The Office of Vigils, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and a 2:00 am Amber Alert

My day began today at 2:00 am to the sound of an Amber Alert ringing out like an air raid siren on my wife’s iPhone in our bedroom.  I’m all for these kinds of alerts, but the situation it was alerting us to was actually taking place somewhere in Pennsylvania, which would be at least 5 hours from our house.  After about an hour of trying to get back to sleep I gave up and did what everybody does at 3:00 am when they can’t get back to sleep: I prayed Vigils.   I grabbed my usual weapon of choice, Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, and headed downstairs to the completely silent and still study.  This morning I’d be praying in at nearly the same time as the Trappist monks some two hours away at Spencer Abbey that would also soon be waking to begin their day.  Pretty cool.

I had never prayed Vigils from my prayer book before and was excited that I had the time to work my way through that longer, first hour of prayer.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  I pray the beginning of Vigils, known as the Invitatory, almost every day.  It was such a treat to both have and take some extra time for prayer to begin my day.  I’m not sure I want to be up at 3:00 am every day to do that, but it’s a tempting thought….

Today too is the Feast of Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome in the early 100s AD.  St. Ignatius is an early witness to both the reality of the Eucharist and the primacy of the See of Rome in the infant Church.  The second reading for Vigils was taken from Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans, which finds him pleading with his readers not to interfere with his impending martyrdom (Ignatius was arrested in Antioch and transported in chains to Rome to be fed to the lions).  The letter paints a vivid picture of an ardent desire for martyrdom.  Some might even say he had a bit too much of a desire to die.  The imagery is very graphic: “I am God’s wheat, and the teeth of the beasts will grind me into Christ’s pure bread.”  Beautiful, but a little creepy.

After finishing the 40-ish minutes of psalms and readings, I proceeded to the kitchen to grind some espresso beans and pull my usual triple shot from my La Pavoni Professional–and NOT rush off to work (this being Saturday).  Since it was now only 4:00 am, I had a solid three hours before either of my boys would be stirring, let alone my late-sleeping better-half.  I was going to continue to take advantage of the peace and quite and just sit and read.  Usually, on most days, I’m squeezing in a few pages of something before I fall off to sleep.  I’m a morning person by nature, and this morning I was fully revved up, fresh from prayer, and soon to have a brain buzzing for hours from sips from my triple shot.  Now to the books.

 This morning it was all about the sayings of the Desert Fathers.  I grabbed The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: Alphabetical Collection translated by Benedicta Ward and Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert.  The forward to Sayings of the Desert Fathers has a fantastic overview of the broad diversity of the “monastic experiment.”  I love Ward’s characterization of the monastic movement as an “experiment.”  It highlights the highly creative, innovative, and dynamic nature of nearly everything the monks were doing from the late 200s to the time of Benedict in about 600.  I spent most of my time with this text reading Ward’s wonderful Forward and Introduction.  I’ll post something more focused from the Forward in a day or two.  Now, on to Merton.

My time with Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert was largely limited to his Introduction as well.  The beginning lines hit a very Benedict Option tone:

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Society…was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each individual man had to swim for his life. … These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.


So I didn’t even get to the actual Sayings of the Desert Fathers in either book today.  That just means I’ll have the fun of starting fresh on them tomorrow morning, maybe even at 4:00 am again….

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