Catholic Christians help me to understand holiness. They have advanced systems and structures for keeping their worship of Jesus devoted, distinct, and different from the rest of their lives. They’re not perfect. But when the Catholic Church is at its best, it does an exceptionally good job of demonstrating the total centrality of Christ in our life and faith.
One of the best examples of this from my recent visit to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert is what happened every day at 5:20 PM. The “Daily Schedule” of the Benedictines is pretty extensive, with seven different prayer services from 4:00 AM to 7:30 PM. But my favorite part of the schedule was that 5:20 PM slot for “Exposition and Eucharistic Adoration.” It was one of the first things to happen after I arrived. And I expected it to be some kind of homily (teaching). Or maybe Gregorian chant (mix between singing and praying) from the monks. Instead, it was just silence. There were occasional sneezes or the shuffling of feet — but it was really close to total silence.
The “Exposition and Eucharistic Adoration” was simple, but sublime. One of the monks lit two votive candles. And then he set up an ornamental stand with a tiny little window for the Communion wafer (which Catholics believe to be the literal, transubstantiated Body of Christ). After the wafer was in place, it was literally exposed and adored. And I know that it doesn’t sound like much. But that might just be the whole point. I loved the absolute stillness… the silence… the symbolism… It demonstrated the total centrality of Christ in that ceremony, specifically, and in the life of that community, in general.
The Exposition and Eucharistic Adoration is such a powerful expression of worship. The Table is the central object: architecturally and symbolically. The Body of Christ (with or without the Catholic theology of Transubstantiation) is the central object on that table. And all the assembled group was supposed to do for that half-hour was to behold Jesus and adore Jesus.
I think it’s so beautiful that this tradition — along with so many others — has been maintained within the Catholic Church. Granted: there were also some uncomfortable moments, where I felt some friction with the monastery’s Catholic culture and the Protestant / Evangelical culture in which I’ve grown up. For instance, the lunchtime prayer to Saint Benedict or the gift shop reminder of the Catholic fondness for medallions and icons might feel borderline idolatrous from my perspective. But there’s no friction with that late-afternoon centrality and simplicity of just gazing upon the physical representation of Jesus… I mean, seriously: That’s something excellent and praiseworthy.
My time with the monks in Abiquiú gave me an interesting take on the Asbury Revival that’s been making headlines in recent weeks. The Monastery of Christ in the Desert is slower, more secluded, less publicized, and less spontaneous than the Asbury Revival. But it’s still amazing because it’s been happening day in, day out for, like, 1,400 years. And there’s an essential similarity between the Benedictine Monastic tradition and the Methodist Revivalist tradition. They’re both signposts for the Kingdom of God. They both emphasize a commitment to holiness (set-apartness). Such single-minded devotion to holiness grips some individuals more than others. Still, ultimately (hopefully) edifies the whole church and keeps turning our attention back to the centrality of Christ in our lives and in our faith.
So, how did I end up participating in the Benedictine monastic traditions? Well, I ended up being one of the most faithful attenders of the prayer services in the sanctuary — but I quickly gave up all pretense of participation in the common prayer. I chose not to follow along in the spiral-bound booklets. And I stayed seated while everyone else stood, knelt, and sat at their appointed times.
Mostly, I just chose to be in the same space at the same time, with a similar posture of the heart.
I made a habit of sitting in the back-left corner of the guest area and filling page after page of my journal with words and drawings. It probably looked like I was just doing my own thing. However, upon reflection, I think that my approach to these liturgical services was participation, with cultural translation. Reading the Bible on my own and writing things down in my journal are the ways that my thoughts are focused, my prayers are made more intentional, and I put myself in position to most meaningfully hear and obey the voice of God.
In any event, it felt good to be among so many people who were prioritizing the presence of God. They were clearly making a deliberate point to put Christ at the center of their lives, at the center of their worship. So they helped to reawaken my imagination for daily retreat to my “Tent of Meeting” with the Lord. And I hope that this reawakened imagination will continue to serve me well now that I’m back in Ohio.