“The words of the Psalm are: I have uttered your praises seven times during the day. We shall fulfill that sacred number of seven if at the times of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline we perform the duty of service to God, because it was of these day hours that the psalm said: I have uttered our praise seven times during the day” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 16).
I remember in college when I reread the story of Daniel and the lion’s den and scoffed at his lack of fervor. (Granted I only scoffed inwardly, but…) Come on! He only prayed three times a day? I was living the committed Christian dream of piety! I prayed in the morning and after class. I prayed with the friend having a bad day and over my meal. I prayed at Bible study that night and afterward at the sorority meeting. Three times a day? Please.
Then I grew up. I got a job. I got a husband. I had some kids. And prayer became a secret treasure buried in my life somewhere. I was on the search for it but it hid and laughed at me. Three times a day? Are you joking? If only I could have one moment a day of sanity in order to form a prayer.
Then I met Benedict. He quoted a Psalm and declared seven times a day as the lucky and holiest number of praises uttered. Oh, what a failure I am beneath that burden.
But the scholars will tell you that what makes St. Benedict’s Rule special among ancient spiritual writing is his compassion, his openness to human frailty, his offering of grace with the monks he orders. There is hope for the old, kindness for the sick.
When I discovered St. Benedict’s Rule three years ago, I had a plan for fixing myself into holiness by praying like a monk. The monks had seven times a day for worship. (Four or five for contemporary monks who are now allowed a full night’s sleep.) At least I could steal away moments for a Psalm here and there. What about in the regular moments of pause in the day? I could read a Psalm at breakfast, snack time, nap time, play time, evening. But the more I tried, the more I condemned myself. Snack time requires my presence of mind. I want to have conversations. I want to play, not float off to a spiritual happy place while my kids eat their grapes and cheese. So, instead of feeling guilt over the prayers I wasn’t praying, I asked myself what my spiritual director in San Francisco taught me to ask: “What does God want to say to me in this?” What a question.
Here’s what I heard:
Daniel prayed in his room with the door closed. When you were younger you prayed in quiet and in superiority. Now, let’s learn to pray in chaos, my love. Prayer is not what you think it is. It doesn’t require silence. It doesn’t require words. It doesn’t demand chanted Psalms. There are no bells in your life calling you to the sanctuary. So offer what you hold in your hands. Offer the child, the shopping cart, the knife splitting the apple. Offer the bag of trash and the diapers in the wash. Offer the split attention of your mind. Of course you’re playing cars right now, making voices, chasing that crawling thing, teaching that the oven is hot. Of course their tears are loud and their nos are louder. So hold them up.
Seven times a day? Simplicity is lovely, my dear. What if you walked in the offering? What if prayers born and lifted in the chaos are my favorite kind? Let go of the rules that build your guilt. And listen to the Psalmist. Doesn’t he “utter” his praises? My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Let the sink with piled dishes and the carpet in need of vacuuming bring you to utter praise. Let the cardboard rocket and the dinosaur egg, the boy on the potty and the boy in the high chair remind you of my goodness. Let their sounds of laughter and their longing for their mother recall your longing for me.
Seven times a day, seven sweet times a day.