I’ve been teaching and writing about prayer and the spiritual life for about five years now. It’s such a short time really. And as it goes on, I realize more and more that I know very little about prayer, God, or the spiritual life.
Just before Holy Week, I had the great pleasure of joining Martin Smith’s Compassiontide retreat. In the presence of this mature, authentic teacher, I could see my own immaturity even more clearly. I don’t say all this to put myself down, or to compare myself unfavorably, at 35, to a man who has been praying, writing, teaching, and living the Christian life for a long time. I say it because it’s true. Moreover, it’s a truth I find immensely comforting and hopeful, short-circuiting, as it does, my spiritual ambition, greed, and self-importance.
I often joke that our white habits are the perfect projector screen for our guests. Some of them see in us monks all the holiness they want for themselves but think they’re not capable of. The truth is that we monks struggle with faithfulness in our prayer as much as anyone else. Perhaps more–which is why we’ve chosen this life. I, for one, need the bells to call me back to my purpose. Without the structure of the monastic life, I’d never remember my baptismal promises, nor any others.
I’m rereading, once again, Anthony Bloom’s great primer on the life of prayer, Beginning to Pray. Even the title reminds me that, however long I’m at this, I will always be a beginner. His advice to a woman struggling to pray constantly resonates with me:
There are moments when you can tell God ‘I simply must have a rest, I have no strength to be with you all the time’, which is perfectly true. You are still not capable of bearing God’s company all the time. Well, say so. God knows it perfectly well, whatever you do about it. Go apart, say for a moment ‘I’ll just have a rest. For a moment I accept to be less than saintly.’Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, 77
Most days I don’t make it to my prayer cushion. I sit in my bed with a cup of coffee, huddled in the comforter, and wake up gently in the presence of God. Is this prayer? When I’m being hard on myself, I don’t think it is. Most often these days, though, I accept that, whether it is a masterful form of prayer or not, it fulfills the basics. I show up, sit quietly, and trust that God is there, too. It helps that, as Isak Dinesen reminds us, “Coffee […] is to the body as the Word of the Lord is to the soul.”
I do think it’s possible to move into a place of such self-acceptance and love that I stopping asking the question “does this count as prayer?” In that place, I imagine, there is no difference between taking a rest and praying. I have had one such moment. I was praying the Our Father and for some reason decided to stop. In the quiet that followed, I knew that God was praying the words for and within me, without my having to do anything at all. This moment remains a touchstone and a promise.
I don’t live there, though. I keep checking in on my progress on the spiritual path, even though I know in my head that “progress” and “the spiritual path” really don’t belong in the same clause. Ah, well. I can practice dropping that phrasing, too. And when I pick it up again, as I always do, I can trust that God is still there and God is still God and that very little of this prayer business rests on my efforts at all. I thank God for that mercy.
I’ll be on vacation in Santa Barbara for the next two Tuesdays. I’ll post again on Tuesday, May 11th. In the meantime, I hope you’re having a wonderful Eastertide!