I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.
If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.
If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.
If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.
My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.
But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.
Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.
By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.
I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.
My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.
Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.
There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.