I was unbearably young when I first learned to pray. Barely a year old, sitting in a high chair before a bowl of cooked cereal at breakfast time, I offered up my hands while my mother pressed them gently together— in the position of prayer—then leaned toward me to coo: “Say your grace, precious.” Then, in my one-year-old babble, I would “pray”—just as my mother and father did before they ate breakfast and lunch and every other meal ever taken at our house.
And of course I didn’t remember any of this. What does a one-year-old remember well enough to recall when she is grown?
So I watched closely now as my mother repeated this same scene with my grandchild, a baby just barely one.
Mama at eighty-four, sitting at my kitchen table, pulled her chair close to my visiting grandbaby’s chair. She pressed this little girl’s hands together—in the position of prayer. Then my mother cooed: “Say your grace, precious.” And my first grandchild, in her little child’s babble, started to pray:
“Babba ab ba babba,” she said, bowing her head and leaning into her hands, smiling up at my mother. She wanted to get this praying thing down right. Then the baby, hurrying to finish, added with a flourish her closing touch: “Ahhh-men!”
My mother, agreeing with her, closed with her own flourish, a loud and sturdy “Ah-men.” Then Mama, with full approval, added, “Okay, now we can eat our breakfast.” Then she handed my grandchild her unbearably small spoon.
This is how it started, my blessed journey—this unlikely quest to learn how to pray. I didn’t know of such beginnings until that summer of 2000, when my long-widowed mother was comfortably aging and I, at fifty-one, was far into life myself.
I’d always thought that Daddy, not Mama, was the teacher of everything in our house. Everything spiritual, that is, would have started with Daddy. He was a daddy in the fifties, after all, and I was his youngest child. So his word was law. His wishes were granted. His dinner was hot when he walked through the front door after work. And his table was quiet while we ate. No horseplay from my sister and me. No talking back. No childish, crazy foolishness.
But foolish me, sitting at the dinner table one Friday evening, yelled like crazy across his dinner plate at my sister, who had just given me a sly and delicious look.
I can’t remember why. But big sisters can do this. At ten years old, my sister could goad and tease and look innocent all at the same time. We both did this, in fact, eyeing each other across our family’s kitchen table, rolling our impudent eyes on the sly while our parents laughed and talked.
Knowing this, I saw my older sister’s look and I responded. I yelled. “You better stop that, Lauretta!”
Daddy, still eating, said, “Stop!” He didn’t look over. Didn’t have to. He was Daddy. One word did it. So stop should have been enough.
But here was another look. A delicious tease. At five or six years old, I couldn’t let it pass. So I yelled again.
“You better stop looking at me like that, Lauretta!”
Daddy put down his fork—one movement. His eyes found mine, flashing and speaking. Then Daddy cleared his throat to really speak.
Of course, I heard him. How could I miss that sound? And how could I not listen? My handsome, proper father—still wearing his starched white shirt from work, his dark silk tie, loosened at the collar—was so painfully lovely to behold. His lean brown face was always shaven, his hair always barbered, his mouth never slack, his eyes always vigilant, his diction ever perfect.
His presence alone was enough to shift my attention, to focus my awakening ears. But listening is hard when you’re just starting out to pray. Yet Daddy had something to say.
“If you open your mouth one more time . . .”
But who can figure? I was five. I kept talking. In fact, I said something childish and stupid, something like: “Well, if you’d just look at her and not be looking at me . . .” Then: WHAM!
Lightning! Daddy’s backhand. Landing hard across my mouth. Tasting like fire. Feeling like power and truth and God in one hard blow. I flew off my chair and hit the floor, my bottom lip ballooning to twice its size and bleeding.
A five-year-old gets dramatic.
“Waaawww . . . Daddy!” I started to bawl. Loud and insulted. “Waaww!”
I cupped my bleeding lip with both hands, crawling—chastised—back to my chair. “Wa-aa-aw!” I was wailing, panting and snotting up, gasping dramatically for air.
Daddy was past patience, however. His face was an inch from mine, his soft ebony eyes now hard and sharp with straining.
“Stop that racket now—or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
He was glaring now. His look was driving home the message: In my house, talk right. In my house, don’t sass. In my house, keep quiet. Be good. Obey. Don’t question. Stay in your place. Toe the line. Rules clear?
Don’t remember? WHAM!
Daddy didn’t think twice about punishment. He just got right down to it, that backhand flying. Not all the time, of course. But enough for me to be on guard. So that’s how I lived, careful and watching, always vigilant, ever keeping a healthy sense of fear.
Looking back, however, Daddy seemed fearful the most—afraid of not teaching me right, terrified that if I didn’t learn how to toe every line, something bad could happen. Even to a Christian girl, bad things could happen. And with every passing year, the stakes seemed to get higher.
Coming home after work to find a wild-haired daughter dancing and gyrating in the kitchen to American Bandstand sent him into a kind of despairing rage.
“Stop that foolishness!” he would shout. But me, I kept dancing—eyes closed, snapping my fingers, singing the Motown words—digging the thumping music. So he shouted again. “Stop that foolishness.”
Then beyond patience, he reached down and grabbed me by the arm, his beautiful eyes boring into mine. “Patricia! Didn’t you hear me?”
A perfect question for a prayer warrior. And this is a Christian journey.
But I put off my answers, then I made peace with my daddy—so he could make peace with his God. Those backhands and shouting soon ended, in fact. So I grew to honor my father—even to revere him, maybe even to adore him. Then I launched my life, daring to move on—vowing to believe that life’s hard moments, and the problems that frame them, were over and done with, now and forever amen.
But here was something else, these fifty years later. Another beautiful man, my husband, Dan, this time—shouting even louder, yelling with all of his beautiful heart from upstairs.
“Why’d you leave this door open! Who closed this window! This house is too hot! This TV’s too loud! Who emptied the gas tank! Why can’t you fill it up! Why won’t you answer? Patricia! Can’t you hear me calling you down there?!”
Still a good question. But I closed my heart to my husband’s shouting, unsure how to answer hard questions. In fact, my husband wasn’t yelling hard things. But he sounded odd because his complaints sounded small. The only thing smaller was my modern life. Indeed, the soul of our household seemed to be shrinking under mountains every day.
So our oldest daughter now had a baby but had never been married. Our youngest daughter, gone from the church, was looking for God in “false” religions—or that’s how they looked to me. My aging mother’s health, meanwhile, was slowing—but so was our love. She needed my help and love, sometimes in the same hour. But “we cannot give to the outside what we don’t have on the inside,” the saintly Mother Teresa said. So I made my nightly calls and sounded cheerful. But cheerful calls to two strong-willed daughters and an eighty-four-year-old widowed mother aren’t truly love, and I knew they must have known it.
I had failed us all, it seemed. And this failing of us stung. On many nights, I sat in the dark in my bedroom and I grappled for God—falling to my knees, begging God to fix our torn, worn places—especially to fix my torn, small life.
Then I sang a small song: Poor me. That was my theme. So I hummed it and rolled it around in my head, tossing it about my shoulders like a wet wool scarf. And everybody knows what wet wool smells like.
Satan likes us like this.
He likes us small and tossed and groaning and weary. He likes our lights turned off and our hope turned down. He likes us reeling and fearful and cast out and empty, and pretty much useless because of it all.
But not even Satan was counting on a fifty-something woman, finally worn out on small songs and hard memories, digging up enough good common sense to call on God. That kind of woman cinches on her whole armor and gets busy working with the Master.
That sounded good, at least. The truth was something else. In truth, Satan had me mesmerized—eyes glazed over—still believing that my life was torn and small and hardly worth the time, when my life was just buried, deep under shadows.
To make matters worse, however, I did a hard thing. I turned to the head of the family—that is, I turned again to God—and I asked for help.
And God? The Big and Silent One?—at least that’s how God seemed during that long, hard summer. God seemed big and cold and distant— as silent as death, as soundless as the grave. God seemed a great and distant emptiness, saying nothing, doing nothing, mocking and empty and not there. So God was my Deus Absconditus—the God who is hidden, as the ancients would have called him. In fact, the words looked like I was feeling. Deus Absconditus.
Or as the psalmist put it in his ever-honest way: “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer.”
Chuck Swindoll, talking on my radio, described it in a question: “Have you ever heard the silence of God?” Swindoll’s deep, confident voice rolled out of the speakers. I turned up the volume. So Swindoll asked the question again, his voice slightly lower, sounding even closer.
“Have you ever heard the silence of God?”
I nodded. Yes! I have heard that silence.
But I didn’t know that ages before Saint John of the Cross had called God’s silence “the dark night of the soul.”
For scholar Howard Macy, it was “the withering winds of God’s hiddenness.”
For preacher-warrior Renita Weems, it was the “long silence between intimacies” and the “winter months of faith” and finally “the period pulls into darkness.”
Indeed, for Richard Foster, the soulful Quaker, it was the “icy cold of . . . nothing” and “the purifying silence.” In fact, in one such eighteenmonth- long trial, Foster said his great lesson was “the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. Neither . . . could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.”
I wasn’t as eloquent. But I understood the work of waiting on God and not getting answers. At my job, I saw a revolving door of ever-evolving students—other mothers’ son and daughters, other people’s lovely prayers and dreams. Often they looked beautiful and unfinished and distant, indeed. I surely looked that way to them, in turn.
But nobody was more beautiful and unfinished and distant that year than my beautiful and distant husband.
Once we had laughed and loved and whispered and dreamed. We had joked and hoped and, my goodness, we had touched. We would come home from work, put dinner on, reach for each other in the kitchen and then we just kissed. We wrapped our arms around each other and leaned in and didn’t pull away.
But that feeling of closeness and warmth, of leaning in and mutual good will—of just the two of us together, bonded in life and holding on right there in our very own kitchen—had evaporated. My big fear was that we would sit across the breakfast table one day and have nothing left to say.
And here is something: It didn’t matter that we were a good Christian family; living our earnest lives; going to our good, earnest church. It didn’t even matter then that we were black, or African American as folks say now. In fact, we were a modern American family—a bit tossed about, a bit uncertain, a lot unglued. But mostly we were broken—and we couldn’t figure out how to put ourselves back together again.
Even the Oprah book I bought at the grocery store warned this was a problem. “The tragedy,” said a preacher in Cry, the Beloved Country, “is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again.”
To top off my tragedy, however, I was aware of the oddest feeling—not of anger so much, but of betrayal. It was as if God himself had stopped my mending. Then God had dropped my case, and to seal the deal, God had stopped, closed and locked a door.
God was there, standing behind the gate, inside the shadows, just out of sight, enormously quiet.
Silent as a coffin.