Years ago, I heard Richard Foster say that prayer is to the spiritual life what experimentation is to science. In early Christianity, the monastic communities understood this, and they practiced prayer in an “ask, seek, knock” spirit. We have come to call this kind of praying discernment.
As schools of love, the early Christian communities knew that the principle of love had to be applied, and that it could be done in a variety of ways. So, prayer became the means for deciding what the life of love would look like in a particular location. As one community gave birth to others, these expressions became a Rule which gave the quality of common life to the larger fellowship without eliminating the necessity of specification.
Holy experimentation was born in a realization that there is no one-size-fits-all pattern to the Christian spiritual life. It was practiced in a spirit of humility that acknowledged there was no guru who could know in advance of praying what the life of love would look like in every detail. And it was a discernment process which left open the likelihood that even good decisions would need further refinement, including the confession of error and the requisite amendments that get individuals and communities back on track.
We need holy-experimentation in our prayer life today as much as ever. We are too much given over to having to get something “right,” which only forces a perfectionism on discernment that is too heavy to bear. The way of love calls for a recovery of purity of intention, which includes the honoring of desire to glorify God while acknowledging that such glorification will always be a work in progress.
This kind of praying is liberating, and in such liberation we always make better decisions than when we feel we must be “right” from the outset. That only puts undue pressure on us, and it erodes our ability to confess where we got it wrong and our need to do further work. Holy experimentation creates a team of respectful colleagues, not camps of resentful competitors. And in that atmosphere, the way of love survives and thrives.