GOD TALKS to people about me. Once, a friend praying for me at a beginning-of-year cottage retreat saw a picture of me as a white rabbit hopping through snow—I might feel invisible, she said, but I’m still forging a path.
Another time, an old man I’d just met was giving a talk to a roomful of kids in the youth group. It was dark, and we were crammed into a room in the parish house, sitting on windowsills and tables and the floor. It was hot, with that heat that comes just from being in proximity to teenagers. This Father Christmas of a man with a white beard and a giant pink nose was speaking to another kid, answering a question, when he interrupted himself and said, “Where’s that one girl—Claire?” His eyes found me tucked in a corner. “God says, we’ve got work to do.” Then he resumed talking to the other kid.
Sometimes it seems inane. A woman visiting my church one Sunday morning came up and told me she saw a picture of me in a beautiful yellow dress. That was it, the whole prophetic word. Me in a yellow dress.
Or odd—my tall friend Emily had a word for me when I was bullied by some kids during the year my family moved to Canterbury for my dad to work at the university there. When I first arrived I’d been popular because I was new and had a Canadian accent. The novelty wore off as the year went on, though, and when I dated and broke up with someone, he and his friends started making snide comments when I walked into a room. I was distraught, and confused, and sixteen.
The word Emily heard for me was “Galatians 5:12.” She hadn’t looked the verse up, and I don’t think she knew what it said. It just popped into her head when we were praying after worship one Friday evening. We turned to Galatians in a Bible I picked up off the floor of the youth room.
Galatians 5:12, Common English Bible: “I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!”
That God would whisper secrets about me to strangers didn’t seem strange when I was a teenager. I wanted to be a Christian more than anything else in the world, and this was normal for the particular pocket of Christians I knew, so I wanted it. It wasn’t normal in my home—my parents didn’t pray like that, or at least didn’t tell me things they heard. They modeled a quieter faith, like a gentle river instead of a heavy southern thunderstorm. But the God of thunderstorms seemed to have so much to say. And not only that, but God seemed to have so much to say about me. This God seemed to go out of his way to get messages through to me, like an obsessive, half-secret love affair, conducted through code and messengers in disguise. That the messages were sometimes opaque was part of the romance.
The first time I was told something that didn’t come true, I was seventeen. I was back in Montreal for a few weeks. I wanted desperately to stay in England for another year, though my parents were going home. I’d applied for a student visa but was denied, and I was home so that I could appeal the decision. In my weepy state, I went to a prayer conference at my church, hoping for assurance.
I got what I was looking for. I went up for prayer at the end, and they laid their hands on my shoulders and listened to my tale of woe. They spent some time praying quietly to themselves, and then the bright green eyes sunken behind bushy white eyebrows found me again. “God sees your faithfulness, your love for him. God sees your heart, and God is going to make a way for you to stay in England.” In July, we moved back to Montreal. In February, I finally heard from the British visa appeals board. I didn’t want to go back to England anymore, though that was a fairly new feeling. The appeal was denied anyway.
I spent a long time wondering who got it wrong. I was devastated, for months—I’d really believed that God would figure it out for me, because I really believed that God was saying the things people said God said. The thing about most of the prophetic words I heard from people then is that they were descriptive, not proscriptive or future-oriented. They almost always encouraged me in an explicit way. They affirmed something about me that I didn’t know anyone had noticed. As I got older and came into myself a little more in my twenties, the things God had to say about me to the people around me gave me confidence. They named things I was good at, little badges sewn onto the sash of my self-understanding. I kept records of these words, notebooks full of them, tender words from God sent through messengers of many kinds.
The main point of this kind of prayer—this prophetic speech that affirms, that describes—is to help people see themselves better, to see themselves the way that God sees them. Sometimes a warier person will add a caveat to go with the word—“maybe this is just me, but I see you standing in a field of flowers, and there’s sunshine all around you, and God just loves your sense of beauty and wonder…” But finally it’s up to the one being prayed for. If the word doesn’t seem true, if it doesn’t seem like it’s from God, just shrug it off.
When, after university, I started a new job at a charismatic ministry, the prayers my colleagues and supervisors prayed over me in the first weeks were ointment on the wound of leaving a life behind. I didn’t know the people, they didn’t know me, but God knew us all and spoke through them to assure me that I was still seen, still loved, even though now far away in a new job and yet another country.
Months before, as I’d thought about whether to take the job, a friend looked up at me perched on the arm of a sofa and said, “You know they’re, like, really charismatic there, right?” I’d laughed, said something about how it would probably be a good growing experience for me, accepted an outstretched mug of tea.
When I first got there, it was all comfort. I knew how to sink into that place of quiet listening, and I knew how to listen to someone else, weigh what they said, thank them for listening on my behalf. My new colleagues affirmed my courage, promised that God would equip me for the work, and spoke to me of God’s love in that new place. But while the prayer started out familiar, it didn’t stay familiar. The executive director organized a fire tunnel after Bible study—run of the mill in some charismatic circles, though I’d never experienced one. The staff stood in two rows, facing one another, and one by one we passed through the rows. I positioned myself near the end so that I could see what happened before I had to do it myself. The people in the rows laid their hands on the walker’s shoulder or took his or her hand briefly, pressing it, as the rows of people spoke and shouted and sang. After everyone had passed through once, they cheered and started cycling through again. I was tense from being touched by so many people, so I stayed at the end and ducked out before my turn came again. People had said kind things over me as I walked, though I didn’t understand all of it. They spoke about my anointing, said I had favor, prayed for more. I didn’t know the vocabulary, and it didn’t make sense that God would speak to me in a language I didn’t understand. I knew that sometimes people just wanted to say something, without being particularly attentive to whether their speech was coming from the Holy Spirit or from their own mysterious depths. I didn’t ponder the words said to me that night overmuch—I don’t remember them in detail—it wasn’t hard to let them go, assume the best, and move on.
But the things God said about me seemed to get stranger. On a bright April day, I stood on the sidewalk outside the office building, stretching and facing the light. The sun finally had the strength to warm again, and I was annoyed to be spending all day inside for a ministry training, when I could have been walking on a bay somewhere. A lot of the content was similar to what I’d already been learning in my eight months at the organization. Some of it was new, though—we’d been talking about demons, a systematic look at a few specific demons. The director, Rick, had been teaching about the mermaid spirit—a spirit of seduction, common mostly in women and gay men. Next, the Queen of Heaven. Marian devotion leads easily to possession by this demon. The Queen of Heaven takes root in a person and leads to a questioning of the authority of God, a failure to find a spouse, and sometimes an inability to conceive a child. Finally, the Angel of Light. This is the demon of false rationality that closes you off to the supernatural action of God and causes you to mistrust the spiritual authority of leaders in your life.
Standing outside rubbing my face, I think it’s all crazy. But I had been having conflict with the directors about the organization’s board—it barely had one, and I’d said that I thought they should recruit more people—and I was working to do my part to make amends, to show that they didn’t have cause to be suspicious of my commitment to the work. On that day in the sun, I flip-flopped between trying to entertain the idea that this really could be how God works, mermaid spirits and demons of rationality, and trying to put on a good show so that I could get back to visiting people in jail.
A young couple who were also new to the organization walked outside after me, and we shook our heads a little and laughed. Mike raised an eyebrow at me as he leaned back into a stretch. “Kind of hard to swallow, right?” I mumbled an agreement and shook my head again. When our break ended, we trudged back in for worship and prayer. Most of the class had been praying through the break, examining their hearts, eager for more. The band started playing, and the directors walked around laying hands on shoulders, praying for students. I was leaning against the cabinet where we stored linens and church supplies at the back, just barely singing along, when Rick loomed up next to me.
“How’s it going?”
“I’m doing pretty well, thanks.” I wavered a smile.
“Can I pray for you?”
I nodded slightly. “Okay.”
“I see that you’re afraid of something. I wonder if there’s anything that resonated with you from the talk before.”
I shot a look up at him. “Nothing really stands out.”
“I wonder if you’d be willing for me to pray for deliverance for you from the Angel of Light, or if you’re willing to pray for it yourself. God wants you to be free. He wants you to be healed.”
I stiffened against the cabinet, stood up, stopped leaning. Rick’s face was above mine. He was still standing next to me, bouncing slightly as he spoke. I let him pray for me, said the words he told me to say.
In trainings about this kind of prayer, teachers always distinguish between things that are “from God” and things that are “just from me.” This distinction is supposed to help clarify when to take something seriously and when to let it go. But if it offers clarity, it does so only by obscuring other things. It was still Rick’s tongue that shaped the words, Rick’s breath on my ear as he leaned in to whisper. How do I bracket out a person, his lively, bouncing self, with all his jumbled up motives and our whole fraught relationship, in order to hear only God’s words, speaking directly to me?
Some of the things people have said about me in prayer aren’t true. As with the prophecy about the British visa—a man said something was going to happen, and it didn’t. The other things people said about me—the affirming words of encouragement as well as the strange, manipulative words—had their own way of prophesying. They didn’t predict the future, but they conjured pictures of who I am and who God is, and how we people are in relationship with each other. I’ve waved some of these pictures away easily. Others are still hanging around, like the trailing yarn on the sleeve of a gray sweater I have, waiting either to be snipped off or woven back in.
Names in this essay have been changed.
Claire Latimer-Dennis is a Montrealer living in Toronto. She holds an MDiv from Duke Divinity School and is preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.