And let us be assured
that it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7),
but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction.
Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,
unless it happens to be prolonged
by an inspiration of divine grace.
In community, however, let prayer be very short,
and when the Superior gives the signal let all rise together.~ The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 20
I had no idea, when I began doing this, if anyone would show up. I just knew that I had an abiding sense of being called to this habit, this discipline, and to begin to practice it publicly. I'm that sort of Christian, the sort that needs accountability, otherwise my grand promises to God tend to slip away...
Most of the time someone does join me. Interestingly, I get others who join me at Evening Prayer slightly more often and in greater numbers than Morning Prayer. Sometimes I need to be elsewhere at those hours and so another parishioner steps in and leads the Office for me. Often that person winds up being our Parish Administrator who has slowly moved into a profound ministry to me in being able to lead the Office in my stead.
So, though it is just me sometimes, most of the time I am praying with others. And I've begun to notice something.
After the three Collects, but before the General Thanksgiving, our custom is to invite "other prayers or thanksgivings, either silently or aloud." I give this invitation and then close my eyes, seeking to be in the presence of God more intently as I whisper my own prayers alongside those of my sisters and brothers.
But as my eyes close, the strangest thing happens.
Do you know how when you close your eyes, you can still sense the presence of other people in a room? You know that person is over there and this other person over here. Well, when I close my eyes for this time of intercession, the room collapses in on me. It is as though the several feet of distance between me and the other worshippers has utterly evaporated and they are now standing nose to nose with me, all of us closer than would ever be natural or comfortable.
The first time this happened I actually opened my eyes, thinking that perhaps someone had moved closer, but everyone was standing in the same place, whispering prayers, breathing quietly, resting in God's presence.
It doesn't happen every time, but it happens more often than not. And every single time it takes my breath away. It is as though the Spirit has inhaled deeply, sucking the space out of the room, knitting our souls together in petition and thanksgiving.
There is this line in the Prayer of St. Chrysostom that we use at the Office whenever more than one person is present, a line that says, "you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered in his Name you will be in the midst of them." And I wonder, I wonder if sometimes that vacuum that pulls my spirit close to those of others is actually the hand of Jesus, taking our separate souls and braiding them together.
The Office has long been an important part of my life as a Christian, even before I was an Episcopalian I was captivated by it. And for quite a while I've said it on my own, with a brief period of saying it regularly with a colleague I worked with.
But now, as I gather with whatever handful of people God pulled into that old narthex at that moment, I'm reminded of why the Office is, in its fullest expression, said in community.
Because my heart's desires, my soul's anxieties, all the joy and pain and searching that accompanies this life is not meant to be mine alone. There is a place, an oasis of worship, into which anyone can come. Twice a day, at 8:30am and 5:15pm, there is a space where heaven sucks the air out of a room and makes evident the One Body through those disparate worshippers.
And though sometimes I cannot breathe... I know that it is in that knitting together my ragged breath, full of prayers, thanksgiving and, at times, begging.... it is in that knitting together that my ragged prayerful breath is enveloped by a Spirit who can interpret what I cannot even begin to express.
It is in the body of those gathered that I find the divine always present.