Thursday, November 26, 2009

Column: Creating Thin Space

There is much to delight in my usual spot for morning prayer with the Augustinian community: the mix of voices, the shape of the chapel, the lingering scents of incense during Advent. But even when I'm not there, I am in sacred space. During the Long Retreat, I prayed Morning Prayer sitting in my seat by the window overlooking the Atlantic at the same time my regular community gathered - 8:30 am.

This is the first of four columns written for the Standard's Advent series on the Liturgy of the Hours: We Wait in Prayer.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 26 November 2009.]

It is you whom I invoke, O Lord. In the morning you hear me; in the morning I offer you my prayer, watching and waiting.

— Ps. 5:3

It was a scene right out of some 1950s movie: four women from two countries in their pajamas sitting cross-legged on the floor of a dorm, having one of those midnight philosophical conversations you’re supposed to have in college. Except these women were not students, but professors — of chemistry, English, and of course, philosophy.

I had given a talk that morning at a retreat for faculty on contemplative practices. I told the 80-odd professors that I had prepared for that first talk of the day by taking my breviary and cup of tea to an overgrown garden behind the dorm. I prayed morning prayer.

In my talk, I had quoted one of the two psalms set out for that hour: Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced. “What is the rest of it?” wondered the English professor in that late night conversation. So I fetched my breviary, opened it and invited three contemplatives from very different traditions to explore the treasures of my tradition, to enter my monastery without walls, the holy space I had lived in for more than 25 years.

I discovered the Liturgy of the Hours when my first husband entered the Church. A friend had suggested he read convert and monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it, Merton writes of his discovery of the Hours, which eventually led him to enter the Trappists, to let his life be enveloped entirely in the cycle of psalms that anchors the Office. The Trappists were certainly not my calling, but I was drawn to this practice that could, in this small way, consecrate my days, and bind me more firmly to the Church. I found a breviary and began.

Like Merton, the breviary was tough for me to navigate at first, and in the bustle of a move 3,000 miles to the East, I set it aside. A few months later, settled in our new parish, Tom and I signed up for an hour a week of Perpetual Adoration. I brought the breviary along and in the quiet night hours, sitting with Christ before me, unworried about doing it exactly right, I slowly unraveled its mysteries.

My patience this time was richly rewarded. It was like opening a door into another place, or as the psalmist sings later in Psalm 5: “I through the greatness of your love have access to your house.” The psalms slowly traced their pattern onto my days, gracing the dawn with joyful praise, offering a breath midday. Soon, Morning Prayer was as indispensable a part of my day as my first cup of tea. One woke me physically, the other woke me to the presence of God.

I discovered that I did not need sacred space to pray the Hours; this round of prayer creates sacred space. The Celtic tradition speaks of “thin places,” places where God seems particularly near. The Liturgy of the Hours is a bit like fine sandpaper in this respect. It gently rubs away at what separates us from God, making even the most mundane of spaces thin — and so, sacred.

Each time the new liturgical year begins, I open my breviary to see Pope Paul VI’s warm invitation to join in this eternal cycle of prayer, to make whatever place and time I find myself in sacred. As we begin this year, I invite you join me in applying some prayerful sandpaper and making a thin place for yourself — and God.

Father, creator of unfailing light, give that same light to those who call to you. May our lips praise You; our lives proclaim Your goodness; our work give You honor, and our voice celebrate You for ever. Amen. — Prayer after the psalm, Morning Prayer, Sunday of Week I.


  1. Thank you! My husband and I started The Liturgy of the Hours in June. We're building up to the many Hours, so far we do Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. He is an aspiring Deacon candidate, and we're navigating along this new road together.

    I go, on Monday, to Conyers for a four day retreat with the wonderful Trappist community there. I went last year for a week, and then back twice more. I'm hoping one day to find a 30 day St. Ignatius retreat in my life!

    Winding down the year today and tomorrow morning I am feeling the pull and anticipation of Advent, in small but wonderful ways this morning!

    So, again, thank you.


  2. Wonderful column! I first learned of the LOH in college, and dropped it for a little while when I was a new parent. But I NEED it in my life, and always feel the lack when I fall behind. As a Secular Franciscan, I am expected to keep it a part of my life.

  3. Anonymous11:08 PM

    I was a contentedly practicing methodist when I married a Catholic, so began my voyage of discovery for against my expectations I fell in love with the Eucharistic liturgy, and the unfolding of the Church year. Ten years after my marriage despite the fact the Catholics in Zimbabwe couldn't sing or preach (methodist standards here) I converted.

    That was only the beginning of my road to the discovery of the depths of the whole liturgy of the Church! In a world where spontaneity is so valued I treasure the cycle of prayer that has been prayed generation after generation, and often pray aware of that cloud of faithful witnesses who have gone before me, serving the Loving God in love and faith through the liturgy.

    In the depths of the nightmare that living here has been and continues to be the Liturgy gives me faith to continue to meet all in love and charity.

    Thank you for expressing so clearly some of my own feelings about the Liturgy. I find the idea of creating Thin Space exciting. May you have a very blessed Advent.

  4. Cindy, Barb and Gabriele,

    It is a grace to know you are praying with me!

    Blessed Advent to all...