MY MOTHER’S FIRST PRAYER was by phone, with a call-center employee from a Toronto Christian TV show. My mother was at a difficult moment in her life—health not good, family on another continent, a small child in her sole care. When she saw the show’s smiling, boyish host, she decided that he was an idiot and, moments later, that whatever he had, she wanted too. So she called the 1-800 number on the screen and talked to a nice woman who prayed with her.
My mother listened to the strange new words, as the invisible woman addressed that other invisibility, Jesus. Talking by phone was a bit like praying; both connected you with someone unseen, though Jesus never replied directly.
After my mother’s phone call I started to pray, too. But it was unclear to me how to talk to the silence we called God.
One afternoon in our apartment, I was drawing when someone called my name. I went to find my mother, the only other person who lived there. When she said she hadn’t called, I went back to drawing and soon heard my name again. I returned to my mother and, same story, she hadn’t called. The third time she said, “Michelle, maybe it’s God. Maybe God wants to tell you something.”
This made sense. As Pentecostals, we believed in a personal relationship with a living, talking God. God had spoken audibly to humans in the Old Testament, and he continued to do so in the 1980s. Usually his means were subtler, but sometimes he reverted to noisier old-time ways, especially when he had something important to say. I thought of the boy-prophet Samuel, and how God had called his name one night. Just like me, Samuel had thought that his guardian, Eli, was calling him. After Samuel woke Eli twice, Eli finally suggested exactly what my mom had, with the added instruction that next time Samuel respond with the words, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
So I went back to drawing. Outside traffic whined, accompanied by the overhead rumble of a plane. Earlier that summer I had watched the shuttle Discovery pierce the heavens as it headed into space, a victorious white dolphin that hovered briefly over east Toronto—where sod grew yellow in treeless heat—before it charged upward to where God lived.
When I heard my name again, I lifted my palms to the clouds and said, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”
At five, I had some idea of what God’s voice sounded like from Bible stories on cassette, where he spoke in solemn, often peevish, tones. As I listened for divine syllables, the plane’s engine grew distant. God’s growl.
I kept my palms aloft and turned my attention inward, because that’s where God’s voice usually lived. The still small voice, as Elijah called it. But inside I heard nothing unlike myself.
Nonetheless, I listened hard to the silence, ready to discern the slightest quaver of wavelength, any hint of God clearing his throat.
Before my mother called the 1-800 number of the Christian TV show, she practiced Transcendental Meditation. She had a mantra and attended workshops and retreats. One time I went with her to visit a swami. The woman worked in a massive, slanting Victorian house, or so it looked to me at four years old. As instructed, we brought the swami an offering—two oranges, two apples, and two new white linen napkins. The swami lit a candle and bestowed on me a mantra, a secret I was never to share with anybody. She suggested that I repeat the mantra to myself upon waking—a preschooler’s meditation—and so on cold mornings I muttered it while squirming into an undershirt. The mantra was a strange utterance, directed at nobody with no hope of a reply, a futile shred of language. I gave up on it after a week.
By grade one I was praying for everything. I prayed to do well in school and sometimes even prayed in school, offering an inward plea before a quiz. Because I knew that Jesus wanted me to spell the French word for daffodil correctly. By middle school I was praying to be popular. Never in so many words, of course; usually I asked Jesus to “guide me in my social life,” a devout bureaucratese which I left to his interpretation.
At McDonalds, my mother and I bowed our heads over cheeseburgers. My mother enunciated with a deliberateness that marked her as both righteous and a non-native speaker, while I squeezed my eyes tight in an effort to pretend I didn’t care who saw us. Earlier that morning, departing for church in the January cold, we had prayed for the car to start. Inside the four-cylinder hatchback that was my age, key poised in the ignition, my mother closed her eyes and uttered preemptive thanks to Jesus, breath condensing around her head like clouds around a mountain-top seer. I meanwhile contemplated that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we didn’t get to church that morning.
But when our car stalled at a major intersection, midway through a left turn, and the oncoming traffic magnified towards us, I grew zealous (Please, Jesus, pleeeease!). Jesus saved us just in time—he always did—our engine wheezing back to life amid irate honks. At such moments my faith grew sure, spiked by adrenaline.
Then I was happy to find myself in church, a noisy place equipped with electric guitars and a full drum set, not to mention the humans who cried out, as if to bring down the walls of Jericho. How awesome to be an ancient Hebrew, with tambourines and ululations, the women veiled but sexy in their virtue, vigorous to bear offspring numerous as the stars, just as Yahweh promised Abraham. Our women favored poodle perms and Laura Ashley dresses, but they had the assertiveness of the women at Jericho, hands and voices raised, as if to compensate for their silent God.
Remembering the intersection earlier that morning, the honking steel hurtling toward us, I shivered and thanked Jesus, knowing that somewhere in the din, he heard me. By the end of the sermon, regretting my lukewarm heart, I asked God for help. “Give me wisdom to hear you.” Words at once groveling and bossy. On one hand I was asking God for help; on the other I was telling him what needed doing. Always the words “guide me” and “give me wisdom,” with the implication, “Get to work, God!”
I knew I had to do better as a Christian. In a way, prayer taught me to want more, whether to be a better Christian or to ace a quiz. Prayer was a training in desire, in goal-setting, in ambition.
Prayer got me to university, and then I stopped praying. Already in high school I had begun to notice that the words of Emily Dickinson moved me more than Jesus’s. (How could Jesus beat Dickinson? I wondered as a moony eighteen year old. How could I am the way, the truth, and the life beat There’s a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons— / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes—?)
The words of people who had died and not been resurrected: these moved me more than the words of the son of God who had conquered death. Reading in my dorm, I decided that God’s words had nothing on George Eliot’s, herself a lapsed evangelical. Whereas evangelical Christianity had offered me tidy stories of sin and suffering overcome by Christ, George Eliot wrote about our persisting selfishness and the suffering we ignore daily.
If God’s silence had disappointed me as a child, in university I decided to stop caring about it. Sometimes, in moments of duress or happiness I started to utter the words “Guide me—” or “Thank you, Lord” but bit my tongue.
My mother continued to pray for me, and I accepted this fact as one does parental worry. Her prayers were—and are—the baffling sign of her love.
In graduate school I read a poem called “Prayer” by the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert. The poem is basically a list of metaphors for prayer, including “the heart in pilgrimage” and the intriguingly violent “Christ-side-piercing spear.” It concludes:
The milky way, the bird of Paradise;
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Reading the final phrase, I couldn’t help but feel that all those sexy metaphors amounted to a revelation. Herbert made me wonder what I was missing out on by not praying anymore, what I had lost.
I took up yoga. Without prayer as an option, I had to find other ways to manage the inevitable unhappinesses of adulthood. Emily Dickinson and George Eliot, it turned out, were not going to solve my problems. Standing upside down helped, as did prostrating myself towards the nearby pizzeria, chin to knees. Reluctantly I enjoyed chanting om, feeling my ribs vibrate.
Part of yoga’s purpose, I learned, was to calm what the instructor called “the monkey mind”—the internal chatter of to-do lists and inopportune memories that make up consciousness. If anything, monkey mind has been amply documented in stream-of-consciousness novels. Clarissa Dalloway goes off to buy flowers for a party and remembers her old flame Peter with anger and longing. Later we learn that she suffers from an unspecified heart condition and bouts of depression. I imagined Clarissa on a sticky mat in downward-facing dog, blood rushing to her disordered head, memories of Peter dissolving into bliss.
In a way, prayer is a fantasy of being fully understood, not only something understood but also someone understood. God never responds to the supplicant with “Huh?”
Literature, by contrast, is often about people misunderstanding each other, particularly the novel. In Middlemarch, Lydgate flirts with Rosamond and unwittingly initiates a courtship that culminates in marriage and the end of his scientific ambitions; Celia, Dorothea’s perceptive sister, has no idea that her dear sole sibling has any romantic interest in the desiccated Casaubon until Dorothea has already agreed to marry him.
So naturally prayer cannot exist solely in the creaky realm of words. By virtue of God’s silence, prayer becomes the most perfect kind of connection.
Yoga was not enough. After graduate school, when I began to teach, I registered for a six-week course on Mind-Body Stress Reduction. Offered by Harvard University’s Center for Wellness, MBSR was a purely scientific exercise based on neurological studies of Buddhist monks as they meditated. News stories that year had touted MRI scans of the monks’ extraordinary brains, their frontal lobes vital islands of red, unlike most people’s lazy blotches of blue.
Harvard was a place full of extraordinary brains of a different sort, where people were defined by work and results, where bodies rowed or wrestled and then hunched for hours in front of computer screens to play furious laptop fugues. A place true to its founders, those jittery Puritans.
Fifteen of us gathered after hours in the Center for Wellness on campus, chairs in a circle, socks on broadloom. Although the room was only half lit, I grew self-conscious about my posture, which was presumably supposed to be both relaxed and upright.
Our guide was a smiling doctor who wore clogs and beautiful sweaters. I feared that she might address me as “friend,” Quaker style.
Perhaps she reminded me of the evangelicals I had grown up with, people who loved everybody in a bid to woo unbelievers to Team Jesus. How could someone love everybody? Such love was like Velveeta, too sticky and widely available.
Why were we here? she asked. People cited a desire to manage stress. There were allusions to anxiety disorders. We spoke slowly into the dim secular circle, except for one participant who sputtered avidly in defiance of the implied code of relaxation.
Soon our first meditation session began. We noticed our breath and scanned our bodies for tension. Was this what relaxation felt like? I told myself to expect nothing as I listened, expectant, to my twinging, gurgling body, alert for symptoms of relaxation. A warming of toes. The loosening of an anonymous muscle. A short bout of levitation.
If nothing else the experience reminded me of the tremendous boredom of church, time that had so often felt lost, full of forced daydreaming about my life as an adult—which I envisioned as a plateau where I’d skate in total freedom—before the final guilty resolution to be a better Christian.
Except that now, daydreaming about my awesome adult future was not an option. I was stuck with the boredom and the silence.
Meditation was a commitment, the smiling doctor reminded us each week. In my apartment, I sat on the couch and counted my breaths. My gaze trained upward to the layer of paint gaping from one corner of the ceiling, where rain would rush in during heavy downpours. Above my nose a small moth strove aimlessly, one of a tribe feasting on my sweaters. My apartment was the attic of a two-hundred-year-old brownstone; its ailing owner had not touched the building in years, maybe decades, and now moths and rust and mold were slowly corrupting the whole.
Many of my books were old, too, if not the paper then the words, published decades or centuries ago. Stacks of them, millions of words showing the thousands of ways that humans misunderstand each other. Someone not understood, and someone else and someone else. What, really, had literature taught me?
Unable to ignore the moth, I stood up and clapped it into oblivion, flicked its crumpled carcass from my palm, and returned to the couch.
Part of the power of Herbert’s phrase is the way it uses vague diction (“something”) to designate a precise emotional experience. I read “something understood” and feel the click of Herbert apprehending God’s presence. Herbert gets it, though he can never tell me how, exactly.
Outside my apartment window, beyond the water-stained ceiling, a strip of low Atlantic clouds pressed into the city. As a child I had believed that particularly spectacular cloud formations were heaven’s portal, literally.
Overhead an invisible plane growled. This time, it was no space shuttle barreling upwards to God’s home. As the plane passed, silence set in, or nearly, the faint white noise of the city accompanying my low breath. I felt something like pleasure in the moments between breaths, when my body was still except for the pulse. The stillness and silence were a relief, at once boring and fascinating, collapsing the distinction between interest and indifference. To meditate was to give oneself up to a series of non-events, to relish the sensation of nothing much happening. God did not speak. No bird of paradise fluttered among the moths, and the soul’s blood was decidedly of the systolic/diastolic variety. Something understood, maybe.
When I recently reread Middlemarch, I was struck by the scene of Mary Garth sitting with Peter Featherstone as he sleeps at night. Mary is employed by Featherstone—a rich, cranky, dying uncle—and serves as his caregiver and lackey. It’s a tedious job, but Mary is philosophic about it, most of all at night while she sits by the fireplace in his bedroom.
She often chose this task, in which she found some pleasure…. There were intervals in which she could sit perfectly still, enjoying the outer stillness and the subdued light. The red fire with its gently audible movement seemed like a solemn existence calmly independent of the petty passions, the imbecile desires, the straining after worthless uncertainties, which were daily moving her contempt.
What was this but MBSR? Mary stares at the fire like the swami at a candle. If Mary were real, her frontal lobes would be alight, like the Buddhist monks’ brains in the MRI scanner.
In time I became a half-assed meditator, turning to it when I needed it and forgetting it when life got easy. If MBSR had a deity, a personal god like Jesus, I would be the worst kind of devotee. Fortunately, meditation is indifferent to me, and this indifference is a kind of mercy.
No doubt I could get more from it if I committed for twenty minutes twice a day, like David Lynch, or daily, like Sam Harris, or even for at least ten seconds daily, like Oprah. But for now I’m okay with no enlightenment. God is not going to talk to me anytime soon.
In a way, literature primed me to meditate. Pages of Mrs. Dalloway recount its heroine’s pleasure in the present, this moment of June, when Big Ben strikes and a bus roars past Saint James Park, where the ducks paddle in slow circles. Because literature asked me to pay attention to the fictional present of Mrs. Dalloway, when I returned to my own present I wondered how I might see it differently.
In the end, Herbert’s final claim for prayer is modest, not everything understood but just something. After the flashy metaphors conjuring exotic birds and places, its simplicity is powerful. Something understood makes no claim to definitive enlightenment but encapsulates a moment of clarity that will pass.
When she retired, my mother returned to meditating. She even went on one of those retreats where you meditate ten hours a day for ten days. Some people gave up and left early, but not her.
She also remains evangelical. Sometimes she describes meditation as “sitting at the feet of Jesus,” though more literally she sits near the foot of Grouse Mountain, as she now lives in Vancouver, in a rental studio with a view of the peaks surrounding the million-dollar condos downtown.
When I visited her for Christmas, we didn’t really talk about God. But when we sat down to a meal she would sometimes ask, “Could you pray?”
At first the words induced a prickle of annoyance. How was I supposed to address a deity I didn’t believe in? Conceptually this was even trickier than trying to have a conversation with a silent god. But, out of respect for my mother, I gave it a try. A wooden, nonsensical exercise. I began with general and stiffly factual statements. I am grateful for this food and visit.
Another time I said, It is a beautiful day.
Later on I managed, Thank you (Lord?) for this food and day.
Sometimes after breakfast we sat together and meditated. The mountains were pale and bright, crossed by an occasional Cessna flying low and steady like a brave bug. The plane purred and the fridge hummed, a crow squawked, alongside our inevitable, durable breaths, in and out, in and out. This moment of December.
Maybe it was the show-off geography of the Pacific Northwest, maybe the fact that I don’t often see my mother, but differences of belief were irrelevant, annoyance beside the point. The silence between us felt like something understood, or something not misunderstood. It was a kind of bliss.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.