"Lord, teach us to pray,” one of Jesus’ disciples said to him one day. I’ve always found a measure of comfort in that. If one of Jesus’ disciples, who was with him constantly—watching, observing, listening, asking questions—didn’t know how to pray, my incompetence at it didn’t seem so alarming. It still bothered me, but at least it meant that I was normal.
Likewise, when I read Thomas Merton in Contemplative Prayer: “One cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is first perfectly content to be a beginner and really experience himself as one who knows little or nothing and has a desperate need to learn the bare rudiments…We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.” That was oddly comforting as well. It is a little disturbing, I’ll admit, to think that I’ll never get “good” at prayer, whatever that means, but at least I know that my struggles, my fumbling around, my lack of competence, is normal. If Merton wasn’t just jerking us around, if he himself really felt like a beginner at prayer throughout his life, then I shouldn’t feel so bad.
Except I do. Seriously, who likes to do anything in which they never move beyond the level of beginner? I hear guys who play golf regularly who, by their own description of their play, are pretty bad golfers, and I wonder why they go through the time and expense of playing if they aren’t getting any good at it. Maybe it’s the snazzy clothes they get to wear.
If I started playing guitar and after 15 years of practice never moved beyond the level of beginner I would just quit playing.
And, you know, maybe start building guitars.
So I have found myself both embracing the concept of always being a beginner at prayer while fighting against it, wanting it not to be so, working to prove that it isn’t, even though I sense that it is. And that’s pretty frustrating.
And when I get frustrated with it, I fall back into the comfort of it.
I recently read a statement from William Law from his book, A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, published in 1728. I’ve not read the book, but it is the book which John Wesley, Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, and William Wilberforce all credited with causing a major turning point in their lives. As it’s going on three-hundred years old, you would expect some of the language to be archaic. Remember that words like “pious” and “primitive” didn’t have the negative connotations back then that they have acquired in modern vernacular; so substitute “devout” or “spiritual” for “pious” and “early” for “primitive” and you’ll be in business.
"If you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but because you never thoroughly intended it."
Now that’s just mean. It’s not comforting at all. And it hit me between the eyes when I read it, because it’s true.
“Never thoroughly intended it.” Any prayerlessness on my part cannot be blamed on ignorance or inability, though I may be ignorant as well as incompetent at prayer. Prayer is a matter of intention and desire; and likewise prayerlessness is a matter of intention and prayer. None of us can blame busyness either; we find time for what is important to us. If we don’t have time for prayer, it’s because prayer just isn’t that important. We never thoroughly intended it.
I’m still working my way through this. I don’t like it, find no comfort in it, and wish it weren’t true.
But I’m afraid that it is.