by Anna Wadsworth
“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earth-quake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” —1 Kings 19:11–12
Some of our actions in the world serve as prayer, or so I would like to believe. Oh sure, I pray during the liturgy, find nourishment and guidance from time to time in The Book of Common Prayer, and treasure poems that approximate prayer in their beauty or quirkiness. I hope God finds poetry an acceptable substitute, because I’m a failure at serious, soul-searching prayer. The sort of penitential thing we’re supposed to do in Lent.
I’m not the only one. Barbara Brown Taylor, in An Altar in the World, writes that she would rather show someone her checkbook stubs than talk about her prayer life. She left her ministry as an Episcopal priest to become an academic and a writer, and in 2014 she joined the ranks of the TIME list of 100 most influential people in the world. A holy and insightful woman, she admits, “To say I love God but do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.” Still, she has converted an old rosewood vanity into an altar and adorned it with icons and dozens of candles. Most of the time, she says, it just sits there. “Then comes a night when I am in deep need, deep fear, deep thanks, or deep want—either for myself or for someone I love.” So she lights all the candles, and prayer overtakes her.
Prayer overtook me when my son left home—not the day we set off down the road to move him into his college dorm—but later, when he pulled away from our curb in a packed U-haul, towing a battered Toyota, bound from Denver to Dallas. After watching the truck snake around the corner, I went into the kitchen to light a candle. During the long, straight-through trip, my husband followed Joel’s progress on the Find Friends app. I kept the candle lighted and fitfully prayed for his safety and for his new life as an adult.
Over the course of my motley prayer life, I once even painted an icon. Actually, it’s called writ-ing an icon. It took six consecutive days, long into the evening each day, mostly in silence or listening to the mesmerizing chants of Russian Orthodox liturgy. It was a hallowing experience, an intimacy with God I will never forget. But you get the picture: these experiences remain vivid because they stand out from my routine: tooling so fast down my own road that it takes at least three flags to grab my attention.
First flag: an email arrived from the Episcopal Public Policy Network. Usually the EPPN sends “alerts” with no personalized greeting. An alert notifies you of The Episcopal Church’s position on an upcoming bill in congress and urges you to contact your senators and representative to advocate for or against the proposed law, in the interest of the common good. But this time, this outward reaching arm of the church had sent a specially addressed Lenten letter. “Dear Anna,” it read. “The work of public witness is not separate from the inward work of prayer, self-examination, and repentance.” The longer message was well-written and theologically sound, but I wasn’t buying it. Who has time for prayer when the morass we Americans are slogging through demands political action?
Second flag. It came later the same day in the form of a book suggested by a friend: Where God Happens by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Our small book-study group that meets Wednesday mornings at St. John’s—all are welcome—has agreed to tackle it in a few weeks, so I began paging through. At first, I hated it. It was the most introverted, inwardly focused book I had ever picked up. All about penitence and prayer. But what had I expected? It is based on the tradition of the first Christian monastics, the desert mothers and fathers, who practiced their faith in fourth-century Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. I had dragged through 37 pages when I came to this story:
A certain brother came to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis. He arrived at the church and asked the clergy if he could go and visit Abba Arsenius. “Have a bite to eat,” they said, “before you go to see him.” “No,” he replied, “I shan’t eat anything until I have met him.” Arsenius’s cell was a long way off, so they sent a brother along with him. They knocked on the door, went in, and greeted the old man, then sat down; nothing was said. The brother from the church said, “I’ll leave you now; pray for me.” But the visitor didn’t feel at ease with the old man and said, “I’m coming with you.” So off they went together. Then the visitor said, “‘Will you take me to see Abba Moses, the one who used to be a highwayman?” When they arrived, Abba Moses welcomed them happily and enjoyed himself thoroughly with them until they left.
The brother who had escorted the visitor said to him, “Well, I’ve taken you to see the foreigner and the Egyptian; which do you like better?” “The Egyptian [Moses] for me!” he said. One of the fathers overheard this and prayed to God saying, “Lord, explain this to me. For your sake, one of these men runs from human company and for your sake the other receives them with open arms.” The two large boats floating on the river were shown to him. In one of them sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit of God in complete silence. And in the other boat was Abba Moses, with the angels of God: they were all eating honey cakes. (pp. 37–38)
Give me the angels and honey cakes any day! My restless, extroverted spirituality was finding a home with the desert mothers and fathers. As I read further, these early monastics’ gentle insistence on examining our personal fault lines in the presence of God drew me in.
Williams quotes John the Dwarf: “We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.” The Dwarf was calling my number. Self-accusation: I don’t pray enough. Self-justification: But I like poetry, and once in a while I persevere in prayer for a short stretch. Besides, even Barbara Brown Taylor doesn’t pray very often.
Williams beckons us to follow the example of these early Christians. He isn’t suggesting that we become hermits who weave baskets in the desert but rather that we combine, as they did, “relent-less penance with confidence and compassion.” Their vocation was “to put the neighbor in touch with God.” Their practice was to “engage each other in this kind of quest for the truth of one-self.” The quest, he says, creates a quiet space where “we peel away the fear, the self-centeredness, the ambitions, the addictions that stand between us and commitment to the presence of God.”
Williams envisions a church where, as in the ancient desert communities, we can pursue the quest without fear of condemnation “for not having a standard or acceptable spiritual life.” Yet, in the next breath, he argues that the church must require “quite demanding forms of spiritual discipline.” His reason: the church cannot be an effective witness in the world if its members do not enter into this intense, interior space with God. Now that’s a connection between prayer and action I can accept; we must get at the truth of who we are in order for our small flame to dispel great darkness.
The following morning, the third flag waved me down: I’m walking out of my dance class alongside another student when, apropos to our conversation, she suddenly remarks, “I think people are afraid to see how close Jesus and God were. The same with Moses. And we can all have that closeness. It’s about getting quiet and listening. I was so fortunate as a child; at synagogue I was given a book called The Still Small Voice. I’ve spent my entire life getting back to what I knew as a child. It’s my mission.”
You win, God. Three flags in little over 24 hours. I will take off my shoes, sit in a chair, light a candle, and listen.
Note: You are welcome to join our book study that meets in the Wellspring Center, Wednesdays from 11 am–12:30 pm. Our target date for beginning Where God Happens is March 29. To sign up and to order a book, contact