Memoirs and Prayer

For the ordinary worshipper, the rewards of a lifetime of faithful praying comes at unpredictable times, scattered through the years, when all at once the liturgy glows with fire.   Herman Wouk, This is My God

There are many reasons I would never write a memoir, good or otherwise, not the least of which is that nobody wants to hear about a skinny sixteen year old driving to a 7-11 in a Phoenix strip mall to buy a Slurpee; it’s uniquely devoid of a dramatic arc.  And many of the best memoirs seem to grow from lives of horrible dysfunction. Two recent reads – Mary Karr’s, The Liars’ Club and Tobias Wolff’s, This Boy’s Life –  follow the young authors as they navigate, barely, the wreckage of profoundly broken families. And yet Karr and Wolff survive, and as a result they are deeply observant, soft to moments of grace and beauty. Maybe that’s what Buechner meant when he preached that, “grace breaks through the fissures of our life.”  Topic for another post, someday.

For now, consider this image from Tobias Wolff. He was, at best, a troubled, wild young boy, flailing about for an anchor. One day, on a whim, he writes to an uncle who lives in France, telling of an abusive stepfather and a dark life in a small town. In response, and to everyone’s surprise, young Tobias is invited to live in France on the following condition: he must allow his uncle to adopt him and, as part of the adoption, Tobias must change his name. In response, he writes this:

But this time I had no need of thought, because the answer was already there. I was my mother’s son. I could not be anyone else’s. When I was younger, and having trouble learning to write, she sat me down at the kitchen table and covered my hand with hers and moved it through the alphabet for several nights running, and then through words and sentences until the motions assumed a life of their own, partly hers and partly mine. I could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me. 

It’s a beautiful image, that, and suggests more than a mom teaching her son to make words on paper.  Something of the mother is passed through to the son; he is shaped by the process. Mimicry become identity. Tobias is imprinted with his mother’s tenderness and uniquely marked by following the forms she offers.

And this, it occurred to me, is something of what happens in prayer. “Prayers are tools not for doing or getting but for being and becoming,” says Eugene Peterson.  Consider the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms,  the Book of Common Prayer, any non-spontaneous prayer. Simply repeating the words is not the work; prayer is not incantation. Rather, we are asked to enter into them, make them our own, so that their world become our reality, maybe just a mustard seed bit, each day, and to do that we must be slow and quiet and believe that in some way mysterious a hand is guiding us through them, and shaping us in the process.

One more image. My good pastor-friend Kelly Hostetler shared a video in this week’s sermon, and it tells this story well. Her husband (Matt) and son (Caedmon) are standing on a rock in the middle of a river and, yes, the sun really is dancing on the water; it’s golden. Caedmon has his back to his dad, watching him whip the fly rod back and forth, back and forth, elegantly. Matt hands Caedmon the rod and, at first, guides his hands, showing him motion and then, gradually, he lets go. Kelly says this of Caedmon: “And over time, as he stays close and pays attention, he will learn and grow and get stronger. He’s in the right place, with the right person.” That’s right and that’s prayer. Caedmon’s movements are not particularly elegant; he makes big, awkward whipping prayers. But he’s learning, always knowing, if not seeing, that his dad is right behind him.

3 thoughts on “Memoirs and Prayer

  1. Kelly’s illustration stuck with me throughout the week. This post will stick with me, too. Thanks for the thought-provoking words, Steve.

  2. Thanks Steve! I love your picture of prayer as “a long obedience in the same direction” to borrow another Peterson line.

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