I grew up in a church that had a “Watch Night” tradition. As a child, I was never sure what we were watching for; it seemed to be an interminable evening at church. Clearly, it was meant to be an alternative to any lascivious New Year’s Eve revelry – such as it was in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the 1950s. The only exciting thing about the long night at First Baptist was staying up past my bedtime and finding good hiding places from my friends. The baptistry was a coveted hiding place. (If only we knew then what a place of equality it was!)
Thankfully, I later learned of the richness of the Watch Night tradition in African-American churches as it dates back 156 years to when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect January 1, 1863. Blacks in both North and South sat vigil in their churches awaiting the dawning of a day of greater justice. Tragically, more than 150 years later it is a day still delayed.
In more recent years, I have continued this practice of spending New Year’s Eve in a Christian community, usually in the company of the Benedictines. This year is no exception.
Conception Abbey will welcome a good contingent from Central during the first week of January. Every other year for the past two decades I have taken a group there for an immersion course in Benedictine spirituality. We will pray with the monks three times each day (stumbling through the liturgy at first), share meals and learn of the charism of this living tradition. We will experience the hospitality of the monastery as we make this pilgrimage of learning and community building.
Wonderful things occur among these learners as we calibrate our daily rhythms to those of the Abbey. Rising early for prayer; opening our lives to one another as we sit around the table at meals; experiencing the Great Silence as the whole campus quiets at 10 p.m., these practices are renewing. Living with the Psalter and all the emotions it conjures allows us to see both the joy and lament in our lives and offer them to God. Praying Scripture (lectio divina) offers opportunity for discernment as we listen for God’s word to us.
“Baptists have important lessons to learn from a community that takes a vow of stability.”
Sometimes a person who is discerning vocational direction is a part of the class. They find the time there constructive as it creates space to listen to God’s word, words of classmates and, most important, that quiet voice at the center of one’s being where God dwells. They begin to live into the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict. (The first word of the Rule is simply listen.)
I go early to make sure all is ready for the first day of class, so I will spend New Year’s Eve there once again. My friends and family roll their eyes at my love of being at the Abbey (especially on a holiday), but it provides a spiritual homeplace for me, and it strengthens me for my work. It is probably the quietest place possible to welcome the new year. The monks will be on one side of the hill in their quarters; I will be in St. Gabriel’s guesthouse with one of the lifelong learners. No worries about drunk drivers at the Abbey! The Great Silence, to be sure, will be undisturbed by fireworks. The only sounds may be a few coyotes howling in the new annus mirabilis. (I think the coyotes there also sing in Latin.)
Baptists (and other ecclesial traditions) have important lessons to learn from a community that takes a vow of stability. Our lives are transient, and one community rarely claims us for life. We move with work; we depart churches when we find another place more to our liking; we absent ourselves from family because we are uncomfortable with the challenge their opinions and behavior present; we collect “friends” on Facebook yet find little time for face to face conversation. Stability calls persons to give themselves to a particular place, a particular community, a shared way of life.
While practicing stability, persons also pursue that other vow, conversatio morum. This is hard to translate, and it basically means continuous conversion of all ways of life – speech, service, humility and prayer. Stability provides the framework for growth and change, and formation into the likeness of Christ is lifelong. Baptists would profit from greater attentiveness to spiritual formation.
We will enjoy the remaining days of Christmastide and the movement toward Epiphany. The daily texts will help us stretch out the holy season that we conclude too quickly, with our typical, “off to the next thing” perspective. We will hear of the Kings of Seba and Sheba in the Psalms, which prefigure the journey of the magi and the revealing of Christ to the larger world. “All rulers shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him” (Psalm 72:10-11). Early events in the life of Jesus fill the readings and prayers.
So, we go once again to the Abbey, and we expect God will meet us there. I give thanks for the enduring friendship between our schools and our respectful ecumenical relationship. It strengthens the Body of Christ when we pray together, and we move closer to Jesus’ vision that we all might be one.