In a homily at a wedding, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once gave this advice to a young couple: “Today you are young and very much in love and you think that your love can sustain your marriage. It can’t. Let your marriage can sustain your love.”
Love and prayer work the same: The neophyte’s mistake is to think that they can be sustained simply through good feelings and good intention, without the help of a ritual-container and a sustaining rhythm. That’s naive, however sincere. Love and prayer can only be sustained through ritual, routine, and rhythm. Why?
What eventually makes us stop praying, John of the Cross says, is simple boredom, tiredness, lack of energy. It’s hard, very hard, existentially impossible, to crank-up the energy, day in and day out, to pray with real affectivity, real feeling, and real heart. We simply cannot sustain that kind of energy and enthusiasm. We’re human beings, limited in our energies, and chronically too-tired, dissipated, and torn in various directions to sustain prayer on the basis of feelings. We need something else to help us. What?
Ritual – a rhythm, a routine. Monks have secrets worth knowing and anyone who has ever been to a monastery knows that monks (who pray often and a lot) sustain themselves in prayer not through feeling, variety, or creativity, but through ritual, rhythm, and routine. Monastic prayer is simple, often rote, has a clear durational-expectancy, and is structured so as to allow each monk the freedom to invest himself or hold back, in terms of energy and heart, depending upon his disposition on a given day. That’s wise anthropology.
Prayer is like eating. There needs to be a good rhythm between big banquets (high celebration, high aesthetics, lots of time, proper formality) and the everyday family supper (simple, no-frills, short, predictable). A family that tries to eat every meal as if it were a banquet soon finds that most of its members are looking for an excuse to be absent. With good reason. Everyone needs to eat every day, but nobody has energy for a banquet every day. The same holds true for prayer. One wonders whether the huge drop-off of people who used to attend church services daily isn’t connected to this. People attended daily services more when those services were short, routine, predictable, and gave them the freedom to be as present or absent (in terms of emotional investment) as their energy and heart allowed on that given day.
Today, unfortunately, we are misled by a number of misconceptions about prayer and liturgy. Too commonly, we accept the following set of axioms as wise: Creativity and variety are always good. Every prayer- celebration should be one of high energy. Longer is better than shorter. Either you should pray with feeling or you shouldn’t pray at all. Ritual is meaningless unless we are emotionally invested in it.
Each of these axioms is over-romantic, ill thought-out, anthropologically naive, and not helpful in sustaining a life a prayer. Prayer is a relationship, a long-term one, and lives by those rules. Relating to anyone long-term has its ups and downs. Nobody can be interesting all the time, sustain high energy all the time, or fully invest himself or herself all the time. Never travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting, lively, and emotionally-invested all the time. Real life doesn’t work that way. Neither does prayer. What sustains a relationship long-term is ritual, routine, a regular rhythm that incarnates the commitment.
Imagine you’ve an aged mother in a nursing-home and you’ve committed yourself to visiting her twice a week. How do you sustain yourself in this? Not by feeling, energy, or emotion, but by commitment, routine, and ritual. You go to visit her at a given time, not because you feel like, but because it’s time. You go to visit her inspite of the fact that you sometimes don’t feel like it, that you sometimes can’t give her the best of your heart, and that often you are tired, distracted, restless, over- burdened, and are occasionally sneaking a glance at your watch and wondering how soon you can make a graceful exit. Moreover, your conversation with her will not always be deep or about meaningful things. Occasionally there will be emotional satisfaction and the sense the something important was shared, but many times, perhaps most times, there will only be the sense that it was good that you were there and that an important life-giving connection has been nurtured and sustained, despite what seemingly occurred at the surface. You’ve been with your mother and that’s more important than whatever feelings or conversation might have taken place on a given day.
Prayer works the same way. That’s why the saints and the great spiritual writers have always said that there is only one, non-negotiable, rule for prayer: “Show up! Show up regularly!” The ups and downs of our minds and hearts are of secondary importance.