Day after day, I return to the same wooden choir stall. Nothing much changes. I chant the same Psalms from the same books in a set four-week cycle, the pattern broken only for feasts and solemnities. I make the sign of the cross at certain, unchanging, times. I bow at the same phrases. The same three hymnals remain anchored in front of me. Day after day, morning and evening, I climb into the boat, hoist my sails, and go nowhere. From afar, the whole effort might seem like a fool’s errand. But from up close, anchored in the boat, the journey is ceaseless, and the vista ever-changing.
We generally think of pilgrims as those who journey across land or sea, moving from here to there as part of a spiritual quest. Movement seems inherent to the notion of pilgrimage. Thus, you might think of monastics, with our commitment to stability, as the antithesis of a pilgrim. Not so. We are indeed pilgrims, but our journey is inward, not outward, and for us, pilgrimage is a way of life, not a singular event. The commitment to stability and fidelity, rather than anchoring us in passive immobility, actually creates an environment – a vessel, if you will – that frees us for an inner pilgrimage of ceaselessly moving deeper and deeper into transformation in Christ. The monastic liturgy, the arrangement of the monastic day, and the community life advocated by our Benedictine Rule are all integral to fostering the continual monastic journey of seeking God. They form the ship in which we sail.
I have returned to the same choir stall and the same set of books thousands of times. It has yet to get boring,and I have yet to chant the same Psalm twice, not because the Psalms have changed, but because I have changed. Just as genuine pilgrimage has a transformative effect the spiritual traveler, the inner pilgrimage of monastic life has a transformative effect on the monastic. Each time I encounter a Psalm I encounter it in light of my ongoing conversion in Christ. The Psalms don’t change, the Psalms change me.
In about an hour, I’ll walk up to chapel for Vespers and sit down in the same wooden choir stall – my pilgrim boat – that I sat in this morning. I will chant the same set of Psalms I chanted four weeks ago. With sail hoisted, I’ll be rounding the next bend of my ceaseless pilgrim journey into the heart of God.