Working the earth

December 2, 2011


“If I don’t struggle to pray regularly, both privately and corporately, if I insist on waiting for inspiration on the dry days, or making sure I have the time, then prayer will be as impossible to me as the C minor Fugue without work.”

The Summer of the Great Grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle

I think I have shared this quote on here before, and I have come back to it this week in thinking about prayer, specifically the practice of Morning and Evening Prayer within the Anglican Church.

Later on in her book, L’Engle also compares praying to writing, an analogy I find more applicable to my own life (as someone with no musical abilities whatsoever). I am in fiction class right now, and it didn’t take me long to learn that trying to complete one story a week by writing only when I feel inspired is impossible. In fact, though I have found pockets of time when I feel like writing (15 minutes here, 15 minutes there), almost all of my stories this semester have been the result of sitting down and writing when I felt nothing.

I consider it a rare gift that each time I have sat down and started typing with a bad attitude, I have found my way into the rhythm of the story and, by the end, felt relieved and joyful and (sometimes) giddy. I say “rare” because, if writing really is like prayer, I know there will be days when I feel nothing all the way through.  Like prayer, the struggle won’t always be immediately rewarded with a feeling of closeness to God or self-realization.

In Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris shares that “the ancient monastics recognized that a life of prayer must ‘work the earth of the heart.'” I think there are a lot of reasons this metaphor is fitting, one of them being that when you plant a seed, you do not see the fruit of your work immediately. Of course, we are not the planters, but we are, in a lot of ways, in charge of the soil. And this takes patience and discipline.

The purpose of recited prayers is not to stifle genuine engagement. They might cater to passivity, but only when I abuse them. To pray words already written involves effort, a submission and conforming of the heart that is easier on some days than others.

Henri Nouwen says,

“Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.”

 This is why after Confession comes Thanksgiving, why after The Creeds comes intercession.

I have found that instead of being burdensome and regimented, practicing Morning and Evening prayer has, among other things, taught me about grace.

When I have been lazy or angry or careless and have not stopped to pray, there is tomorrow morning.

When I am too empty or angry to form my own words, the words on the page remind me who I am, and they become my own.


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