Just after Christmas, I spent three days retreating and resting at the Guesthouse at Saint John’s Abbey. Staying at the Guesthouse is a wonderful experience. It is quiet and private. The rooms are simple, but very comfortable. The food, like the rooms, is simple but very tasty, and there are always options to choose from. Perhaps the aspect I like most about staying at the Guesthouse, though, is being able to take a short walk over to the Abbey Church to join the monks for prayer. Their usual schedule is: morning prayer at 7:00am, mid-day prayer at noon, Mass at 5:00pm, and evening prayer at 7:00pm. Now, with all the activities going on in a parish, it would be difficult to keep this rhythm in a parish setting. (I often find myself using my phone to pray evening prayer before a meeting.) This structure of prayer works well at the Abbey, though, and for retreatants especially it makes it easy to schedule other times for reading, private prayer, walks, and reflection.
Now as much as I enjoy joining the monks for prayer, there is one drawback. As a diocesan priest we use a four volume Liturgy of the Hours. Two of the volumes are for Ordinary Time, and the other two are for the Advent/Christmas season and the Lent/Easter season. And the best part is that you only use one volume at a time. As importantly, it is very user friendly and easy to follow.
On the other hand, the monks at Saint John’s have six books of psalms and scripture canticles, and three hymn books. And at any given prayer time you could be using four out of nine of those books for prayer. Fortunately, the monks always seem to be able to spot an inexperienced person shuffling though the various books trying to find the ones s/he will need for prayer. In these cases, one of the monks will come over and in a very kind and an uncondescending manner ask if they can help. Now just so you know, usually by day three I have learned to decipher the notations on the hymn board, and have gotten to know the various books well enough that I don’t look like such a rookie. It is great to know, though, that I only need to paste a confused look on my face and one of the monks will come and help me.
There are times when we all could use some assistance. It could be with something relatively simple (like finding the right prayer book) or it could be with something more serious or important. As Christians, when we see someone in need our response is clear.
Jesus has told us that we are to help those in need, simply because they are in need. The scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew’s Gospel reminds us of this. In that parable, Jesus has told us: “Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Not only are we called to provide help and assistance to those in need, but this help is not contingent on whether we know and/or like the person, or think they are deserving of our assistance. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether they are close to us or at some distance. We are called to help people whenever we become aware that they are in need. As importantly, the assistance we provide needs to be concrete, specific, and practical, and not just good thoughts and kind words.
Do we always do the above well? To be honest, I know I don’t. There are times when I put my own needs and wants ahead of those who need assistance. And there have been a few times when I turn a blind eye to those in need. There are other times, though, when I get it right. There are times when I respond to my neighbor in need spontaneously, generously and without reservation. I wish this were always the case, but my selfishness and sinfulness often get in the way of living as Christ has called me to live. I am challenged though, by the example others set for me. And as importantly, I take comfort in the belief that God never calls us to do something God doesn’t give us the grace to do.