From How The Light Gets In
…finally to unfold again
as if never before
is to be the prayer.
The first time I returned to Pacific School of Religion (PSR), seven years after I had been a graduate student there, it was to write and direct their centennial play. My beloved theology professor, Dr. Hugh Vernon White, had lost his wife to Parkinson’s disease. The lectures of this gentle, aging man had fallen on my ears like poetry, and I had wished he were the father I’d never had. When I returned to PSR, I invited him to my apartment for coffee and asked, “Dr. White, now that your wife has died, what can you tell me about death?” He bent over his cup, his white hair a gentle aura around his head, and thought about it. When he spoke, he spoke slowly. “Sometimes someone we love moves away from us even before they die, but they do not move out of the attention of God. God’s love is his attention.”
“God’s love is God’s attention.” Maybe it is because the word “love” is overused, or maybe it is simply because I loved Dr. White so much, but his word, “attention,” helped me to understand my own experience in prayer. I feel held in the attention – the companionable attention of mystery.
I am talking about an encounter with a mystery so profound we can have no name adequate to it. But it is personal. It is intimate. It is “closer than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.” And it is companionable. Even if I don’t have “alphabet” enough to speak its name, it knows me by heart.
Perhaps the most stunning experience I have ever had in prayer will illustrate what I mean. When my husband, Peter, asked me to marry him, I was surprised. We had known one another only three months, both of us graduate students at Pacific School of Religion. I had been “proposed to” before, but this was different, and I wasn’t sure why. I was thrown into what I can only describe as fear and trembling. It was 1957, long before “nice young people” lived together to test their relationship.
My distress was not caused by Peter, but by my family of origin. My mother was living in two small, furnished rooms where she had landed after traveling from Missouri to California to find my brother, Sam. She had been in San Francisco for several months, but she had never unpacked the boxes and suitcases that held everything she owned in the world. The orphanage that Sam had been in would not keep him after age seventeen; the director had advised our mother to sign for him to enter the army. He was already an alcoholic, in maximum security prison before he was twenty because he walked away from the army.
A few days after Peter proposed, I went to Dr. Robert Leslie, the professor of Pastoral Psychology at Pacific School of Religion. I wept so hard I could barely talk. Finally I choked out the words, “I will destroy Peter. My family is a mess. I lived in an orphanage when I was a kid; I had no father; my brother is in jail. I don’t know how to be a wife and mother. I will destroy him.”
Dr. Leslie listened quietly, and replied, “Pat, given where you have come from, and what you have been through, you are not weak. You are very strong.”
He said more, but that’s what I remember, and what at some level I knew to be true. Still, I couldn’t decide, and so I prayed. Intensely, privately, I begged for an answer. Only twice before in my life I had prayed like this, once when I was a little child and once when I was nineteen, and each time in different ways, I finally broke through to what was for me a sudden, clear answer. But this time, nothing happened.
I was on full alert for some time, watching Peter. He held in his body and in his spirit a kind of silent patience that I found deeply reassuring. One evening he sat on the floor in a room crowded with students and listened as we all responded to a theological idea that Dr. White had presented. As the discussion wore on, Peter didn’t say a word. Then, as we were drawing the questions to a close, he spoke. His voice was beautiful – rich and deep. More than that, his words were gentle, free of pretension, and wise. “Is it possible…,” Peter said, and asked a question that seemed to sum up and resolve our discussion. After he spoke, we were all silent, as if there was nothing more to say. I was stunned by his insight and restraint.
I prayed, then, even more intensely. I begged for a specific answer: Shall I marry him, or not? No “feeling” would do. I needed absolute clarity, and I asked for it, over and over again. Suddenly in my mind, words addressed me as clearly as if a person next to me, older and wiser than I, had spoken them, kindly, but firmly. I will bless you if you do, and I will bless you if you don’t.
The shock was intense. I had no doubt that the discussion was closed. I had my answer, but it was not at all what I had expected. All I was asking for was, Yes or No. What I was given was freedom and responsibility.
Surprise is a major factor in distinguishing an answer to prayer from a projection of my own mental processes. When I can’t believe I made up the answer myself, I have to look around to see where it came from. Maybe it does, in fact, come up from the swirl and complexity of the unconscious, the way writing surfaces. That’s O.K. The mystery abides there, too.
I was talking with my longest-time friend, Evelyn May, about this, and she told me her story of a surprising answer. Ev is a person who has lived in dialogue with mystery. Like me, she has wrestled with it all the way from her fundamentalist beginnings. And she has wrestled mystery out to the edges of possibilities a bit more strange than I myself have entertained. But she has never wavered from her relationship to what she still calls comfortably, “God.” As her husband lay dying in his late thirties of juvenile diabetes, she begged God for a sign. Over and over, in various moods, some of them angry – “Just give me a sign that you are there. All I’m asking is a sign. You’ve given them so many times to other people – why won’t you give me a sign? Why won’t you? Why won’t you?” Finally, she said, the answer came. Because you don’t need it.
This is not a rational or a logical matter – it is experience. I – like Ev, like uncounted multitudes in uncounted persuasions – experience a response to intense prayer. I experience it is as communication from a mystery beyond myself that holds me in loving and companionable attention. Not necessarily “warm and fuzzy” attention, but a sense of having been heard – seriously, and intimately.
Mary Beth Toomey, a friend whose Quaker practice I deeply respect, told me that in these experiences she feels, too, “the deep knowledge of safety – being beloved, no matter what.”
Yes, that, too.
As it happened, I married a funny man. Once I asked him to build a bird feeding station attached to the house outside my study window. He did it, complete with feeder, suet holder, branch of a tree stuck in a flag-pole holder, and landing platform exactly at the height of my desk, only inches from the intended birds. Four days passed, and no birds. I bemoaned that fact, often. Suddenly one day Peter was lurking around my study, sitting in my easy chair, practically twiddling his thumbs – all very un-Peter-like behavior. Finally he asked in an innocent tone of voice, “Any birds, yet?”
I glanced at the feeder. There was a small, garishly yellow bird. Peter had gone to Eugenie Stacey’s yard, next door. He had stolen her stuffed toy canary from her dwarf maple tree, climbed a ladder, and attached it to my bird feeder. Unfortunately, its little wire feet couldn’t cling to the metal roost, so it was hanging upside down on the feeder. Never mind, his grin said. I had my bird. (When it got dark, I sneaked it back into Mrs. Stacey’s tree. The next morning I told her about it, in case I had put it on the wrong limb.)
Sometimes in writing and sometimes in turning my attention toward mystery, I have the feeling that I am being played with, or at least held in fond affection the way a parent teases and loves a child. I have written about leaving the church, and trying to find my father’s people in the rocky hills of Missouri’s Ozarks. Those were earnest and serious matters. But what I discovered was a kind of delight, of surprise, of almost childlike humor at play in my life. Similarly, those answers that came to Evelyn and to me, after the shock wore off, are funny. Of course, I had to make up my own mind. Of course, Ev didn’t need a “sign.” She just needed to be reminded that she didn’t need one.
It is, after all, ridiculous – comic – to think that this utterly finite little self that I am could be in personal relationship, even in dialogue, with an infinite Presence. But what if it is possible? Isn’t it a little bit, deliciously, funny?
When I married as a young woman of twenty-three, I prayed as I had prayed all of my life – I knelt beside my bed, folded my hands, and prayed to God or to Jesus. Peter came from a German-American family that was very devout, but in a different Protestant tradition than my own. He had memorized a catechism as a child, and whatever his life of prayer at that time was, he kept it private, except for the ritual prayers that he led in church services as a pastor. As for individual prayer, Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Before long, I found it just entirely too “public” to kneel and pray beside a bed where my husband was already under the covers. But rituals are very hard to give up, and when I stopped kneeling, I lost a regular practice of personal prayer. My praying became those formal prayers in church, or moments on the run, cries for help, and occasional bursts of ecstatic gratitude. Mixed in with all that was some sense of loss and some grief.
Thinking about this, my mind turns to those traditions where prayer is required at certain times of the day. I think of Muslim men kneeling on their prayer mats in mosques and in public places, and nuns and monks in convents and monasteries praying the Liturgy of the Hours. And I remember that even in the busiest days, our four children and Peter and I bowed our heads before meals, sang, or held hands together in silence. That was part of my continuing prayer life – maybe the best part.
It takes courage to write honestly. I can say that now, at this moment, in this writing, because although it is fifty-two years since I was that young woman on her knees, to go back there intimately in my mind is to feel those feelings again – the desire to believe every word of scripture literally, and the confusion of something new happening to me that I didn’t yet understand. It takes both honesty and courage to try to wrestle the truth of experience onto a page. But in writing it, we come to understand what we didn’t understand before. Virginia Woolf, reading her own early diaries, commented, “My, how that young woman could write!” Writing can move us to compassion for our younger selves, struggling with the same questions we probably will raise later, but with so much more of life and its lessons behind us. I wrote above that my only prayer life as a young woman was in church and on the run, but when I shared that writing with workshop members and heard their responses, I recalled those sweet times at the table, singing or in silence with my family.
As it takes courage to write honestly, so also it takes courage to pray honestly. My neighbor, talking with me across the flowers that border our yards, asked what I am writing. I told her I was writing about writing and prayer. She responded that she doesn’t pray – “all that asking for stuff turns me off.”
Well, the answers that both Evelyn and I received may indicate that pleading prayers are not the favorite prayers of the mystery, either. The silence of Quakers, the candles of Roman Catholics, the humorously irreverent poetry of Stanley Moss may be sweeter than Ev’s and my insistence that we be answered. In fact, they are sweeter to me: “Some believe the gods come as swans, / showers of gold, themselves, or not at all. / I think they come as bathers: lovers, / whales fountaining, hippopotami squatting in the mud.” The very word, “pray,” calls up for many of us emotional experiences of family, church, synagogue, temple, mosque, tradition, rebellion, apathy, and / or pain. Marian Calabro, author of the stunning book, The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, was visiting as I worked on this chapter. When I suggested that it takes honesty and courage to pray, she noted that the sheer repetition of prayer helped several members of that entrapped pioneer group, especially the children, to survive. “Prayer meant memorization and repetition in my Roman Catholic childhood,” she added. As I sat thinking, she added, “I understand what you are talking about in writing – that kind of listening – but not in prayer.”
I asked if she didn’t sometimes experience the familiar words of memorized prayer taking her to some inner awareness of Presence.
“Yes,” she said, “although that experience came later in life.”
An email conversation about it with one of my children got this response:
Interesting that you push her, and that she concedes. But you do have to acknowledge that some people (me) have never experienced prayer as such, producing what you describe. Yes, I have experienced inner awareness of presence. No, it has never happened in a moment I would call prayer, certainly not when prayer was happening around me. It’s not that I have found all prayer to be unpleasant, but I experienced it like you experience the silence between movements of a musical piece. Marking time, perfectly pleasantly, but that’s it. For your daughter, flesh of your flesh, raised at your table, prayer is – flavorless. Not hated, not painful, perfectly fine for other people.
Maureen Buchanan Jones, a poet and novelist, also grew up Roman Catholic. She said, “For me, praying is like reaching out to touch something warm. I say a shortened form (most nights) of ‘Hail, Mary’ – just to experience that connection – like reading Good Night, Moon to a child. And the image in my mind is sixteen years old and very real. It’s to remind myself and ‘Mary’ that I remember.”
Needless perhaps to say, what I know about prayer comes simply out of my own experience, woven not only through my particular rural Midwestern, and then East Coast, American culture, but also through an ordinary, busy woman’s life: marriage, four living children, more pets than I can count, several jobs, books written, life lived in some complicated relationships. Where was there time for prayer? Often it was only the moment of silence we kept before eating. Only the hurried turn of the mind toward petition or gratitude while the hands folded laundry or washed dishes.
Máire O’Donohoe was on her way back to Ireland from years of work in Africa when she joined my workshop at Pacific School of Religion in 1989. She was torn about whether her return to Ireland would include leaving the Ursuline order in which she was a nun. I had just left the Methodist Church even though it had saved me from poverty by giving me a full scholarship to college. We were both rocking in small boats on a very rough sea.
Over the next fifteen years I went every summer to Ireland, leading workshops that she and others sponsored, and Máire, who did not leave the order, became a teacher and counselor to me, although I could not move back into any organized church community. One rainy day we stood together in the ruins of a Protestant church in Roman Catholic County Donegal, in the shadow of Errigal Mountain, and I wept the loss of the church that I had loved and served passionately for the entire first half of my life. She listened to me, and loved me in my wanderings, and for that time she simply became for me the face of the Presence.
On another day she took me into a beautiful, shadowy Roman Catholic church. She went to the front where two banks of candles burned in the silence, and explained to me that she needed to light a couple of candles for people in pain. I thought of Mrs. Stacey, my aged next-door neighbor at home, how she had lost most of her eyesight to macular degeneration, how she walked carefully with her cane, heading uptown past my house, to attend Mass at St. Brigid’s Church. She was an Irish-American Roman Catholic. It would matter to her to have a candle lit for her in a church in Ireland. I followed Máire, bought a candle, and lit it for Mrs. Stacey. And as in most of Máire’s teaching, I learned without her saying a word that there are truly many ways to pray, and lighting a candle is one of them. That little candle still burns in my heart, although Mrs. Stacey died years ago, turning me toward blessing her each time I think of her Irish wit and her slow, faithful walks to Mass.
Sometime after that, I was in Japan to lead a workshop, and reconnected with a friend from college, Junko Uetani. She had suffered the death of her only child, a son, when he was struck by a car while jogging on a narrow Japanese highway; and shortly after, her husband died. She believed his death was primarily from sorrow over the loss of their son. Junko and I met before I was twenty during the single year I attended a Methodist missionary school. I had not seen her since. She was and still is a very committed evangelical Christian. When she took me to visit a beautiful Buddhist temple, we came to a large round container full of sand, and in the sand there were many little candles. Junko bowed deeply to me, and apologized, asking if I would be offended as a Christian if she lit a candle for her son. I had not told her that I no longer was comfortable calling myself by any religious tradition. I asked her if I, too, could light a candle. I lit two – one for her son, and one for myself. It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, / Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Rumi’s lovely reminder that there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground takes me to my own history in the faith of Junko, and to this beautiful poem by poet Yorifumi Yaguchi.
THE ONE I WANTED TO CALL
The one I wanted to call was
The God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Moses
As “I am who I am,”
Who had existed in the human body
Of Jesus, the Nazarene.
How should I call him?
“Father”? “Mother”? or “Parent”?
I tried to find the Japanese word for Him
And looked around the vast field of words
But couldn’t. Finally a desperate “Oh, kamisama”
Fell out of my mouth, and then signs of
Hearkening gods among the grasses and woods
Came flying to me, twisting themselves around me.
I still go down on my knees now and then, bowing my head in silence as I hold Peter’s hand before we eat, lighting a candle on my desk, a mix of my own early tradition and a new awareness of mystery “among the grasses and woods…twisting themselves around me.” Prayer now, as in the beginning, is turning my attention toward mystery.
My purpose is no longer to petition God, although there surely are moments when I do that – but rather, to participate in the mystery of our human connection to one another and to the mystery that holds us (I believe) in loving attention. Often, prayer for me is “like the silence between movements of a musical piece,” as my daughter said.
Here is more of the poem excerpt by Mark Nepo that opens this chapter:
I understand: to blossom
is to pray, to wilt and shed
is to pray, to turn to mulch
is to pray, to stretch in the dark
is to pray, to break the surface
after great months of ice
is to pray, and to squeeze love
up the stalky center toward the sky
with only dreams of color
is to pray, and finally to
unfold again as if never before
is to be the prayer.
By turning toward the mystery that hold me in loving attention, I myself become a prayer. No words are necessary unless they arise spontaneously. Although ritual and tradition are often beautiful ways of joining “the morning stars” as they “sing together,” no particular form is necessary. And words, if they arise – heard only inwardly or spoken or written – don’t have to be “holy” or “about God.” I myself, when I turn my attention and “unfold again” – am the prayer.
Both prayer and writing invite us to explore the full range of human awareness, out to the edges of what we have experienced and beyond, out to the edges of what we can intuit, and beyond. Both invite us to imagine, to be brave in what we imagine, and to keep the doors of all of our imaginings open. Allowing writing and prayer to overlap – writing as a spiritual practice – invites a dynamic relationship with mystery. A block in writing is like a lock on prayer. I will say more about writing blocks later. In an open, unfolding relationship with mystery, all the locks can open, and all the blocks can become stepping-stones to more than we have yet discovered, more than we have ever met.
ABOUT, AMONG OTHER THINGS, GOD
The primrose blooms in the garden.
The mourning dove calls in the sycamore tree.
Rain on the sill of the window,
sounds of every kind of weather
are sweet in this old house.
In the pantry, jars of beans,
lentils, sunflower seeds. Sesame. Jars
of preserves, small cans
of spices stand in rows.
It is here.
A woman stands in the doorway
and calls. Her apron bleached from washings
and from hanging in the sun. Behind her,
through the doorway, the house
is dark and cool, and the word
that she calls into the late afternoon,
into the shadows gathering under the lilacs,
into the long, long shadow of the sycamore tree