I am always beginning to pray, which is the title of my favorite book by Archbishop Anthony Bloom, who stressed that we remain beginners.
Prayer is born in the agony of our own defeats. When we are brought low, when we are deflated, we are at a point where prayer can begin. No doubt prayer also begins with the sense that there is no God, or God is absent from us, or does not care about us. Prayer starts from the low points of life and moves on from there. Spiritual highs may be fun, but they are short-lived and we cannot hope for them to be repeated every time we need a shot in the arm. Real prayer is learned in the trenches.
Another way to say this: real prayer begins with unvarnished honesty about ourselves. The closer we come to a realistic picture of who we are, the closer we move toward a deep prayer life.
Of course, this presumes that we will not fly solo. In order for me to pray, I need other people to be honest with me about my shortcomings, failures, sins, as well as about my triumphs, successes, and fidelity. We cannot go this spiritual life alone. Personal prayer, as Jesus teaches, ought to be done in secret but the changes it both requires and brings will mean that I have to live in community with others who care about my soul.
The tool we have for the long haul is community with others who begin to pray for and with us. Common prayer is one main reason for a community of faith, and its gifts include learning to be more loving toward others.
In my attempts to teach prayer, I found people curious to learn about special techniques and gimmicks. It’s the American way: just give me the great gizmo, the cool tool, and I’ll be able to do it by myself. There is no cool tool, no great gizmo for prayer. Prayer is a conversation with God, flatly stated. Now we can buy the most sophisticated telephone in the world, or the most colorful, or the most expensive, but in the end the only question is: do we connect with someone at the end of the line? The tool is entirely secondary, and it’s only worthwhile if it enables us to do what we are trying to do. Everything else is a decoration and can become a distraction.
Forget cool tools. One of our greatest teachers, St Theophan the Recluse, said the essence of prayer is to stand attentively in the presence of God and to speak and to listen.
We may be sure is that God is trying to reach us. God has already created the channels of communication. It’s up to us to pick up the phone, and color and size do not matter.
We think, mistakenly, that prayer takes place in a vacuum, as if we were in a telephone booth where no one can see or hear us. We would like to think we pray in a vacuum, because then there would be no change.
Prayer and change are related because a major part of prayer is re-thinking who we are and what we’re about. Another word for re-thinking is repentance. This is not a cheap “I’m sorry,” though that may be a beginning. Full repentance is stomach-turning, mind-bending, sleep-depriving, life-changing stuff. So let us not try this prayer business unless we are willing to be changed, because prayer leads inevitably to repentance. And all of this happens in the community of faith, not in the phone booth alone.