Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A few more thoughts about the hours of monastic prayer

In the introduction to a book of photographs of the medieval Cistercian monastery at Le Thoronnet, France, Francois Cali connects the hours of monastic prayer with medieval songs and poems about the quest for the Holy Grail. In his conception, each of the canonical hours had symbolic meaning:

Matins, the adventure of fear.
Lauds, the adventure of the Sun-Christ
Prime, the adventure of the Rule, or of order in general
Terce, the adventure of the Word
Sext, the adventure of the absolute
None, the adventure of God's death
Vespers, the adventure of the marvelous
Compline, the adventure of the dark night

Thus, each day was an arc of prayer from darkness into light and into darkness again, each day a repetition of the great human adventure, the quest for meaning, for the Grail as symbol of that meaning, for God.

What a marvelous conception. The focus is on the quest, not the thing searched for. The seeking, not the sought. We live, of course, in a different time and the categories of medieval theology are strange to us. Those of us who embrace the scientific way of knowing are properly suspicious of claims for the supernatural or miraculous. But because we understand that scientific knowledge is tentative and partial, we welcome too the insights of the poets, artists and -- yes -- contemplatives who illuminate the ineffable. String theory may be a holy grail of sorts for string theorists, but science is not the thing that consumes our thoughts in the darkest of the morning hours. We wait for light, for order. We ascend with the Sun to the bright zenith of the day, knowing too well that we will soon weary of the light. We wait -- always expectantly -- for the rare glimpse of the marvelous, for the peace of the dark night.

The quest is as relevant for the secular humanist as for the traditionally religious, perhaps more so, because we are less likely to assume we have attained the Truth, less likely to objectify the thing seen only through a glass darkly, the Deus Absconditus of the mystics. We choose instead to live our lives in the endlessly regenerative cycles of the day and year and human life that were the archetypes of monastic prayer.