NOT LONG AGO, during a particularly stressful season of church ministry, my spiritual director (and friend) suggested I go into the sanctuary to pray, but “not those eloquent prayers you pray on Sunday mornings and at meetings. Simple prayers,” she said. “Whatever your heart prompts you to say. Raw.”
I thought of the time Frederick Buechner’s therapist told him to write with his left hand a dialogue between himself and his long-dead-by-suicide father. His right hand, a novelist’s hand, formed words for effect, created and crafted meaning. Writing with his left hand might allow him to discover meanings deeper than he could invent.
Wondering if I could pray “left-hearted,” I entered the sanctuary and took a spot on the left side, the lectern side – away from the pulpit, away from “my” side. For what seemed the longest time, I just sat there, restless and uncomfortable and alone. Voices behind me in the hallway signaled that Family Night supper was about to begin, but I did not want to see anyone. I hunkered down, hiding.
I tried to clear my mind. I tried to focus. I could do neither thing. I was jittery, as if the silence of the empty room were a predator closing in for the kill. I tried to turn off my brain and turn on my heart. Instead, my memory raced, careening through recent days and disappointments. …
“I don’t want to be the pastor anymore,” I growled to the pew in front of me. “Not here. Not anywhere!” I leaned back and saw the rafters of the sanctuary. They looked like the ribs of a ship, or a whale. I was Jonah, in the belly of the fish, squatting in salt water and darkness and vomit.
I do not know how long I sat there; less time than it felt like, I am sure. But snapping upright and snorting – enough of this! – I grabbed at the pew in front of me to wrench myself up in spite of my legs and get the hell out of there.
I was already standing, weakly, when I glanced down and saw [the hymnal] in the pew rack. My chin twitched. I paused. Then, as if my knees were water, I collapsed back into the seat. With trembling hand I reached for the hymnal and turned luckily to page 878, “An Order for Evening Praise and Prayer.” How often had I turned to this very spot over the years? Prayed these very prayers? This time, though, when I looked down, it was as if I had never before seen them. These were not my prayers, but they were not not prayers, either. …
Tears flowed, and I knew, I knew, that I was not alone. Not at all. I was not even praying alone. No matter what I felt or didn’t feel when I began the liturgy, the liturgy itself proved that I was praying with others, even in that moment. I was part of the community, the family of God, the body of Christ. I may have been by myself in the sanctuary, but I was one of many – only one, yes, but one of the great we that is the church.
- Thomas R. Steagald