Will I Ever Get Good at This?

For all of my life, I have thought that people who have written a book about something are supposed to be good at that thing. If you think that too, and want to continue thinking that, please feel free to skip this post. One of the three ways of praying that I wrote about in Live Prayerfully, and which I am practicing each day as part of my year-long experiment this year, is praying without words. I'm not new to the practice, and had practiced it quite a bit before I wrote anything about it, but also–before taking on this experiment, I had never before practiced it this consistently over a long period of time.

So, back in the days before taking on this experiment, I always thought that if I practiced it more often (more than my pre-experiment norm of 1-3 times per week), I would get better at it (meaning that my mind would be less distracted while practicing it). For example, in those days I wasn't particularly troubled that out of twenty minutes of time set aside for prayer my mind might be able to remain focused on God more than for a total of perhaps... 90 seconds. Okay, 60 seconds. (Maybe 45). Not impressive, I know, but at least I could always attribute it to the fact that I wasn't practicing very often. Surely, I thought, if I ever became regular at it, those 45 seconds would turn into the majority of the twenty minutes.

Perhaps that's the downside of ever becoming regular at something: you might not be as good at it as you assumed when you weren't regular. It's safer to keep thinking I could do something well if only I would put in the effort. Now that I am in my seventh week of practicing it every day, those 45 to 90 seconds seem to be holding very steady. For example, during this evening's time of praying without words, these are just some of the things that I can remember having crossed my mind: socks, my second grade teacher, Elmo, hammers and nails, things I have to get done in the morning, Elmo slippers, how cute my daughter is (I was praying while sitting in her room waiting for her to fall asleep and I realized I forgot to take off her Elmo slippers. She took one off and hugged it while leaving the other on her foot.), books I haven't read, and basketball. Not exactly the stuff of spiritual gurus, I know.

But if that's the downside of ever becoming regular at something, perhaps this is the upside: if you happen to have already written a book about the thing which you're now doing regularly, hopefully–as part of writing that book–you included advice from other people who had already practiced your thing regularly for a really long time. Then, you can go back to the book you've written and see what the people said that you quoted and get some help from it.

So maybe it's not the course of action you might plan for yourself, but I'm enjoying it so far. As it turns out, I did pass on some stuff in the book that's proving helpful to me (the book's author!). Among the things that are helping me while I've noticed my lack of any perceivable progress in my attentiveness to God in these times without words are:

The problem is this: when they have received no pleasure for their devotions, they think they have not accomplished anything. This is a grave error, and it judges God unfairly. For the truth is that the feelings we receive from our devotional life are the least of its benefits. The invisible and unfelt grace of God is much greater, and it is beyond our comprehension. (St. John of the Cross)

This kind of prayer is sometimes quite difficult. If we bear with hardship in prayer and wait patiently for the time of grace, we may well discover that meditation and prayer are very joyful experiences. We should not, however, judge the value of our meditation by ‘how we feel.’ A hard and apparently fruitless meditation may in fact be much more valuable than one that is easy, happy, enlightened, and apparently a big success. (Thomas Merton)

There will certainly be days that we’re more effective at this than others, but along the same line of advice as striving for uneventful prayer experiences, Thomas Keating urges us that if we notice a time of prayer being good, or being bad, that we need to give up those kinds of categories altogether. Praying without words is not an area of our lives where we need to subject ourselves to constant evaluation, because I am absolutely sure that the distractions are a much bigger bother to us than they are to God. (Me)

So, I hope that at least a few folks will find the stuff in this book helpful in their attempts to learn to pray, but if it doesn't happen for many others, I'm still okay with it. Apparently I needed to write it just to have it sink in more deeply to me.


Something I've prayed this week:

I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1)

[This is 15th post from A Year of Living Prayerfully.]