Learning To Pray (Part 1) : Duane W. H. Arnold, PhD
Learning To Pray (Part 1)
We expect it to be easy, but it isn’t easy. We expect it to be almost “automatic” but it isn’t. Too much has to go into what we are attempting to do, which is, to talk to God. Why we think prayer should be easy or automatic I’m not quite sure. We did not expect this with other things that are essential to life in the modern world. Any task, whether it’s cooking or driving a car, has requirements of learning, practice and of memory.
A few years ago, I taught one of my dearest friends how to drive a stick shift. First, he had to learn a bit about the sports car that he was going to be driving. He had to learn how to get the seat comfortable as well as what the various switches and buttons on the dashboard controlled. He not only had to learn these things, he had to memorize the functions. Then came how to control the revolutions per minute of the engine while at the same time engaging the clutch, the accelerator and the brake all while controlling the stick shift with his hand in the proper pattern. The first attempts at actually driving were less than elegant! The sound of gears grinding in the transmission were punctuated by the frustration of stalling. All of this, of course, took place in a parking lot where there were no other vehicles. He watched as I drove the car with consummate ease as we returned to his office. The next week, however, we returned to the parking lot with him in the driver’s seat. Ever so slowly, he coordinated his movements and within a month we were ready to go out onto the street and drive in traffic. Soon the process became automatic and within three months my friend was driving on his own.
I gave him the sports car as a Christmas gift.
It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t automatic. It took time and patience; it took memory and coordination. It meant listening to the sound of the engine. It meant feeling the vibration transmitted to the stick shift, all the while being alert to what was taking place around us on the road.
In a similar manner, prayer is something that can be learned. That is, it is something that can be learned if we truly wish to pray.
Oddly enough, memory is essential to prayer. What I mean by this is that memory provides direction in our prayers. What do we remember? Well, at the most basic level, we remember what God has done in our lives thus far. This can lead to thanksgiving or the recollection of past prayers and petitions. This, however, is very personal. There is more than simply our personal experience to remember. What we have read and learned in reading Scripture is also part of our remembrance. This of course has to do with what Christ said and did in his earthly ministry. The memory of what we have read in the Bible gives us direction in our prayers. This, by the way, is not always comfortable. The Psalms may reflect our struggles while our memory of the beatitudes brings to the forefront our falling short of the ideal in the Christian life. Our memories may likewise encompass formal theology or the writings of those saints who have gone before us. These are quite literally guides. They direct and help create the shape of our prayers and, more importantly, the shape and nature of our prayer life.
This, however, brings us to another point. Prayer is more than speaking, it is listening. It is listening not only for a voice outside of our own, but it is listening to our memory and what we have learned through the years. What we bring to prayer can be as important as what we receive when praying. So we enter into a conversation that is much more complex than one on one. We desire to hear the voice of God, but we’ve already heard much of that voice in what he has revealed in Scripture and in the lives and writings of others. We are entering into a conversation that takes in the past, the present and the future. It is a conversation in which our voice is merely one among many. It is a conversation in which listening is as important as speaking.
I find that a regular pattern of prayer helps in this process.
In my tradition, for instance, I say Daily Morning Prayer. It begins with a sentence of Scripture that changes with the Church Year. It continues with a confession of sin. This is followed by a recitation of psalms and a lesson or two from Scripture. After the reading of Scripture there is a choice of canticles to be said and then the Apostles Creed. Finally, there are prayers to be said according to the calendar followed by a final blessing. The entire office can be said in less than 15 minutes. Of course, it can also last for much longer if silence is entertained in between the various portions outlined above. It isn’t easy at first and it certainly is not automatic. It takes time and patience, memory and coordination. Yet, it allows me to feel the presence of that which is beyond me. It allows me to be alert to what is taking place around me as I start my day.
The gift I received, and continue to receive, is to be in the presence of the One I seek…
Duane W. H. Arnold, PhD