By Br. Kyle Berceau
I find in the monastic life just as in any other mode of life, it can be easy to get so used to routine that one finds one’s conscious engagement of the present moment more fleeting or on autopilot. This is contrary to the monk’s call to Conversatio Morum, constant conversion and “entering in” as a way of life.
As I caught myself in this reality one day in liturgical prayer, I was struck by the realization, “I am a player in this game!” Not to trivialize the grandness of the mystery of life into a mere game, but to apply my historical life experience as an athlete and competitor to my new life in the monastery.
One of the Mepkin monks here likes to say “we are professional prayers; we try to live full time what others can only manage part time.” I think of my experience of playing baseball and observing the intentional training of the pro athletes during my work in minor league baseball. Could I imagine myself or one of the pros ever going on autopilot during a game, or even a batting practice session for that matter? Nay, at least rarely and not the best of them — when one steps onto the diamond or into the batter’s box, it is all attention and focus, intention and response. In faithfulness to the team and in the ever-desire to improve one’s own game from day to day, one always has to be locked in. Nature and one’s opponent is otherwise always working against you, and counterproductive habits settle in. Applying to the Spiritual life, I recall St. Paul, “as every athlete exercises discipline / I do not run aimlessly / I drive my body and train it / not shadowboxing / so as to win the prize” (paraphrase of 1 Cor 9:24-27). How am I engaging life?
In baseball, when I’m in the batter’s box looking at the pitcher staring me down across from me, I’m focused, in my body, muscles relaxed but ready to fire. This inspires me to bring the same engagement into my prayer in the monastic liturgy. This is a performance! — not in the show sense of the term, but in the sense of being called to action on behalf of the whole Body of the Church.
I further reflected, in baseball as the pitch arrives at the plate, the better hitters are those with the patience, body control, and skill, to let the ball travel as deep into the strikezone as possible before releasing the response of their swing, unleashing a fuller degree of whip and power in doing so, and enabling a greater capacity to go with a pitch to the opposite field. In the Liturgy, I brought this understanding to a dynamic I have been pondering in a similar way.
With the goal of uniting in a single heart and voice in prayer, and for the greater ease of being an open and flowing channel for the community sound, I discover it is most helpful, life-giving, and prayerful to “ride to community wave” so-to-speak; to let the community sound travel deep into my body and heart, harnessing, holding, nurturing it (all in a mystical split-second) before flowing with it back out with my more surrendered but active, timely, and faithful antiphonal response. I must admit, I’m not the best at this, at getting out of my own way and “going with the pitch,” but I find it a valuable and impactful interior posture to pray with as I sing out our praises to God. It then becomes less my voice and their voice, but our voice, one voice — and I am humbled so-to-speak before the lead of the community going before me, not asserting my voice above the others, but falling into line with the communal voice, multiplying its effect in the achievement of harmony. In this I find where my voice meets the voice of the community to whom I belong first, before I am an individual, my individuality finding its expression, dignity, and deeper life in the very heart of the life of the community.
I find it meaningful in this posture of heart to acknowledge “my voice is their voice”, “my heart is their heart”; in every sense what is mine is first received and claimed as a gift from the other and any “my” is incomprehensible without the other—and so one could equally say “my success is their success”, “my beautiful sound is their beautiful sound”, etc — any dignity of mine in the experience of the music and in life in general being founded upon first having received the dignity of the other. One can take this theme in infinite meaningful directions, a meditation which I very much encourage, but such development is beyond the scope of this reflection. Suffice to say, whatever Kyleness is added as I claim the gift received and send it back out is wholly indebted to the other, from whom the fullness of the input came.
Applying this to the music of the larger experience of life as a whole, this grace can help us ponder what it is like to understand how our desires and life circumstances are ultimately more invisibly rooted in the movements of the larger community heart in our midst, and how we can find joy most when are able to pray about how the larger community life is meeting our own in the immediate circumstances of our life. When we can surrender ourselves to that flow, realizing it is living this communal harmony that is actually our greatest desire, peace, life, and fulfillment, the place where we find that “one thing that is important”, God’s will in our life and his glory in us, it is here that our work becomes One and multiplicative of grace in the greater flow of God’s love that is able to pass between all of us in the harmony. In the end, it all goes back to that first source and summit, God’s own self-gift in the Eucharist. In Jesus’ own self-emptying as incarnate son of God, fully human fully divine, he opened the human heart to the capacity, by sharing in his own self-emptying, for the life of the infinite Godhead to fill us all, in domino-like order—assuredly one mighty intricate and awe-some web of dominoes at that!
Taking these reflections back to our earlier discussion, as we stand in our present life circumstances, we can ask ourselves: How do I experience myself as a “player” in my current life circumstances, in what the Lord, present in the larger community, is calling me uniquely to do each day, big or small — engaged in a sacrifice of peace and praise for the larger communal good of the Church and world? And how do I let the Lord lead me into each new activity of the day and his will for me that goes before me a note ahead in the music of my life?
As I pondered these reflections myself, another song began to take up a beat in my heart.
A fitting echo of praise to ground the heart in God throughout the day…
Sing it with me!