Learning to be a beginner. Again and again.
Last night a friend invited me to join her at the nearby Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna for vespers sung in the spirit of Taize, a prayer style that uses repetitive, meditative singing. Although I was familiar with Taize, an ecumenical order that came out of France, I don’t think I had ever really experienced true Taize-style prayer. As with anything new, when we arrived at the chapel with its beautiful mural (pictured here) by Tomie de Paola, I wondered what it would be like. Would I know what to do? What if I didn’t know the songs? Would I just have to sit there and listen rather than participate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing.
It turned out to be a calming and beautiful service with easy-to-follow chant-like prayers repeated again and again until they felt familiar. And then silence. And then more chanted prayers and more silence. Until we worked our way through the rest of evening prayer. All of this reminded me of something I wrote about in Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality. A critical part of our spiritual journey — perhaps our life journey in general — is a willingness to be a beginner. Our society tends to make us believe we need to learn something, perfect it, and stick with it, but prayer life and spiritual “progress,” for lack of a better word, really rely on our willingness to learn anew again and again what it means to be a pilgrim on this path toward heaven.
Here’s what I said about my own struggles with this beginner mentality in “Notes from the Journey” in Everyday Divine:
I’m not good at being a beginner. I want to be an expert from Day 1. No matter what I’m doing. Even when I’m doing something I’ve never done before. Not sure where that mentality comes from, but it’s a stumbling block. To expect perfection in everything is a surefire path to “failure,” or to not trying at all.
I need the willingness to be a beginner in prayer, to sit there and be open to whatever might unfold, to come back day after day even when it feels like I’m not progressing and just practice my “craft,” the craft of praying.
This week in the early morning hours before anyone else is awake, I’ve been saying Morning Prayer out on the deck or in my sun porch. And slowly, slowly I have found a rhythm there that feels right, one I hope I can keep up for good. As soon as that thought enters my mind, I realize I’m heading right back to the quest for perfection instead of living in this moment, praying in this moment, one day at a time. (Everyday Divine, page 12)
Practice being a beginner today. Find a prayer method you’ve never tried before and simply begin, no long-range goals or image of perfection. Just begin. Here’s a clip of a Taize prayer, in case you’d like to experience that, although it’s much more elaborate than the simple chanting we did last night.