Be careful what you pray for.
A week ago, I was all set to write about rules of prayer and my habit of making “on-the-go” intercessions. Not that interspersing “Lord Have Mercys” with dish washing and teeth brushing isn’t profitable, on the contrary, frequently pondering upon Christ helps to order my priorities, provides me with at least a little more patience, and is crucial for maintaining my sanity throughout the day. But there is something altogether different about standing before icons, pausing in silence while my mind empties itself of surface garbage, setting aside all other activities and distractions before opening my will up to God’s. I wanted to explore the difference between formal and spontaneous prayer, the importance of including both in one’s schedule, but then I was knocked down, took a shot to the jugular, I was humiliated, devastated on a Friday afternoon and I can focus on nothing else until I deal with what it is screaming in my heart.
Screaming. I have a screamer. What two-year-old Mary lacks in size she more than makes up for in volume. She is a spitfire, an impish stick of dynamite, and we adore her, screaming and all. "When you stop screaming,” we say, laying her in the crib, “we will get you out.” For although she is delectable and funny and snuggly such hysteria cannot be encouraged, rewarded, or extinguished by way of explanations. In Chicago, our street was abuzz with children’s laughter, with the scolding of parents, and yes, with the screaming of babies learning to sleep on their own, of siblings arguing, and of toddlers not getting their way. “Is that my son?” I’d ask myself, putting an ear to his bedroom door. “Oh no, it’s the little girl that lives next to us,” and I’d breath a sigh of relief. Nap time had not been cut short after all.
But here, in my new small town, where gardens are tended to devotedly, where houses are inhabited by the same families for decades, where the quiet has a sound of its own, the buzz of little children, my little children (the only ones within earshot) comes across more like a jackhammer ripping up quaintness and tranquility. I know this because Friday I got a telephone phone call. “Hello?” I said, over the chaos of my older kids raiding the cupboards for after-school snacks and of Mary, having just been denied a piece of unwrapped and dirt covered candy, characteristically screaming in her crib. What met my ear was a verbal assault most upsetting. Apparently, my mothering skills were being questioned by the neighborhood (or at least two people within it). I was horrified and deeply offended by the accusations from neighbors I had always considered friendly and welcoming. I was told that such screaming was not natural and that either I was mistreating Mary (and my daughter's siblings) or that something was just plain wrong with her. It was so bizarre, so hard to wrap my mind around. And I sobbed like I hadn’t sobbed in years.
That morning, inspired by reflections on prayer, I awoke fifteen minutes earlier than normal. Before getting out of my pajamas or putting in my contacts, I lit two candles and opened an actual prayer book. Taking a deep breath, I tried to reign in my thoughts so they could meditate on the words my mouth would soon deliver. “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Having invoked the Holy Trinity I commenced with the morning prayers:
“O Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day in peace. Help me to rely upon your holy will at every moment. In every hour of the day, reveal your will to me. Bless my association with all who surround me. Teach me to treat whatever may happen to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will. Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me.”
I will tell you dear friends, that this entreaty by Metropolitan Philaret enveloped me fully. I can assure you, by God’s grace, that I was spiritually uplifted even when crushed down, with the remembrance of Christ’s omnipotence. “How would you have me respond?” was my spontaneous prayer, born out of the formal prayers carved into a day as of yet unknown, carved into my soul by the effort it took to recite them. I would eventually go to my accusers, apologize for the noise, assure them that we love, oh do we love, our children. I may have been believed or I may never have the satisfaction of being vindicated. I may continue to be whispered about for years to come, wrongfully slandered, and grievously misunderstood. Be careful what you pray for. Things like patience, humility, a desire to please God alone. Because His answers can burn like a scalding hot branding iron while we are being marked, set apart, as His own.
I was all set to write about rules of prayer and my habit of making “on-the-go” intercessions. I was all set to talk about these things objectively until life dealt a blow most unexpected. Rules of prayer, formal prayer, are not merely a “good idea”. Offering the initial moments of a brand new morning to God, absolutely, unequivocally, beats sleeping in, checking e-mail, or wiping down bathroom sinks, when it comes to protecting my soul. There is no one else, nothing else, more worthy of my time, my praise, my exertions. There is no one else, nothing else, who can lead me through despair and into the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no one else, nothing else that should obstruct my vision of Christ Jesus, because He is love, perfect love, unshakable love, a love that will never forsake me.
“Are you ready to calm down?” I ask my tiny daughter whose eyelashes glisten with beads of wetness, leftover tears from a tantrum. “Uh-huh,” she says, reaching out her arms for the hug I, too, am longing for. I breathe in the smell of her, sweat mixed with diaper cream, the sweetest scent I know upon this earth. “Lord have mercy,” I pray, spontaneously. “Please grant me wisdom, please guide my every decision, please help me to a better mother. Amen.”
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