I like words. I rarely find myself stuck for them. Words have been my friends all my life. I like to talk, to say what I think, to express how I feel through them. I lose myself in books, I love learning languages, to wield new vocabulary like a weapon, testing the heft and the hew of it.
And words shaped my faith, the Word of God, I was told, sharper than a sword, contained in the thousands of pages of a book called the bible. Millions of words were written about this book, and thousands of sermons spoken. It was ‘God-breathed’ and ‘useful for instruction’, verses memorised as if the words themselves had magical powers. Prayer was primarily verbal: I was taught to ask, to present my petitions, to confess. When faith was tested, it was to see if you could answer correctly: did you know the right words to speak? Did you have the right verses memorised? Sometimes it seemed we thought God were a puppet master who answered us if we spoke well enough, if we just laid claim to the outcome we wanted with enough vim and vigour, enough urgency, knocking, knocking at the door like the woman with the unjust judge. We prayed for so many things, and so few of them, if we were honest, ever came good, at least not in the way we asked, despite all the claims to the contrary. Wars still happened, people still got sick, people still died (because everyone does, in the end). Miracles that happened, little signs of hope, serendipities and co-incidences, everyday graces, seemed to bear no relationship to what was asked for. Words, words and more words.
At some point in my thirties these words lost their power. Two things happened: Firstly, we went through hard times. Everybody does. Things happened to me that up until then had only happened to other people: serious things that I desperately wanted good outcomes for, but did not dare pray for. What if I prayed and it did not happen? What if my prayers, like so many others, were not answered? I became superstitious about it: to pray overtly might be to invite the opposite of what you wanted to happen. And words became dangerous – the way people prayed could be alienating or hurtful even if their intention was good. Like the time my husband needed an operation for a brain tumour and someone prayed, Lord we don’t need surgeons, we just need Jesus. And I thought, actually, I’d rather have the brain surgeon. I began to find listening to other people’s prayers unbearable. Words stuck in my throat, and before long I was not praying at all.
Secondly, I began to seriously question the ‘Word of God’ as having authority in and of itself. I think for some people this can be terrifying; for me, this was actually exciting. Rather than trying to squeeze the bible into a doctrinal box that had to be correctly understood, I finally began to read it as I read other books: literately, not literally. I felt there was no end to the richness of what you could unpack if you thought about what was written in terms of when it was written, by, and for whom, what kind of text it was, how radical it was for its time, and how it had been translated. I noticed how the idea of God changed over time. I stopped expecting to find consistency, only stories, and the meanings of these stories began to multiply until they became, for me, big mystical concepts, so fat, and underpinning, I literally Ran. Out. Of. Words.
The good thing is, everything got very quiet. I began to notice the noisiness of the church community I was part of. The restless moving from one item to the next, with barely a pause for breath. The five-piece band, the keyboard pads, the drums, even our prayer underpinned by a constant twanging of guitar. Slowly, slowly I could feel Love pulling me outside, drawing me away from the crowds. Love also tipped me out of my old ways of living: the rush and the bustle and the full list of tasks, and the salary, and pre-occupation. I took redundancy, like a prickly gift – a chestnut if you like, hard to hold, but with a sweet kernel inside, if only I could let it grow. I learned to accept a new diagnosis for a life-long illness, and it made me cherish everything that I still have and can still do.
I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, and for the first time in my life I discovered what it was like to find a place where I could meet with God. For me it was on the floor between the bed and the window, hidden away. There, I learnt how to spend time in both the absence and the presence of God – to not pray at all, but just to sit. I often imagined myself by a river, a mindfulness exercise where you imagine your thoughts as leaves drifting away, and I wondered, where is God? And then I began to notice the feeling of Jesus sitting right next to me, watching the river with me. So that’s what I do now. I sit there, and I put things in the river, before Jesus. No one can see or hear me do this. Sometimes I just do it in my mind, but I have found it liberating to actually use gestures – to place whatever it is, with my hands, in that imaginary river. Sometimes the thing is so heavy I can hardly lift it, sometimes it’s something I’m angry about and I can hurl it in, or it’s sticky and I can’t get it out of my chest, I have to tug at it, or pull it off in layers. Sometimes doing this will give me a picture of who or what I’m praying about: the time my daughter was anxious about her first school trip away from home, I placed her very tenderly like a tealight in a paper flower and watched her float away.
The Loving Kindness meditation originally found in Buddhism (thanks to The Liturgists for bringing this practice to me) has also become profound for me. I find it overwhelmingly beautiful. The format is simple. You sit for a while and centre your breathing, and then slowly pray through the same prayer, each time with a different person in mind, starting with yourself, and then moving to someone you respect deeply; someone you care for; someone who is a stranger; and someone with whom you have trouble. They are like five movements in a symphony, each one building on the last.
Each time I pray this way, God brings different people to mind: people from my past, and people from my present. Praying for the complete stranger, the sandwich seller or the homeless person I walked by that day, has been humbling. It is growing compassion in me. One time, I felt the ‘one with whom I have trouble’ was my grandpa who died several years ago, a rather cantankerous individual. In that moment I found myself wanting and able to forgive him, letting him go. Greeting him in my mind, and holding him there, looking him in the eyes as if he were still alive, was deeply moving, and I felt a relief from a burden I hadn’t realised I was carrying. I feel I could pray like this for ever.
There is a song I grew up with that went, “let me have my way among you; do not strive, do not strive”. So, if any of you have, like me, run out of words, may you know that God is always with you, anyway. And if you wonder if prayer changes outcomes, please know that I’m also still not sure. The only thing I am sure of is that prayer changes me. But that’s worth a start.
– Alice Huntley