I’ve been here at All Saints for almost four months now, and there are still a few things with which I’m not entirely comfortable. The rectory here is much smaller than the one I lived in at the University, and I’ve found the small kitchen to be a bit of a problem.
I make coffee with a drip filter rather than a percolator or a coffee machine. I boil water, and pour it over the coffee grounds in a filter cone. This sounds relatively simple and low-tech, but I had a routine at my previous rectory that I haven’t been able to adapt to the new living conditions. Thus far, I have been unable to figure out where to put the coffee filter cone on the kitchen counter top.
There is limited space on the counter top, and every morning I manage to spill the coffee grounds, sometimes dry and sometimes wet. Or, alternately, I spill the coffee or hot water or the paper filter. It doesn’t seem like this should be a problem; it’s a relatively simple operation. The problem is that I haven’t yet developed a workable habit for this procedure.
After having lived in one place for seventeen years, I had a habit each morning that worked perfectly well. I haven’t been able to adapt that habit to my present circumstances. You shouldn’t feel sorry for me; it’s not that big a deal. I mention it because it illustrates the absolute necessity of habits in our lives.
If you had to re-learn how to drive every time you got into your car, your daily driving would be exhausting. If you had to re-learn how to read every time you opened the newspaper, it would take all day to read the news. Habits are not merely convenient; they are indispensable.
This Sunday’s Gospel contains a parable that Jesus told his disciples “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” (Luke 18:1) There are a few different ways that the command to “pray always without becoming weary” can be understood.
For those who are reluctant to trust God completely, ‘praying always’ can mean that one must remind God continuously of one’s needs, in case that God might forget or be distracted or care too little. For those who are needy for attention, ‘praying always’ might mean that they should pester God until God relents, and gives them the attention they crave. For those who are insecure about their own abilities, or scrupulous about following rules, ‘praying always’ might mean that they have to wear themselves out in order to be certain that they’ve met the minimum requirements.
Given the context of this parable in Luke’s Gospel, I would propose an interpretation of the command to “pray always” that does not require that we are wearisome to God or obsessive about our spirituality. Prayer is only going to be a ‘prayerful’ and satisfying experience when it is unhurried and unforced. Prayer that requires a great deal of effort will focus our attention more on the exertion than on God. Prayer, in a word, should be habitual.
A good habit is one that accomplishes a repetitive operation with ease, and even with a certain amount of style and grace. A good golf swing is one that has been practiced to near perfection. A good musical performance is the result of tireless practice. Good driving, legible handwriting, good cooking, and even close friendship, are the result of lots of time devoted to developing the skills and habits that comprise those activities.
So it is with prayer. Good prayer is just like a strong friendship; it is the result of spending a lot of time with the other: either with a friend or with our friend, God. Good prayer is the result of developing a habit of daily prayer.
It is important to distinguish here between different habits that can be confused with one another. Many people have the habit of thinking about prayer, or reminding themselves of the need for daily prayer; these sorts of habits are also known as procrastination. These differ from the habit of prayer; the habit of prayer is actual prayer that gets done on a daily basis. Thinking about prayer, acknowledging the value of prayer, desiring prayer is not the same as praying “always without becoming weary.”
Developing a habit of prayer is no different from developing any other habit: it requires diligent repetition. One of the primary obstacles to the diligent repetition of prayer is the unrealistic expectations that we can put on ourselves. A new driver is never very skilled. A young musician is rarely a brilliant performer. Artists often work for years or decades before they sell a single work. It’s perfectly acceptable for prayer to be halting, clumsy or uncertain. Good prayer can be all of these as long as it is not half-hearted.
At the end of today’s Gospel reading Jesus challenged his disciples by asking them, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8) The faith that Jesus expects from his disciples (including us), is a reliable, loyal commitment to him. One’s prayer is always a reflection of one’s faith; a reliable, loyal disciple will have a reliable, habitual prayer life.
Satisfying and spirit-nourishing prayer is the result of hard work, but it is worth making the effort both for our own sake and for God’s sake. In the last analysis, praying without growing weary might rest on whether or not we trust sufficiently in God’s Word. If God’s Word is worthy of our trust, then our prayer should reflect this commitment.