This is a longer very personal essay I wrote in 2003, which I am posting in installments, without re-reading or editing (because, once I start, I would edit it into a different essay
Part I The Magic Kingdom I–The Varieties of Magic
Part II The Magic Worlds of Art and Nature.
III Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.
The Magic Kingdom of Prayer
Still, it was years before I began to learn to live by prayer. In late 1995, my friend, Peggy Goetz, who teaches at
told me how her spiritual life changed when she decided to pray for an hour a day. My own “quiet time” then felt Sisyphean: hefting a boulder up a hill because I had decided to–though I barely believed it changed things, though it brought little joy, peace or transformation. So I too decided to spend an hour in prayer and scripture study (with, of course, some restlessness and covert glances at the clock) and since “if some is good, then more is better,” appears to be my subliminal motto, I soon increased it. Calvin College
After a couple of weeks of this new discipline, my life unraveled. The manuscript of an ill-considered book project I had worked on for four years was turned down by the well-known editor from Harper and Row and the “hot” literary agent who had been so encouraging, the grief sharper because I had been pregnant and then had an infant for the last two of those years, and writing had been a strain. I grew depressed. I had recently moved from the heady, stimulating environment of
Minneapoliswith its rich literary friendships to , and, for the first time in my life, developing interesting friendships was difficult. My shattered confidence led to writer’s block; the sadness and stress to frequent illness. “From before and behind you hedge me in.” I tried every means of comfort: journalism, teaching Creative Writing at William and Mary, obsessive, extensive gardening; anti-depressants, food, therapy, a second baby, frantic travel (New Zealand, India, England, Spain in a calendar year), frantic social life (nine groups: wine and dine, sit and stitch, book groups, “small groups,” church committees!), all of which aggravated my problem–no time or energy to do the one thing I wanted to: write, and led, in turn, to fresh problems: exhaustion, weight gain, getting hyper on anti-depressants, money flying through my fingers. Williamsburg, Virginia
In late ‘96, during a winter vacation house-sitting in
, while trying to read Jeremiah (again), I stumbled upon a clue to my sadness: Madrid
Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength.
And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes.
But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.
I listened. My confidence in my self (that rousing American virtue!) was at a low ebb. Though I saw my friends save themselves through hard work, discipline, determination, I did not believe I could swing it. When a bird caught in a net flaps, it only gets more deeply entangled. It is not the well who need a physician; it is those who are a total mess. I now knew that no “chariots and horses,” my own or another’s, could make me happy. The infinite hole in my heart could only be filled by the infinite.
~ ~ ~
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven.”
During those years, because I was blocked on every side, because of my great need, because my life wasn’t working, I did life less and less by the power of sweat, worry and calculation, but began to learn to pray. Gradually, things changed. The writer Paul Miller led me, over a period of five years, through two lengthy and challenging Bible studies he had written, through which the words of Jesus began to take root in my life. Lolly Dunlap, a living saint, lovingly mentored me. I met inspiring writers who had found ways to combine writing with mothering, and, gradually, established nourishing friendships.
God likes big, brazen prayers with chutzpah, I discovered: “Please wake up. I know it’s midnight, but I am out of bread.” “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” As I prayed for my husband, a mathematician who helped me, to the utmost, with the house and kids to get time off teaching for his own research which he passionately loves, he began to get research years in all sorts of improbable ways–a total of six and a half years, in fact. In seasons of exhaustion and bleak financial years, I decided to pray for money to travel–my primary means of refreshment and renewal–to the places I most wanted to, and felt like “a spoilt bairn of the Almighty,” in Oswald Chambers’ phrase: money appeared almost miraculously, a National Endowment for the Arts award which took us to Venice and Florence; another unexpected windfall which took us to Switzerland.
In fact, when I do it by prayer, even cleaning up goes more quickly! And what works in the house, works in the garden. For five years we tended hellebores, rare expensive beauties–red, primrose yellow, chartreuse, maroon, plums, midnight purples, that flaunt large, magnificent, flowers, or clusters of bell-like blossoms–and futilely hoped they would reseed. This winter, I realized that instead of hoping they would reseed, I should pray they would reseed. I did. They did. Magnificently. Dozens of seedlings under each plant, enough to transplant to all those nooks in our half acre garden that we thought would be perfect if they only had hellebores, enough to share with gardening friends, for God is munificent. When I’d say, “Sister, please pray that I” win, star, shine… Sister Josephine at school sweetly quoted Thomas More, “The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me the grace to labor for.” But that was not the lesson I most needed. The Copernican revolution of the mind I need is this: don’t worry, but turn your worry into a prayer; don’t just hope, turn your hope into a prayer; divert your stream of consciousness, your internal monologue, into a dialogue with God, so that, in time, to think is to pray. Annie Dillard says moving from poetry to prose was like playing with an entire orchestra rather than with a single instrument. For me, learning to live by prayer–whether about how to write, crisis-clean, mother, or throw a kid’s birthday party–was like that.
And what amazes me still more is that, as I pray, the tectonic plates of my soul shift, and its topography alters; my very emotions change. When my spirit feels empty, or, in fact, dead, I beg for the Spirit’s life to revive my deadness, the Spirit’s fullness for my emptiness, his living bread for my hungers, and his rest for my restlessness. And he does come, surprising me. Grace is more than a theological concept, I discovered on the days when Roy and I joke that we will persist in loving each other because Christ commanded us to love our enemies! When I feel like a toothpaste tube too thriftily squeezed, and pray “for the love of God to be shed abroad in my heart through the Holy Spirit” I do–astonished–eventually feel the ripples of an invisible, inexhaustible Amazon: new energy, new compassion, new perspective. Prayer can change anything; when I doubted that, I had been Plato’s cave-dweller in the shadows and gloom, assuming this was it, undreaming of a world drenched in golden sunlight, under bright sapphire skies.
As I prayed, finicky hellebores self-seeded; a college fund to a great university appeared as from a Great Magician’s hat, and when bills abounded, freakily, money abounded. Can one speak of prayer without the seeming gloating of “I asked and I received; I sought and I found,” that makes the answers to other people’s prayers as tiresome as the glories of other people’s kids, or the horrors of other people’s in-laws, (of whom an astonishing number of my friends have the most difficult in all the world)?
Yes! For no one I know has had every prayer answered. Every surplus pound has not dropped off; a deeply organized and tidy house has eluded me, as has my life-long desire to wake at 5 a.m.! My writing limps over blocks, exhaustion, distraction, duties. When I compare myself to my friends, three of whom have published very successful books, I think of Milton’s Sonnet VII–“My fleeting youth flees on with full career, but my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th;” though I can conclude with his acquiescence, “All is, if I have grace to use it so,”–and with Hopkins’ prayer in his echoing sonnet–“Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.”
Though answered prayers dazzle us, prayer, in itself, is not magic, not an open sesame to the treasure cave of wild, careening desire. For, of course, there are many answers–“no,” “slow,” “grow” as well as “Go.” In that comes the great paradox of prayer: magical–“ask whatever you wish”–yet not magic, as the faith, hope, love and commitment we profess in a wild night are real, yet can crumble before the rooster’s crow under the force of that wakeful night, hunger, anger, flu, restlessness, our sin, other people’s sin.
And the deepest “magic from before the dawn of time,” lies not in the things wrought by prayer that this world never dreams of, but in the One to whom we pray. And in the magic
within us. Kingdom of God
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