This past weekend I stepped out of my comfort zone and led a retreat on prayer. I had a sympathetic audience which made it a lot easier--an inter-generational group of women from Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, the church where I was confirmed and ordained, the church where my parents are still active members. Still, I found it challenging to speak with any sense of authority about how to pray or why to pray or even what prayer is. I know people who have gone through years of training to become spiritual directors and to lead prayer retreats. I know people who go on prayer retreats on a regular basis. I know people who travel to India and sit in ashrams and meditate for weeks or months. I am not one of those people. When it comes to prayer, I consider myself strictly amateur.
So I called on Brother Lawrence for help. I met Brother Lawrence through the little collection of his writings and letters called "The Practice of the Presence of God", a book that a dear friend from my church gave me when I graduated from high school. Brother Lawrence is the Patron Saint of prayer amateurs. He lived in France in the 17th century, a time when there were some hard-core professional prayers. Brother Lawrence didn't have the educational background required to become a monk, so he worked in the kitchen of a monastery, and when he got too old to be on his feet all day, he repaired shoes.
Over the course of his time at the monastery, he began to realize that he could be as close to God in the kitchen as he could during worship. He decided to talk to God throughout his day--whatever he was and whatever he was doing, "holy" or mundane. He came to call his distinctive prayer practice, "The practice of the presence of God", the goal of which is " to find joy in his divine company and to make it a habit of life, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him at all times, every moment, without rule or restriction….” Ironically, Brother Lawrence came to be so widely known for his prayer life that people came from all over to learn from him.
During the retreat last weekend, we took a cue from Brother Lawrence and worked on being in conversation with God throughout the day--both in conversation and in awareness of God's presence with us. I put together a series of stations where people engaged in very simple, every day activities--pouring water, touching rocks, lighting a flame. I suggested we could associate these activities with a "topic of conversation" that we could have with God. So, for example, every time we pour water, could we remember the blessings which God pours into our life and say a word of thanks? Even though I had planned this out in advance, when I actually sat and did it at the retreat, I suddenly found myself becoming tearful with gratitude.
After spending an hour at the stations I planned, we broke into small groups and talked about other daily activities which we could use as a "prayer prompt". I suddenly thought of my habit of turning on the stove to boil water for tea--what if that was my modern-day, daily equivalent of lighting incense, or even a sacrificial fire? What if I offered a prayer of intercession with the steam rising from the kettle? And I thought of Carrie Newcomer's wonderful song, "Holy as the Day is Spent" where she has the line, "to pray as only laundry can."
When we weave prayer into our lives like this, we come close to making prayer a practice, which is to say, a pattern of thought and action that moves from conscious performance to something that shapes and re-shapes our identity in a deep way.
But before we could talk much at the retreat about the idea of a "practice", we had to work through our feelings about "practicing". Unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us when we hear the word "practice" is being nagged about practicing piano as a child. So, the word sounds like "doing something boring when you'd rather be outside." A survey of the women at the retreat revealed that about half had mainly negative memories of "practicing".
Then, someone brought up the "10,000 Hour Rule" which Malcolm Gladwell described so compellingly in his book, "Outliers". He describes a number of studies which have shown that individuals reach mastery in any number of endeavors (playing the violin, playing chess, playing tennis, writing poetry, being a pickpocket) only after they have practiced about 10,000 hours. In a world obsessed with identifying who is (and who is not) "Gifted and Talented" I found this evidence that it is really practice that makes an expert revelatory.
When we got into this at the retreat, I figured we had gotten off track. Hadn't my initial point been to distinguish spiritual "practices" from "practicing" the piano? The 10,000 hour rule is about expertise, not something we usually aim for with prayer. If I were to put in 10,000 hours of prayer (three hours a day for a decade, for example) what would I be better at in the end? Would my prayers for healing be more effective? Would I be able to hear God's voice loud and clear? Would I understand God any better?
But then it occurred to me that Brother Lawrence is an example of someone who probably put hours like that in, and he didn't seem to gain any superlative powers as a result. But he became deeply receptive--able to sustain a sense of God's abiding presence with him throughout the day. The parallel that comes to mind is wine tasting--people can learn to discern different flavors through practice. Or maybe ear training in music--which lots of practice, people can learn to recognize pitches and intervals that an untrained ear may not even be able to distinguish.
So maybe there is a connection between "practicing" and "practice" after all?