Praying at Three in the Morning

Converging on the Milky Way

In the summer of 2010, I was weary.

I had been carrying big things for far too long without any ability to put them down, and I needed a break. So I went, like many have before me, to a monastery.

I went to Mepkin Abby in South Carolina, on the banks of the Cooper River. There, on a former plantation amidst the live oak trees covered in Spanish moss they gave me a modest room, three meals a day and, as they have for countless others before me, sanctuary. For five days I ate with them, prayed with them and kept silence with them.

You would wake up at three in the morning and get dressed quietly. My room was in a cabin some hundred yards from the church, so I would grab my flashlight and walk the long path in the darkness, seeing the bobbing lights of other retreatants coming from their cabins as well. We would enter the dimly lit church – an anachronistic modernist structure, looking out of place on these former antebellum plantation grounds – and slide into the choir on the polished wooden bench, next to monks who had made this act their life’s vocation.

And then we would pray.

Seven times a day, we would do this thing, where we entered silently into a holy place and pray, chanting the ancient words written by people long since dead, speaking to a pain and a longing we all still know.

I have been told that the French word for pray is prière, which means to ask, and after a lifetime of doing it – ten years as a professional Christian – I still don’t have a better explanation of what prayer is. It makes no faith demands, it requires no allegiances, and it is irrespective of belief. It is just asking.

A recurring line in the monk’s prayers comes from the old Douay Rheims translation of Psalm 70:1:

O God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.

That line has become my favorite prayer.

* * *

Sometimes I have trouble staying asleep at night. As I have said elsewhere, it is in the early morning – about three in the morning, actually – that I wake up and the mad rush of thoughts comes, a near unstoppable flood that overwhelms me. The old demons come back, the fears, the anxieties. They are instantly recognizable – like a person you once knew, but didn’t like.

I lay in bed, the quiet breathing of my wife next to me, the glow of the streetlight coming through the window blinds, the shadows caused by the headlights of passing cars rolling across the ceiling. I tell myself that this time it will be different, that this time I will be able to drift off to sleep again, that this time I won’t stare at the ceiling until dawn, that this time I won’t be exhausted all day, that this time my anxieties and my fears will not win.

It is then that I beg for help, and I pray the simple prayer of the monks, and thousands of years before them, of David. The prayer belongs to many people. It isn’t just mine, and that is important. I am crying out in symphony with millions before me, and collectively, at three in the morning, our voices ask:

O God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.

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