Should I feel guilty? The question nagged at me—a good Catholic question, pecking at my conscience as I sat under a shaggy tree on the grounds of a great monastery and listened to the bell as it tolled. It was time to pray. I should have been heading to the church. Others on retreat would be inside, under the barn-like arches of the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, chanting with the monks.
Instead I was outside with my friend Jeff shooting the breeze, being decidedly noncontemplative. I should have been spending the day being silent, meditative, prayerful. Instead I was yapping like a cocker spaniel. The bell was calling. I wasn’t answering. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt.
We had come to this remote place on a hot July weekend to share a little time, take a break and catch up. Jeff and I attended Mass and a few of the liturgical offices. But mostly we just hung out. I scanned the skies for birds. He smoked. We wandered the woods. He scribbled in his notebook. We griped about the church and her scandals and marveled at the folly of man. We worried together, and laughed together, and solved the world’s problems over gallons of black coffee, across a wooden table in the dining room, or on two chairs in the retreat house porch.
The bell tolled. Ask not for whom. It tolled for me.
What kept me from going to the church? I have always been captivated by the offices of the monks—the chanting, the bowing, the hushed calm of men collected to pray. The psalms are part of that powerful experience, of course; those 150 prose-poems contain everything we need to know about life: it is glorious, it is horrible, it is maddening. And it goes on. The psalms are the human experience writ large. Out of the mouths of monks, they gain new resonance.
So why wasn’t I joining them? What was I doing outside, swatting at flies?
I wondered about that, and shrugged it off. Days later, at the end of our visit, as my plane climbed over Louisville and back to New York, I wondered something else. In spite of my frequent absences from church, why did I feel so surprisingly at peace? What made me feel so—for want of a better word—graced?
I think I know. For all the riches of monastic prayer, there was another prayer that engaged me that weekend. It is a kind of everyday psalmody—found in a conversation, a laugh, a shrug, a nod. It is the prayer we all whisper at one time or another.
It is the simple liturgy of friends. For friendship is, at its best, a prayer.
It is, after all, an act of faith. It is sacred. It is an epistle, delivered from one person to another. In its best moments, friendship is a canticle that celebrates, a parable that teaches. In the close proximity of a friend, you find a cathedral where promises are kept, and a chapel where tears are shed. Friendship is a responsorial psalm: one heart speaks, another responds, and in the silences in between we hear something of God.
Jesus—no stranger to friendship, or to its swift reversal, betrayal—said that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, there he is, too.
Perhaps when we seek a friend, we are seeking God, the God who dwells in all of us, the God in whose image we have all been made. Perhaps in friendship he is there, waiting to be found, the God of laughter and companionship, the God of shared secrets and long stories and strong coffee, the God who is comfortable just kicking back. He is there to listen, because that’s what friends are for. He is there to guide us on the journey, to see that we are not alone and that there is someone with us who can read the map. He is there to help us find faith in one another, at moments when that particular faith may be all that we have. He is there to let us know that someone else understands our pain, shares our joy and, thankfully, gets our jokes.
Out of that, we are encouraged and given hope. Out of that, I believe, we are given God.
There is something consoling, we know, in communal prayer. Hearts and voices join in one place, under one roof, at one moment in time, to acknowledge the Creator and ask his blessings. And in doing that, we acknowledge what we are—people bound by common faith, humility and trust.
So it is, I think, in this extraordinary prayer of friendship.
With garden chairs as a choir, and the lawn for an aisle, and the starry sky as a dome, my friend Jeff and I, on that summer weekend, prayed our own office, a private liturgy that bestowed on the two humble congregants a blessed amount of grace. The grace to be comfortable with another soul, and feel a connection. The grace to enjoy the fading of twilight, or the stirring of leaves or the simple silence that comes when there is nothing really to say—and that’s just fine, too. Two or more were gathered. And God, I believe, was there.
Unfortunately, I do not think you’ll find that liturgy in any book of common prayer. It’s not in the Roman Missal. Other rituals can be found there, beautiful testaments steeped in history and discipline. They are the handrails that guide us through the spiritual life. Without them we are lost.
But sometimes we find another way, on our own, and still manage to stumble upon God.
So, the next time you are alone with a friend, consider it a concelebration. Kick back, open up, light up a smoke, crack a smile, heave a sigh—and listen. You may hear, gently but surely, the happy beating of your own heart, like a bell tolling, quietly announcing that prayer has begun.