From The Attentive Life
Shortly after I turned fourteen, in the winter of 1945, my mother left home. Where she had gone and why was a mystery to me. Many years later, I learned from one of my professors that she suffered from the mental disorder we call paranoia and that she lived with many fears.
My mother was gone for months. She chose to go to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she lived in disguise and under an assumed name. That June, World War II ended, and that summer I came to attention as never before.
Mother had returned in late spring. She became interested in a new Bible conference that a local businessman was starting a few miles away on the St. Claire River. We began attending sessions there, and some nights I stayed over in one of the simple cabins on the grounds.
Two things impressed me. One was the lively faith of a group of young people on the staff. Something about the way they sang and prayed together drew me – and there was also one very cute girl named Betty whom I liked but was too shy to talk to. I was also riveted by the messages of the speaker, a fiery preacher from Toronto who looked, I imagined, like an Old Testament prophet with his striking combed-back white hair, his startling Viking-like blue eyes, and a thin finger that would jab his points home.
What brought me to full attention was the night he told us how he prayed.
“I am full of nervous energy,” he said. “I can’t sit or stand still long. If I kneel I get restless. So when I pray I walk up and down.”
A light flashed on: I didn’t have to kneel at that prayer bench! I could pray and get exercise at the same time.
“When I pray silently my mind wanders,” he went on. “So I say my prayers out loud.”
He was speaking my language, and he had more to offer. “I was saying the same old words over and over and got tired of it. So now I take my Bible, turn to a passage, perhaps one of the psalms, and turn the words into my prayer.”
His words lit a fire of imagination deep within me. I knew I wanted to know God as more than a name, in a living and personal way.
Early the next morning I made my way to a woods on the edge of the grounds and began to walk up and down and pray out loud. I am sure I was self-conscious. What would anyone who saw me have thought? But I was not deterred. I let my Bible fall open to psalms and flipped through until I found one that seemed right for me. It may have been one of David’s cries for help, like Psalm 42:
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
I turned words like those into my own, words of a lonely, confused fourteen-year-old, words perhaps like these:
God, I am thirsty for you.
I need you like a drink of water on one of these hot summer days.
You know how confused I have been, wanting something.
I don’t know what’s going on with Mom and Dad.
I think what I want is you. But how do I find you?
When will I ever come and know you as these other kids do?
There was no sudden voice or light. But there was some sense of quiet confirmation that the prayer spoken in heartfelt honesty had been heard.
Somehow, from somewhere, a, yes, was spoken in my heart.
It was an awakening moment. And it was more. I was looking more closely, more deeply, than I ever had at the green of the trees and the blue of the river, at the Word in the words of the Bible, the word in nature, the Word coming into my heart. It was truly – though I did not know this term at the time – an experience that brought an awareness of God’s presence in all things.
Many years later when I read the French philosopher Emile Caillet’s account of his own discovery of the Bible as “the book that understood me” I thought, That was my experience, too. I might also have described what I found in the words of a hymn my mother had taught me:
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth beneath is sweeter green;
Something glows in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen.
Birds with sweeter songs o’erflow,
Flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am his, and he is mine.
Recalling those words now, I find them overly sentimental, and they are by no means great hymnody. But they did express then what was a genuine awakening in my own soul, “seeing God in all things, and all things in God.”
It was the beginning of a journey of coming to attention, a seed sown that would bear fruit much later in my life.