Perhaps you will remember the sequence in the movie: the protagonist’s mentor whom he asked to “teach him karate” said that he would, and that the first lesson was to put wax on his car, then take the wax off, each arm working in turn, the left arm making a circular polishing motion putting the wax on, then the right arm making a similar circular motion taking the wax off. There were a lot of cars to be polished in this way, and the job took all day and well into the night. This task was paired with a similar one of painting the fence, using a rising brush stroke followed by a falling brush stroke. It also was a big job, and its performance again took all day.
People who have seen the movie (or studied martial arts) will know that Mr. Miyagi was not looking for cheap labour, but was in fact teaching his young protégé how to block an incoming punch. The endlessly repeated movement of moving the arm in a “wax on, wax off” motion taught the body through muscle memory how to do a chest block; the “paint the fence” motion taught the body how to do a head block. The repetition was necessary to anchor the memory in the muscles, so that one no longer thought, “Oh my! I need to block this punch”, but simply responded to the punch with the appropriate block. Blocking became instinctive, a kind of unthinking default mode when one was faced with an incoming blow. Such responses could only become ingrained through long and repeated practice.
Prayer is a bit like that. As disciples of Jesus, our aim is for prayer to become our default mode, something we do instinctively and more or less constantly. That is why we continue to say our prayer rule every day. It is no use us praying up a storm for hours at a time every couple of months or so, and not praying in between. Long and intensive prayer is good, but it cannot substitute for daily faithfulness in saying our prayers. When we persevere in saying our prayer rule and slog away day after day, we can sometimes become discouraged and tempted to quit, especially during times when we are spiritually dry. Everyone experiences such dry times periodically—times when reading Scripture seems a chore, and when all of our prayers seem to bounce back off the ceiling to us and never rise to heaven. We are then tempted to conclude that God is not really listening and that we are simply wasting our time (which doubtless could be spent in more worthwhile pursuits, like video-games or Facebook). We feel a bit like the Karate Kid felt after he polished his forty-ninth car. What’s the use of all this wax on, wax off?
It is just then that we must remember what the Karate Kid was really doing when he was waxing those cars, and what we are really doing when we persevere slogging away in our daily prayers—we are training ourselves. In our case, we are training our hearts to turn instinctively to God, to look up from the visible world around us to seek the transcendent face of God above. It takes many repetitions, many days of faithfully praying our rule, or many repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, to build this internal habit into our heart. But it is worth the effort, for life will sooner or later throw us a punch, and we need to be able to survive it—not by blocking with our arms, but by turning in prayer to God. For most of us, prayer is not instinctive or automatic. When things get tough, we automatically whine and complain. Our prayer rule helps us to learn a better response, so that when things get tough, we automatically turn to God and pray. To ingrain such a response is worth all our daily slogging, even through the dry times. We should continue our training, continue our “wax on, wax off”, continue to build in an interior habit. The incoming punches will come soon enough.