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December 16, 2012 - January 5, 2013

Learning to pray better by learning to juggle St. Gregory the Great pastor finds inspiration in a unique activity

Through teaching himself to juggle, Father Paul Wachdorf, Pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish, 5545 North Paulina Street, found ways to pray better. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Father Paul Wachdorf


There is a spirit of adventure that lurks inside me. New ideas intrigue me. I like to try things I have never done before.

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to juggle. I went to a local bookstore and bought the book “Juggling for the Complete Klutz.” It came with three juggling bags. As I struggled to master the art of juggling, I began to see parallels between learning how to juggle and learning how to pray. I would like to share with you the four basic steps I had to master to learn how to juggle. Then, I want to reflect on what learning how to juggle has taught me about learning how to pray.

Getting started

You begin to learn how to juggle by holding three of the juggling bags in one hand. You throw them up into the air and let them fall to the ground. You bend down and pick them up. Repeat. This is called “The Drop.” You repeat this step until the novelty wears off. It doesn’t take long to master this; but it is a very important step.

The point is simple. If you want to learn how to juggle, you must get used to experimenting, taking risks, making mistakes, experiencing failure and starting over.

Once you have mastered this step, you move on to step two. In step two, you work with only one juggling bag. You cradle it in the center of your hand and toss it back and forth in an arc between your right and your left hand using a scooping motion. The top of the arc should always be at eye level and in the same plane. This is called “The Toss.”

The point of this step is to develop a consistent toss. Each toss must be of the same height and in the same plane. If your toss is erratic and inconsistent, you will never learn how to juggle. Once you have developed a consistent toss, you are ready to move on to step three.

In step three, you begin with one juggling bag in each hand. You toss the bag in your right hand in an arc toward your left hand using the same scooping motion you practiced in step two. As this right bag reaches the top of its arc and begins to fall downward, you toss the bag in your left hand in an arc to the inside of the right bag. You then catch the first bag in your left hand and then the second bag in your right hand. This is called “The Exchange.”

This move is more difficult than it appears. It is like trying to pat the top of your head with one hand while you rub your stomach with the other hand. In this step you make natural and second nature a movement that is initially awkward and uncomfortable.

In the final step, you begin with two bags in your right hand and one bag in your left hand. You throw one bag from your right hand into the air. As it begins its downward arc, you throw the bag in your left hand to the inside of the right bag. This is the move you practiced in step three. As this bag begins its downward arc, you throw the second bag in your right hand into the air to the inside of the left bag.

At any given point, there will be only one bag in the air and one bag in each hand. If all goes well, you continue to catch and throw the bags into the air in a regular rhythm. Two exchanges in a row are called a “Jug.”

Not so easily mastered

When I first began to juggle, I thought I would master it quickly. I easily mastered steps one, two and three. In attempting this fourth step, I learned that juggling was more difficult than I thought. I continued to go back to step one. This was a blow to my pride.

The real temptation I had to face as I repeatedly bent down to pick up errant juggling bags was the desire to give in to discouragement and frustration. I felt that I would never get the hang of it. I simply wanted to put the book and the juggling bags aside as a bad investment. The point of this step is that you need patience and perseverance if you want to learn how to juggle.

I had to be patient with myself as I continued to fail and make mistakes. I had to persevere from my initial experience of juggling as a fun and novel idea to the hard work it demanded of me.

I finally was able to juggle, but not before I had spent many hours trying and failing. The breakthrough, when it eventually came, was a surprise and a joy. From that point on, I steadily progressed until I could consistently juggle with some level of proficiency.

Parallels to prayer

What I have described above gives a basic idea of what you need to do to learn how to juggle. For me, there was more to this experience than simply learning how to juggle. The process gave me new insights into learning how to pray. Here are some parallels between juggling and praying that come out of my life experiences.

Step one of learning how to pray has to do with a willingness to experiment, to take risks, and to make mistakes. When I was a child, elementary school taught me how to pray. They taught me well. However, I took my childlike ways of praying into my adolescence and my adulthood.

In order for me to grow in my prayer life and in my relationship with God, I had to move beyond what was familiar to me. I had to be willing to experiment with different prayer forms. I had to discover different ways of opening myself up to God, ways that fit my own unique personality and temperament. I had to experiment with different postures, times of the day, and places to go to pray. All this involved trial and error. I made mistakes. Continually, I had to give myself permission to be a learner.

I also had to accept the fact that in learning how to pray, I did not know what I was doing. I had to learn what it meant to let God’s Spirit guide and direct me in my attempts to pray. If I had clung to my old and familiar ways of praying, I never would have learned how to pray in a way that was appropriate to my developing relationship with God. I struggled to let go of my willfulness and my agendas that blocked God’s desires for me and invitations given to me.

Today, I am still learning what it means to pray and to be in relationship with God. I continue to experiment, to take risks, and to make mistakes. This is the nature of the prayer journey. Practicing this step prepared me to move on to step two of my prayer journey.

Step two of learning how to pray has to do with consistency. We need to consistently devote time to becoming aware of and responsive to the ongoing presence of God in our lives. Prayer parallels human relationships. I know from my own experience that if I do not make quality time for my friends, then these relationships remain shallow and static.

In a similar way, I have to make time for God. Fidelity rather than fruitfulness is the key to effective prayer. What happens when I pray is less important than taking time to pray, than giving God consistent time day after day. I have to trust that God will take care of the fruits of my prayer.

All this led to a question that I needed to answer if I were to develop a consistent prayer life: Why pray?

Not long ago a seminarian whom I have worked with shared with me an experience from his parish internship. On his internship, he developed a close relationship with a family from the parish who had a son.

One day the seminarian was at their house for dinner. The little boy ran up to him. He was excited. He said, “Do you know what? I pray for you every day.” The student thanked him and told him how much it meant for him to hear that. But the little boy was not finished. He added, “Do you know why? Because I love you.”

Why do I pray? I pray because I love God and because God loves me. Prayer is my loving response to the God who loves me just the way I am. If I do not consistently devote time to my prayer life, then this love relationship cannot grow and develop. As I develop consistency in my prayer life, I am ready to move on to step three.

Make it second nature

Step three of learning how to pray has to do with making natural and second nature some behaviors that I initially find to be very awkward and uncomfortable. I had four major things that made me uncomfortable as I learned how to pray.

One very uncomfortable thing was sitting still and doing nothing. I have always lived a very active lifestyle. Being productive and getting things accomplished have always been very important to me. In many ways, I have lived my life as a “human doing.”

I have been rewarded for this. Yet the Psalmist (Ps. 46, v. 10) says “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Sitting still and doing nothing feels like wasting time to me. As I pray, I often think of things I need to be doing and want to jump up and get back to work. I had to learn how to believe that prayer at its best is an experience of wasting time with God. I had to face my fear of what might surface within me if I created an environment of external and internal silence.

In the silence, would I discover that there was nothing to hear, that there was nothing worthwhile inside me? Would I experience the silence of God, that God had nothing to say to me? Would I experience my dark side, my sinfulness, or thoughts, feelings, or memories that I did not want to look at or face?

Yet my experience reassured me. The silence was not destructive or empty. I experienced God present to me in the silence. I had to learn how to listen. This meant that I had to come to a new understanding of prayer. I grew up believing that prayer had to do with talking to God. I had to learn that prayer has more to do with listening than with speaking.

This has not been easy. I can easily spend all my prayer time telling God what I want. It was very difficult for me to let go of my agendas and just listen. I had to learn to hear the invitations of the Spirit that came to me through my thoughts, memories, images, feelings and desires. I had to be attentive to God speaking to me through the people, events, circumstances and coincidences of my daily life. In learning how to listen, I experienced God speaking to me in ways I never dreamed would have been possible.

Be honest with God

Finally, I had to learn how to be honest with God. I had to learn to share all of myself with God in prayer. I found that I wanted to present to God only the good or acceptable parts of myself, the parts that I felt would be pleasing to God. To share all of myself — my dark side, my sinfulness, my mixed motivations — was frightening. Yet as I did so, I came to an experience of God loving me just the way I was.

I could name other areas that I found awkward and uncomfortable as I learned how to pray. For each of them, I discovered that growth in my prayer life was directly related to my willingness to practice these new behaviors until they became more natural and even second nature. As I practiced this step, I was prepared to move on to the last step.

In step four, I had to learn patience and perseverance in the face of distractions, dryness, darkness, and a sense of the absence of God. The temptation to abandon prayer, to cut it short when it was dry, dark or filled with distractions was strong. When I experienced the absence of God, I found myself wanting to avoid prayer.

Many obstacles made it difficult to persevere in prayer. Often, I felt close to God and wanted to spend time with God. These were the days when prayer was easy. There were other times when I did not feel like praying. My reasons for not praying on any given day were numerous. At these times, perseverance in prayer was a decision — a decision I had to renew day after day.

Another obstacle was work and activity. When I first began to take my prayer life seriously, I bemoaned the fact that I had too much work to do, that there was no time for prayer.

My experience has been that my work and personal responsibilities continue to increase. I am always too busy to pray. Yet I know that I am daily able to find time to eat, to sleep, to do many different things. My busy schedule does not get in the way of these responsibilities.

Once I became convinced of the value of my prayer, I found that I could make time for it every day, no matter how busy I was. Again, to pray was a decision — a decision that required persistence and perseverance even in the midst of all the work and the activities of my life.

A final obstacle was my desire for results, for insights, for consolations. Often, I desired the consolations of God more than the God of consolation. I liked the good feelings and the insights I experienced when I prayed. Yet when my only motivation for praying was to receive these consolations of God and they were absent, I was tempted to give up my prayer life.

When I experienced God as far away or absent from my life, I wanted to walk away from my prayer. In the midst of these feelings, I had to decide to pray. I had to persevere in my prayer, even when I was experiencing the absence of God and God’s consolations.

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to juggle. It began innocently enough. I did not realize when I walked into a bookstore to buy a book about juggling what God would have in store for me. I did not realize at the time what learning how to juggle would teach me about life, about prayer, and about my relationship with God.

After many years of praying, I still do not know exactly what I am doing. I will always be a learner. I will always need to go back to the insights contained in the four steps of learning how to juggle. I am grateful to God who teaches me and speaks to me in surprising ways through the people, events, and circumstances of my life.

My prayer for you, is that this simple journey of juggling and praying may help you and encourage you. Give yourselves permission to be learners as you seek to “juggle” your way through life, to balance your daily responsibilities with your commitment to being a person of prayer, committed to God who loves you.