Happy new year! After writing these pieces for more than two years, I thought it was time to think about beginnings!
For those thinking about taking up a new prayer practice, here are two tips: do start small and manageable; and don’t feel guilty. The important thing is to begin. We are all beginners after all.
For those who have been struggling a while, or have got stuck or given up, don’t worry. We are all always beginning in prayer. And nothing is lost. Each time we begin again, we begin from where we have arrived, not with a blank slate. The past gifts and workings of the Spirit have value and can be built on; don’t sweep them all away.
Thomas Merton wrote, “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings… All life tends to grow like this, in… the realization of the ‘new life’ that is in us who believe, by the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In Zen Buddhism there is a practice called shoshin, or beginner’s mind, which fosters an attitude of wide open eagerness and lack of preconceptions. It means understanding that we will never stop learning in every single area of our lives, and will never overcome our human fallibility. The beginner’s mind defends us from measuring ourselves against others, keeps us open to possibility, avoids the hubris and closed-mindedness of the expert’s mind. The true experts in prayer know that they are always beginning and always will be.
Parker J Palmer wrote, “I am a novice in every new moment of the day, each of which presents possibilities unknown and untried. Why not embrace that fact and see what happens? … Let’s make a pact of mutual support to begin again with a beginner’s mind and with hope.”
It’s important to bear in mind St Benedict’s injunction to “Begin everything you attempt with the earnest prayer that it will be brought to perfection.” (Prologue to the Rule, Mucknell Abbey). But God is the one bringing to perfection. It is not in our own power.
So at the same time never forget that, most wonderfully, God’s love for us is always infinite, never measured by how well we think we’re doing or how far along the road. God always delights in our sincere beginners’ fumblings.