic church, but felt most at home in a Protestant denomination. This seemed like the perfect middle ground, become part of a monastery without having to wait until I became a widow.
There was even a name for lay monastics, they were called oblates, from Medieval Latin oblātus, suppletive past participle of offerre: to offer. You offered yourself to a monastery, to serve and walk alongside. 

Oblates of St. Benedict are Christian individuals or families who have associated themselves with a Benedictine community in order to enrich their Christian way of life. Oblates shape their lives by living the wisdom of Christ as interpreted by St. Benedict. Oblates seek God by striving to become holy in their chosen way of life. By integrating their prayer and work, they manifest Christ’s presence in society.

Oblates promise to lead an enriched Christian life according to the gospel as reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict. In this way they share in the spiritual benefits of the sons and daughters of Benedict who are dedicated to the monastic life by vow. After a time of preparation, which culminates in an act of Oblation—a rite approved by the Church—the candidates become Oblates of St. Benedict. This promise affiliates them with a Benedictine community and commits them to apply to their lives the characteristic monastic principles.”

I found a local Benedictine monastery, St Scholastica, and became an oblate. It’s been an incredibly enriching experience. I have a place to go to retreat, write, walk the labyrinth, sit in the garden. I have sisters who know my name and welcome me warmly when I show up. 

I was introduced to the praying of the hours at the Mississippi Abbey, which helped expand my prayer life and give it some structure.
“The Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office is the official set of daily prayers prescribed by the Catholic Church] It consists primarily of psalms supplemented by hymns and readings. The Liturgy of the Hours also forms the basis of prayer within Christian monasticism.” Wikipedia
I have often been at a loss for words when I pray, I choke at the start, fumbling and reaching, frustrated with my lack of finesse when it comes to prayer. There are ordered sections to the prayers, with different titles like hymns, refrains, psalms, readings, and responsories, which differ from church to church or publication to publication. Fixed-hour prayer helps me follow a simple schedule; at times I use the reading as my primary prayer time and other times it serves as a springboard to deeper prayer. It’s like warming up before a run, described here: 
“A warm-up generally consists of a gradual increase in intensity in physical activity (a “pulse raiser”), followed by the activity. Warming up brings the body to a condition at which it safely responds to nerve signals for quick and efficient action.” Wikipedia
When I pray the office, it frees up my mind so I can step away from myself a bit, “come in out of the wind” as C. S. Lewis puts it. The words are already there, I don’t feel the pressure to think or process right then. Usually, as I continue, I freestyle a little, adding my own thoughts, confessions, intercessions, and usually a fair number of complaints. 
Praying this way truly does produce a “gradual increase in intensity,” and I believe it actually brings the heart to a condition at which it “responds for action.”
The prayers follow a set time of day, with monastics following a stricter schedule with a few more prayers thrown in, consisting of Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. 
The readings also coincide with the church calendar so you will be joining other believers praying the same prayers at the same time for the same season.  I have always been plagued by sleeplessness. Knowing that monastics all over the world were praying and singing at all hours of the night was a comfort to me. I needed those words for myself. I needed that assurance of well-being and security. I needed these word to burrow into my soul in the dark of the night when I felt most alone and on the edge. 
Not only is it a powerful idea, praying at one with the world, it also teaches you about the Church Fathers, saints, and holy days. These prayers are meant to be read and sung communally so there are responsive readings as well, they are easily incorporated into worship, prayer groups, and Bible studies. 
You can also create your own liturgy by collecting quotes, hymns, scriptures, and prayers that you find meaningful. Compile a few for morning, noon, and evening. Save them to your phone so you have them with you. Make a special one for Compline that will help you end your day in prayer. 
“From the beginning two things have been the necessary form and mystery of Christian spirituality. Two things, even before the closing events of resurrection, ascension, and commission, wove disparate and often renegade believers into an inspirited body of the whole, connected to God and each other.
Like a double helix rendered elegant by the complexity and splendid by authority, the amalgam of gospel and the discipline of fixed-hour prayer were and have remained the chain of golden connection tying Christian to Christ and Christian to Christian across history, across geography, across idiosyncrasies of faith.” ~ Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime
I need this connection through history and 
Here is an example of a Midday Prayer by the Northumbria Community
Opening Sentences
Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us. 
Establish Thou the work of our hands;
establish Thou the work of our hands.
Teach us, dear Lord, to number our days;
that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Oh, satisfy us early with Thy mercy,
that we may rejoice and be glad all of our days.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us;
and establish Thou the work of our hands.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us;
and establish Thou the work of our hands, dear Lord.
Let nothing disturb thee,
nothing affright thee;
all things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
who God possesseth
in nothing is wanting;
alone God sufficeth.
(Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila)
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Two of my favorite resources are The Celtic Daily Prayer Book published by the Northumbria Community in England, and The Divine Hours, a three-volume set by Phyllis Tickle. The Northumbria Community also has a webpage with a single prayer for three times a day, and Complines for each day.  If you would like to know more about St. Benedict, check out Joan Chittister’s book The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. It has daily readings that take you through the Rule and include commentary to help apply it to your life today.
Tammy Perlmutter
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4 thoughts on “Warming Up to Prayer

  1. I will be saving these to my phone. So beautiful and enriching, Tammy. Thank you.

  2. I love the image of praying the offices as coming out of the wind… I grew up with the idea that praying a pre-written prayer was somehow cheating. I’m learning that it’s a way for me to catch my breath.

    • I totally get that. But then look at the Psalms! There have been times when I had no words for prayer and I could only pray other people’s words.

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