I began to wonder what might happen to me if I learned to pray. That led me to the Academy for Spiritual Formation and that led to nearly everything else in my life that will ever really matter to me. It also led to this book.
‘Painting cannot be taught,’ said Picasso once, ‘it can only be found.’ I think that in many ways that is true of prayer as well.
I do not write about prayer as one who knows the mysteries of prayer but as one, among many, who is drawn by the mystery of prayer. I never think of myself as a theologian or a teacher. On the days that I lead retreats, I think of myself only as the head cheerleader, and I am honored to be even that. On the very best of my other days, I consider myself a poet.
Sometimes I wish that I could sing or dance or paint or compose symphonies or build cathedrals to somehow express what all of this means to me. I wish I was a priest or a robin or a child or a sunset.
‘I rage at my inability to express it all better,’ wrote Monet to a friend. ‘You’d have to use both hands and cover hundreds of canvasses.’ A fountain pen and a blank page seem inadequate to me almost all of the time. Yet they are the tools that have chosen me.…
It is a life lived at attention that I seek, a life in which prayer has woven itself into the very fabric of my days, a life in which prayer has become a constant, as regular as breathing out and breathing in. I do not know for certain that such a thing can ever be true of me. The witness of the saints is that there is at least that possibility, no matter how remote it seems day in and day out.…
I keep finding myself stumbling across the ways that prayer in the ancient way intersects with the needs of our own lives here, our needs for silence and stillness, for order and oblation, for community and coherence, and for the God Within and the God Without. Such prayer can be as relevant and powerful for us in our day as it was in the lives and days of the ancient fathers and mothers. I am convinced that such prayer has much to teach us about our personal and private communication with God and also about our collective and public worship of God. I am just as convinced that the words themselves, the words of the prayers that have been said for centuries by the faithful have power themselves.…
If we are to live lives that enable us to hear more clearly who we really are, then we will have to learn to move to a rhythm that is superior to the ones that we have fashioned for ourselves, or the ones that a consumer society has foisted upon us. We will have to discover the rhythms of prayer and life that can be found in the steps of the Ancient Dance of the Ancient of Days: the liturgy, the Eucharist, the calendar and the mass, the prayers of confession and intercession and recollection and contemplation, the habits of reading and retreat and working with our hands, the practices ofhospitality and forgiveness and being with the poor.
Our lives must be shaped by the same rhythms that shaped the ancients, those who have gone before us. Only then will we be able to take up our places and join in the general Dance.
Excerpted from Living Prayer by Robert Benson
(Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, copyright 1998, ISBN: 0874779677)