A year ago today, my friends Chris and Phileena Heuertz started Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism. In twenty years of working among the poorest of the poor, they learned what we’ve learned here: it’s easy to loose your center. But Christian tradition offers us a wealth of resources to help us find our center in prayer. And we have it on good account that this Center holds. To celebrate the first anniversary of Gravity Center, I wanted to share this reflection on how contemplative, liturgical prayer has saved me and our community.
If the Baptists who raised me in rural North Carolina taught me anything, they taught me to love Jesus and the Bible. Hard-working farmers and factory employees, my people had high hopes for me. They stressed education and sent me with care packages to go out and see the world. But however far I might go, they made sure I knew that Jesus and the Bible were at the center of everything. Jesus was our Lord and Savior, the ultimate answer to life’s biggest questions and my heart’s deepest longings. In Sunday school, I learned that you find Jesus through the Bible. The Good Book was our constant companion. We memorized it chapter and verse.
As others showed me more than 2,000 verses about the poor, my people’s passion for Scripture moved me to connect discipleship with justice. Jesus had clearly invited his followers into a new relationship with God: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). What’s more, Jesus made clear that this new relationship entails personal transformation: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). These realizations interrupted my assumptions about how I relate to other people. The more I paid attention to the Bible, the more it seemed my relationship with Jesus was inseparable from my relationship to those rejected and overlooked by society. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” Jesus said. “I was a stranger and you invited me in …. [W]hatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35, 40).
So I followed Jesus to Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, North Carolina. Communities like ours take root in cities, open our homes to the homeless, visit prisons, garden abandoned lots, and cook big pots of soup to share with neighbors—because we want to welcome Jesus. The Bible I was taught to treasure prepared me to find Jesus in a place like this. But when Jesus comes knocking around here, he brings friends crushed by poverty, racism, drugs, abuse, prostitution, and exploitation. We welcome them in, figuring God has brought us together, but we are never quite sure how to make it work.
This leads us to pray, because we need help. We’ve tried to fix our friends, just as we’ve tried to fix ourselves, but we’ve seen enough to know this is a dead-end street. Jesus saves, but he doesn’t wave a magic wand and make everything all right. Before long, we realized our prayer resources were inadequate. We needed deeper wells to drink from. We found them in the ancient Christian practice of liturgical prayer.
Turning to Liturgy
A couple years after starting the Rutba House community, I received a letter from a Benedictine community in Minnesota. They were encouraged to hear about Christians like us living together and working for peace and justice. But they knew from over 1,500 years of experience that living in community can be difficult. They invited me up to their place, offering to pay my way. Someone had been listening to our prayers.
A brother at the monastery handed me a copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict, which has given order to many monastic communities since the sixth century. Not six sentences into the first page, I recognized the voice of a fellow Bible lover: “Let us arise then, at last, for the Scriptures stir us up ….” What followed was a call to community that echoed at every turn the words I’d hidden in my heart. Here at the monastery, too, the Bible pointed to Jesus.
And to prayer. The Benedictines also had a set of common practices—a tradition of spiritual disciplines—that shaped and disciplined their love of God and Scripture. A bell rang from the church at the center of the monastery, and I followed men in black robes to midday prayer. “O God, come to my assistance,” a solemn voice intoned. “O Lord, make haste to help me.” I was caught up in the liturgy, its rhythms soothing my weary and anxious soul.
As an evangelical, I grew up knowing that the turning point in life is a conversion experience—a radical encounter with the living Christ that turns us away from sin and selfishness, toward the life we were made for. When I got to know the Benedictines, I learned they too were adamant about conversion. According to the Rule, when a brother or sister joins the community, they promise three things: stability, obedience, and conversatio morum—the monastic rhythm of prayer and work that is, itself, a way of conversion. Benedictines believed in a conversion experience that happened not once but upon every return to their common prayer. Reminded of Christ’s sustaining power, they drew from liturgical prayer the strength to endure. This, I began to see, was the sort of everyday conversion our community needed.
Finding a New ‘We’The Benedictines weren’t the only group to share their liturgical traditions. A Franciscan we met on a peace delegation to the Arizona desert opened his breviary and taught us prayers. A few Episcopalians joined the community, bringing the Book of Common Prayer (which, incidentally, borrowed heavily from the Benedictines). Contemporary movements like the Northumbria Community in England and the Community of Sant’Egidio in Italy shared their liturgies. We started piecing together a daily rhythm of prayer, gathering before work in the mornings and before going to bed at night. It was a great gift to have better words than we could individually think up at the end of a long day. A mentor said to us, “Even if everything else falls apart, you know you get to come home and pray together.”
At the heart of every liturgy, we found a familiar prayer: the Our Father. We learned that it had been the core of fixed-hour prayer since the earliest document of Christian teaching, the Didache, which instructed believers to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. It echoes throughout the creeds that helped us affirm our faith, the Psalms that taught us to wrestle honestly with God, and the ancient prayers we prayed with the dead, who are alive with us in Christ. This new “we,” stretching across history, also stretches across time zones, like a relay team passing a prayer baton around the globe each day, manifesting the church’s unity. Liturgical prayer teaches us to remember sisters and brothers half a world (or half a millennium) away.
This family of faith remembers its “saints” on the day of their death, celebrating the manifold ways they took up their cross. Their heroic examples help new monastic communities like ours perform what some call “incarnational evangelism.” Recall that God put on human skin to reclaim creation as his own. Jesus moved into the neighborhood, as Eugene Peterson says, much like Rutba House moved into Durham. But the particularities of time and place shape every life with God, and our neighborhoods don’t look much like the Galilee of first-century Palestine. Evoking the saints in our daily prayers taught us how God has claimed human lives throughout history. After 2,000 years, we have many inspiring examples. Every once in a while, you realize, that could be me.
Early on in our communal life, we read about Antony of Egypt, who left relative privilege to brave the desert and do battle with the Devil. Praying among the “wild beasts” of the abandoned spaces, Antony learned the limits of his own strength and the incredible power of Jesus’ name. Praying as part of a “we” that included Antony, we saw our economically depressed neighborhood as an “abandoned place” in our society. Though the demons of addiction and systemic injustice looked fierce, Antony’s life emboldened us to pray and live with the confidence that Jesus would prevail. Sustained by the new we, that great cloud of witnesses, we persevered in our work.
All the Time in the World
Neighborhoods like ours—where blatant injustice reigns—anger you to the point of saying, “No more. This has to stop.” Some activists march and hold sit-ins, go to city hall and to jail, because of abstract ideals. But most people alongside whom I’ve been handcuffed are driven by injustices they have witnessed firsthand. I’ll never forget the night when, trying to stop an execution, I went to jail beside a man exonerated by DNA evidence after 15 years on death row. All he said was, “I hate being locked up. But I can’t stand here and watch them kill a man like me.”
Among the songs today’s activists inherit from the civil rights movement is a spiritual that says, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” This especially resonates when people you know are suffering. Though you might like a vacation, just the thought of escaping while your friends have nowhere to lay their heads, no food to eat, leaves a bitter taste.
This is why so many activists, Christian and secular, experience burnout. There’s always more to do and plenty of reasons to do it. So we press on, reach down deep, and try to give a little more. Good people have died doing this. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
But we do not have to despair. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from liturgical prayer is that, by God’s grace, we have all the time in the world to do the work of Christ’s kingdom. We pause for prayer morning, noon, and evening as a confession that our work depends not on our efforts, but on the faithfulness of a God who has already redeemed the whole creation. We pray with Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyr of El Salvador, “Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us …. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Like the past, whose wisdom guides us, the future, too, is a gift. We do not achieve it through our efforts but receive it gratefully, as we learn to sing the eternal song resounding around the throne of God. “Holy, holy, holy!” we cry, with angels and archangels and all the saints who have gone before us. “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Then we resume our work until it is time, soon enough, to gather and sing again. This is the sort of life you can go on living forever.
This reflection was originally published as “Joining the Eternal Song,” in Christianity Today.