Recently, I was visiting with a friend of mine who is a prayerful woman, usually. She took a sip of tea and looked me in the eye. “My prayer life is so boring right now,” she complained. “Where’s the creativity and the old spark I used to have? How can I relish it again?”
I knew what she meant. I’ve experienced the same thing. Familiarity can foster boredom in almost any activity. But when that happens with prayer, many people are tempted to slack off.
I was thinking about that and my friend’s questions when I went to the beach on vacation. The night we arrived, I stood on the boardwalk and marveled. Although mosquitoes swarmed around me, waves crashed; seagulls screeched. The sun sprinkled orange confetti light over the water while the stiff breeze filled my nostrils with the salty smell of ocean. I couldn’t wait for daylight when I could swim.
When I returned the next morning, the beach was so different I scarcely recognized it. Sand stretched for a quarter mile out toward waves barely visible in the fog. Sharp, black rock formations rose abruptly where just the night before waves swirled. A salty mist crept inward from the sea wetting my cheek as I picked my way along cold, dark sand bars. Arriving at the rocks, I found tide pools with purple, orange, and red sea stars, bright green anemone, and odd, rust-colored, sea worms.
My third visit to the same beach revealed more surprises. Clear, spiny sand fleas sprung across the beach like a herd of miniature kangaroos. I noticed clam vent holes, perfect circles in wet sand. A flock of gulls begged food. A huge log washed ashore, and I found a fresh-water inlet.
After the fourth day, I thought I knew what to expect. Windy days had more surf. Calm days meant warm water and sand. Sand fleas, tidal changes, and gulls were inevitable. Yes, I was becoming a beach veteran. But with familiarity came routine, and the surprise was gone.
It dawned on me then that, even though God is even more complex and immense than any beach, going to the beach is like going to prayer. In prayer I encounter God just as at the beach I encounter the ocean. If I pray only when I need something, or stick with a routine even when it becomes redundant, I grow bored. But if I take the time to try a new route, visit at a different time of day, or stop to explore places I’d otherwise ignore, that’s when the awesome beauty of God can fill me.
So when I talk with my friend again, maybe I’ll tell her about my trip to the ocean and my insight about God. And even in my own prayer, I’m going imagine the similarities between God and the beach. Perhaps my friend and I both can learn to jump in grace the way my children jumped in the waves, or examine the graces and consolations God has given us like the beautiful conch shells I found. Maybe we can dig our toes into the constancy of God’s love like the crabs burrowing into the wet sand. I know that if I take the time, I’ll be able to notice more easily the fresh-water inlet insights and cool mists of kindness and notice how sand-flea distractions and foggy confusion can help us appreciate God more deeply.
Near the end of our trip I walked down to the beach again. I sat there for a few hours, watching people play and build and swim. I saw the waves wash the shore hundreds of times while the gulls flew overhead and the pelicans dove head first into the water for fish. I realized that although the ocean was the same as yesterday in some ways, Like God, each moment was totally unique and awesome. All I have to do is pay closer attention.