Tuesday, April 25, 2006


We monks don’t have the luxury of doing a lot of planning for Sunday liturgy because we have to do liturgy three or four hours everyday. In order to sustain a schedule like that, one must be content with a certain amount of repetition. Not only that, however; Sunday liturgy becomes not one time a week when we take time out to remember God and sing songs about Him, but the culmination of a week’s worth of hard work in the liturgy. Sunday liturgy is the pinnacle of our prayer, but it is hardly exceptional. Sunday Mass takes pride of place among a demanding array of Psalms, Hymns, Readings, Chapter Talks, Classes in Theology and so on. Sunday Mass is deeply embedded in a life totally dedicated to achieving the gospel, to living it with the whole will.

Furthermore, it is hardly exaggerating to say that monks’ entire lives are liturgical. We eat in order, sit in order at meetings, process from place to place in order. We have liturgies for brothers leaving and returning. We dress distinctively and identically all the time. All of our interactions are highly regulated. This is in part because it guards against the waning of our purpose. But it points also to a third point I would like to make about what is different about monastic life that gives me a certain perspective on liturgical music.

This aspect is that of community. Again, when we do liturgy, it is not as two hundred families who may or may not know each other during the week, who certainly do not all live together by the same rules. But the fact that monks have lots of rules both in and out of liturgy points to a very important fact: that is, that the community is not a dictatorship ruled by a demagogic Abbot who can arbitrarily change things from week to week. In fact, Saint Benedict in his Rule for monks warns the Abbot against this, and recommends as a remedy for this impulse the regular consultation with brothers and that the Abbot himself be subject to all the rules of community living.

On a positive note, this means that every monk is responsible for contributing to the monastic way of life. The monks are not worker bees promoting the Abbot’s personal project. The monastery belongs to Christ and therefore to His Body, represented subsidiarily by all the brothers together. We are together in no more intense way than at the liturgy and at meals, and so it is that these are the most highly regulated times of the day.
For this arrangement to work, communal activities must be highly structured so as to permit what the sociologist Erving Goffman calls the ‘many-to-many’ social relationship. The ‘many-to-many’ relationship, which happens at occasion like parties, banquets, or political conventions, is the best image for what happens at liturgy itself, and the life of a monk is a perfect preparation for this, since our communal life is itself not primarily about my relationship with my Abbot, but is about my relationship with each one of my brothers and all of them taken together.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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