“Meditation is too hard for me; I just can’t focus.”
“Praying seems like a waste of time when I have so many other things to do.”
“I just pray when I think about it.”
Driving north on Highway 395, the sky was expansive and the clouds were stretched across it giving the shape of a vast dome. The desert landscape formed an expansive grounding and the two appeared part of one piece. I could have remained in that space, allowing it to be a window to prayer. I began to do just that when it occurred to me, “I could check the church Facebook page and put something on looking ahead to Sunday”. And it went on from there: looking through the window to possible prayer and “checking”.
We are distracted by much in our society. It seems harder and harder to find the time and space in order to focus for even five minutes. Curiously, this challenge has been with us for millennia.
Evagrius, one of the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century, wrote about the “thoughts” that make it difficult for the Christian devoted to a life of prayer, let alone a time of prayer during the day. One of them is acedia, often called the “noonday demon” because it was most often experienced when the desert sun was at its height, suspended outside of time making time stand still. Has time ever stood still for you and not in a good way?
The noonday was a distraction because the monk “constantly looks out the windows, walks outside, gazes carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the last time he looked at it, to look around and maybe see one of his brethren peering out too.” (Evagrius paraphrased) It was a struggle then and it is a struggle now. People still avoid the experience of struggle; it’s human nature.
However, as anyone who has realized any success, (learned to play an instrument, finished a project, harvested a garden, raised a child, learned a language, etc.) there is always a period of struggle. Sometimes there are multiple periods of struggle. Anything worth doing usually requires some amount of effort. Effort means exerting ourselves in some way.
Seeking interruption has become a habit for us: checking email, checking Facebook, checking the evening news, checking to see what’s on TV, etc., etc., etc. It gets more and more difficult to focus for more than 5 or 10 minutes because the world around us is more and more tailored to inviting interruption.
Evagrius and others “argue that our ability to pray is harmed when we make a habit of seeking interruption and become accustomed to breaking away.” (Jeff Vogel – Christian Century, 6-24-15)
Holding oneself “open in receptivity to God” takes practice. It is a struggle to do so. It requires effort. Much of the time it can feel like it’s not working. But prayer is not a mechanical function; it is art.
And because we show up regularly to practice, we find that more and more we do receive, we do experience the presence of God mingling with our own.
There are many ways to pray and many kinds of prayer. One purpose of practicing prayer is spending time “being formed into capable recipients of God’s life.” (Jeff Vogel – Christian Century, 6-24-15) Instead of checking something, or checking out, why not check in with God everyday, with no agenda, no practical reason other than practicing being receptive?