Excerpt from The Making Of An Ordinary Saint

Praying Without Ceasing

To practice the spiritual discipline of prayer, I decided to renew my own commitment to Brother Lawrence’s idea of “practicing the presence of God.” 

Praying without ceasing is like calling a friend on the phone and never hanging up. I seek to maintain an ongoing conversation with God as I go about my day. It reminds me of spending the day with my wife or a close friend; we don’t have to talk to be aware of each other’s presence. I’m amazed at the way Christy and I can communicate without speaking, and it seems the same with prayer. I soon find it’s a little like carrying with me what I find in solitude or worship— staying in a gentle posture, attuned to the movements of the Spirit as I go about my day. As the hours wear on, I often forget about God, and so I humbly begin again with grace and a smile at my limitations. 

The analogy of athletic or musical training continues to apply. The more I practice, the stronger and more proficient I become. Again, prayer is not something to be mastered in forty days; forty years seems more applicable. Actually, it’s not something to be mastered at all. As Thomas Merton said, “We do not want to be beginners [at prayer], but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life.”

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is the neurological process that happens with repeated activity, much like when someone learns to ride a bike or a baby learns to walk. The theory is that we lay new neural pathways each time we perform a certain movement. This is exactly how I felt when I started climbing mountains. It was almost as if the more mountains I climbed, the more my body knew how to do it. In a sense each mountain was easier, even if it had been a year since the last one and I wasn’t in the physical shape I had been in before. Once I started to climb, my body seemed to remember how to endure the physical strain. 

I wonder if this is how the spiritual life plays out as well. Throughout the years I have been practicing praying without ceasing, more so at some times than others, but as I began this project, it came back rather easily. Years ago, holding my attention on God for more than a few minutes seemed nearly impossible. These days it flows fairly smoothly, and while I have plenty of room for growth, I can manage longer stretches than before. 

Majestic and Mundane

Sometimes holding on to God’s presence as I go about my day is exhilarating, liberating, and even fun. I think God likes humor, music, creativity, working puzzles, and building beautiful things out of messes. I feel his pleasure in teaching me about his creation both in people and nature. He points out details, rhythms, and beauty. I’m reminded of the lyrics from an old hymn: “He walks with me and he talks with me.” I feel he is ever happy to teach and show me the world. 

Other times prayer is mundane, uneventful, and boring. Probably the hardest part about growing in deeper intimacy with God is that the feelings and senses visit and fade. Sometimes I’m left with an emptiness like no other. I’m left feeling vacant, and ordinary life fails to satisfy. I miss God. It’s like visiting the neighborhood park after going to Disneyland. I guess I wouldn’t miss him had I not experienced him. 

The old writers would say his absence is a grace. It is out of love that he hides. We do well to remember that God’s hiddenness can be helpful in the growth of our souls. God’s absence is as much an act of love as his presence. It is in the lonely spaces where faith is forged.

Foster, Nathan. The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (pp. 144-145). Baker Publishing Group, 2014.

Originally published October 2014.