I’m going to do something I don’t usually do on the internet: get very personal about theology and experience.
I’m not going to wade into the details. Suffice it to say that the last 12 months of my life have been the hardest I’ve ever faced.
If you ever played with dominoes as a kid. do you remember what it was like to stack up as many as you could find on their ends in a long row, and then set off the chain reaction of tumbling dominoes by tipping over the first one?
That’s how the last year of my life has felt.
As hard as it has been to admit this, church hasn’t helped. Worship has rung hollow. Prayer has been (or at least felt) fruitless.
That’s not to say my faith hasn’t. It has.
But the forms, functions, and rituals we Christians often turn to in times of hardship have felt empty, hollow.
I’ve continued to do so many of those things — listen to worship music, attend worship services, read Scripture, pray — but I feel like an outside observer watching myself do them, feeling disconnected and detached.
And this has all been very hard to own up to myself, much less admit publicly.
This week, though, I read a blog post from someone else who’s dealing with the same thing, and he’s articulated it beautifully on his blog. So, I’m simply adding my voice to his.
In my own way, this is me saying, “I believe. Please help my unbelief.”
And then there was the year without prayer. Or was it two years? Three? Or five? I guess I lost count. Anyway, all that time I could not pray.
Don’t ask me why, don’t ask me to explain it. It’s not that I stopped believing: not exactly. It’s just that everything around me was a terrible silence, and any word, a shout or just a whisper, would only make the silence echo louder. It’s not that I had stopped loving: not completely. It’s just that my heart was cracked inside me, and all the words seemed stillborn, choked by sadness before they ever could get out. It’s not that I stopped trying: not quite. It’s just that I tried to pray instead of praying. It is the difference between trying to swim and swimming, between trying to remember someone’s name and remembering. You might come close, but in the end it makes no difference. In the end it is not a matter of degrees.
Sometimes my wanting to pray came so close to the actual thing that I could almost feel it. Sometimes I was thrilled by the feeling of almost praying, just as a child in water, limbs thrashing, thrills at the feeling that swimming might really be possible after all, then sinks.
I said the words, of course, I don’t mean that I never said the words. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, I prayed the Gloria, I prayed the Te Deum, I prayed the Psalter, I prayed the Jesus Prayer and the Hail Mary and any other prayer that seemed reliable and serviceable enough, any prayer that seemed to work for other people. But it was like hearing a joke that you do not understand. Everyone else is laughing. You chuckle too, just to be sociable, but it sounds pretty hollow.
St Augustine says that wanting to love God is already love for God. It is a beautiful thought, the thought of a saint filled with tenderness for the difficulties of ordinary believers. I have often clung to that thought, and have hoped that it was true. In my year without prayer I wondered if the desire to pray might also be a prayer. I hoped so. But it didn’t seem a very safe bet.
To pray – not just to want to pray but actually to speak a word, a single word of prayer – that’s what I needed. But all the words were false, because my heart was false. The words that I recited, all good straight honest words, got twisted up inside my mouth. Like I was saying them only to avoid God. Like all my praying was really just another way of hiding.
And yet I wanted – I think I wanted – to be found. To be seen. To be known so well that all my words would be unlocked, with nothing left to hide or to protect, nothing secret, and then groping in the silence I would find that one true word, the good word I was always looking for, and would present it like an offering, a little thing, so small, almost insignificant: my prayer.
But I could not find, have never found, that word. Maybe this search, this groping about for words, this always-wanting, will be enough. Maybe the year without prayer will last until the end of my life, until the last sigh when all at once the true word is pronounced, a word that is something like acceptance, something like thanks, something like surprise, something like pure joy and pure sadness, total discovery and total loss. Maybe that last sigh will carry me safely over into eternity, into the bright abyss of the word of God. Maybe that sigh will blend imperceptibly with the word of God’s eternity. Maybe both words will sound the same note after all. Maybe I will hear with new ears, and find that all my life was just that note and nothing more, one sigh, one long unbroken word of prayer. Maybe the note will sound clearest of all in this year, my year without prayer.
Maybe that’s when I will come to know that all along my life was hid with Christ in God. Christ who breathes God’s word out of eternity into time, and breathes one sigh, the truest prayer, back again into eternity. Christ who became as we are and groped about for just the right word to describe it all, and then, having found it, offered it up to God, a small thing, fragile, almost insignificant: his own life.