To the ability to read these human documents in the light of the best understanding there is no royal road.
-- Anton T. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World
I met a woman who said she wanted to get God in her life. She didn’t know how. She was in the third of thirty days of rehab. She’s been in rehab before. She’s addicted to two drugs. She has lost custody of three children. The oldest, a fifteen-year-old daughter, is in a “group home.” The younger two are with her sister. She doesn’t know where to turn. “I’ve lost my life. It’s gone.” How does that oldest child, almost a woman, feel about her? “She wants me to come through for her. She wants me to be her mother.”
She can’t talk to her father. And he’s a preacher. She’s never been inside his church. I’m a preacher’s kid too. I had the feeling that her problem with God and her problem with her father were mixed up together. How can you talk to the Father if you can’t talk to your father? How can you pray on your own if your model of prayer is a professional one? How does your father feel about you? “He loves me. He’ll never stop loving me.”
If you could speak to your father, what would you say? “That I love him. That I want him to be proud of me.” What would you say to God? “I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk to Him.” What’s in your heart to say? “That I need help. I want to do better.” That’s all you need to say.
(And why, my high critical self asks, given all her disasters, is praying so important to her? Talking to God seems a secondary consideration. The hungry, the sick, the naked and enchained – don’t they first need to be fed, healed, clothed and set free? “Man ist was er isst,” said Feuerbach. God’s in the flesh, so love the flesh and then find God. But that’s not where this document begins. God is the first chapter. In her story God will take care of the flesh but we have to find Him first. Perhaps, I think in my own dialect, she seeks the quiet space beyond shouting, where she can hear the still, small voice. Perhaps in her god’s eyes she will see the courage to change.)
I had done reasonably well at drawing out the story. I saw an opportunity. Would you like us to pray together? Would it be helpful if I began, so then you can say what’s in your heart?
She said yes. So I called on the Spirit, and spoke the facts. I said I was with a child of God who had lost her life and wanted to find it again. I spoke of the one lost sheep, and of how the shepherd rejoices more at the finding of her than in the security of the ninety-nine. I announced her by name – and she said her few words – and I signed off.
Then I praised and encouraged her. It doesn’t have to be grand, I said. It doesn’t have to be a sermon. To speak to the Father, you don’t have to speak with the power, the volume, the duration, the grandeur of your father. We don’t have to impress God. God loves us as we are, and wants to hear our voices, even if we’re confused and can’t think of what to say . . .
I heard myself talking. I had been doing most of the talking.
“Thank you,” she said. We were done. Now I could hear the silence I should have respected. The ego creeps in, under cover of best intentions. It was too noisy a place, a lunchroom with snacks and children; and I had too many people to see that afternoon. I didn’t clear the space, physical or mental, for her void.
We don’t get do-overs, but she accepted a follow-up visit. I’ll start from a different place.
No royal road. Importing my wisdom to a place of suffering is one kind of narcissism; and assuming the guilt for that suffering is another kind. What exactly did I expect? I wasn’t going to bring her life back; after all, I didn’t lose it.
Emerson said that a sermon foolishly spoken may be wisely heard. Miracles show scant respect for our methods, our codes of criticism, our disciplines and standards. The Apostle said that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. Maybe – goddammit – she meant it when she said thank you. Maybe I did some good.