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August Prayer
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, OSB

The monks chant their prayer in the hot church
but their heart is not in it.
Only their vows bring them and keep them
at the hot and useless task.
Gone are the sweet first good days
when prayer and singing came easy
Gone as well many brothers
who used to stand here singing
              the feasts with them.
They know there are ways to beat this heat
and that Americans everywhere are finding them
but they beat instead the tones of psalms
              and, by beating,
              fall through the layers of heat
              and the layers of prayer
              And are standing there now
              only with their sound
              and their sweat
everything taken from them
except the way that this day in August has been.

(1989; first published in The Night of St. John, reprinted in Some Other Morning, Story Line Press, 1992)

Hello there! Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week. For this week, I’ve chosen a poem by a living poet – Jeremy Driscoll, who is the Abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. Scott Webster will read the poem “August Prayer” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Scott.
Jeremy Driscoll is a monk, priest, theologian, liturgist, scholar, and now Abbot at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. He’s also a poet. This poem, “August Prayer,” was published in 1989.
The motto of the Benedictines is “ora et labora,” “prayer and work,” which is reflected in the “horarium” or daily schedule of the monks, which follows a fixed rhythm of just that – times for prayer and times for work.  At Mount Angel, the monks gather for prayer in the church six times each day, in addition to time set aside for quiet reflection and lectio divina at other times during the day. In addition to daily Mass, the monks chant the Liturgy of the Hours.
In his Rule, St. Benedict wrote that “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God”—his way of referring to the shared worship of the community. Driscoll’s poem captures how difficult this work can be at times—the weariness, the discouragement, the boredom that can set in. The monks are in the church chanting, Driscoll says, “but their heart is not in it. / Only their vows bring them and keep them / at the hot and useless task.” They remember the “sweet first good days” when this way of life felt easy and pleasant; and they remember those who have gone away.
The “heat” in this poem is not that of an August day in Mount Angel—which can get very hot indeed!  The “heat” stands for all the circumstances, internal and external, that make it hard to live the religious life in our times. Our culture extends all kinds of promises for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. Driscoll evokes the language of advertising: “there are ways to beat this heat / and… Americans everywhere are finding them.” But the monks, weary though they are, decline these offers. “They beat instead the tones of psalms.” And eventually, persevering in the “Work of God,” they get somewhere. Not to a vision of the heavens, but to a place where “everything [is] taken from them / except the way that this August day has been.” They are left with nothing, nothing but the present moment—and that in itself is transcendent.
I think this is an appropriate poem as our local Church observes a Year of the Eucharist. Participating in the liturgy is not always “sweet” and easy. The rhythms of the Mass are so different from anything else we do during the week; the culture in which we live has many ways of hinting to us that liturgy, and worship itself, is useless or irrelevant. We are surrounded by voices telling us that there are better ways to “beat the heat,” to use Driscoll’s phrase. And there are challenges from within us as well: weariness, impatience, or just busy-ness can make it hard to continue to put in the effort to participate in the liturgy.  In those times, we need to do like Driscoll’s monks: pray anyway, letting our vows—our baptismal promises—“bring” us and “keep” us, not because of what we can get out of it, but because it is who we are.
“August Prayer” was published in a collection called The Night of St. John. St. John of the Cross described the spiritual life as a journey in the dark, an ascent of Mount Carmel. He described this journey in these words: “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. And on the mountain, nothing.” “August Prayer” reflects this deep reality of the spiritual life: that even in prayer, we need to let go of our desire for results, for completion, our desire to feel something. There will be moments of exhilaration, moments where we feel close to God, and such moments are gift, but they are not the goal. All we can do is continue at the “hot and useless task,” knowing that it is not our work, but the “Work of God.”



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