COMMENTARY: As others sleep, a monk-in-training keeps a prayerful vigil

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is the author of the recent book"Real Choices"and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today magazine.)

(RNS)-"It's dark outside my window, yet the birds are already busy singing and seem to know that the sun will soon rise." Thus begins a letter from Michael, who was a choir member and Sunday school teacher at our church. He's now testing a vocation as a monk at the Russian Orthodox monastery on the edge of the mountains.

The day he describes begins earlier than ours and follows a different rhythm."My vigil lamp is burning and the Prayers on Arising is in progress,"he writes."At 6:45 a.m. the lives of the Saints will be read, then Matins will start and last for 90 minutes." After that he and the three monks who live at the monastery will participate in the eucharistic service, which will take another 90 minutes. Michael will spend the rest of the morning reorganizing the monastery workshop, then pause for noon prayers and lunch, and fill the afternoon with periods of labor and rest. Vespers is at 4:30, dinner at 6. After that the evening prayers known as compline are said. "By now it's 7:30 p.m. and my time is my own. Tonight I will work on some icons that need a little touch-up. I love to restore old things. When ready for bed, I find Father Abbot and receive his blessing before I retire for the night. Then prayer before sleep. The sky is dark outside my window, but the birds are busy." While the sky is dark outside our windows, Michael is busy at prayer for us and those we love. Such a life, alternating long stretches of prayer with humble labor, sounds unusual to those who daily wrestle with the gritty, workaday world. The kind of person who'd be drawn to take up such a life, we suppose, must already be some kind of plaster saint.

But that kind of stereotyping falls wide of the mark. Michael wasn't a plaster saint, he was a plumber. Every day he'd leave for work in a big green service truck (as my husband said,"The only plumber to go to work smelling like incense"), and come home to study Scripture and paint icons. Eventually he felt drawn to living a life more completely centered in prayer. Going to the monastery wasn't a break from who he is, but a natural blooming of the faith already within.

It's a faith that's not uncommon in our church; most of us make time for daily Bible reading and prayer and observe the days of fasting. We gather for services several times a week. Churches like ours aren't uncommon, either; you could multiply us by the millions.

But fair and accurate depictions of devout believers are rare. You recognize the pop-culture stereotypes: the bomb-throwing Muslim, the Bible-waving fundamentalist, the rosary-wielding"anti-choicer"screaming at women. From the looks of things, religious people are religious kooks. Normal people are the ones trying to fend these guys off. Yet no matter how threatened or endangered these"normal"folks are, they wouldn't dream of appealing to God for help or stopping to pray. That's the marker for bigots and vigilantes, or worse.

The Media Research Center, a research organization in Virginia, recently released its third annual"Faith in a Box"study, a survey of attitudes toward religion expressed in television entertainment and news. Out of 1,800 hours of prime-time programming, there were only 287 depictions of religion. The content of those depictions is growing worse: since 1994, negative portrayals of clergy and devout laypeople nearly doubled, to 64 percent, according to the survey. Four out of five depictions of clergy were negative.

Such stereotyping is both unkind and untrue. In real life, devout laypeople and clergy are all around you, unnoticed. They're people like Michael. You may not see us, because we don't fit the popular profile of frenzied, cruel volatility. We're your real estate agent, your florist, the guy who runs the corner grill. It's our job to live our faith in our daily lives, as Jesus said, being salt and light in the world. When Michael said his goodbyes and packed for the monastery, he left plenty of us behind. That's one of the reasons we felt free to let him go.

Recently we sent Michael a farewell card signed by all the parishioners. My 14-year-old son added a note that could serve as an encouragement for all of us living our hidden lives of faith:"Michael,"he wrote,"make God proud."