Dancing with God

If you're struggling with daily prayer, then finding your special rhythm is key.

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Dancing with God

I struggled with prayer for years, until I discovered that one of the keys—for me, at least—was finding a rhythm that made daily, even constant, prayer fairly easy. And I discovered it by accident.

Not by accident, exactly...but I wasn’t expecting it.

It was the second day of my first prayer retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky—a real, live, monastery.

There I encountered the Rule of St. Benedict, which is a silent rule—in other words, no talking—and the opus Dei (or work of God) that constitutes the rhythm of the monks’ lives. They meet for prayer seven times a day:

  • Vigils (2:45 a.m.)
  • Lauds (4:45 a.m.)
  • Terce (8:45 a.m.)
  • Sext (11:30 a.m.)
  • None (2:45 p.m.)
  • Vespers (6:45 p.m.)
  • Compline (8:45 p.m.)

Seven times a day. Every day.

Most of these prayer times are no more than 15 minutes, but...2:45 a.m.?

The first thing I did, of course, was figure out the amount of time between the end of compline and the beginning of vigils. And I didn’t much like it. I calculated that, if I went straight to bed after compline (at 9 p.m!)the most sleep I could expect would be under six hours.

I didn’t think I could do it. But I did—in the first 24 hours I was there. And I realized something on the second day as I went to lunch with all the others after sext ended around noon. I went silently down the staircase from the sanctuary to the dining room, silently filed through the cafeteria line, silently filled my tray with food, silently walked to an empty chair and silently sat down.

I bowed my head over my tray to say grace and realized I was already praying. I’d been praying as I went silently down the stairs. I’d been praying as I filed through the cafeteria line. I’d been praying as I filled my tray with food, as I walked to an empty chair, as I silently sat down. I’d been praying since I woke up that morning.

There was no need to start praying, because after one full day into the rhythm of that community, I found myself no longer “starting” and “finishing” my times of prayer. I did not “enter” and “exit” God’s presence.I spent the whole day in a slow dance with God.

I experienced the reason (or at least one of them) for the rhythm of the monks’ lives—to foster constant prayer. And I desperately wanted to find a rhythm in my normal, daily, non-monkish life that might do the same.

So I began to experiment with my daily and weekly routines. Were there any natural opportunities for prayer in my regular schedule? Were there any openings I could fill with prayer? What more-or-less easy changes could I make that would be possible to maintain without too much thought or difficulty? What new habits could become places in my life to “plug in” prayer?

And guess what? It worked. When I got home, I found a rhythm that worked for me. It didn’t require a gargantuan effort. After I identified the possibilities in my personal rhythms and routines, it took just a few minor adjustments to make prayer a more regular and central part of my life.

It didn’t involve checklists, obligations, agendas or even “discipline,” really. It was just the rhythm of my daily life, my dance with God, the prayer equivalent of an “ear-worm” (a catchy song that gets stuck in your head and replays itself all day long).

Since that day, my rhythm has changed back and forth a few times, but at its most basic it is a habit of morning-and-evening prayer and weekly Sabbath times and corporate worship.

For you, it might be a completely different rhythm, because your life’s routines are not mine. But you already have a rhythm and if, like I was at one time, you are frequently frustrated by your general prayerlessness, it might be because you haven’t yet hit your stride, to mix a metaphor.

In order to dance, you must hear the music. You must feel the beat. Similarly, in dancing with God, you may just have to find your rhythm.

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