Monday, April 14, 2008

Praying Without Ceasing

For years, I’ve listened to people tell me how to pray. I’ve attended workshops on centering prayer, I’ve listened to sermons advocating making time for silence, I’ve been counseled by priests to rise early to say the daily office. And I’ve tried, really tried. But I’ve always ended up feeling like a complete failure. Somehow, I could never sustain this type of daily prayer. I would do it for awhile, but eventually it became such a chore that I would give up. The harder I tried to cultivate silence, the drier and emptier my prayer life became.

Then this fall, I began seeing a new spiritual director. I went to our first meeting with trepidation, because I had just started seminary, and that sit-in-silence time had been the first casualty to my daily commute. I expected to be rebuked: gently, of course, but still... an aspiring priest shouldn’t be a prayer failure.

My director, however, didn’t chastise me. When I confessed I wasn’t finding much time for the daily office or sitting in a prayer corner, she just asked if I felt it as a lack of God’s presence. And I admitted that I didn’t, that God seemed very present in my life right then, in my classes, in my family, in worship services, even in the daily commute. God was present in the very hecticness of my life. “Well,” she said. “Maybe that’s where you need to find God right now.”

Feeling less guilty about my “failure” to pray, I stopped worrying about getting my prayer life “right.” I began paying attention to my director’s favorite question, “Where are you finding God now?” One month it was in interaction with friends, another month it was in the Scripture that I was reading in preparation for preaching. Right now, I think it’s in corporate worship, in Evening Prayer, chapel, and Eucharist, in distributing the wine and even, once, the bread.

I began reading books about different types of spirituality, about personality traits and prayer types, about praying through dancing, or drawing, or walking. And I began to understand that my sense of failure came from seeing my prayer life in a single dimension -- contemplation.

The truth is, I’m not by nature a contemplative. Breath prayer -- where you pay attention just to breathing in and out -- makes me tense. Silence and solitude are not restorative for me -- in fact, they can leave me cranky and depressed. In striving after contemplative prayer, I was forcing myself to embrace practices that too often left me irritable, instead of renewed.

Yet God and I are regular conversation partners. I pray for family and friends while I do the dishes, and frequently stop when reading the daily newspaper to offer a prayer for those suffering through various calamities. When I read a thought-provoking book, I spend at least half my time sitting and reflecting, waiting in silence for fresh insight or a spark of meaning. I talk to God out loud when I am in my car or in the shower.

Somewhere along the way I had picked up the idea that active kind of prayer didn’t really count, that the only serious prayer was the sort where you sat alone in your corner, emptied your mind, breathed in and out, and waited for God to speak. When I found this routine impossible to sustain, I considered myself a prayer failure.

What I have learned in the last few months, though, is that God speaks to us in many ways, not just in silence. God answers with flashes of insight, in the laughter of friends, in the pages of Scripture, and in the upturned hands held out to receive the bread. God speaks through friends, teachers, and sometimes total strangers. I am not a prayer failure as long as I am attuned to the ways God is moving in my life right now. I don’t have to go sit in my prayer corner to be in prayer.

But now I can. Freed from the expectation that I do it daily, or do it “right,” I am finally beginning to learn the art of silence. I know now not to turn to this type of prayer when I’m tired and in need of renewal: for me, this silent prayer takes work and energy, and I should enter into it when I am fully rested and energized to devote myself to it. That’s not going to be every day, or sometimes even every month. But knowing I’m not expected to do it all the time, I find I can enter into it much more readily when the opportunity presents itself.

If your prayer life is dry and uninspiring, or if you “never have time to pray,” maybe you should ask yourself whether it’s because you are trying to pray the way someone else says you should. Instead, consider where you are aware of God’s presence in your life. Start there. And don’t be afraid to try unconventional approaches -- dance your prayer, maybe, or draw it. Croon it as a lullaby to a baby. Take a walk around the block, and have a conversation with God. Go to church -- or a different church, just for a change. There is no one way to pray any more than there is one type of person in the world. Finding your way of praying can help open the doors to other ways, as well. You’re only a prayer failure if you give up entirely.

This aspiring priest is no longer ashamed to admit that her “prayer corner” is getting a bit dusty. I’ll point out the rosary in my backpack, and tell you all about the new “drawing prayer” I’m planning to undertake during my May vacation. In fact, I think my struggles with praying will make me a better priest, since I’m not the only person sitting in the pews who has a hard time just sitting and breathing. God loves wondrous variety -- including in the ways we talk to God. It’s about time we celebrated that.