Thursday, August 21, 2014

Practical Life as a Path to Prayer

Much of the time in the first weeks in the Level I atrium is spent working on "Practical Life." The outside observer might look at a child polishing silver, washing hands or spooning beans and wonder, what exactly does this have to do with spiritual formation? Are these ordinary, mundane tasks really important?
The three-fold purpose of practical life in the atrium is to prepare, to tend, to pray. To understand exactly what is meant, we must first remember the primary goal of the atrium, to foster inner prayer. We as adults understand all too well the difficulty of this task, the ability to still oneself fully, to enter into true prayer of the heart, and hear God speaking to the soul. Practical life prepares the child. Simple, repetitive tasks in which the child delights in repeating (we all know a young child's favorite phrase "do it again!") are offered. These simple tasks give an opportunity for the child to gain independence, to learn to still the body, control movement, and become attentive and focused. In a culture where children constantly receive rapid visual stimulation and rarely enjoy the opportunity to simply experience silence, it is even harder for a child to learn to be still within. "To achieve silence: this is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer." (His Grace Met. Kallistos) Practical life prepares a child to be still, a first step in entering fully into the Divine Liturgy and prayer. It also prepares the child to be ready to listen attentively to later presentations and scripture readings.
As the child grows, practical life also offers the opportunity to go beyond controlled movement, to tend to his surroundings. Arranging flowers to beautify the atrium, changing cloths on the prayer table, sweeping up dirt, polishing tarnished silver, each of these offer ways for the child to take ownership of the space and maintain it in a beautiful and orderly way as a gift to God.
Finally, for all children, and adults as well, practical life can help us to pray. These simple activities foster meditation and mindful activity. Humble work is often held up as a means to prayer; repetitive tasks offer each of us the time to be calm, still and prayerful, opening our heart and soul to the Holy Spirit. Just as fingering the knots of a prayer rope can be a way to keep our mind attentive to our prayers, so can spooning beans into a dish, folding towels or polishing pieces of silver.