Listening as Prayer: How to sink into the sacred

Pool water - close up shot of water

I started praying again. Not the panicky, straight-up kind of petition—you know, the please God, put my son to sleep. Please God, I need the car to start. Please God, can you do something about the state of affairs in our world today? That I still do with a fair amount of regularity. It comes naturally. Effortlessly, really.

This year, I decided that my prayer is to listen. I sit in my favorite chair, the one by the window, and close my eyes. My hands rest in my lap, palms up, waiting. I tell God, “I’m listening.” (Just to make sure we’re both in agreement about what is happening.) Then I wait for the stillness to come, which it does. It washes right over me. It does not usually last long. Three minutes, maybe five. Just enough for my mind to stop searching. I drop down into the divine and I remember who I am inside.

Yesterday in that silence, images from a recurring dream came back to me, the one where I was underwater. Years ago, when it first arrived, I watched myself drown. I woke up terrified. It wasn’t until my spiritual director told me that water is a classic symbol for God that I felt my breath come back into my body. I’d been walking around for weeks wondering what it meant that I had watched myself drown and done nothing to stop it.

The next time the dream came back, I dove into the cool blue waters. I went straight down to the bottom and sat. I could see everything above me through the refracted light. But I didn’t want to look up. I didn’t need to escape. I wanted to look out in front of me because I had this sense that I was going to be okay. Even though my life was in transition, I didn’t have to search or panic or force myself to do anything. I just needed to sit still, underwater, and breathe.

That same sense of being immersed in the sacred came back to me during one of the toughest seasons of my life. Still in business for myself, I somehow managed to land a side gig at a flower shop. I’d always wanted to work in one, just for fun. I had absolutely no experience. None. But they hired me anyway to work the Sunday shift. Thankfully, most days were quiet. I often had the store to myself.

Something in me ached to stand in the middle of all that color. Buckets and buckets of fresh cut flowers: orange Asiatic lilies and purple dendrobiums, cheery Gerber daisies and big white hydrangeas. Fragrant peonies and elegant, long-stemmed calla lilies. Exotic succulents and towering plants lined the windows. Rose petals floated in an old-fashioned tiered fountain. A few hours in their presence and I felt reconnected to all the beauty in the world, my own included.

One Sunday morning in February, Valentine’s Day, no less, and arguably the biggest day in the floral business, I woke up to no heat. The radiators in my apartment were silent, eerily so. It had started snowing hard the night before, blizzard-like conditions the reporters had warned. I pulled the comforter over my head and hit the snooze button. The flower shop was the one thing I did for the sheer pleasure of it all, except when I woke up the morning after a blizzard and my nose was cold.

By the fourth snooze, I forced myself out of bed. I called my landlord, threw on my work clothes, grabbed my hat and headed to my car. It was still a job, after all. The snowdrifts were up past my knees, and the alley behind my home was untouched by snowplows. My car didn’t make it more than fifteen feet before my neighbor offered to help me maneuver it back into my garage. I walked the four blocks to the bus stop, rather begrudgingly. Who delivers flowers after a snowstorm anyway, I wondered.

I waited and waited and waited for the bus to come. In my rush to get out the door, I’d forgotten to eat breakfast. I had no idea if I’d even get a lunch break. Everyone would be there, many working since sunrise. I’d heard horror stories about how crazy Valentine’s Day can be in a flower shop: lines out the door, running out of fresh greens and filler, custom designing 200 dollar bouquets in a matter of minutes and then smiling and saying “Next” to the men in their suits talking on their iPhones. It took an hour for me to do a fifty dollar one. I couldn’t imagine why the owners wanted me there.

The nearest bus stop was five blocks from the shop. I sighed audibly as I eyed the mound of snow before me. My boots went straight down. I pulled them out and trudged my way through several more snow drifts before it occurred to me to walk in the middle of the street where it had been plowed earlier. It was arguably not one of my better mornings. Performance anxiety was starting to have its way. I fantasized about spending the day riding in the back of the delivery van.

Somewhere in the flurry of all those thoughts, and the snow splattering the back of my jeans, I glanced up at the sky. It was the most majestic of blues: deep, drinkable, vibrant, and alive. I stopped in my tracks and stared up in awe. Everything fell away, except the soft steady rhythm of my breath. Immersed in that stillness, I remembered that there was much to be thankful for, heat or no heat. Valentine’s Day or no Valentine’s Day.

I never heard the car that pulled up behind me. Startled, I flailed my arms and then started to laugh. I was standing in the middle of the road, after all. I stepped aside, waved to the driver, and started walking again. My body felt lighter, my mind more at ease. Something inside of me understood in a new and profound way that my season of loss was only a part of my story. It was not all of me. I had blue skies, too. By the time I walked into the store, my inner florist was delighted to be surrounded by so many roses in every possible hue.

In truth, it’s the vastness of things—that magnificent sky, the sensation of being under water, a full moon rising over the lake—that brings me back to God. Sinking into the sacred, I am reminded that there are things I do not know and will never understand. Much like Job, the awe of it all leaves me speechless (which may be exactly what God intended). Because in my silence, I am brought back to the spirit within, who is always calling us into more life. And all we have to do is listen.