What I pray for when I can’t say thank you or help
(Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash)
I have a small newspaper covered with cloth in which I write prayers. I meet them in books or liturgies; the others are mine. A few years ago, when my children were going through serious health crises and life was bleak, I wrote this prayer: “God, I am here. You are the. Amen.”
For months it was the only prayer I prayed, the only prayer I got could pray. I couldn’t say “thank you” and mean it. I couldn’t say “help”, because I was sick of asking for help. I didn’t feel capable of admiration or reverence. The only honest prayer I could say was a simple presence prayer, mine and God’s.
I returned to this presence prayer recently as I was preparing to co-teach a session on Benedictine spirituality at a church retreat. My mission was to reflect on the vow of stability, that is to say the vow of community and continuity that the Benedictines make to a particular monastery. Unless a monastic is specifically sent elsewhere by her superiors, she remains all her life in the monastery of her profession. A monk swears to stay put, to grow where it is planted.
For those of us who are not monks, a vow of stability can still have magnificent and subversive power. Most of us live in cultures that encourage us to flee, if not physically, at least psychologically. We are taught to keep our options open, our commitments flexible, our exits accessible and well-lit. We are encouraged to believe that we will miss out on the best in life if we stay put and “settle in”. So we’re used to peeking over fences and finding greener grass in our neighbors’ backyards. When it comes to faith, we are easily plagued by the “if-only” or “when-then” thought: If only I could find a better church / bible study / spiritual director / daily devotion, my faith would deepen. When I graduate / get married / pay off my loans / move / become a parent / retire then I will experience the presence and love of God.
We are by nature a restless species, prone to wander. We love the excitement of perpetual motion. We like to keep our eyes on distant horizons. This is not always a bad thing. Sometimes our restlessness causes us to follow in our creator’s footsteps as artists, creators, designers and innovators. But the dark side of this creative capacity has serious consequences.
In our contemporary digital context, the time we spend online shortens our attention span, teaching us to move from job to job. Our social media platforms take us to organize our lives in terms of mountain top highlights and experiences, adventure-filled vacations and brilliant photo ops.
Saint Benedict understood the anxiety of the heart which pushes us to avoid the “here” of our life. He knew the temptation a young monk might feel to leave his home environment in search of a “better” monastery filled with better people, better discipline, better opportunities for growth and fulfillment. He knew that to take root in imperfect soil is painful and inglorious work.
But stability insists that growth, fulfillment, and joy do not come from frenetic activity, constant change, or spiritual silos. They arise when we consent to inhabit a particular place in a deep, holistic and caring way. When we stop looking around for the next best thing. When I say, “My heart is steadfast, O God” (Psalm 57: 7). When I decide, in the words of Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, that “where I am, this is where God is for me”.
God is where the ordinary is. God dwells in the mundane, the imperfect, the broken, the boring. God is no less present in our waiting rooms, traffic stops, board meetings and toddler bedtime rituals than in a breathtaking cathedral or in the ocean at sunset. Living in this truth is a work of stability.
But to say that stability is difficult is a laughable understatement. The first time I wrote my prayer in two sentences, it was from a place of resignation and defeat. Every time I prayed, “I’m here,” it was as if I clenched my teeth and my heart didn’t flee. When I prayed: “God, you are there”, I prayed my amazement, my doubt, my almost shattered hope. Are you here? How can you be here?
But over time, the two halves of prayer changed. I began to see the value of paying close attention and tending to the details of “here”. The “here” of my son’s physical pain, my daughter’s anxiety and depression, my helplessness in the face of their suffering. I began to see how God is present not in spite of these circumstances but in them. Not in a flashy way, but in the little worldly graces that make life both bearable and beautiful. The brief respite from the pain. The unexpected bursts of laughter. The kindness of friends, family and strangers. The weekly rhythms of the liturgy and the Eucharist which feed my hunger. The subtle shift in perspective that occurs when we decide that “here” is holy.
Among other things, stability teaches us that we cannot escape from ourselves. Everything I carry with me – a quick temper, a feeling of inadequacy, a tendency to resentment, a panicked heart – will remain my companions even if I decide to run. Only the willingness to stay and look closely at the truth of who I am allows God to do the transformative work that we call salvation. But it requires that we accept the “here” of our unfinished business. The long messy road of mi-cuits and not-encore.
Ultimately, God’s faithfulness makes our attempts at stability possible. Because God is here, I can try to be here too. And because God stays put, I have a place to go back to when I run away.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “A Prayer of Presence.”