A few weeks ago I decided to pick up guitar. I mean that pretty much literally. With the “Summer of ’69” ringing in my head, I picked up my daughter’s mostly unused six-string, and with the help of an instruction book and an app, I can proudly say that I’m the master of about two chords, if you’re being generous. I’m also the master of three really sore fingertips. But I still haven’t played “until my fingers bled,” like Bryan Adams.
It’s been fun and also frustrating. I practice a chord transition and can’t manage to make my fingers do what they’re supposed to do. Or the app tells me I’m doing it wrong, and I don’t know how to do it right. What I’ve learned is that I have no intuition for guitar playing. I need a teacher.
This experience reminds me of a singing bowl I bought at a remote mountaintop monastery in Italy. Singing bowls are an aid in meditative prayer (you know, when people say “om”). A monk demonstrated how you hold the bowl in one hand and the wooden mallet in the other. Swirling the mallet around the rim causes the bowl to vibrate and emanate a warm, soothing sound — the sound of prayer. I thought of the description in Revelation 5 of heavenly elders holding bowls of burning incense, the prayers of the saints.
When I unwrapped my bowl at home several weeks after acquiring it, I took the bowl in one hand and the small wooden mallet in the other and sat down with my new singing bowl for a few minutes of prayerful, tonal inspiration. I rolled the mallet around the inside of the bowl. Nothing. I did it faster. I tried it slower. Nothing.
Besides just bang it, there was nothing I could do but watch that bowl sit there, inert and silent. I might as well fill it with M&Ms.
I became introspective. Since the bowl came from a holy place, it might only respond to a person at spiritual peace. I didn’t think the bowl actually had reasoning skills, but it must be mysteriously sensitive to the pressure which results from being stressed. I was pretty wound up about a couple of things — which was why I needed the bowl — so I decided to relax and be at peace. I sat as still as possible. My breathing softened. My mind pondered happy things. I prayed with a thankful heart. I was ready.
The bowl thought otherwise. Like before, it gave me nothing for all my efforts. So then I figured this bowl must really know.
I set it aside and tried again the next day. Same result. Every day for a week. Same result. By this time my prayer bowl of peace had seriously stressed me out. I was about done with it.
I wonder if people feel this way about prayer or Bible study or worship or just trying to be a Christian. I wonder if people do everything they know to do and when it still doesn’t work, they give up. We get it in our minds that prayer, Bible study, making good friends, being parents and so on should come naturally. And when it doesn’t, we feel like failures, don’t we?
Can I offer a word of encouragement? Important things are not always easy. Sometimes it’s really hard to pray, understand the Bible and do lots of other things that are important. Christians call these spiritual disciplines because they usually require discipline. And often we need to be humble enough to ask for a guide. When we listen to our guides and keep trying, then one day it feels less like discipline and more like a gift, like grace.
I’m still awaiting an epiphany on the guitar. I gave up on my singing bowl, but I learned that neither the bowl nor my spirit were as broken as I feared. I asked a guide for help. She listened to my predicament and gently offered the simple wisdom that made all the difference: “You’re holding the mallet upside down.” And that made all the difference. Om.