As a monk I sometimes have to ask myself just what I am doing in all the hours I devote to prayer. Am I trying to better myself, repent of my sins, detach myself from the “world,” come closer to God, invite Him to come closer to me, offer Him praise and thanksgiving, bring to Him the needs of others? Yes, all that. But many of the “official” prayers I pray (psalms, texts of the Divine Office, other set or prescribed prayers) may not quite “fit” my actual intentions for prayer, and may even require that I say things that aren’t quite true in my case, or adopt some attitude or mind-set that is simply not mine, at least not at the moment. What does this mean, or how can I attach a meaning to it?
One important point to remember (this may apply mainly to monks and nuns, but it also applies to anyone who prays consciously as one with a mission in the mystical Body of Christ) is that our prayer is often a representative prayer. Especially when we pray the Divine Office, we do not come before God primarily as individuals, with our personal histories, attitudes, and needs, but as representatives of the Bride of Christ, the Church. A monastery, then, is a house of representatives! So, when I pray in a Lenten Office, “David once joined sin to sin, adding murder to fornication, yet then he showed at once a twofold repentance; but you, my soul, have done worse things than he, yet you have not repented before God,” the fact may be that I myself have not done worse things than murder and fornication (or if I have, maybe I have repented). But there are people in the world who have done worse and have not repented, and at this moment I am standing before God on their behalf, praying for mercy. On the other hand, when I liturgically confess, “No one has ever sinned as I have,” I can certainly apply it to myself, since my sins are unique to me in number and kind, as everyone else’s are.
It is important, however, not to immediately assume that I am praying about someone else’s sins, but when truth demands that I apply to myself only what actually applies to myself, then my representative function is engaged. I can’t literally repent for another, since everyone has to make that choice freely for himself, but by my bringing the whole mass of sinful humanity before the Lord, seeking his mercy, the grace to repent is granted, to some and perhaps to many. They still have to make the choice, but now they have extra help.
This representative function works in other ways as well. I may be in a bad mood and the Church requires me to say: “Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord!” Or I may be in a good mood and the Church requires me to say: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me; why hide from me your face? I am afflicted and in agony from my youth; I suffer your terrors, I am helpless.” Well, somebody somewhere is rejoicing when I’m in a bad mood, so as their representative I am to bring their praise and thanksgiving to God. And somebody somewhere is miserable when I’m in a good mood, so I am called to bring their woes to the Lord. When I pray the Divine Office or any other formal prayer, my prayer is not about me, and it doesn’t matter what my mood is or whether or not the texts fit it. My task is to serve the Bride of Christ by bringing both her joys and her woes to the Lord, so that his grace and mercy will cover all.
I also thought about this in other ways. When I was praying the Hail Mary at a certain time I remember thinking that it was quite an honor for me to say: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” because many people do not bless her today, and many do not bless her Son. So I, the representative of the others, bless her and bless Jesus, and hopefully God will look kindly upon us all. And when I hear someone take the Lord’s name in vain, I immediately say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” so that I can make reparation, restore blessing where a curse has brought dissonance into the harmony of life on God’s earth. We can all do that, and we should.
There’s a passage from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which I think I’ve quoted before, but which nicely expresses this representative relationship with other members of the Body of Christ, not merely as an official function, but as a work of love: “Remember too, every day and whenever you can, to repeat to yourself, ‘Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee today.’ For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, and dejected, so no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not. And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God, though you knew them not, nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that for him too there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him. And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much more will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you. And He will forgive him for your sake…”
A monastery may be a house of representatives, but your house can be the same. Let us persevere in prayer, not merely focusing on ourselves, on our own needs or relationship with God, but as representatives of all those whom the Lord created in love—and He will bless them all for our sake.