How the heck do I pray? Me, specifically. And to whom? And for what?
– Mr. Warg
Before I get to your question, I want to tell you how much I’m enjoying your nom de plume. Back when I was 12 years old and the Internet was more or less a pipe dream, my friends and I spent a lot of our afternoons “modeming” – armed with a Commodore 64, a 300 Baud modem, and a telephone line, we would call up electronic Bulletin Boards hosted at one another’s houses. And there, full of delight and pre-adolescent mischief, we would post dirty jokes and messages about video games and wrestling. Just like truckers in a Burt Reynolds movie, all of the 12-year-olds who modemed identified themselves by handles: there was “Baron Von Blubba” and “Blitzkrieg” and “Dan Dippy.” I was “Death Budgie.” It seems to me that “Mr. Warg” would have fit in perfectly in the modeming world. Thank you for the moment of nostalgia.
One of my favorite classes at seminary was led by a Jesuit by the name of George Murphy. Dr. Murphy’s called his class “Experiments in Prayer and Meditation.” And my time with him transformed my understanding of prayer.
The transformation began with the title of the class itself. That’s because there is something really freeing about the language of “experiment.” When we are children, we have a willingness to learn by doing, even though that kind of learning almost inevitably yields far from perfect results. We will gleefully take a paintbrush to a canvas or a stick to a drum, we will explore gardening by getting dirt on our elbows and behind our ears, we will dance to music that only we can hear. And we will engage in conversation with the friend whom we cannot see but whom we know is there. We may or may not call this conversation prayer.
As we age, most of us find that our willingness to learn by doing declines. We become anxious and hesitant, afraid of imperfection, afraid of looking silly. If you’re anything like me, Mr. Warg – if you’re anything like most people – you explain your grown-up reluctance to enter into imperfection’s classroom by telling stories of limitation about yourself: I can’t dance; I can’t sing; I can’t draw; I can’t pray. I wish I could, but I can’t.
Our story of “I can’t” is one of the reasons Jesus invites us to become like children. It is one of the reasons that Dr. Murphy invites us to employ the language of experiment. The great teachers hope that we will remember our old willingness to let go of “I can’t” and risk having a really instructive failure, maybe even a really fun failure. Remember when the papier-mâché sculpture that you made in Grade Two ended up looking like a deflated fish, when your fingers on the keyboard made the most cacophonic sound, when you first tried water skiing and you rag-dolled into the water? Remember how you couldn’t stop laughing afterwards? Remember those experiments?
What if we approached prayer with a similar willingness to experiment? With an openness to the possibility that even goofy or strange or unsatisfying or frustrating or funny experiences of prayer are part of how we learn about ourselves and about God?
In his class, Dr. Murphy had two big and liberating ideas for getting our experiments in prayer and meditation started. I’m going to share them both with you.
First, Dr. Murphy invited us to begin our experiments with stillness and with silence. Most of the prayers in his class simply involved being quiet together: Dr. Murphy would keep time for 10 minutes while we sat in quiet and just noticed our breathing. (In the age of the smartphone, 10 minutes of silence might be a subversive act.) Sometimes we would punctuate our breaths by imagining a word or a phrase, inhaling to a word such as Deep, exhaling to a word such as Peace. He invited us not to worry when thoughts interrupted our rhythm but, rather, just to notice those thoughts and let them go.
Second, Dr. Murphy told us that a lifetime spent in prayer had left him with the deep conviction that God enjoys talking with us and that God enjoys being talked about. God, in other words, is not an impatient teacher or a harried employee at the DMV, anxious to be done with us so he can go on his smoke break. God is more like a friend who delights in the long afternoons that we spend together drinking tea. With that friend, you don’t need to worry about keeping up appearances, you don’t need to worry about doing things right. You can just enjoy being together.
What my time with Dr. Murphy suggests to me, Mr. Warg, is that your first question – How the heck do I pray? – is question enough for now. Begin in silence, begin with an openness to the possibility that there is a friend who loves hanging out with you. Follow-up questions – Who is the friend? What should I ask of the friend? – are something that you can encounter later, that you will encounter later. Eventually the silence will lead you back to those questions. But for now, turn off your phone and your TV and computer, set a timer for ten minutes, and just be quiet.
Let your experiment begin.