Back in November I mentioned that I’ve been doing a project in which I interview women around me about their faith. The idea is to collect a mass of quiet stories about God’s goodness towards individual people, the kind of solid testaments to his grace which usually only your family and close friends end up knowing in full. I have a series of seventeen questions I came up with, and a few times after I’ve turned off the microphone at the end of an interview, one of the women I’ve spoken to has kindly asked me if I would, at some point, share my seventeen answers. In response, I’ve hemmed and hawed and gotten embarrassed, because the simple truth is I know that they’re hard questions. And I have satisfactory answers for very few of them.
But God does not need me to be satisfactory. He is satisfactory enough. He simply wants me to be willing. And the question I’ve been thinking of a lot in the last few days is #7: Who taught you to pray? In response, most people have mentioned a parent or sunday school teacher. A few have interpreted it more directly and simply told me that ultimately, the Holy Spirit taught them. Both of these perspectives make sense to me, but this is one of the questions I’ve felt most reticent about because I have always considered myself a bad pray-er, ever since I was a girl.
I was shy to begin with, and talking about spiritual things particularly galled me. Any time one of my parents, or any adult for that matter, tried to talk to me about a personal relationship with Jesus I would burst into tears, which I know was disheartening and perplexing. The whole thing, the enormity and seriousness of God, felt too big for my words, too big for my understanding, so I hid my face in my hands. I grew out of that as I got older, but I still struggled to pray. Like many people, I avoided doing it aloud in public, and had trouble concentrating when I tried on my own. Writing poetry helped, but only when I had the discipline to keep up with it. When others mentioned prayer I felt lethargic and ashamed.
And then came this year. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cried this week alone. I do know it included three times on Monday at work. And three times last night while I was over at my parents’ house to belatedly celebrate my birthday with my family. I’ve always been a crier, but recently it’s reached a level that’s less human and more sink faucet. Last night my roommate came home at about 11:30 to find me crying because the fire alarm had gone off when I was heating up water on the stove, and I had just spent five minutes struggling to get the living room window open to create a cross-draft and air the apartment out. I was inconsolable.
I’m okay. Really, I am. I’m just finding it hard to leave. It’s hard to leave my family and my job and my students and my friends and all the sidewalks that I know. When I made the decision to go all the way to Vancouver for grad school I thought that going away so far would require the most amount of trust, but it turns out that it’s the leaving that’s the cliff’s edge. Every time someone talks long term plans now, I’m not a part of it. I don’t have a dog in the fight for any decisions at school for next year. I’m not sure about making it to fall weddings. I only have answers for short term questions. Yesterday I erased a penis which had been pencilled onto a desk in my classroom, and felt nonsensically pleased for having found a tangible, helpful task I could still satisfactorily complete in the little time I have left at Caldwell.
All that to say, increasingly over the last few months, I have met problem after problem which I have absolutely no power to combat. My hands and my mind and my energies feel achingly useless, and so at long last, in little dribbles and eddys, I’ve begun to pray, because it’s the only thing left. So that’s my answer to question #7: this year has taught me how to pray. Feeling small has taught me.
Prayer means to bring the thing that doesn’t fit in your hands and give it to the Lord. It means to bring the awe and the exhaustion and the love and the broken, blighted organs that continue to pump irregularly in our chests and the chests of those around us, to lay them out in the blinding light at the feet of the King, and leave them there. And then to come back again and again, at all hours, with more and more and more, piling them there for him to take, the only things we have to give by way of offering.
It’s a relief to no longer hide from prayer, but to hide in it. I can bring the things too big for my words or too big for my understanding to One who is larger still.