Read an Excerpt
The Mystery of Silence and Prayer
Stumbling in the Silence
If you can't pray -- at least say your prayers.
No one is ever prepared to endure the long silence that follows intimacy. No one is prepared to face it when it comes after lovemaking. No one is prepared to face it when it follows a season of intimacy with God. It is the hardest thing to talk about, and it is the hardest thing in the spiritual journey to prepare for. The long silence between intimacies, the interminable pause between words, the immeasurable seconds between pulses, the quiet between epiphanies, the hush after ecstasy, the listening for God -- this is the spiritual journey, learning how to live in the meantime, between the last time you heard from God and the next time you hear from God.
Just as there are seasons of the year, there are seasons of the soul, changes in the atmospheric pressure that sweep over the human spirit. We move in and out of them, often without being aware of them, almost unconsciously, and frequently without appreciation for the new experiences they bring our way. Where does one begin talking about the dips and curves along the spiritual journey? How does a minister admit that she's been left slumping toward mystery more than she has been grasping mystery? What lessons have pulled me through? What happened to all those prayers I prayed and the ones I gave up praying along the way? It seems always that the task before me was learning how to distinguish when it was God who seemed hidden and when it was I who was hiding, and above all, learning how to wait out the time until we found our way back to each other.
Ministers rarely talk about the long dry periods in their spiritual journey. I know they don't because I am one, and I have rarely been willing to bring up the matter in public for fear that listeners would view me as a spiritual fraud. How does one who is supposedly an expert on prayer and spiritual disciplines admit that there are times when her own heart is unable to get through to the God she recommends to others? How does a minister admit that she hasn't heard from God in a long, long time? It is much easier and safer to talk about the springtime of faith, when the desire for inward journeying is insatiable and belief in mystery is irrepressible.
To admit that in the spiritual journey, highs are brief, sporadic, and rare and that the human heart experiences far longer periods of dullness, emptiness, and silence can be threatening. If people accept that inspiration and ecstasy are fleeting, hard-to-come-by experiences, then what is there to look forward to, if all we can expect is to stumble in the dark? To admit that it's all a stumble seems like an admission of failure -- and Protestant ministers have a particularly difficult time admitting their defeats. Blame it on our dissident origins and our works-righteousness inheritance, which resulted in years of being told that if our prayers were met with silence, then the fault lay with no one but ourselves. Or blame it on the hardy dosage of homilies we've endured (and have ourselves given) that have insisted upon viewing God as readily available, waiting only to be sought after, invited in, and embraced. When this is your spiritual legacy, it's difficult to admit aloud to feeling adrift. It's even more difficult to admit to the times when praying feels like a hollow ritual and the closest you can bring yourself to praying is to read about prayer.
The truth is that this journey is best characterized as periods of ecstasy and periods of melancholy; seasons when I can feel the presence of the sacred in my life and seasons when the perception and even the memory of the sacred have all but evaporated from the soul; moments of deep, abiding faith and moments of quiet despair; times of calm and times of clutter; moments when prayer is music and moments when I cannot abide the sound of prayer. Stumbling, staggering, slouching, and crawling forward is not the whole story, to be sure. But stumbling, staggering, slouching, and crawling feel as though they've been the largest part of my journey. It's not possible to tell everything that has happened along the way. I've probably forgotten more than I remember. Nevertheless, fleeting glimpses of the holy that have surfaced from time to time -- however faintly, briefly, and above all mysteriously -- will always be regarded as miracles of grace to me.
An ancient Jewish legend first came across my desk years ago while I was studying for my comprehensive exams as a graduate student, reminding me of the healing power of stories. The next time I encountered the legend was years later while reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes's tiny little book The Gift of Story. No longer a graduate student, I was by this time a professor reeling under the pressure of trying to balance a career as a scholar and the demands of family and love. Both times the legend found me when I was beginning to feel as though bits and pieces of crucial knowledge were slipping away from me as I sat up at night grasping for information that my superiors approved of. Sometimes information gets in the way of knowledge, I eventually concluded. Even now this ancient Jewish legend reminds me how important stories are in helping one find one's way through darkness. On those many occasions when I have not been able either to feel or sense God's divine presence and have grown exasperated by the effort of it all, it is enough simply to cling to the memory of a memory with God. Sometimes just the memory of once having sensed God's nearness, no matter how faintly, no matter how long ago, has been enough to keep me on this journey, convincing me not to turn back, leaving me cherishing the knowledge known intuitively by my soul, even though I no longer remember how my soul first came to know it.
The story is one of the legends of the Baal Shem Tov ("master of God's name") told by his followers, the Hasidim, a Jewish sect of Eastern Europe, which he founded around the middle of the eighteenth century and which lives on to this day. Hasidic teaching centers on rebirth, believing that renewal is possible.
Perceiving that he was dying, the Baal Shem Tov called for his disciples and said, "I have acted as intermediary for you, and now when I am gone you must do this for yourselves. You know the place in the forest where I call to God? Stand there in the place and do the same. Light a fire as you have been instructed to do, and say the prayer as you learned. Do all these and God will come."
Shortly afterward, the Baal Shem Tov died. The first generation of followers did exactly as he had said, and sure enough, God came as always. After this generation passed, the second generation had forgotten how to light the fire the way the Baal Shem Tov had instructed. Nevertheless, they faithfully made the pilgrimage to the special place in the forest and said the prayer they had been instructed to pray. And sure enough, God showed up.
A third generation came along, who had forgotten how to light the fire and no longer remembered the place in the forest where they should stand. But they said the prayer as the Baal Shem Tov had instructed. And again God showed up.
By the fourth generation, no one was around who remembered how to light the fire or where the special place was in the forest. Neither was anyone alive who could recall the prayer the Baal Shem Tov had instructed his followers to pray. But there was one person who remembered the story about the fire, the forest, and the prayer and delighted in telling it over and over. And sure enough, God came.
Often when I lose my way I rely on stories to get me through the deafening silence. I stand in the pulpit before a waiting congregation, open the folder where I've tucked my sermon, and nothing comes to my mind. No grand truths. No proclamations. No eloquent speeches. I'm fresh out of oracles. Nothing but stories. I set out to preach on the doctrine of grace, and nothing comes to mind but stories of grace.
A certain woman with ten coins, precious to no one but herself, loses one, and after a few moments of panic and fright, she lights a lamp, sweeps the entire house, and searches diligently for the coin she had lost. Upon finding it, she calls together all her friends, who are baffled by all the ruckus she has created over a simple coin. But she knows the true value of one coin when you're down to your last ten. She knows how easy it is to lose and how rare it is to find precious items. She knows that there's more to celebrate than meets the eye. In order to find her coin, she had to sort and sweep through the clutter in her home. And that itself was as much a cause for celebration as finding the precious coin. To find what you're looking for right smack in the midst of life's clutter is a miracle of grace. It is the story of losing something you couldn't bear to lose and finding more than what you lost.
I have lost my faith a thousand times, only to find it nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times. Belief in mystery has waned and reappeared repeatedly throughout the journey. I wonder whether God is as weary of me as I am sometimes of my own soul. This on-again, off-again love affair with the sacred is unnerving. But it is, oddly enough, also fascinating. As frightening as it is to lose one's way on a journey one started out on confident of the route ahead, there is also something challenging about starting over, however ludicrous that may sound, of having the chance to experience the divine once more as though it were the first time.
Around and Around
Autumn to winter, winter into spring,
Spring into summer, summer into --
So rolls the changing year, and so we change;
Motion so swift, we know not that we move.
DINAH MARIAH MULOCK CRAIK
Outside my front window are three crape myrtle trees I planted a few years back when we moved into our home. I love the way they explode into a deep pink bloom just when everything else in my garden is beginning to wilt and brown from the summer heat. Every year that they bloom I find reasons to move the furniture around in the house so I can get a better view out the front window. I use their bloom as my reminder that the summer is almost over and that a new school year is right around the bend and I'd better pack as much fun as possible in these last remaining weeks of summer. But the problem is that my crape myrtle trees never bloom the same time every year. The first year they bloomed in the second week of August. The second year they bloomed in the last week of July. This year I thought I noticed the first bud during the middle of July, when it was so hot everything outside looked as though it was melting from the heat. So soon? I asked myself as I walked back and forth in front of the window, trying to get a better view. I get to enjoy their luscious color for only four to six weeks before they shed their leaves, and then I have to wait another year before their color returns. In the meantime, I change my whole life around to accommodate them. And it's worth it. I can't say exactly when they will return to me next year, but I know I'll be here waiting with my chair in the window for the first sign that the mood around these parts is changing.
Seasons are not stages I learn from the view outside my window. They are neither linear nor chartable. They do not begin and end at predictable times, and no two seasons are alike. Seasons are cyclical. We move in and out of them a thousand times as our spirits grow and stretch. We know that a new one is upon us by noticing the changes in the texture of what is going on inside us. The inner atmosphere has changed. Perhaps a hush comes over the soul. Praying hurts. It's harder to focus. After a period of devouring everything written about the awakening of the spirit, we let weeks go by without visiting the altar deep inside us. After a period of seizing every opportunity possible to steal away to quiet and meditation, we experience months in which noise is the chant of saints.
As painful as they may be to endure, seasons are a welcome change. Deep within us is an internal clock regulating when it is time to gaze and when it is time to glimpse, when it is time to speak and when it is time to listen. We will gaze again, but for now we must content ourselves with a glimpse. We will speak again, but in the meanwhile we must be satisfied with listening.
Moving in and out of the seasons of the soul means above all to grow in fits and jerks, lurches and stops, leaps and crawls, and for the most part. This becomes clear when the spiritual journey is placed within the context of ordinary life, where the seasons of the soul intersect with the chaos of a full life (in my case, marriage, motherhood, ministry, scholarship, writing, living). We hope we are better human beings for becoming mindful and attentive to the spiritual side. If we are not, we will settle for being better listeners for the most part. We're never as far along as we think, because the spiritual journey is circular. We are always repeating ourselves, returning to old themes, reexamining the same issue from a different angle and from the vantage point of a different season. We don't move on; we return wiser.
Even ministers on the journey lose their way. Even specialists in prayer at some point lose interest in prayer. We struggle. We have doubts. We grow afraid. We become bored. We are tempted to walk away. Sometimes we do. But some of us return, and walk away, and return again and again. Why? Because the point of a journey is the going, the movement, the traveling, not just the arriving.
Surrender to the Silence
Waiting sometimes is the only thing left to do. You learn to wait, or you forfeit the lesson you were supposed to learn.
Call it prayer block, a spiritual lull, the wilderness experience, the dark night of the soul. But eventually and invariably we all find ourselves suddenly wrenched into an inner abyss. For a while I blamed my prayer block on the energy spent trying to find bliss in a marriage that, given our feverish schedules, seemed always in need of reinventing. I blamed it on feeling constantly fatigued by all that went into rearing a headstrong but delightfully bewitching toddler whose needs frequently outstripped my own. I blamed it on the absurd juggling act of teaching, writing, speaking, and traveling that frequently left me a mere sentence away from babbling in public. (How many times have I awakened in the middle of the night in my bed at home or in a strange hotel room and asked myself, What city am I in? and, Is the speech over?) Eventually I had to admit that for as far back as I could remember -- which in my case was from the days when I was a teenager eking out a faith in a small storefront Pentecostal church in Atlanta -- I have anguished over what has appeared to me as the on-again, off-again character of my spiritual journey. The occasional periods of inspiration and awe seem always to be followed by longer periods of spiritual ennui. In a tradition that took religious ecstasy as proof of spiritual legitimacy, I often felt like a fraud back then for pretending to feel something I rarely felt. I thought something was wrong with me. I recall now the long prayers, the quiet tears, the secret longings, the fasts for days on end in hopes that God would fill me with awe and ecstasy. For years I felt like a failure. For several decades more, after carving out work for myself as a minister and biblical scholar, I continued to be dogged by guilt and shame.
One day I decided to surrender. After months, perhaps years, of pretending to feel something I didn't feel, I decided to confess to the deep freeze that for a long time had had me in its grip. I stopped scolding my heart because of my inability to pray as I once had. I stopped harassing my soul about my failure to feel God's presence when I prayed or listened to sacred music or stood in the pulpit to speak. And I stopped badgering God for a sign, a gesture, a sound, some indication that I hadn't lost my way, that I needn't walk away from years of ministry, preaching, counseling, teaching in a seminary, and writing what some term "inspirational" books. Slowly, gradually, I began accepting the possibility that something inside me had changed. My soul no longer responded to the same spiritual stimuli. When finally I stopped flogging myself for the hollow feeling I'd been carrying around inside for months, I began to notice a pattern. After every high there came a spiritual low. After months of maturing in my prayer life and of feeling myself becoming increasingly sensitive to the nearness and presence of the divine in my surroundings, I noticed myself becoming spiritually listless and unable to muster any passion for the disciplines I'd undertaken to nurture the inward journey. It was as if I had slammed into a brick wall, spiritually speaking. Indeed, for as long as I could remember giving myself willingly, gladly over to a belief in mystery, I remembered experiencing periods when I was barely able to stand to hear my own prayers. And thinking back on it, I realized that this wasn't the first time something in me had shut down. The soul flourishes and withers scores of times in the face of the sublime.
Rummaging lately through some old journals, I came across a poem that I wrote almost twenty years ago. I read it and was stunned to discover how much things both change and stay the same. Even back then, I knew my relationship with God was changing. And twenty years later, I am amazed to see how little I have changed.
15 June 1980
I usedta bow,
now I stand
before God's throne.
I usedta close my eyes,
now I stare
I usedta do what was expected,
now I do what I must
to make this faith
faithful to me.
I usedta be afraid of God,
now I take my chances
tapping my feet,
listening for God.
Even back in my twenties I was trying to find new ways to pray. I was trying to learn how to pray over the noise of a full life. I decided to take my chances with the silence, complaining that if the deep freeze was my fault, then if God was trying to get my attention, God would just have to learn to yell over the sounds of a life being lived. In the end, God didn't have to yell. I learned to trust the silence after years of fighting against it. I learned to let go of my naive belief that breaking out into goose bumps at talk of the sacred was a signal of intimacy with God. I learned to trust the winter months of faith, when it's difficult to remember why one ever bothered to believe. I stopped being so hard on myself and demanding that, as a wife, scholar, and writer, I should always feel excited about what I was doing, or that I should, as a mother and a minister, always sparkle with alertness and insight. This was hard to accept in a culture where, at the first sign of dullness or tedium or monotony, it's all right to give up, walk away, or try something new in hopes of finding new meaning, new thrills, new satisfaction. I stopped complaining about "going through the motions." I decided it was all right to pray (whether in new or old ways) and not feel anything. The point was to pray, whatever way I could bear at the moment. Rituals are routines that force us to live faithfully even when we no longer feel like being faithful. Until our heart has the time to arouse itself and find its way back to those we love, rituals make us show up for duty.
Neither my years in seminary nor those devoted to doctorate work in biblical studies prepared me for these periodic pulls into darkness, when prayer hurt and when journeying inward felt like a walk through a burning corridor. While loss, grief, illness, and disappointment certainly have a way of hurling us into a spiritual abyss, not all declines can be traced to a specific cause, nor can they always be easily predicted or charted. Eventually we have to accept that dying and rising, freezing and thawing, resting and rebounding, sleeping and awakening are the necessary conditions for all growth and creativity. The journey of the soul unfolds in a continual cycle, much like the seasons of nature. Spring brings a renewal of growth and energy, summer is a time of strength and confidence, and in the fall we are ablaze with insight. And then comes winter, the season of myriad agonies. As one preacher from ancient times put it so well, "For everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven?' One of the most painful lessons is learning how to appreciate the hush of winter, when more growth takes place underground than above ground, and there in quiet, unnoticeable ways.
Eventually I had to learn that sometimes less is more. I learned to recognize the seasons of my journey. I learned to listen to my soul and to give it the much needed rest it clamored for. I gave myself permission to stop thinking I had to be superb all the time; it was all right to stutter and putter along. I discovered that it was all right no longer to remember what in former seasons I thought was so wonderful about ministry, marriage, mothering, and the spiritual process. It would come back to me.
Winter returns a thousand times. But so does spring. Even though it's easy to become overwhelmed by the gloominess, and although an occasional wallow in self-pity makes eminent sense (to me, anyway), there are things to be gained from staying put, taking it a day at a time, slowing down, and giving love, hope, and renewal a chance. It's possible to live through winter. And when we do, we're glad, for there are lessons learned in the winter that not only cannot be learned in the spring but must be mastered in order to appreciate the spring.
Believing in Believing
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
It never occurred to me, because no one ever told me, that I would one day as a minister stop believing -- stop believing in God as I once had, stop believing in the religion I had been practicing most of my life, stop believing in what I was doing, stop believing that my life as minister, professor of Bible, and writer made any sense. Had I been warned that this day was coming, I might have been more careful. I would have watched for the telltale signs. I might have thought to protect myself against the wear and tear on a life of faith. I could have taken care to tend more assiduously to the nicks and scrapes a praying heart endures over the years -- the unanswered prayers, the weeks of not being able to pray, the contradictions, the hypocrisy in the church, the months of living with the silence of God.
But I didn't know. I didn't notice that bits and pieces of my faith were eroding away. One day I just looked around and the passion for prayer was gone.
It is enough for me these days just to believe in believing.
Why didn't I listen to those around me (professors, colleagues, ministers) when they said that I couldn't keep this up much longer, this trying to juggle faith with the cold, hard gaze of objectivity? Praying for the sick, administering the sacraments, mounting pulpits with sermon notes, counseling the distressed, churning out pastoral remarks for the church newsletter -- these tasks call for a certitude that my scholarly self has been trained to mock. "How can you hope to be taken seriously as a scholar if you insist upon taking part in all that mumbo jumbo in the church?" asked colleagues with raised eyebrows when word circulated that I was actively involved in church work. "How can you be a scholar when you talk so passionately and intimately about God?" colleagues in ministry and lay members in church often sidled up to me and inquired. I had no answer for either group. I didn't understand it myself. How do you explain belief and unbelief being able to occupy the same space? You can't. But I was confident that the two could coexist amicably in me. Each in its own way reinforced the other, I told myself. Nature, it seemed to me, had dealt me a cruel hand, making me something of a spiritual hunchback, twisting and misshaping my inner self in ways that left me at heart both a cynic and a believer. I had witnessed and experienced enough evil in the world to question seriously, even laugh at, the notion of God and faith; but I was also convinced that life is a mystery, for which evil and rationality do not render a sufficient account.
For a while I was content to keep the juggling act going. But now one of the balls had disappeared.
How long did I think this would last? How long did I think I could go on skirting the issues? How foolish I was for thinking no one noticed that I had begun to equivocate. Out of my snobbish, elitist training as a scholar I underestimated people's intelligence. And I overestimated my own. "This is not a course on what God said" I announced every year to first-year students who enrolled in my introductory course in the Old Testament; "this is a course on what the ancient Hebrews said God said." That was my pronouncement the first day of class every semester. But on Sundays I found myself standing before church audiences naked as a bark. "Speak, Lord, for your servants hear." Years of trying to wean students off the "why" questions had taken their toll on me. I thought I could convince them to be satisfied first with the "what" questions, hoping they would become as fascinated as I with "where" and "when -- which, of course, they didn't, since it's "why" that, in the first place, makes people stagger into sanctuaries, synagogues, and temples on holy days in search of burning bushes. I worked so hard at trying not to let my own beliefs spill over into my classroom that I didn't know how to talk any longer about God. Not with assurance. Not with confidence. God didn't drop by anymore. I'd spent so many years slaughtering other people's lambs that I looked up and found my own bleating and bleeding themselves. There's no way to take away other people's truth and have your own not be damaged in the process. I felt like the father who brought his epileptic Son to Jesus, begging Jesus, "Have pity on us and help us." Jesus responded with a paradox: "All things are possible to him who believes." The father responded with a paradox of his own: "I believe; help my unbelief!" The only way through my dilemma, it seemed to me, was to confess that I didn't know anymore what to believe. That took more courage than I thought I could muster. But I managed. I stood in the pulpit trembling as I confessed that I didn't know how to believe in God anymore, and I stood before my academic colleagues admitting blushingly to twinges of faith I still had in such things as divine creation, supernatural healing, and the Resurrection. Confessing unbelief to believers and belief to unbelievers seemed to me at times the only sensible thing to do. I chose to preach through my unbelief and to teach my way back to belief.
Perhaps that is as honest as any one of us can ever aspire to be. To pray, to preach, to teach, and to hope as though we knew for sure that there is really someone on the other side of the door who heals, who hears, who answers. The issue in prayer is not to pray because we are certain, but to pray because we are uncertain. It is a risk where the risk itself is the outcome. I was never certain even when I believed. I was only certain that I believed. I was trying not to make a fool of myself more for what I knew than for what I hoped to gain.
The clock has just announced that it is 10:30 A.M. In thirty minutes, I must stand before a waiting congregation as though I believe. I have chosen a passage from a little-known prophet by the name of Habakkuk, whose cry to God is fitting to my heart: "O Lord, how shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?"
"The difference between you and me" -- a friend's words to me long ago come to mind as I type the last sentence of the sermon -- "is that you preach your questions, whereas I preach my answers." She was right. And she has the accolades to show for it. Her reputation as a preacher has far exceeded mine, both then and now.
A Chance Encounter
When you stop looking for something, you see it right in front of you.
"So, how do I get in touch with my spiritual side?"
It's the kind of question that, as a minister and professor of Bible, I am asked at least a dozen times a month. But coming as it did one spring evening in Boston -- from a rather successful, well-dressed, thirtyish African American female corporate executive as she deftly shifted the gears of her BMW with one hand and steered gracefully with the other hand -- the question caught me by surprise. I sat quietly for a moment thinking how I'd heard drunks on bar stools broach the topic of spirituality with greater poise. The mixture of contempt and curiosity in her voice warned me that I probably wouldn't have anything to say that would satisfy my interrogator.
"It's obvious from the fact that you asked the question that you're already in touch with your spiritual side," I said, turning to look out the window at the dilapidated elegance of the Boston landscape. I secretly hoped she wouldn't pursue the conversation any further. I didn't feel like talking about God or spirituality -- or anything that reminded me how long it had been since I had prayed. Besides, I wasn't up for the challenge of talking to this direct, efficient managerial type about subjects that defy tidy, reasonable prose, subjects like grace, prayer, faith, God, and mystery.
"You don't get it. I haven't been to church in years -- except for when I attend funerals. And prayer...well, I doubt that 'God, I hope that check doesn't bounce' falls within the category of a real prayer." She laughed.
"This is prayer right here," I interjected a bit impatiently.
"Yeah, right. Well, it doesn't feel like prayer to me." She paused. "Besides, I hardly think my mother would be satisfied with this as prayer. If she had her way, I'd be somewhere on my knees, my head covered, with a rosary in my hand, mumbling something about mercy, sins, forgiveness and asking to be saved from eternal damnation."
"That's one kind of prayer. And there's a time and place for that kind of prayer, I suppose. This is another kind of prayer."
"You mean to tell me that I'm praying and don't even know it?" She laughed. "Maybe there's hope for me yet." She paused.
"What sense is there in praying if you don't believe in God?" Her tone had changed. She sounded pensive.
"You pray in order to believe" I answered.
"That sounds backwards to me. What's the sense in praying if you don't believe?"
"Sometimes you can't wait for your mind to catch up. Sometimes the heart has to take the initiative." I could feel her glancing at me out of the corner of her eye as she steered the sensitive machine down the street. I didn't trust myself to look directly at her.
It was her time to stare quietly ahead.
Do you actually believe all that stuff about God, faith, prayer, and miracles you were talking about in front of everybody this morning?" she asked. There was more curiosity in her voice this time than contempt.
"Yes. Sort of." I stumbled. I hated myself for stumbling. This is no time for you to waver, I thought to myself. Not before a skeptic. She'll eat you alive. "Even when I don't, or can't, believe, I still believe that it's important to believe," I heard myself saying. "That's enough to keep me stammering prayers."
"You don't mean to tell me that you have doubts yourself?" she countered, taking her foot off the clutch a little too quickly. The car jerked forward, causing my head to fall back into the headrest. She turned her head slightly toward me with a smirk on her face.
My mind drew a blank. I felt trapped. Nothing slippery or profound came to mind.
"So, why the hell don't you just walk away from it and stop being a hypocrite?" The smugness in her voice was unmistakable.
"For the same reason I don't walk away from any of the myriad of things I've committed myself to. I don't want to live my life based solely on my feelings. Feelings change from one moment to the next. I don't walk away from my marriage just because I don't love my husband today. Eventually it returns."
"If you're lucky." She sneered. A ring was missing from the fourth finger of her left hand.
"Then I continue to pray until the belief returns," I answered, if only in my head. I can't remember what I said to her after that, nor do I remember today how the conversation three years ago concluded.
Ours was one of those chance encounters that leaves your soul spinning for years to come. It began as an unremarkable encounter, a chance meeting, an ordinary moment in time, as most encounters with the holy are on the surface. The young woman had a car and I needed a ride back to the hotel from the conference we both were attending. I had been the keynote speaker at a conference her company was giving on spirituality and technology, and she had graciously consented to drive me back to my hotel room. The conversation began innocently with talk about schools, hometowns, family, mutual acquaintances; and without warning, and certainly without any prompting on my part as a minister, it turned to talk about religion, God, the church, and finally prayer. My driver was eager to show me up as a dimwitted, neoconservative, right-wing, Bible-thumping Christian woman who couldn't think for herself. She relished reminding me of every racist, sexist, elitist, violent, abominable act done in the name of religion, and demanded that I try and defend the church. I could not. Nor was I trying to. I was trying to talk to her about a spiritual journey, when she was insistent that I explain every immoral act that has been committed in the name of God. She didn't hear me. But I heard me. It's one of those encounters that the writer Frederick Buechner calls a saving mystery; others have referred to it as a miracle of grace. I was content to get out of the young executive's car with her thinking me a dimwitted religious Southerner. After all, I was running short on oracles. Still, I felt a bit ashamed that I hadn't defended the faith more brilliantly. But then, my tongue always trips over itself when I'm called upon to talk about the least articulable of matters -- grace, prayer, faith, love, God, and mystery. I've grown accustomed in this profession to stuttering.
I parted from the woman that spring evening permanently changed by our chance encounter. What started as a typical conversation between minister and skeptic ended rather routinely as a battle of wills, rhetoric, and of gods. There's no denying that I clearly lost on behalf of whatever it was I was supposed to be representing. But in losing the battle I won something back within that probably wasn't worth anything to anyone other than me. I remembered something I had forgotten. I remembered what prompted me to become a minister in the first place.
I couldn't resist peeping behind altars when I was little. Every time I had a chance to accompany my mother to the altar for Communion, I was always eager to peer behind the draped altar where the minister stood holding the elements. I knelt as I was instructed, but I just couldn't keep my eyes closed for fear that I might miss something. I was enthralled with the sights, sounds, and smells in front of me: the musty-smelling robes of the celebrants, the starched white linen cloth on the table, the glistening cup, the pieces of bread on the altar, the dizzying smell of wine, the stained cloth on the altar, the minister with fingers so fat they were bulging out of his wedding band.
I remembered in a speeding BMW in Boston one spring evening that whatever spirituality is, it is not something to be discovered. It is something to be recovered -- something you misplace and recover a thousand times in a lifetime. Nor is belief in God, mystery, or prayer something one either possesses or doesn't. Rather, belief is something one tries continually to keep oneself open to, accessible to, or something one continually refuses to open oneself up to. The only difference between me, the fumbling, dimwitted minister who felt ill at ease talking about prayer, and the young corporate executive who couldn't talk about it without sneering was that I still wanted to remain open. Open to what? Open to the possibility that there was something more to life than my vanity, something more than what I could manipulate or grasp. As inadequate as I felt, and as far removed as I felt from the thing I ached most for that day, I wanted to remain open to the possibility that there was something nobler in life than what I could see or touch.
Sometimes we awaken to it through nature. Sometimes it comes to us through art, music, dance, or silence. Sometimes we are reminded of it by interacting with or observing children. Sometimes we happen upon it through chance encounters with strangers. And for a moment, we are smitten with the sublime. And then we lose it. We lose its scent, we can't make out its sound. Sometimes we stumble around for what feels like days, months, perhaps years, trying to recapture it -- trying to pick back up the scent, trying to make out the sounds. But even though we find ourselves stumbling, we're onto something.
My effort to remain open to the sublime certainly doesn't make me any better than my corporate friend who pretends to have closed herself off from it. It only opens me to greater scrutiny and criticism when the most I can do is stammer and stutter about my losses and finds. As a minister, I find that people are apt to corner me all the time in hallways and public bathrooms and heap ashes upon my head for all the sins of religion. It comes with the job, but that day in a smoke-filled car driven by a woman who was ready to bludgeon me for every hurt she'd suffered at the hands of religion, the church, and God, I found myself thinking less of her anger and more of my own. I was angry at her for setting me up, angry at God for setting me up to be set up, and angry at myself for not recognizing a setup when I saw one. Our encounter marked me for life. Although I didn't know it at the time, our encounter would wind up being one of those mysteries that show up from time to time and leave me tripping over God. I guess you can say that I learned something about God. It's probably more the case that I learned something more about myself. I surely learned something about how God's presence presents itself to me. Just when I think I've stopped believing in God and can't figure out why I don't have the courage to do just what my driver encouraged me to do -- walk away -- something happens (a chance encounter, an overheard conversation, an old memory resurfacing) to bring new insight.
These luminous moments are otherwise quite unremarkable. They are otherwise ordinary moments, routine acts, commonplace occurrences, forgettable encounters. I have encountered inquisitors like the one in the BMW hundreds of times and have forgotten most of them. But at the edge of these otherwise everyday, commonplace, ordinary occasions comes an invitation by some irresistible force, by God, to come closer and listen more attentively. For example, sitting in a salon I overhear a conversation between strangers about a dispute on a job that brings tears to my eyes as I remember an old wound and an old friend I forgot to forgive a long time ago. Grace. I am sitting at an upscale restaurant eating Sunday brunch with ultramodern friends, and all of a sudden, for reasons I can't explain, when the conversation turns to grandmothers and Sunday dinners, the urge comes over me to bow my head and pray over the meatballs on my plate. Grace. Or I swerve to avoid hitting a child on a skateboard and at that precise moment I remember dreaming of swerving to avoid a child on a skateboard. I'm thumbing mindlessly through a magazine as my plane sits on the runway for two hours waiting clearance from the tower, and I read a travel writer's account of his trek through the Antarctic in search of the perfect cup of hot chocolate, and finally I've stumbled on an angle for the book I've been trying for months to write.
It is precisely moments like these that leave me tripping up into my purpose, staggering into some insight I desperately need, and backing up into God. On those rare and unforeseeable occasions, all of us have perceived the presence of a presence that leaves us incapable of speech, embarrassed by our ignorance, and wanting to take off our shoes.
I wish I could say that the female executive and I parted with her humbled and changed and me coming across as mystical and sagacious. But I can't. We parted much as we met, each too absorbed in her own thoughts to be of any help to the other. The conversation was clearly over. She had obviously said what she'd wanted all along to say. And I had obviously said all I knew to say. So why did I feel like such a failure as we drove the rest of the way to my hotel in silence? What should have been a fifteen-minute ride between office building and hotel had wound up taking more than an hour as the woman circled the city hurling one question after another at me. On the surface ours was an unremarkable meeting, albeit stormy -- mundane, ordinary, unspectacular in its conclusion. But we parted that spring evening with me changed by our chance encounter. It had begun as a cordial meeting of strangers, one extending a helping hand to the other for what proved to be her own less than sincere reasons, but a gracious act nevertheless. It ended with the answer to an unspoken prayer.
Teach Us to Pray
Sometimes I think that just not thinking of oneself is a form of prayer.
BARBARA GRIZZUTI HARRISON
People who do not know how to pray, who do not have the discipline for meditation, and who have trouble believing in angelic appearances should not be given up on. Just because they can't bring themselves to meditate and to believe in God and angels doesn't mean they don't want to believe in the spiritual realm. More often, they just don't know how to believe. Nor do they know how to talk intelligently about their disbelief.
I, for one, believe. After all, I'm a minister. I believe in God. I pray, though not nearly as often as I ought. I can meditate, although I rarely have the time to do so. And I've glimpsed my share of epiphanies. But even I don't believe in the ways my slave ancestors did. Theirs was a much more sacramental world than mine. They knew an angel when they saw one. Not me. In fact, a whole year has almost passed and I can't remember anything that has happened this year that filled me with awe and wonder. Shame, yes. Disgust, frequently. Embarrassment aplenty. But hardly any awe and wonder. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I've felt compelled to kneel or fall prostrate without prompting or instruction.
I and those of my generation probably don't believe in God, in angels, and even in miracles the way our ancestors did. But that doesn't mean we don't want to believe. We just don't know how to talk genuinely about believing anymore. We need a God who is not squeamish about disclosing the divine self in a thoroughly secular world and in the midst of ordinary daily existence, speaking to us through the noise of our hopeless routines and willing to touch us in our carnal places. We need a God who has more of a sense of humor than did our ancestors about what exactly constitutes prayer.
I Know Why Sarah Laughed
It takes me forever to say my prayers these days, but I don't care because this time around, I want to make sure God doesn't have to do any guesswork.
Some of us have placed ads in the personals for an angel who wears high-top sneakers and who does not stutter, someone who can keep up with our hectic pace and can think quick on her feet and doesn't need a lot of time to say what needs to be said. We are as desperate for a glimpse of the eternal as the next person, but we have neither the time, temperament, nor talent for meditation. We need revelations on the run. We need an angel who wears high-top sneakers, someone who can keep up with us on the treadmill or doesn't mind chatting from the passenger seat as we're stalled in rush hour traffic, someone who can pick up where she or he left off after calls come through on the cell phone, someone who isn't squeamish about talking to mothers while they nurse their babies. Those of us who are too klutzy to woo the holy need angels who can say what they have to say over the noise of screaming children and beeping microwave ovens. We do not have the time to decipher ponderous theological prose.
If God wishes to drop by my house, then she'd better bring her own broom. If she's got a good pair of lungs, she will have to be able to yell over the racket of the ten-year-old washer that lunges around the laundry room on the spin cycle. If God is trying to tell me something, what better way to chat and get my attention than by speaking through the stack of bills piled high on my desk? If she wants my attention, no better time to get it than when my daughter sleepwalks into our bedroom at 3 A.M. and I can't get back to sleep. If God is busy like me, however, and can't be in two places at one time, then I am placing an ad for an angel who is light on the feet, an angel who can keep up with my profoundly mundane, ordinary, uninspiring routine. Since I always have to run to the supermarket at least three times a week despite my best plans, I'd prefer one who when asked to pass me the long, thin maxi pads with wings will not think I'm making an oblique reference to an angel's body type.
Wanted: angels who don't stutter and who don't mind the sound of Rice Krispies crunching under their feet.
2 January 1987
Ambition, fame, and applause
have stolen from me the gift of simplicity:
the simple prayer
the simple hope
the simple thanksgiving
the simple faith.
So talented at what I do
as a writer, a minister, and a professor --
manipulating words, hiding behind phrases, exploiting traditions,
influencing opinions, crafting arguments, shaping ideas,
belittling some beliefs and extolling others,
drawing connections where there were none,
making a point --
I no longer know how to be prayerful.
Who am I?
Who is my self?
It is hard for me simply to pray,
to be myself, to say what I really mean,
to speak openly, vulnerably, plainly, innocently
especially to no one in particular.
Not to God.
To pray unimpressively, uncalculatedly, ineloquently,
an ordinary prayer,
Is no longer my self.
Without a thesaurus,
Without a point,
I don't know how to say what I want to say.
I don't know how to talk with no thought to changing your mind,
not caring to persuade you to see things differently,
not wondering if you get my point.
Thy will be done?
Then, why pray?
On the way to my purpose,
I looked around
and the simple prayer was gone.
The Longest Prayer
The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech. The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.
Journal writing is for me a form of prayer. For more than twenty years now it has been my principal way to talk to God. When it began to hurt too much to pray, I started journaling as a substitute. Talking to paper was the only way I knew how to talk to God, and it proved to be an ideal form of prayer because it gave me a way to see what was going on in my heart. Because journaling is not linear writing (I didn't have to be logical, neither did I have to have a point), when recording in a journal I was able to grope, stammer, and sniff my way to God. Prayer is work because so much time and energy is spent trying to talk myself into praying and trying to find the right words to. Journaling is a patient form of prayer because it doesn't require me to make sense, get to the point, or even to have a point. I can stalk a thought, circle a thought, abandon a thought and start over, double back to a thought, and repeat a thought again and again. Journaling let me strike out in prayer in whatever direction suited me and see where my heart and senses led me. Tolerant, receptive, friendly, uncritical, always willing to hear me out, and never put off by the fact that I repeated myself, my journal welcomed my stammering and patiently ushered me where I needed to go.
It feels as though someone has flipped off the switch without telling me and I've been left to make my way in the dark. I keep hearing all these voices in my head, but I can't make them out. Run. Stop. Stand still. Scream. Over here. Over there. One more step. I've heeded each voice, but it doesn't feel as if I've gotten anywhere. I convince myself that I need to pray, but a part of me refuses to pray. I settle down to pray, but my heart is anything but settled. Why now? Why have I been hurled into this inner darkness when from all appearances on the outside things are dazzling and clear? I have a contract to publish my first book. Things are working out well on my new job. I'm settling into Nashville. Why now? When prayer should be easy, since there is so much to be thankful for, why do I think of ways to avoid doing it?
I didn't start off thinking of journaling as a way of praying when, in my twenties, I found myself developing a slight stutter. The stress and strain of working in the corporate world, the demand to prove myself, the pressure to produce-produce-produce, and the expectation that I would remain silent about what was happening to me undermined my self-confidence and left me speaking with a slight stutter noticeable perhaps to no one but me. Journaling, I told myself, gave me somewhere to tell the truth. I was out to regain my voice in the world. I needed a sounding board against which I could bounce my life. I needed a safe place to admit the things I dared not say out loud: that I was alone and afraid. Because it is such an intensely private conversation between myself and my self, journaling helped me to speak about my fantasies, my hopes, my ambitions, and my disappointments. Following the example of Anaïs Nin, Virginia Woolf, and Anne Frank, whose diaries I was reading the summer I bought my first journal, I started my journal fully expecting them to help me find my voice.
Since I can't stand to hear myself pray, I've decided to buy this journal and see whether I can write my prayers out loud. I started writing as a way of hearing myself think, but pretty soon, by the fourth or fifth page, it's pretty clear that it's not me thinking but God who is whispering in my ear. But I don't know whether I'm up to hearing what God has to say. It may be something I don't want to hear. I'm afraid God might ash me to do something I don't want to do. Why am I so afraid that what God wants for me is sure to be nothing I'd want for myself? Since when did God become my declared enemy?
Not surprisingly, journal entries written during my twenties were filled with fantasies of rising to the top of whatever profession I was in at the time. Journaling helped me to keep up with the lives I was living as I was -- just recently out of college and relocating from Boston to New York City -- bounced around from job to job, from studio apartment to studio apartment, from church to church, from relationship to relationship, and from fantasy to fantasy. Journaling became a way for me to make sure that at least one person, or thing, knew the real me. Joan Didion's observation that writing was her way of keeping in contact with the many women who lived in her has always stuck with me. Journaling allowed me to stay on speaking terms with myself. And that self seemed always to be torn and ripped apart by competing claims.
Lord, I don't want to be a minister. I'm not cut out to be warm, open, pious, and humble. Doesn't suit me. Besides, it sounds like a pretty boring life to me. So what if I've chucked my job with Merrill Lynch and have been working for two years full-time as a writer and haven't sold an article yet? I'm still a writer, sort of, kinda, I think. Find someone else. Just because I'm a praying woman doesn't make me a devout believer. What's wrong with following you from afar? I like the view from back here.
If prayer is a conversation, and I believe it is, it is not a conversation between two parties unfamiliar with each other. It is one between intimates, someone within talking with something or someone deeper within. It's a conversation between the inner selves. It seems that the real, the original, self, the self that continued to have something of God's original imprint, was always struggling to survive and be heard above the din of noise that insisted I give up bits and pieces of myself for family, friends, my career on Wall Street.
I started stuttering just about the same time God stopped speaking to me in thunderous tones. The lapse between epiphanies was becoming longer. I had attached myself to a little Baptist church in Brooklyn with a lively, earnest worshiping congregation, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify the injustices I was beginning to notice.
Women bake the brown Communion bread and huddle in the corner of the church before service starts, pouring the Communion wine into tiny cups. The white linen tablecloth draping the Communion table is their doing. They worry over the stains in the cloth, probably staying up at night trying to remove them, not wanting anyone to think them lax about their sacred duties. But when the solemn time comes to stand, bless, and distribute the elements, women are nowhere to be found. Only men circle the table, well-meaning, earnest, praying men, who if made to open the table to women will, as Jesus observed, "deliver you up to be killed thinking they are doing the will of God."
Journaling gave me a place to pour out my disappointments -- to look at them, to hear them out, to circle them and decide which ones I would just have to live with and which ones I would change. Journaling did not make me less interested in traditional forms of prayer, the closed-eyed, bended-knee, muttering-under-your-breath type of prayer. I knelt and wrote. Writing kept me honest when I knelt. I didn't panic if when I knelt nothing came to mind to say. I knew that there was more than one way to pray. The easiest thing in the world would have been to cease kneeling. But I didn't. My heart needed the practice.
"Absolute attention is prayer," writes Simone Weil. I'm grateful that journaling helped me to give God my absolute attention. Turning events over and over in my mind, poking around for the meaning of things, reliving conversations, pulling bits and pieces of dreams and experiences together, doubling back and returning to old wounds in the hopes of making my peace with them and moving on became the only way I knew to pray. "Stalking epiphanies" is the way I came to refer to all this sniffing around my soul started doing. I could pray long, repetitious, endless, meandering, yearlong, decade-long prayers to God in my journal and not worry about prolonged church services bruising my knees. Since prayer requires us to be present to God, and because journaling is a spontaneous act, not premeditative in the way that writing a book or organizing a speech is, then journaling showed God, I hope, that I was attentive and listening. Attentive and listening -- important ingredients to prayer, don't you think? But I'm not always certain that God spoke back to me in my journaling.
From time to time (when I'm feeling brave) I take some volumes down from the shelf to reread, and I am embarrassed by what I come across in them. How in one lifetime can any one person be so catty, petty, snobbish, narrow minded, prejudiced, intolerant, manipulative, unforgiving, and sometimes downright mean spirited? Who can blame God for shutting down? I sometimes think upon reading old journals. It's a wonder I didn't shut down on myself. But God didn't shut down. In fact, the more I raved, the more likely I was eventually to be stopped dead in my tracks. From time to time angels slammed me to the mat to make me notice what was happening in my life. Every now and then, in between the muck and mire, the petty outbursts, the trivial complaints, the out-of-control rage, a burst of light came through. An insight, a revelation, a wild and crazy grace, a glimpse of eternity inserts itself upon the pages of my journal that leaves me hushed. I begin noticing patterns, making connections, and sneak up on purposes larger than my own narrow preoccupations. Angels laughing, perhaps? I can't be sure. All I know is that these entries pop up unexpectedly in my journal, like weeds sprouting up between cracked concrete, offering me epiphanies, revelations, insights, ways to let go, to move on, to learn, to heal, to understand, and to be thankful.
Because I grew up in a home of abuse and addiction, silence feels like rejection to me. Quiet was a welcome. But silence was the way we ignored each other, punished each other, protected each other from outsiders, and pretended not to notice what was going on. Silence was the weapon of fathers and mothers. And slowly it became the weapon of their children. And so, O God, your refusal to scream, to stomp, and yell makes me think you're off somewhere pondering a better way to fell me. Your silence makes me think you're penalizing me for not doing what you demanded. Your silence feels like you're ignoring me. Your silence feels as though you're deliberately keeping me out of the loop. But you're not my father and not my mother, are you? Then who are you who use silence to be intimate rather than to push away?
By dusting off and rereading my journals, I get to relive the past and to retrace the hand of blessing in it. I get to relive the past and to redeem it. I get to relive it and to reinterpret the parts that once felt unsurvivable. More important, through my journals I get to play back God's voice. I get to pick up on things I probably missed before. I get to see through the passing of time -- weeks, months, years later what was oftentimes too hard to see before. Patterns begin to appear. I get to see the patterns that were always there but that, for whatever reason, I ignored: recurring patterns, repeated cycles, and persistent motifs of curses and blessings, lamentations and praise, hurt and healing. To my horror, I discover how little I've changed over the years. Some things continue to annoy me. (For instance, I still dislike being baited on my views so someone can evaluate my political or theological correctness on an issue. Grrrrrrr.) On a positive note, I'm glad to see that there are some things I still remain true to -- I'm still inclined to bet the farm on the underdog. I've changed so little and yet changed so much. I still rant and rave, but for days rather than for weeks. I still hurt, but not for as long. And I forgive quicker.
I still complain that God is silent. But I'm not as frightened of the silence as I once was. Silence is not quickly mistaken for rejection anymore. Silence is just that, silence -- a different way of getting me to listen and pay attention. And lest I pretend to be completely unlike that twenty-two-year-old girl of former days, I still long for the loud, thunderous yesses (I think) I heard when I was a teenager and young adult. As stressful as being an adult is sometimes, I could stand a rousing, foot-stomping, exuberant religious experience at this moment to perk up my spirits. I've been to the real world and it's not all it's cracked up to be.
God used journaling to wean me off the thunder. I had to pay attention to the wind, as invisible, ephemeral, and unpredictable as it is. I had to draw connections, sniff out the purpose of things, weave and bob around meaning, and chase down healing.
Twenty years ago my journals consisted of reams and reams of longing and lust -- boredom, restlessness, unfulfilled dreams, broken promises, haunting nightmares, books I wanted to write, money I wanted to make, friendships that kept me on edge, men I wanted to love me. Twenty years later I am absorbed with about pretty much the same things (except it's only one mans my husband, whom I'm trying to help learn how to love me). Admittedly, I'm not always proud of my prayers and private conversations with God. Nonetheless I am grateful to be able to look back over some of the longest prayers imaginable. They are my stutters before the holy. I shudder to think of my journals falling into the wrong hands -- say, someone who might mistake them for truth.
Still, I've learned some things from this long affair with written prayers. For one thing, sometimes you have to pray the prayers you can until you can pray the prayer you want. Second, prayer is not so much learning to write or talk to someone or some presence outside yourself as becoming mindful of a conversation already taking place deep inside.
An Old Self
19 September 1979
What will ultimately happen to me? Will I ever break through this haze blanketing my spirit? How much depends upon me? How much rests upon God, and how much remains with me to make of my life what it will be? It's tough being twenty-five years old. I ask myself these questions -- no, badger myself with these questions -- as I watch myself sink daily in a more desperate state. No job. No prospect of a job. No desire for a job. No idea what I want to do. Not depression but despair. Depression is so passive. Despair sounds better. It implies a struggle of some sort, some kind of action.
It's a season ripe for miracles. But who wants to live her life on miracles? Miracles are fickle, unreliable, unpredictable. I don't think I want to place my peace of mind in the hands of miracles. Is that the way to describe divine intervention, by talking about miracles? Is divine intervention my only help? Or will I have to rescue myself?
I'm ashamed of the shambles of my life, so much that I hesitate to enumerate the details here. They sound the same as they were a few years back, two months back. I feel as if I've left only to return to the same spot, facing the same dark tunnel.
Yesterday I asked for a blessing.
Today I pray for a sign.
Tomorrow I will look for a miracle.
The incredible gift of the ordinary! Glory comes streaming from the table of daily life.
For more than seven months out of the year, the human spirit is left to scramble and fend for itself. Life must be lived outside the feasts and fasts of the Christian calendar, and believers are expected to figure out for themselves how to calibrate and celebrate mystery. This period, referred to in the Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman traditions as "ordinary time" comprises the longest portion of the liturgical calendar, referring as it does to the almost thirty weeks in the year where no particular mystery of Christ