Sure, there is the familiar recitation of psalms, the comfort of the Benedictus, the necessary reminder in the Prayer of Jesus to forgive and to let God do God's thing for the day, but...
There is also what happens to human beings at 6:30am!
As a sister remarked to me once, "Chapel is a circus."
Just this morning, one verse too early, a sister began to stand up for the Doxology. With monastic reflexes and groggy brains, up went the other two sisters sharing the row with her! They all looked at one another and laughed while they sat back down for a couple more lines, until getting up once more to praise the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
But, this smile-worthy story reveals a bit more of what's happening underneath in the monastery.
As cenobitic Benedictines, that is, monastics who live a communal life, we vow ourselves to one another. We vow to go to God together. Sure, we have to work on ourselves, but we are also accountable to each other. We aren't going to God alone, and we can't go too much faster than another sister, or we'll have to stop and let her catch-up. Vice versa, too, of course.
Sometimes not just our brains, but our lives get a bit groggy, too. We aren't attentive, don't listen deeply enough, fall down a bit. And that's when the beauty of going to God together appears. We have others surrounding us who, too, have committed themselves to seeking God. We can reflexively join with them on our own journey. They get up to praise God, so we get up to praise God.
For monastics the chapel holds so much of the symbolism and ritual of that communal journey. And, of course chapel is a circus...we're human!
It always amazes me when our sisters who we know are in dementia pray with us as if nothing is wrong, their brains still fully there. They follow along with the psalter, utter a liturgical response, or sing a hymn they've sung most their lives. How can someone not be able to name any sister they've lived with most their life, but still sing the Salve Regina perfectly, in Latin no less!? A moment like this happened last night; it happens most nights. I witnessed it not only from one sister, but from another, who is in an even more significant stage of cognitive decline. We sang, and she tapped her feet while covered in a fleece blanket, itself covered in virtuous words such as "peace," "trust," and "faith."
These sisters lose their ability to do so much, but in chapel we see the fruits of a lifetime of prayer. It is who they've become.
We live this life faithfully, lovingly, and enduringly so that as we change, as we age, as we decline, as we evolve, all that's left is praise.
Let us walk in the holy presence.