When prayer is not cultivated in the quiet

When prayer is not cultivated in the quiet June 11, 2012

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Fifteen years ago, my youth pastor taught me to sit still, to keep my focus, to open my Bible and let the Spirit swoosh through my too easily distracted mind. I used to sit down to prayer with a plan scratched in notebooks: First praise God. Then confess the screw-ups. Then be thankful. Then ask for the needs. Once upon a time, I asked for direction for my life: who I would be, who I would marry, how I should serve, whether I should have children. I asked for health for the ones who were suffering. I prayed names of people aloud, straight up to the God I begged. I walked my mind through lists and tried to remember when I saw their answers.

And prayer was quiet. Prayer was alone. Even when I was first married, I sat on the couch in the living room of that tiny apartment in Devon, my eyes squeezed tight, my head hung low, and when Chris walked past in his smart shirt for work, grabbing Raisin Bran from the kitchen, I did not look up. Prayer was always quiet.

How else does the Spirit speak but in a whisper? How else to listen but in silence?

It’s Sunday, my turn to “sleep in.” Of course, sleeping in does not mean what it once did, when my husband and I lazed in bed till 9:30 and woke to a weekend that was wholly ours.

This morning Brooksie was up at 6 and Chris has been with him in the living room, reading books and throwing the ball. It’s 7:15 when my husband wakes me, coffee in hand. He places it on the nightstand and I sit up in my bed, hear the sound of a babbling toddler and his brother’s show on the TV. We leave for church in an hour and fifteen minutes. I have ten to pray.

Today I join with St. Patrick’s words, my favorite for a fast morning prayer. I hold the beads my brother gave me seven years ago. My fingers move along them as I offer this day.

I bind unto myself today, I whisper aloud. The strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three…

I sip my coffee. Brooksie is crying in the other room. He’s fallen. I think of getting up but I know Chris is with him. I stay where I am. My fingers move along the beads.

Christ be with me, I pray.

Christ within me. Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me….

I still myself. I say the words out loud. There is much more to pray. But I hope my heart is clear enough for God to look in, to know what is unsaid, what is needed. I hold it up for a moment, long enough for Jesus to look close and say: “Yes, I see that.”

Then it’s a whirlwind: the shower, the scones out of the oven and my choreographed movement through the kitchen: yogurt for Brooks, milk for August, butter for me, more coffee.

Christ beneath me…

I eat and dress the baby while August avoids his chore of dressing himself. I threaten: No dessert if you don’t get dressed! And the boy is finally dragging himself to his room. Then those two boys are standing before the mirror. How many times when I was younger did I imagine myself with these perfect little blondies standing side by side in a mirror, toothbrushes in their mouths, my hands with the brush, working through their hair? It all seemed so unimaginable then, so holy. Today though, we’re running late and I forget that longing I held, that image of two boys side by side, mouths full of toothpaste foam.

Instead, I order and rush and fill up the water cups and fill the snack trap and grab my bible and journal. I run to my bathroom, fix my hair and make-up in ten minutes flat while my baby cries to be held.

Christ above me…

In the car, on the way, August realizes he’s forgotten something. He’s frustrated and angry and sad. We’re not going back, we say. He cries. He cries and screams. We turn on his favorite song to distract him but he says he hates that song. His father says it’s time to stop crying or he’ll lose his TV privilege. The boy does not care. He cries.

Ten minutes later, we round the steep hill and I wheeeee in hopes that August will join me. I look into the back seat at his red eyes. He’s smiling for a moment. It’s short-lived. We arrive at church. It’s Brooksie’s nap time and there aren’t beds in the nursery. So he goes in the baby carrier where I hope I’ll sway his 24 pounds to sleep in the service. August, however, is crying at the entrance of his Sunday School room, his head on his dad’s chest. Chris stays with him. I’m off toward the singing. But I’m late enough to the service that the music has shifted to prayer and the sleepy baby is having none of it. He tilts his head back, lets out an angry “Ahhhh!” loud enough that my mother instinct knows it’s time to leave the room.

Christ in quiet…

I find Chris and August in the hallway, sitting. Both are unhappy. They look like they’re waiting for something. I realize it’s me. Brooksie goes to his nursery sleepy but satisfied. I send Chris off to the service and take August back to Sunday School.

He cries for a while until his friend Beatrice walks through the door in that lovely polka dot red dress. There’s passionate shyness in his wave and he hides his face in my hug for a second. I know just the feeling of that sort of giddy shyness. Her arrival has changed everything. He’s happy. He’s going down the slide. He’s talking to his friends about super powers. But still he looks my way, begs me not to leave him. I won’t leave until you feel safe, I say.

Christ in danger…

We sit in story time, the teacher talking about Deborah the Wise Woman who knew how to help God’s people listen to God.

And after, I know communion is beginning in the service. I ask August if he wants to come with me. He tells his friends how he’s going to grown-up church. We walk down the hall together, find Chris in the back of the room. Chris holds the boy and we sing together the Doxology. August finishes his “Alleluia” a measure behind, loud and sweet.

This is all I’ve had of worship for the week, I think. This. This is supposed to have nourished me: this baby rocking, child soothing, bible-story listening with a room full of preschoolers. This is supposed to be the worship that fills me and sends me out in “peace and mission to love and serve the Lord.”

And in that moment when we go to the front to receive from the table, I sigh my prayer. I’m not ready for this, I whisper in my heart. But only say the word…

When I was pregnant with both boys, I prayed with my imagination, watching the bread and wine travel my body and nourish the life inside me, prepare him for his life of faith. I loved to imagine Jesus coming to those boys in every possible way, even through the sacred meal.  Today, I stand before the priest who laughs at August’s wiggliness, then blesses him just as Jesus would have done. Then the chalice bearer waits for me, the distracted mother, to finish chewing my bread before taking the wine to my lips. She smiles at me as she stands looking in my eyes. There are others who also need this drink but she does not rush me. She looks in my eyes: genuine kindness, the mercy of waiting.

Christ in hearts of all that love me…

How we cultivate prayer is a mystery. It involves gathering, over days and weeks and months. Connecting with the God in the sacred spaces, even when all the space we have is a mere breath, a gasp for air in a day of movement and noise. We mark ourselves, we remind ourselves to whom we belong.

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

And standing there, that boy beside me, unable to keep still, smiling wide with his arms crossed against his chest, has just received the blessing. And I, filled up with the distraction and concern and tiredness and frustration of the everyday, am offered a moment to gaze into that woman’s face and remember: God loves me. I am not the maker of this spiritual life. My work on behalf of it is incomplete.

I realize this is God’s message to me here, as I chew smiling while the woman waits with the cup of wine. All is mercy, Micha, the Spirit whispers.

All is grace. There is no rushing this moment. Lean forward and drink deep with the child beside you. I am the cultivator and the curator and the maker of all that is beautiful, of all that is whole in you. Lean forward and drink and there is nothing you must do to be ready. Take what I give you. I give you my blood. I give you everything.



*The prayer in italics is taken from St. Patrick’s Breastplate, words attributed to St. Patrick (372-466 CE), Trans by Cecil Frances Alexander, 1889.

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