"The normal routine of the day ought to be interrupted for a period of prayer and meditation. This does not need to be a lengthy session but simply a brief variant that interrupts the normal flow of the day. This will become like the grain of sand in the oyster, which eventually produces the pearl. That small interruption and irritant to the day establishes an anchor to the reality of divinization in the midst of a life otherwise not cognizant of or interested in divinization."
--Richard Valantasis, "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
My neighbor always discs his soybean field in the late fall after the harvest. All winter long it lies there, waiting to be planted in spring. When I walk by there on my walks up and down the dirt road, it often seems "anticipatory." It seems almost hungry for growth. Not much happens in that field, really, in terms of human labor. Most of the year, soybean plants sit and grow, with occasional "interruptions." In the spring, there's an interruption to plant. During the growing season, there are occasional interruptions to spray weed killer. As fall settles in, it is interrupted for the harvest, and a final interruption occurs when the field is turned over for the winter. All of those interruptions last only a few days each. The vast majority of the year, the beans just grow and mature and eventually the plants come to the natural end of their season.
Yet without those few days of interruption, the rich growth in the soybean field would not occur. If the beans were just allowed to "do their thing" for a few years, the plants would become fewer and less lush. The weeds would come in and kill them off. Bushes and trees would begin to appear. It would not take long for the field to look like a scrubby pasture rather than a cultivated field. After enough years, there would be no evidence there were ever soybeans in it.
I think that is a good parallel for what a regular spiritual practice does for us. Many of you know my most regular and continued spiritual practice is to do the Daily Office lectionary readings and have my personal prayer time in the morning. This is not a long, drawn out affair. It lasts from the moment I put on my coffee to the moment I finish the last swallow of my first (rather oversized) cup of coffee. I don't even know exactly how long that is, but it's probably like 15 minutes tops.
Now, that's what happens on a "perfect" day with that practice. But that's not always what happens. There's about a one in four or one in five chance that this will be interrupted--I get a phone call about something already falling apart at work, or my mom decided that 6:50 a.m. is the perfect time to catch me at home to tell me some piece of news which may or may not be of interest to me, or a dog throws up from eating too fast, or some such small irritation of a similar vein.
I used to get very irritated about these things, and this usually resulted in me snipping or snarling at someone. I am embarrassed to say I learned this by multiple examples--not just examples about praying, but examples based on all sorts of general ideas about "why someone gets interrupted."
Then I would feel very guilty about "not getting all my prayer time in." I felt like I was going to be in trouble for short-sheeting God. I'm sorry to say I did not feel guilty about snarling at the people who interrupted me.
But in recent months, over time, I found myself being less irked about the interruptions as this practice "matured" in me. What I came to discover is that even if my morning time got shorted, I was finding myself taking 45 seconds in a busy part of my day to briefly pray or meditate, without even thinking about it. It was like my mind knew how much was an appropriate "fix" and it would simply drift off in that place for a few seconds. What was sort of comical was it was often at a time, that, had I been allowed to choose, I would not have chosen that particular time. I would have said I was "too busy." Obviously, I was not. But there was a day I realized I had made a transformation from being a "praying person" to a "prayerful person." My morning spiritual practice had ceased to become a practice, but had been integrated into my life.
As I read the chapter from where the quote above originated, and went for a bit of a walk up my dirt road, I looked over at my neighbor's soybean field. I tried to think back on the prior season--could I remember what days he had planted, sprayed, harvested? Not really. I knew where to guess on the calendar, but not much else beyond that. I couldn't tell you if he did it in the morning or the afternoon.
As I connected it to my own spiritual practices, it affirmed what I was starting to learn about what these practices are all about, and how not just our interrupting our busy day with the practices are important, but that interruptions to our practices are not "deal-breaker" important. Once the practice was ingrained, the natural flow of our minds would gravitate to completing the practice and even going beyond it sometimes. Sometimes I sense an extra need for prayer, or to throw another practice in the mix, and I have learned to hear and be obedient to these callings.
I think about how we do or don't "teach prayer" in a church community. I think in most communities, we more or less "do" prayer but really don't "talk or teach prayer" much. Oh, there might be the workshop here and there, but I really don't think, in most instances, we really expose people to the smorgasbord of prayer practices, and we don't always emphasize what I think is the most important thing "beginning or re-dicscovering pray-ers" should hear.
I think all people interested in prayer practices should hear this: There's no "wrong" way to pray.
I also think we under-emphasize the corporate nature of why this is true. Once we've discovered that a major facet of Christian growth is community, we can accept that for every time we are too tired, too grouchy, or too distracted to pray in the way we desire, there's someone in our community out there picking up the slack.
I think back to a story in our parish. I remember when a group of people briefly organized a Centering Prayer group. (it never took off, but that was for reasons other than my story.) Now, I'm going to be honest--I can't Centering Prayer my way out of a paper bag. I simply can't sit still very well, for starters. I definitely can't sit still well in front of other people (visions of being in trouble in grade school for "wiggling" pop in my head) and finally, I find it absolutely impossible to think of nothing but a single sacred word. I was happy to let them do it and support them in my own forms of prayer.
At any rate, the people in the group were explaining it at coffee hour to other folks in the parish. My heart sank when one of our older parishioners, this absolutely sweet and lovable woman, suddenly looked crestfallen and said, "Oh, my. I guess I've been praying wrong all these years."
Thank God for another member of our parish in close proximity to her. She said, "well, now, before you go thinking that, let me ask you something--do you pray when you are doing the dishes?" Our older parishioner nodded.
"Do you pray when you are cleaning house?" She nodded again.
"Well, you know what? I have tried and tried to pray in those ways and I can't do it. I am so grateful you can, and you help ME when you are able to pray in those ways. We all help each other in our prayer lives. Don't ever think you pray "wrong" or "not well enough." I wish I had half the prayer life that you do!"
The last time I checked, it's not the type of sand in the oyster that makes the pearl. The most important thing in any of our prayer lives, I believe, is that we simply HAVE them.