Earlier this week I went for a run along a woodsy trail while listening to the talk given by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at the Boston Mormon Stories Conference. Hearing her eloquent, deeply informed, faithful narrative while my body moved in repetitive motion between towering green Texas pine trees struck a chord in me that hadn’t been played in at least two years. For the first time in what felt like ages I looked heavenward with possibility, considering (again) that maybe there was a God up there that might answer me back. I even paused mid stride in true twenty-first century fashion, and took a picture of the parting trees and the blue morning sky with my iPhone. In all seriousness a flame of hope did glimmer for me again that morning, however subtly.
Four years ago, after my husband announced to me that he was an atheist, I went through two years of praying with hope that a God was there listening and that He had answers, a plan and a deep personal love for me. With every passing day that turned up answerless that flame of hope grew more and more dim. It was as if every time I knelt or laid in my bed or drove in my car or prayed over that day’s batch of chopped onions or curled up on the floor in my closet, I ripped out my heart and held it out for Him to heal. Nothing. During the last year of this tender time I prayed with caution, my prayers grew less and less frequent and eventually they stopped. I put so much faith into every prayer and I needed my Heavenly Father so intensely. Surely, if He were personal, He knew that. When the answers didn’t come I had to quit hoping just to cope. A very large part of me was dying inside. It was just too darn painful. Several months later the praying picked up again but I feel like it’s been an act ever since. I pray because I’m supposed to and because it sounds so beautiful to me when I hear people like Joanna Brooks say things like “Prayer has always been important to me” or, “I never stopped praying.” To that I always respond silently, “Why can’t I say that?”
I’ve never really stopped believing in God. For a while, I doubted, but that doubt has rolled over into a belief in some kind of vague, agnostic-ish, divinity that is aware of infinitely more than any of us can comprehend. And I call that God. I have a healthy spiritual life that has brought me more in touch with my inner self in amazing ways, but I’d love it if my God were personal. I’d love it if this Divinity spoke to me from the outside. But I don’t hope for it or expect it because I’ve been where that takes me. It’s just not safe.
I never realized how safe I had been playing it until the day I spent my morning run with Sister Ulrich. Before climbing between the sheets that night I decided to kneel in prayer. I was alone in my room. The time felt right and I moved sacredly, with purpose. It was as I bowed my head that the panic came so unexpectedly. My heart recognized the hope I was nursing again, it’s old torturer from two years ago, and anxiety seized me. My act of kneeling had felt so innocuous when I started and yet there they were, my old demons, that I hadn’t even known existed.
I am afraid to pray.
I muttered through something short and probably trivial. To tell you the truth I don’t recall if I even went through with a prayer that night. I only know that I wasn’t strong enough to let the lamplight keep glowing, tiny as it was. I snuffed it out. As I lay in bed I couldn’t stop thinking about my reaction to hope in a personal God. Had I already forgotten how painful that time was? How I hadn’t been strong enough to keep it up? No, it turns out, I haven’t forgotten. The wounds are there, but hopefully (there I go again) they are healing. Hopefully (again), in time I will be strong enough. Are you afraid to pray?
–Ashley Merback (other guest posts can be viewed here)
[Last post in this series: Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Heaven's Door]