Worship here at Saint John’s Abbey centers on the reading of the psalms. Other biblical texts are read each day as well, but the psalms form the largest part of worship. Over the course of one week, Benedictine monastics will either recite or chant the entire Psalter. In order to accomplish this, every service incorporates multiple psalms – with the repetition of some psalms every day, namely Psalms 3, 94, 66, 50, 148, 149, and 150 (in addition to 4, 90, and 133 which are the traditional Compline psalms prayed before sleeping).
What is striking for a guest is how slowly the psalms are recited. In fact, there’s even a brochure produced with the following notation:
The pace of recitation at Saint John’s is fairly slow and deliberate. Please listen to and follow the pace set by the monks. Guests sometimes tend to go faster than the monks.
The goal is for all the voices to be as one. No one voice should stick out. This is not the place to make your mark. It is not the place to distinguish yourself from others. On the contrary: this is the place to become invisible – in the best sense of the word. This is the place to take up less “space” than one might ordinarily. It is very counter cultural.
When my son was little, he would sometimes want and need a lot of attention – as children do. Occasionally, this would happen when we were with other people or in situations that also needed my attention. One day – when were in this tug-of-war – I said without thinking: “Sam. Get little.” To my surprise, he understood right away what I meant, and it was OK. It wasn’t hurtful or dismissive. It didn’t convey that he wasn’t important. It just meant that – at that moment – he was taking up too much space. It became a phrase that we used with one another for a time.
Monastic worship requires that we ‘get little.’ The pacing is slow and deliberate and quietly set by one monk in each of the two choirs. All of us (monks and guests alike) listen carefully for the prompt of his voice. When done well, you can hear the in-breath as all aim to make their voices one.
It is soul-repairing, sanity-restoring worship.
Who knew? No PowerPoint. No video. Not even a sermon. Just the Word of God, and the wisdom to know when to get out of the way.