The Stillness of Prayer: Finding our way back to ourselves

sleepIn the quiet of my son’s bedroom, I have once again found the divine waiting for me. My son is sprawled across me in his beloved fire truck pajamas, the weight of his body heavy against mine. His chest rises and falls in a rhythm that is both familiar and tenuous. The room is dark; my iPhone in the kitchen. I lie here, often up to an hour or longer, waiting and anticipating the subtle shift in his breathing that signals his final surrender into sleep. At three and a half years of age, my son does not go effortlessly into his evening repose. Nor has he, or we, for that matter, slept through the night with any regularity in the past eleven months since we started our grand adventure as a family.

I’d been desperately searching for God in the midst of our sleepless nights, yelling out loud in my mind, “Where are you in this?” Those are the nights when it is the hardest. Two hours into my son’s wakefulness, my mind has already gone down the rabbit hole, and I am reduced to tears or harsh words. Neither of which facilitates the onset of slumber. Nor my sense of sanity or good parenting. In those moments, I feel so utterly alone sitting with my son in his rocking chair that only my self-incriminations keep me company. I cry out to God, but even the angels of mercy, to whom I plead for a reprieve, refuse to comply. It will be another hour yet before my son has slayed all his dragons and sleep returns to us both.

I don’t know much about how prayer works, or why it seems to fail us at times. All I know is that lately, lying there in the quiet of my son’s room, when his early slumber is upon him and his sweet scent lingers with me, my mind starts to loosen its grip. The sun slips behind the horizon and the space between my thoughts grows wider and longer and more spacious. I begin to see the day through a different set of lens, those of redemption and gratitude and possibility. In the silence that surrounds me, I better understand the places in me that still hunger, that feel scared and insecure, and I ask God to enter them and heal them in ways I cannot possibly foresee. And then I try hard to listen and let go, to allow the divine to work in me and through me. In this way, my son’s bed has become my altar, a place of prayer and solace and remembrance.

Years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I took a course on prayer. A friend of mine from work talked me into it. I’d balked at the suggestion. But every week for four weeks, we sampled a different style of prayer: centering, meditating on a line from Scripture, trying to visualize ourselves in a scene from the Gospel. The priest guided us through each one, explaining their origin and unique purposes. I had not known there had always been so many. Having grown up memorizing all the traditional prayers, that was the first time in my Catholic upbringing when I learned how to be still, how to quiet my thoughts, how to sit in silence for twenty minutes and do nothing more than try and listen to God’s voice. That, I learned is the intention of prayer: to make room for the divine in my life, to let stillness be my guide.

Praying in that way reminded me of when I was little, and I had to wait for my brothers to come home from school. I’d pull out my training wheels and ride out to the corner. I’d look down the street for a gaggle of swinging lunch boxes and then turn and race back home as fast as I could pedal. I knew every inch of that sidewalk, every crack in the asphalt driveway, every grease stain on the bottom of our carport. At four years of age, I knew how to find my way home. I practiced it over and over again, every afternoon, waiting for my brothers. That path home, that driveway back to myself, is what prayer has become for me. Its believing you can’t stay lost or alone forever and making a conscious choice to honor the scared wisdom buried deep within each of us. The hardest part is the practice. I’m still working at that. I’ve been known to negotiate with God. I’m not afraid to argue. I set my terms and reset my terms. It’s a monologue and not always a conversation.

This minister I heard once spoke quite passionately about all the things we wish we had answers for—addiction, global warning, materialism, homelessness—the list can go on and on. She admitted that she didn’t have the answers, but that popular answers in their oversimplification—“Just say ‘No.’” or “Everything happens for a reason.”—are often more detrimental than helpful. “But the moment we say, ‘I don’t know’ to God,” she explained, “that is the moment we begin to let the sacred into our lives. That’s the beginning of the healing process.” It stunned me to think that the divine wanted our vulnerability more than our capabilities. The minister went on to talk about the story of the boat tossing and turning out on the open sea, of Jesus sleeping soundly until the disciples, mad with anxiety, wake him. They don’t know what to do. Jesus rises. He calms the sea. He silences the wind. He tells his disciples to be still. “Why are you so afraid?” he asks. “Why do you not trust?”

Tonight, as I lay with my son, I am reminded of how thirty months into the adoption process I’d been promised a referral for a child the first week of July. By the time October blew in, I still had not received it. Other families had already gotten their referrals that summer, and a new friend had even accepted an unexpected sibling pair. I celebrated with her even as my heart sank. By November, I took to sleeping in what is now my son’s bedroom, in the very same twin bed, hoping and trusting that at some unknown time I would be sleeping there with my child. It was the only way I knew how to pray. Words had failed me completely. Night after night, in the wake of my silent lament, I tried hard to accept what I did not understand. Two months later, on the eve of the new year, I finally got the call from the social worker, and I saw the picture of my son for the very first time.

It’s always the stillness that pulls me back into the divine, that helps me make room for the bigness of God and at the same time the intimacy of God. When I remember to embrace the quiet within, that sense of who I truly am at my core—who we all are in our essence—comes back to me. And then that love goes back out into the world where it is most needed, hopefully making me a more patient and kind mama, even if it is 3:16 am.

One thought on “The Stillness of Prayer: Finding our way back to ourselves

  1. Karen –

    This was beautiful! Really made my day, and I can totally relate to the sleeplessness (still!), the middle of the night prayer (or lacktherof) and I appreciate your gift for story. Thanks!

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