I sometimes wonder about Saint Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Did he mean this literally? Surely not. Maybe he thought that by setting a ridiculously high standard, he was giving his readers a worthy if unattainable goal to aspire to, one that in real life only monastics can come close to. Or perhaps those early Christians who believed the end of the world was nigh could detach enough from the cares of daily life to devote every waking moment to prayer, but for me, caught up in all the demands of 21st-century life, it seems impossible. I feel impressed with myself when I find twenty minutes a day to meditate.
One foggy summer morning while on retreat at New Camaldoli in Big Sur, I took a walk as usual on the road that winds steeply down from the mountaintop monastery to Highway 1. This question of how to pray unceasingly lingered in the back of my mind as the mist and morning sun teased and flirted with each other up and down the mountainside. Along the way is a magnificent oak tree bearing a plaque with a verse from Psalm 34:
Here I was startled into stopping. A spider web hung between the oak’s branches, each silk festoon precisely limned with delicate droplets, and sunbeams pouring through the canopy above lit them up like jewels in a tapestry. This same glow highlighted each mote of mist wafting around the tree, and I stood transfixed, watching until the fog completely dissipated. With my mind empty of thought and my heart full of gratitude, an answer to my question came to me.
In her poem “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” Mary Oliver explains how she reaches for things, like the idea of God, that cannot be reached:
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.
In my moment of wordless wonder that foggy summer morning, it was as if I were embracing the scene with open arms, and I realized suddenly, this was prayer. My attention was my praise.
I wish I could say that ever since I’ve been a model of mindfulness, but no, I’m still working on this not-so-secret trick to blessing the Lord at all times, still aspiring to pay constant attention. As always, I’m grateful for Mary Oliver as a role model. Like her, may I morning to night never be done with looking as though with my arms wide open.