It's a book by Margaret Silf called 'The Gift of Prayer: Embracing the Sacred in the Everyday'. It caught my eye at the Quiet Day last week and it caught my eye before that at the other Quiet Day last year, and both times I made a note of the title. I've bought it and I know from the first few pages that it's going to be wonderful.
I know this because I've only read the first few pages and yet already I've had to put it down. Not because it's not grabbed my attention, because it has. Not because I don't follow it, because I do. It's because I've already come across a couple of ideas that need to be considered before I get any further. I don't think this beautiful book will take long to read and so I want to make the most of it.
The author talks about prayer as a belonging, a coming to stillness, about listening and learning to live reflectively. Each of these little sections is beautifully expressed but the one that stopped me in my tracks was the little page headed up:
'Prayer is a Gift, not an Achievement'
This is what Margaret Silf has to say:
'There is one more commonly held notion
that we may need to let go.
We were told from earliest childhood
that we would have to work to achieve our dreams.
Our so-called work ethic
is all about personal achievement.
No wonder then, that we expect prayer to work
the same way.
The harder we work at it, we think,
the better it will be.
If it doesn't seem to be 'working', it must be our fault.
We must be doing something wrong.
But suppose prayer were more like love than work?
Suppose it were something that is simply given,
and all we are asked to do is to be open to receive it,
and respond to the gifting?'
What about that? This really speaks to me as someone who has always been an achiever - lots of exams and qualifications and measurable outcomes. It's always been easy to quantify success and failure. I've always tried hard. My writing is neat. I listened in class. I've always believed that if you try hard and keep trying then you can do it. If at first you don't succeed.... practice makes perfect (and it has to be perfect!). I want it all to be just so. I have tendencies to control freakery.
If something goes wrong, I feel that it's usually my fault. Just as Ms Silf says, if it doesn't work, then I must be doing something wrong.
If I want to be good at something I have to work at it. A couple of years ago I was given a guitar for Christmas and I was so enthusiastic about it to start with. I bought a couple of 'teach yourself' books and a guitar case and a handful of picks and I even kept at it long enough to build up some callouses on the right fingers but then it got too hard and the guitar stayed in it's case for longer and longer. I can't remember now the last time it was out. I gave up. I know that I won't ever be any good at the guitar, and I know why. I don't want to work at it.
That might be a defeatist example to choose but it's what I believe. To succeed I need to work. I've heard it said that nothing worth doing is easy. So can it be true that prayer is not like work?
I certainly make it hard work. I labour over the idea of prayer and make heavy weather of the mechanics of it.
Where should I pray?
How should I pray?
Is it ok to write down all my prayers?
Surely I should have some sort of on-my-knees-hands-tightly-clasped times of prayer (preferably with an agonised look of intense concentration) as well?
How about the times when I 'pray' without feeling my prayer? Without the sense of presence that I sometimes get? Without the conviction.
What about the times that I fall asleep mid way through a prayer?
What about the times when my prayers are just a list of complaints and requests?
What about the times when I try to be quiet and listen and then I get distracted so quickly?
What about the times when it all seems too much hard work and I give up and go and do something else?
Can it be that prayer is not like that?
Like love. I met my husband and we were friends before we fell in love. I didn't realise for ages that I loved him. He asked me out three times before I said yes. My love for him crept up on me. I didn't do anything; and it certainly wasn't like work. In fact, my previous boyfriend had been much harder work and it's one of the ways that I knew (eventually) that Bryan was right for me; I didn't have to try hard. I didn't have to work at being interesting or someone other than me; being with him was easy and comfortable and before I knew it I couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
Love was a gift. A gift from him to me, or from me to him? A gift from you, certainly. A blessing. I didn't do anything. I didn't work for it. I realised one day, somewhat belatedly, that I had it.
Prayer is like that, this book says.
'There is nothing we can do to earn another person's love
or achieve it by hard work,
or pass an exam to obtain it,
or compel it in any other way.
We can only receive it with a joyful heart,
and respond to it with a generous life.
And so it is with prayer.
Prayer is God's gift,
and never our own achievement.'
Now, if this is true, part of my heart leaps with joy at the idea that I am freed from the pressure of trying and failing, and the other bit of my heart sinks as at least I understand the concept of passing exams. I know where I am with exams. You do the work, you pass the exam. See?
So give me this gift?
Or did you do that already? Maybe it is alright to write down my prayers. Perhaps when I see you in a blackbird or a crocus or a shaft of sunlight perhaps that is prayer.
I'm feeling my way here. This is why I stopped at page 18 and read it all through again.
The author goes on:
'Everybody who ever tries to pray
is convinced that everyone else is doing it better!'
Ain't that the way, Lord? I look around my church and everyone without exception seems to have more of a handle on it than me. I ask wise people who seem to know your mind so much better than I what their secret is and they say that they pray until they hear from you. They have a hotline to you. Or, if not, they keep trying until they get an answer to prayer. Some people seem to find it so easy. Some people seem to do so much praying. Most people seem to do it better than me.
'It isn't true, of course,
because the love of God is the ocean in which we all swim.
All we can do is become more aware
of the reality of that ocean
and let this awareness inform the way we live.'
How beautiful is that? If I become more aware of you and who you are then it will permeate my life more and more. We are all buoyant on the waters of your love. It is a level playing field after all. You are even handed.
So, this gift, Lord. Prayer. As I read this book and write this, and read my daily devotional pieces and go on the odd quiet day, and blunder in and out of daily life and nod off during my little chats with you, help me unwrap this gift. If there is something that you want to give me, nudge me in the right direction. I don't want to miss it.
I want to swim in the ocean of your love, dive deep and discover the treasures hidden deep, deep down. I want to dive in and learn to open my eyes to see. I want to float where the tides take me. I want to experience the breadth and depth of it.
I'm opening my hands to receive the gift of prayer so that you and me can meet on a deeper level. So that I can respond as you want me to.
Come, Holy Spirit. Teach me to pray. Let it grow like love until one day I look back and realise that my heart is full, and know that it is mine.
You gave it to me.