–St. Seraphim of Sarov
I sit atop my red metal bunk bed, thumbing through the orange, vinyl-bound pocket Bible that I received at a friend’s Vacation Bible School party. Tomorrow morning, I have an appointment with the doctor, who will examine a cyst on my left breast.
I am ten years old, and my mother cannot tell me what the cyst is. On my bed, the ceiling light spins in a crooked circle above me. I read Psalm 42:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for thee, O Lord. The fan shrieks as it swings, and I say out loud: “God, please don’t let me have cancer. Please don’t let me die.”
The next day, my prayer is answered––the cyst is harmless, and the doctor is kind. The Bible gets tucked into my bed sheets, the vinyl cover cold on my feet as I sleep.
I sit on the floor, the same bunk bed smooth and cool against my back. A lamp we snagged from a neighbor’s dumpster lights the room, dust blanketing its bulbous, turquoise frame.
I’m holding a map of Africa that unfolds from a magazine my youth pastor gave me. It lists countries in the 10/40 Window, a region between ten and forty degrees latitude where, the magazine says, people “know nothing about the Gospel.”
I trace the countries with my finger: Greece, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt. I do not know that there are domes in these countries that are gilded with golden crosses; I do not know anything about church, or history, or what it would look like to make the sign of the cross.
I only know that I am supposed to pray for these places. I rock my body back and forth as I keep in rhythm with the prayer that flows from my mouth:
Lord, save your people in these places; bring them your light, that they may know you.
The lamp broods in the corner, and I keep rocking, the words streaming from my mouth like incense.
It is early morning; I shuffle along the icy sidewalk into a school building, where, in a quiet gray classroom, my friends sit quietly. Their red prayer books are open to Psalm 95, the psalm we recite together each morning, the prayer that many monks and nuns, in their faraway cloisters and halls, recite with us:
Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.
Aron, one of the friends present, is also our professor, and has spent the past winter teaching us about praying the daily office: matins, midday prayer, compline. I have never known how to read the Bible, let alone pray its words.
And what we pray in this room is peaceful, anchored, steady. The frantic despair that accompanied my lonely, earlier prayers seems to be stilled as we take turns reading psalms aloud. There is an arc, an aim. The Psalms, Aron says, are a way to see our communion with the saints, with those who struggle and pray for us even now, even as the Canticle of Zechariah, another morning reading, falls on me.
My voice trembles, but the line carries me right through the end. Aron nods his head and looks towards the blinds, where the morning light lines the windowpane, slim, piercing, true.
Sitting in front of my students, I scribble a handful of prayer requests onto the back of an assignment sheet. There are a number of things: the panic of midterms, a friend who has lost a child in a car accident, a student who misses his family back in Kenya.
I am running on little sleep and a busied mind, and there is no way that my notes capture the weight of what my students lay down with sleepy, weighty words. I look at them.
“Well friends,” I say, “let’s pray.”
They bow their heads, and I wish that I had something to anoint them with: oil, water, something to help them feel the love I bear for them now, annoyed and sarcastic as I am about their papers in my office. Something to clean and bless the words I lift up for them, for us.
At home, I dunk my finger in the small vial of holy water, trace a small cross on my forehead. I know how to cross myself, now, know the way to bow, the quick pace needed to recite “Lord have mercy” twelve times in a breath.
My fiancé, who converted to Orthodoxy, has taught me to pray with him this way. It has been tiring to adopt this, to memorize a new series of petitions and supplications, to save Psalm 95 for the Divine Liturgy alone.
It feels like I have been running through prayers my whole life, and I know from the ache in my calves and the sleep in my eyes that there is much more to be learned.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
I say this three times, bend three times, rise three times. The words stream out of me, but not in spite of me, the cross dried on my skin, my mouth moving over what is given.
Originally published in Good Letters on May 31, 2012.
Allison Backous Troy teaches lives and writes in Boston, MA, with her family.
Photo used above credited to Keith Riley-Whittingham and used under a Creative Commons license.