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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