One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms. This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God. When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.
The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)
The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts. If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.
All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M. At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M. While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year.
The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray. It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.
While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush. I hadn’t. I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark.
In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.
At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing. God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).
The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast. It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.
In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent. The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.
Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us. Every day is a day in which God might speak to us. Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us. Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you. Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God.
In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.
May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.