Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Practicing Prayer Cuts

I am not the best person at prayer.

I don't suppose I've ever really been that good at it - regular, I suppose, but never good. I don't know - I'm just never one of those people for who prayer seems to flow, or whom seems to be able to hold conversations with God. If it's not written down, I forget it; if I don't have a model, I seem to drift into the same five or ten items ever time.

But this morning, in the midst of my Iaido, I had an epiphany.

I was practicing chudon waza from seiza. Kneeling, one faces forward (mae), right (migi), left (hidari) and rearwards (ushiro), and either step out or turns and step as you draw into a suhei giri (straight cut; kneeling puts the cut at kubi (neck). I was practicing downstairs, so I was not able to rise for the rest of the kata lest I take out the glass lamp bulb in the fan. Instead, I practiced rising to my knees, turning and drawing (nukitsuke), then sheathing (noto) and doing it again.

As I continued to repeat the pattern - rise, turn, draw, sheathe - I realized that I was really practicing something no different than how I should practice prayer.

The great secret of Iaido - or of any martial art, I suppose - is not that there are always secret techniques (there's always more that you can learn) but the fact that any person can master them, if only they will practice. That's the secret: repetition. The difference between the master and the student is thousands of hours of practicing the techniques over and over (Malcolm Gladwell in his fabulous book Outliers: The Story of Success puts a number on it: 10,000) , slowly become better, making what must often seem like minuscule adjustments, until at last the techniques become as natural as breathing, the weapon an extension of one's body.

Prayer is no different than this. We think prayer is some great thing that we must instantly become great at to be effective. In fact, prayer is just the same: something the Christian is to practice over and over daily. We may perceive the improvement in our prayers, but one day we will find that praying has become as natural as any other conversation we have.

We are at a disadvantage: we read the great prayers of Moses or David or Nehemiah or Daniel and rate ourselves against them. What we do not realize is that these were not prayers pulled out of nowhere; these were the prayers of men who had spent a great deal of time praying, who had practiced prayer until they could pray with great effectiveness and power.

So when I pray today or tonight or tomorrow I have a new perspective: it's not just that I'm praying and talking to God (which is, of course, of supreme importance), it's that I'm training myself in prayer the way a warrior trains in Iaido: regularly, patiently, incrementally.

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