From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer
The Art of Prayer
We need only watch little children in their playpen to realize how perfectly they combine concentration with wonderment. Often they are so concentrated on sucking the ear of a toy rabbit or simply on wiggling their toes that you might have a hard time trying to divert their attention to something else. If only our children could grow up without losing their power of recollectedness. How often adults destroy that gift with the best intentions. Children have a need to stand and look. A simple thing may absorb their attention for a long time. But then you see everywhere adults pulling children out of their wonderment and concentration. “Let’s go. We have no time” – and a long arm pulls the poor child along. No wonder that so many marvelous children turn into dull adults. No wonder that their wholeness is scattered and their sense of mystery lost. “Don’t just stand there; do something!” Well, healthier cultures had a different view of education. Some Native American tribes would say, “A well-educated child ought to be able to sit and look when nothing is to be seen, to sit and listen when nothing is to be heard.” Where this attitude prevails, children have a better chance to learn the art of tapping the Source of meaning, the art of prayer.
But even for us, it is never too late to recover that prayerfulness which is as natural to us as breathing. The child within us stays alive. And the child within us never loses the talent to look with the eyes of the heart, to combine concentration with wonderment, and so to pray without ceasing. The more we allow the child within us to come into its own, the more we become mature in our prayer life. This is surely one meaning of the saying that we must “become like children.” There is no childishness suggested here. Jesus says to become not remain like children. We are not to be trapped by the child within us. But neither are we to be alienated from it. A truly mature person has not rejected childlikenesss, but rather achieved it on a higher level. As we progress in that direction, everything in our daily life becomes prayer. The childlike heart divines springs of refreshing water at every turn.
But where shall we start? Once again, I can only suggest that we start where we are, that we begin with what comes easiest. Why not start by surveying a typical day? What is it you tend to tackle with spontaneous mindfulness, so that without an effort your whole heart is in it? Maybe it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning, the way it warms you and wakes you up, or taking your dog for a walk, or giving a little child a piggyback ride. Your heart is in it, and so you find meaning in it – not a meaning you could spell out in words, but meaning in which you can rest. These are moments of intense prayerfulness, though we might never have thought of them as prayer. They show us the close connection between praying and playing. These moments when our heart finds ever so briefly rest in God are samples that give us a taste of what prayer is meant to be. If we could maintain this inner attitude, our whole life would become prayer.
Granted, it is not an easy task to maintain the mindfulness, gratefulness, prayerfulness we experience in those wholehearted moments. But at least we know now what we are aiming to maintain. It is like learning to balance a pencil on the tip of a finger. Talking about it is not much help. But when for once we have managed to do it, we know at least that we can do it, and how it is done. The rest is a matter of practice, of doing it over and over again, till it becomes second nature. Applied to prayer, this might mean eating and drinking every mouthful as mindfully as we drink that first cup of coffee. Soon we discover that eating and drinking can be prayer. Indeed, a meal ought to be a prayer. If we are to “pray without ceasing,” how could we stop praying while we eat and drink?
This approach has yet another advantage. It allows us to speak about prayer without using religious jargon. If we said, “prayer,” someone might think we mean an activity to be added to our daily tasks. Right away we’d be back in the confusion between prayer and prayers. But if we call it mindfulness or wholehearted living, it is easier to recognize prayer as an attitude that should characterize all our activities. The more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer. Some people find it easier to eat and drink prayerfully – mindfully – than to say their prayers prayerfully. Should this surprise anyone? Why assume that our prayer life starts with saying prayers? If prayerfulness is our highest degree of aliveness, the starting point might be whenever we spontaneously come alive. Does it seem easier to recite a psalm with recollection than to eat or drink or walk or hug with that same wonderment and concentration? If may well be the other way around. For some of us, saying prayers wholeheartedly may be the crowning achievement after we have learned to make every other activity prayer.
What matters is prayer, not prayers. But if this is so, if prayerfulness is all that counts, who needs prayers? The answer is simple: everyone. Prayers fill a need we all experience, the need to express our prayerfulness. We cannot be mindful without being grateful. As soon as we awake from taking everything for granted, there is at least a glimmer of surprise and a beginning of gratitude. But gratitude needs to express itself. We know the awkward feeling we get from an anonymous gift. When I receive one, it is as if something were bottled up within me, and all morning I find myself expressing something like thanks to everyone I meet, just to satisfy my own need for doing so. But something else happens. As I express my gratitude, I become more deeply aware of it. And the greater my awareness, the greater my need to express it. What happens here is a spiraling ascent, a process of growth in ever expanding circles around a steady center, a movement leading ever more deeply into gratefulness.
And so with prayers. As the expression of our prayerfulness, prayers make us more prayerful. And that greater prayerfulness needs to express itself again in prayers. We might not have much to begin with, but the spiral expands according to its own inner dynamics, as long as we stay with it.
One image in which this dynamic movement of growth seems perfectly crystallized is the chambered nautilus. I can never pass a shell display without looking for one of these fascinating seashells. The specimens I find most exciting are the ones cut in half to show the whole suite of empty chambers with their pearly inner walls. Somewhere in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean a mollusk built this marvelous shell around its body. And as this mysterious sea creature grew, it moved from chamber to chamber, scaling off the old one it had outgrown as it moved to a new and bigger one. But soon this new one too grew too small and forced its mason and inmate to build again and move on.
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretch’d in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
These lines are from a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Chambered Nautilus.” The poet thanks our small soft shellfish, that “child of the wandering sea,” for its message, still echoing through its chambers long after it left. A “Heavenly message” the poet calls it, because it has to do with growing toward our ultimate goal. He says of that message:
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from Heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!