To be read: April 3, August 3, December 3
The oratory needs to be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there. 2When the Work of God is finished, all should depart in complete silence, and with reverence for God, 3so that a brother who may desire to pray alone is not prevented by another’s misconduct. 4But if perhaps another desires to pray alone, he may simply enter and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. 5Therefore, the one who does not wish to say his prayers in this way, is not be permitted to stay in the oratory after the Work of God is finished, as we said, that another may not be disturbed.
During the Summer of the year prior to the beginning of my seminary career, I spent 12 weeks visiting various kinds of churches in order to get a sense of the breadth of worship styles in the modern Church. It was eye-opening! One of the churches I visited was a rather large, non-denominational congregation. They had recently built a new, multi-purpose “worship space”. I was seated on a riser across from the pulpit. The band was on the floor behind the pulpit; and on the risers behind the band a choir was seated. On the hardwood flooring of the “worship space” was the outline of a basketball court, and directly over my head was a basketball backboard and hoop raised on a folding frame. It didn’t feel, to me, like “worship space” at all. I felt like the worship team and congregation had invaded the space dedicated to a sports arena.
St. Benedict would have been appalled by the “worship space” I described above. He declares that “The oratory needs to be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there.” The oratory is to be sacred space, designated for silent contemplation, corporate and private prayer, and communal worship. The Latin word oratio means prayer. In the monastery of Benedict’s day, private space for quiet personal prayer was hard to come by. The monks did not have private rooms, taking their sleep in dormitory settings. Their days were regimented, so wandering off to sit by a quiet stream, or hiking a mountain to pray was not usually an option either. The oratory was the place of prayer. The norm in that period was to situate the oratory at the center of the monastic enclosure. It then became the focal point of the community. This pattern was carried over into the medieval construction of European cities. The cathedrals were placed on the highest point and near the center of most European cities. And even here in the United States, the Washington National Cathedral site was chosen because it is the highest point of land in the nation’s capital. Would that we centered our government around the oratory and that it became the focal point of the national community!
One of the on-going battles I face as a parish priest is maintaining quiet in the sanctuary before and after a service of worship. My congregation is very loving and they like to talk to each other. Sometimes before the beginning of our Sunday worship the din of conversation in the nave can be quite overwhelming. Benedict says that “the one who does not wish to say his prayers [quietly], is not be permitted to stay in the oratory.” There are members of the church who do want to pray quietly, and I feel confident that they find the noise level of conversation distracting. I do try to encourage those who want to fellowship to move to the “fellowship hall”, but it is often a losing battle. But, think about this, and see if the Lord does not put it on your heart, not to correct others, but to set an example by taking your conversation out of the oratory, “that another may not be disturbed.”