Last night, I woke up at 3 AM and thought, “The monks are getting ready to pray now.” Vigils, the first time the monks at New Melleray Abbey gather for prayer, happens at 3:30 AM. I’m an early riser, but 3:30 in the morning is early. The monastery church is dark, except for the lights in the visitors’ area and a small light for the monks who are reading. The monks quietly gather in the choir stalls, and prayer begins. Psalms are read and sung. Prayers are prayed. The music at that hour is a capella, and the monks’ voices echo off the stone walls and floor, making their words unintelligible, but the prayer is not any less powerful for lack of understanding the words.
During the warmer months I wake up in the middle of the night. I need a cold night for a full night of sleep, and when it’s warmer I wake up at 2 or 3 or 4, where I toss around the bed wishing for more sleep. I remember reading something from—I think—Morton Kelsey, who also woke up often in the night. Someone suggested that maybe God was trying to speak to him in those early hours, and instead of fruitlessly fighting the wakeful night, he could choose to listen to God at that hour. Like God waking up Samuel in the middle of the night, the friend suggested he say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” I remembered that story a week ago when I was awake at 3, and I made that phrase my chant. With each breath, in and out, I prayed, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Prayers are different in the middle of the night. The lies we tell ourselves in the middle of the day, we don’t believe them in the middle of the night. Our real selves are the selves that pray then, and who we are, truthfully, is the one who prays when everyone else is asleep. I’ve prayed my best prayers at that early hour. The rest of the world is asleep, and it seems like I have God to myself at that hour. When I’m awake in the middle of the night this summer, I won’t fight it, but I’ll pray, and I’ll know the monks are gathered in a dark stone chapel, praying along with me.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict