A friend of mine introduced me to the lovely book for children The Monk Who Grew Prayer by Claire Brandenburg. The watercolor illustrations in a palette of warm earth tones are gentle and rich, and the simple sentence on each page is perfect for a new reader. However, the more I’ve read it and re-read it with my kids, the more depth I’ve discovered. The book is teaching me, an adult, how to pray.
Here are four lessons I’ve grappled with and tried to take to heart after my umpteenth reading of this little story.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
That is the Jesus Prayer, a prayer that is the bedrock of eastern spirituality. The monk prays it at the beginning of the book — we see him seated with his eyes closed, holding a prayer rope. Prayer ropes look like rosaries, and many people pray the Jesus prayer while fingering the knots on these ropes. I now pray the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, and especially at the beginning of my evening prayer time.
Breathing in and out slowly while repeating the words in prayer helps me calm my body and mind and transition from busyness mode to intentional time with Jesus. It also helps me remember Jesus’ presence in the crazy whirlwind of moving from activity to activity throughout the day.
“Ora et labora.”
St. Benedict’s motto means pray and work. It has always been a good reminder to me of the importance of the jobs of the day. In the book, we see the monk hard at work doing the daily tasks of planting his garden, repairing his chair, drawing water, and driving into town. The author reminds us that while it looks like the monk is just going about his work to feed himself and keep his house in order; he is really growing prayer.
Every task is a chance to grow in the “awe and love of Christ the King” as the author writes later. Keeping that thought at the forefront of my mind is key to living my day. When I am viewing the daily grind as a way to grow in love, my day goes much differently (and better!) than when I just see a list of tasks to conquer in order to get to the next day or next event.
Praying with the Psalms
The monk throughout the book spends specific times of the day in prayer. He is praying the Liturgy of the Hours. One page reads: “With the rising of the sun, he cultivated the prayers of Matins; he planted the prayers of the First Hour at around seven o’clock.”
The Church has a long tradition of praying at certain times throughout the day and night. In fact, all priests and religious are required to pray at least certain hours each day. These prayers, collectively known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office are based heavily on the Psalms. But lay people can pray these prayers too! I have prayed morning and evening prayer for the last few years and love that lines from the Psalms now pop into my mind randomly throughout the day.
“As the seasons passed in prayer and fasting, by God’s grace, he grew to be a very holy man.”
The last lines from the book really hit home for me, especially the “by God’s grace” phrase. Try as I might to pray and choose virtue and goodness throughout the day, the only reason I’m able to pray or even try in the first place is because of God’s grace. None of my efforts are effective—or would even exist—without Him in the first place.
Remembering His goodness and initiative alongside my complete incapacity is a good antidote to the pride that loves to crawl into and cling to my heart.