I’ve lost my ability to pray. Well, that isn’t quite accurate. Maybe I have lost my ability to be tethered abstractly to the Lord; to push petitions and intercessions through the ether to the unknown, unseen, unfelt space in which God dwells (whatever that means). I say space because this heavenly place seems expansive, distant, impossible to reach. My prayers seem like mist in a hot, Texas wind; intending to dust and cool the imbibers on a chic lower Greenville patio, but instead blown to the unforgiving concrete below and the incinerating sky above.
Two summers ago, when I attended a Christian arts workshop in Santa Fe, I had lunch with an English professor from a small Illinois college. She was in her early 60s, maybe five feet tall, with long, stringy white hair. I like to imagine she was a hippy in the 1960s. She looked to play the part.
We immediately connected – as one does at a workshop like this – over our shared love of literature and poetry. Conversation about our loves and vocations turned to our lives: unmet desires, struggles with identity and personality, love, family dynamics, etc. Everything was on the table. We talked for a good hour or so, before we had to part ways for the afternoon.
The next day we happened to sit with each other again. Much had already been said between us, so I didn’t quite know where our conversation would head. Thankfully, she began:
“Justin, last night in my prayers, I held you in the Light. In my imagination and heart, I took all you shared with me and placed you and your burdens in the presence of God – His Light.”
I began to rack my brain. “Held you in the Light.” What is this? I mean, I am a good evangelical; I know how to pray spontaneously. I’m a good Anglican and pseudo-Catholic; I know how to rock a good collect and litany. I’ve never been a Pentecostal, but I know a good revival prayer when I hear one.
This, though, was a new one.
My friend went on to explain to me that this is a practice within the Society of Friends (Quakers). When needs are brought in front of the community, the people use their imaginations to place this person in the presence of God. They imagine the light of God washing over the broken and hurting, and they allow Him to work in their situation.
This practice of prayer flits in and out of my imagination on occasion, usually migrating back in a moment of inspiration for my students or when I am leading a trip for a group that doesn’t quite know how to pray. But, as soon as I finish espousing its benefits for them, it flutters away, only to return when it is needed for another.
I found myself burdened by the sorrows of those I love this summer, as a wave of brokenness came crashing into me (and more importantly, into them), one after another, in a span of a few weeks. Add on top of this, my own struggles and brokenness, and the yoke to be carried for my loved ones was not the easy and light one that Christ promised, but that of a meathead who tries to bench a weight utterly incompatible with the width of his biceps — all to impress the beautiful woman in yoga pants on the machine next to him.
The intercessions, if I could even formulate coherent pleas, were stuck on my chest, and my grunts and sweat and side looks at the beauty beside me were not enough to direct the prayers to the One who receives them.
Then, in the midst of a trip I was leading in June on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, as I was teaching the students to pray as the Quakers pray, I realized for the first time that I could actually do the same. The practice was not just for them, and it was not just for the Society of Friends.
It was for me.
Feeling like my untethered prayers had been drifting without purpose into the void, and with my parched soul longing to be rooted in something other than what I could conjure up in my foggy heart and craft with my misty words, a light graciously began to push out the expanse’s darkness. It was connecting my imagination to it by its very slant and to its very source. And then, as the space began to shrink and be illuminated, forms and images became clear in the vanishing darkness.
A couple and child – resembling the Pieta with a father kneeling beside – were bathed in a comforting Light.
A young man – behind bars and soon to be deported to a country he had never set foot in – were wrapped in His warmth.
A friend – encircled by depression’s demons – felt upon their skin what forced itself past the entanglement.
A student – broken from the wounds of familial fractures – resting in what the very thing he flees.
Myself – longing for what is not there – residing in what Is.
We are, as we hurt and struggle and strive, held within the Light.