I’ve found a new way to pray.
On Sunday, I skipped Mass. It’s only the second time in my life I’ve done so without a “good reason” (sickness, emergency). I woke up, and was angry—angry about all the things that were drilled into me all through my childhood and adolescence, which no longer make sense – things which I honestly don’t know if I believe anymore. Sin—what the fuck is sin? Why does God get offended and bent out of shape because of our actions, our thoughts? Does God exist?
I have been stuck in my head again: wrestling with the concept of God, of sin, and probably stuck again inside my childhood scrupulosity and fear. The fear is paralyzing, fear of the wrathful God preached at me by my tyrannical father.
Frustrated and alone, I messaged a wise friend. Her response was thoughtful and raw. She did not preach at me. Instead, she encouraged me to experiment as I needed, and to “Go seek Him out if you feel up to it, but in your own way.”
It was simple advice, but it stayed with me all day Sunday and into Monday. I realized, my friend was right: I’ve been hiding from God, and merely paying my “once-weekly Sunday Mass” dues. I was using my tepid attendance at this mandatory “meeting” to hide from him even further, refusing to seek him in any personal, vulnerable way. My friend helped me see that I needed to find a way to encounter him genuinely again. Even if it wasn’t in Mass.
So, all week I’ve been meaning to go outside in the evening after it cooled down, and sit on a blanket under one of the massive trees with a cigar and my Bible. At 10:00 PM tonight, I hunted down the bug spray and my roommate’s lighter.
Outside, I flipped through the Psalms, and finally settled on Psalm 38 (I think). It started “I am like a deaf man, I cannot hear.” I read it, until I got sick of battling the persistent wind. Then I closed the Bible, and sat, listening to the wind, enjoying it enveloping me in its warmth and movement and whisper. The trees behind me shifted to the wind’s pull, whispering back. The katydids sang. And it was so peaceful. I could see by the light of a few welcoming streetlamps. They were kinder, warmer than most back home. I saw one star through the branches of my protective trees.
This was a rare moment of quiet prayer for me. I’ve always struggled with silence—it seemed a horrible demand from an unloving God. In the past, I’d sit there, miserable, on my bed or in a church, trying to clear my mind and be silent. Instead, my mind turned into a rave, attended by the shrieking voices of my scrupulosity, anxiety, self-hatred, and anger at this unloving God I’d been saddled with.
It was quiet. But the wind and the katydids were loud. It was dark, and I was outside, under the kindness of a giant, ancient tree. The cigarillo gave me something to focus on, and its gentle burning calmed me.
When my thoughts wandered, I’d re-center myself: “I am like a deaf man, Lord. I cannot hear.” I reflected on my spiritual deafness, how I cannot hear Him. So He must show me, as one would guide a deaf man.
He does show me, I realized. He showed me this morning, in the love and generosity of my elderly Haitian student Gracie—”Teacher, can I buy you a soda?” she asked me during break. Then she gave me one of the two slices of pizza she’d bought that morning at 7-eleven.
Tonight, He showed me in the trees and the wind. The single star that glanced at me, welcoming. He showed me in the beauty of a burning cigarillo, the meandering coals at the end, slowly dimmed by the rising ash. Lit again by the pull of my mouth. Dwindling. It was beautiful. I never thought of the beauty in a burning cigar before. As I sat, watching its embers, it reminded me of my heart. The quiet, deep, painful burn of my heart’s ache, its longing. The ashes that grow inside it, hiding all but the faintest glimmers of red warmth, love, life. Then He taps me, and the glow burns again. He pulls breath from me, and I am re-lit. When he pulls too hard, too fast, I glow strong, but dim faster. So He pulls gently. The flame is all but damped out. But it still burns.
This post was originally posted on July 21, 2017, on my former blog, The Lukewarm Still Long, which has been closed.