Stillness and rest


I have the opportunity to attend Mass at St. John’s Abbey and find myself seeking it out when life seems to be moving too fast. Why? Because there, amid the monks, is the monastic pause.

At first, I admit, that pause confused me. Possibly because my responses were always a beat ahead, causing me to be self-conscious. Then it annoyed me (let’s get this show on the road!). Now I have come to crave it. It forces you to slow your thinking.

Monks of St. John’s Abbey in prayer. Photo courtesy of St. John’s Abbey.

When I did a little research on the pause, I found monastics read words slowly to allow time to gain “stillness.” There are pauses to allow the heart to hear and the “rest” is just as important as the words. I also found out monks chant quietly enough to hear the voice of their brothers beside them. With that, I discovered why I feel the connection to this form of Mass and prayer.

We have a guitar group in St. Rose, my home parish, and my favorite moments are when the guitars, piano, all instrumentation drop and they sing unaccompanied — just the pure, clear, simple beauty of the voice, without cover. I have the same feeling when the “Our Father” is sung. Singing it seems less perfunctory. In the same way, the monks pause to allow time for words to go beyond mechanics and find their meaning.

We all have those Bible verses which speak to us. Based on this reflection, it will come as as no surprise then that I always return to 1 Kings 19: 11-12

So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle whisper.”

Jesus could have chosen a “louder” way of living, yet he did not. Without show or drama, he kept it simple, honest and clear. He did not accumulate stuff, but instead placed value on relationships and people.

It is with that in mind that I think this monastic idea of chanting quietly enough to hear the voice of our neighbor should be taken beyond the walls of the Abbey. I believe some of the loneliness people are often found in the loudest, busiest places. It seems paradoxical. Yet it is there they can be overlooked, their voices, their whispers, unheard due to the noise.

Pope Benedict said in his Verbum Domini in 2010 that “Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us” (VD, No. 66). Granted, He will wait for us, until we are ready to be quiet, but can our neighbor in need? We rush to commotion and excitement. Our attention is drawn to action. It is probably why I feel the pull to rush through that monastic pause, but what am I missing while my eyes are drawn to latest dumpster fire? Who am I missing? We often hear the words “I never saw that coming.” Maybe we can, if we put that pause in our everyday life and listen with the ear of our heart (Rule of St. Benedict).

Sheila Hellermann is a member of and trustee from St. Rose of Lima Church. She works at St. John’s University as a program and department coordinator for several academic departments.

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