Adam Gopnik, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, once wrote an article for the magazine about learning to draw. His story reminds me of many Christians learning to pray.Though one may assume that Christians know how to pray (considered by some a second language), this is far from the truth. Unfortunately, prayer, especially public prayer, makes many Christians cringe.

We are embarrassed to pray “out loud” since we might be found not as articulate as we think we should be. Gopnik, educated and trained as an art critic, had never learned to draw (“there was absurdity in writing about art without being able to draw”). For the sake of credibility and to overcome feelings of “helplessness and stupidity and impotence not experienced since elementary school,” Gopnik began classes.  

He learned that the biggest challenge for beginners and experts alike is not to draw what one imagines an object “is supposed to look like,” but to draw what truly is “there.” His instructor tells him to: “burrow in … lose your schematic conventions … find some surprising symbol or shape and draw that … find a new form, another shape to draw. Something outside your symbol set … The ideas you've got in your head about the way things look – get rid of them.

After many months of trial and error, Gopnik claims a very small portion of one drawing as “the best thing I have ever drawn, and I realized that I hadn’t drawn it as I had imagined, God’s hand finally resting on mine to steal a true contour from the world.”

I suggest that prayer is much like learning to draw. Episcopalians raised on The Book of Common Prayer unfortunately assume that all prayer should to be in the eloquent style of Elizabethan English (being able to draw like the Masters). We need to remember that those prayers have been shaped and reshaped through hundreds of years of experimentation and practice. Even the disciples did not know how to pray, so they asked Jesus for direction and guidance. He offered words and expressions that have taken shape as The Lord’s Prayer. In the same way, we too, can ask Jesus to teach us to pray corralling our random thoughts, hopes, and desires into words that mean and matter to us. 

I take heart in Gopnik’s teacher’s advice: get rid of those imagined, “perfect” prayers in our mind. Speak simply from one’s heart. Open ourselves (as we can) that God touch our hearts, our mouths, and our “own” style and in our “own” words we shall pray. If we can erase all “shoulds” to speak of what we know and believe, all will be well.