The Sunday before Lent, the Gospel reading included this verse: “From the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). That line had slipped past my attention for my whole life until then—it seemed like I was hearing it for the first time. In fact, it moved me so deeply that the next day I packed my bags and shipped off to a convent.
This really did happen. Of course, correlation isn’t causation; regardless of the readings at Mass that day, I’d known for months that my Philosophy class would spend its spring break with a Benedictine community in Petersham, Massachusetts. But that verse from Luke was in the back of my mind during the retreat, and even more so now as I reflect on my time there.
On the grounds of St. Mary’s Monastery (for men) and St. Scholastica Priory (for women), we stayed in the guesthouse, and for five days—seven times a day—we trekked to the chapel to pray with the monks and nuns. The class, titled “Love of Wisdom & Desire for God,” guided my classmates and I through a variety of texts over the semester. All through that time, we kept an eye on the core belief that the quest for wisdom and the quest for God coincide and grow together. We went from Plato, to the Stoics, to St. Augustine, to St. Bernard, to St. Benedict—and that brought us, finally, to the threshold of the monastery guesthouse. We wanted to see how the people there lived lives of love and wisdom.
And we did see—more than that, we heard. We listened for hours each day as the monks and nuns chanted the Psalms in Latin. Sometimes I followed along with a booklet in English; sometimes, in the darkness of Night Prayer, I just listened.
Every day, those men and women speak many, many more words of prayer than of business. When they open their mouths, more often than not, the Psalms pour out—that’s the fullness of the heart from which they speak. And only a humble heart could stand to talk that way, so much for God and so little for other reasons.
I think it’s easy for us to feel, too, that when we speak, we are full—too full. It seems like I put a lot into my heart, only to find when it’s time to talk that nothing very important comes back out.
Here are two possible causes for this: first, the things we fill ourselves with may be fleeting and relatively insignificant; or second, the contents of our hearts could be draining somehow, like water in a colander. Looking at my own life, it seems to be a combination of both—the contents of my heart aren’t always fantastic. At any rate, I couldn’t retain them very well if they were.
I started to think on the retreat (and have been thinking since) about the ways we set ourselves up for this feeling of emptiness—either of being drained, or of being full of the wrong things. We punch holes in our hearts with our own failures, and with our neglect to repair the holes put there by suffering. Through the unaddressed injuries of our sins and regrets, the good things we pour into our hearts pour right back out; we aren’t whole enough to let them grow in us. No surprise that when we speak, when we act, it’s often out of apathy, hopelessness, discouragement, like “chasing the wind” (Eccl 1:14).
I think the kind of prayer that fixes those holes is the same kind we find in the Mass: a confession of guilt and a plea for healing all in one. When we say, “Lord, have mercy,” striking our chest three times, that’s repair work; we hammer something back into place. Those prayers allow God to build us up again, to give us hearts that can hold something of worth—that can hold Him in the Eucharist. When this work is underway, we can be filled with good things, and we can speak not out of emptiness, but abundance.
It’s likely that at this very moment, in Petersham, the monks and nuns are pouring out the Psalms line by line in their chapel—praying both for themselves and for you, that all of us can learn to live in full voice.