10,000 hours – Katy Ledecky, Yo Yo Ma, Simone Biles, and many others understand. There is a threshold of practice that raises one’s level of performance to expert. And then a dedicated persistence and perseverance in that practice is needed to maintain that level of expertise. Last century, when I was in college I had reached 10,000 hours and more. I competed at a national level, in the deep end so to speak, where lots of people competed in races that were resolved in tenths or hundredths of seconds.
But that was last century. How about this century? 3-4 times a week at 0-dark-30 I drive to Stafford to swim. There is no team. Just me. All these years later the muscle memory is good, the stroke mechanics are well honed, I’m hanging in there, but getting slower, but then my racing days are over. Continuing to swim has other benefits.
When I was in college, 30-40 hours a week in training was not unheard of. When I was interviewed by Admiral Rickover for the Naval Nuclear Power program, he none too kindly suggested that I probably did not study as much; that I had my priorities all wrong. Let me ask you…. in the long run, what was more important, what contributed more to my overall well being: swimming, studying…. or prayer?
Throw me in the deep end of the pool – and I am fine. Muscle memory and experience take over. I will be fine. But throw me into the deep end of life will I be fine? Will I have the “muscle memory” and experience of prayer that will let me be fine. When tragedy came while I was in college I was not fine. There were nowhere near 10,000 hours of prayer. I floundered.
It has been many years since college. I long ago passed 10,000 hours of prayer. I am not looking to be thrown into the deep end, but then the deep end never asks. It just shows up unwelcomed and uninvited to your doorstep. A condo collapses in Florida, a pandemic, firestorms in the west, another mass shooting, the next…. I don’t know what, but I will know it when it lands on my doorstep. And it is not just world events, it is also the events closer to home: uncertain medical diagnoses, a marriage growing colder, a child heading down a bad road, growing weary in the long wait for a train don’t come. Sometimes you are plunged into the deep end; sometimes the waters just slowly rise until you discover you’re there.
Perhaps it is in these moments of the deep-end of life we discover we are less practiced in prayer than we imagined. I take some comfort in the assurances of Scripture: “the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). But shouldn’t we prepare ourselves?
I am pretty good about getting up at “0-dark-30” to take myself to the pool and put myself in a position to practice my swimming. But here’s the question: am I as consistent in taking the time and opportunity to come away by myself to a deserted place to think, ponder, and discern the focus of my prayer, to let the Holy Spirit lift my prayer, in all its weakness, up to the Lord Our God? Of course you know I am asking you the same question.
How many of us here have extra time on their daily calendars, with nothing particular to do? No many? Not surprising. We are do-ers, get-things-done kind of people – it is the fabric of who we are. We fill our lives. We are practiced in many and varied things. And when those skills, abilities and knowledge are needed they come easily, naturally, in time ordinary or exceptional. But do we devote that same energy and time learning to “come away …. And rest for a while.” And what do we teach our children by our example?
In the Gospel, the Apostles have just returned from their first mission. Many assume they must be tired and need to relax and put their feet up – and so Jesus invites them to a mini-retreat. I think it is more likely that they are over-the-top enthusiastic because they just had the extraordinary experience of the power of God in their mission as they cured people and cast out evil spirits. They are pumped, excited…but do they know what this all means? If you read the fuller part of Mark’s gospel, the answer is “No.” They really do not get what is happening at all. The farther we move into Mark’s gospel, the more clueless the disciples seem to become. Maybe it is because they do not have the space and time to ponder or consider how all this is fitting together. They need to process it all. They need to come away.
Jesus invites them to a deserted place, the kind of place in Mark’s gospel where one goes to pray (Mk 1:35); where one also meets face to face both one’s temptations and experiences divine assistance (Mk 1:12-13). Perhaps the disciples were in danger of becoming a bit too enamored of their own abilities to bring about wonders and signs. The deserted place will help them to process what has just happened – and maybe to see it is not about them and their experience at all. They are part of a bigger picture in which God has seen the sheep of Israel and had compassion for them.
It is the same for all of us. In our ordinary moments. In extraordinary moments. In the moment in between. From time to time we need to come away.
To see what God would have us see
To begin to understand how we are to pray
To face our temptations
To experience divine assistance
To see the compassion of God that surrounds us
To become what we see
10,000 hours of prayer, reflection, worship and more so that we are experts in being the compassion of God in our time and place.
We schedule so many things in our lives. Schedule some time to Come away … and rest for a while.