Words escape me.
And I feel the shame of it. For how can I pray without words?
Words escape me.
And I feel the surprise of it. For words are my tool.
Words escape me. And I realise that it has been this way for some time. Prayer like walking up the steepest of hills, scrambling from hand to foot, stones skittering downwards before I, too, succumb helpless to gravity.
Words escape me because he escapes me. Only the warmth of the air where he was as hand grasps in vain for him. And I have learned to see the presence in absence. Learned because there has been so little presence.
The evangelical in me has screamed. Over and over. But all on the inside. Berating heart for impossibility of anything that looks like prayer. Recording on its clipboard each quiet failure to show up. Grudgingly accepting that journal might just about count. Forced to agree that though text might now be dry and barely read, regular attempt to read the hours is something and that the teaching of the text keeps me close to it. But judging me all the same.
I began this season asking that he would teach me to pray. And I asked it because of utter immolation of what had been prayer life. I asked it because prayer is life and prayer is what he asks. And because after twenty years it turns out I know not how.
Don’t be afraid of being a mystic. These, her words five years ago. And then, six months later, Have a read of Teresa of Avila again. I think she might be helpful to you.
Five years ago prayer life might have been creaking but it was not building collapsed that it is now. But this friend of mine is breathtakingly prophetic and already by then I had learned to listen. So I read Teresa. Not ‘again’ but for the first time, I might add. Because Teresa was not part of my good little evangelical upbringing. But Teresa got under my skin. She gave me words for what was happening then: encounters that I do not forget.
Now, as words escape me, I find myself here again. Deeper into the Catholics this time – Jordan Aumann and, from there, Augustin Poulain via John of the Cross – that I might read Teresa’s mysticism more carefully. And I find not just the careful frameworks that helped me teach some of this material to evangelicals last week at Spring Harvest. I find also the promise that others have trodden this path before me.
Words still escape me. Reasoned meditation, prayer in any form that I would have recognised: these things still far from me. I can just about read the hours, look up to him as I do it. But brain – the one that wrote 100,000 reasoned words and that still, amazingly, can teach and write – yet cannot process the words of these vocal prayers.
Yes, words still escape me and the most I can hope for is growing in becoming recollected before him. Yet this month there have been moments of something else breaking in. Someone else. And, borrowing Poulain’s words, though my ‘new prayer no longer resembles the old’, ‘mind no longer tracks over a consecutive train of thought’, yet even so I find myself ‘occupied with a sensation, plunged into an atmosphere which …[I] breathe’.
And words escape me because there are no words for this. There is only silence and the gaze. His like the blinding beam of lighthouse, trained upon me so that I cannot see and cannot move. Mine like weak flashlight, battery stuttering and beam flickering as I turn it back upon him. As I turn it back upon him for the split-second before hand fails and falls back to my side.
Learning to hold the gaze, to turn my eyes upon him. Even one glance of my eye enough, apparently. And in this, all the prayer I know.
This is one in my series of sabbatical posts. I started this series in 2013-2014 and, now, the generosity of my employer means that I pick it up again. Technically, this time it is called study leave rather than sabbatical. But I don’t have a blog category for that.