I stumble out of bed and into the church for morning prayer. Silence permeates the space and I simply sit. Quiet. At first I think it’s because I’m only half awake (I have never done mornings well) but the same spirit repeats at afternoon prayers. I am able to simply sit in the silence. This is markedly different from the last couple times I have been here. Those times the silence made me twitch a bit. I spent the pauses between Psalms praying in my head for all manner of things. I chastised myself for not being a better person, a better Christian, a better priest. I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t relax.
My prayers used to be frantic. Desperate, really. God help me. God fix me. God tell me what to do. God make it better make it better make it better.
When I was a kid I would pray over and over to make sure I was really saved so that God wouldn’t send me to hell. I prayed that Jesus would come back. Or that he wouldn’t come back. Or that I would be okay with him coming back (even though I kind of wanted more time to do stuff on earth). I prayed that eternity wouldn’t be totally boring. Then I prayed for forgiveness for thinking that eternity would be totally boring. When I was in college I used to pray to be straight. To be a good Christian. To stop sinning. To stop wanting things. To stop…. My prayers were about getting right, being better, getting fixed. I believed that everything about me was bad and wrong. Because I was told that everything about me was bad and wrong. If I desired something I was supposed to pray that God would take away the desire because if I wanted something too much it probably meant that I wanted it more than God.
After college I prayed that God would tell me what I should do with my life. That God would tell me if the things I was choosing were right for me. I would pray over and over and over again for God’s will to be done all while secretly hoping God’s will wasn’t something I would totally hate.
Even in my first several trips to the monastery, in the silence my brain would race with prayers. God, make me more holy. God, make me a better priest. God, help me to be quiet.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with desperate prayers. I think we all have times when we are, in fact, desperate and our prayers will reflect that. But I think the consistent desperation in my prayers said something about how I viewed God and prayer and my life.
I believed (because I was taught) that there was one singular path for me to be on. God’s plan for my life. Depending on which theologian or pastor you talked to that path was either pre-ordained or it wasn’t but either way I was supposed to figure out it out be on it. It seemed like the smallest slip could lead to a lifetime of disaster. Along with finding my true path were messages that it didn’t really matter what I wanted if it didn’t line up with what God wanted for me. That could be as simple as what part time job to get and as serious as who to marry. (Though, of course, since I was queer in my case the “who to marry” answer was “no one”.) Even after I came out and left evangelicalism I still held on to these beliefs that there was one way to live my life and that God knew it and it was my job to figure it out. Have you ever been with someone who won’t tell you what they are thinking and feeling and they expect you to just know? You know how annoying that is? Now picture trying to get that information out of someone who you can’t see and who doesn’t audibly speak back. It’s a recipe for disaster and frustration. No wonder my prayers were desperate. I think the deepest part of all of this was I was taught not to trust myself. My very being was permeated through and through with sin and death and all manner of evil. I was a hapless and hopeless wreck desperately in need of saving. I was an awful and dreadful person who’s desires were selfish. Of course I couldn’t trust myself! In fact, if there was something that I thought I wanted or should do that was probably a sign to run the other direction.
No wonder I was confused and desperate. No wonder my prayers took on the tint of me trying to convince God that what I wanted was actually the right thing for me. I wonder sometimes if, in those days, God was like “Duh! I know it’s the right thing! Why do you think I gave you that desire in the first place? Just shut up and do it!”
And on the other hand as I was trying to do the things I felt like I was “supposed to do” even though they weren’t working out and were making me miserable I wonder if God was thinking “Just quit! I never intended you to do that!”
Or maybe God was like, “There’s no plan except for you to be whole and fulfilled and know yourself.”
Maybe my prayers are less desperate these days because I no longer believe that God has one singular path and plan for my life. I don’t believe that if I make one “wrong” decision that I will be doomed for eternity.
I believe that my instincts and desires are God given and that I am supposed to learn from them. That the point of being human is to be fully alive. To know ourselves. To be in community with others.
Maybe part of it is getting older. I realize that there are just things about me that are true. I don’t do mornings, for instance. It’s funny how often I’ve felt bad or guilty about then when, really, it’s how I am wired. When I was little my mom used to have to wake me up for kindergarten. I went to afternoon kindergarten. I remember as a little kid being put into bed and it taking me hours to fall asleep. I would tell myself stories and toss and turn until I finally dropped off. Then I would sleep until noon. These days I fall asleep instantly because I know that I fall asleep best between midnight and one am. And I do best during the day if I can sleep until 9 or 9:30. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just how I am wired. What has changed, though, is that I no longer beat myself up for my wiring. Same with being introverted. It takes me longer to warm up to people and I need more time alone to recharge. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Can our desires lead us to selfish places? Certainly. When we are consumed with what we want and need and don’t pay attention to anyone else, when we consume and consume with no thought of what it costs other people, when we take with no concern for who we are taking from, that is harmful and wrong. When we violate other people that is sin. But choosing a career path that fits with our skills and brings us joy? Investing in hobbies that bring us refreshment and peace? Being in relationships that are healthy and inspire us to be our best selves? That’s what it means to be alive. To learn and to grow.
These days I believe God is interested in my health and wholeness. I believe God is interested in my being the best version of myself. And you know what? When I am the best version of myself, when I am happy and whole, only then am I able to unselfishly serve others. I am able to do work for justice out of the fullness of my life. I am not doing justice work out of a sense of obligation or because I have to or because I will go to hell if I don’t. I’m not doing it because I feel guilty if I don’t. I’m not doing it even though I am burned out and exhausted. I am doing it because I care, because I believe that our well being is interconnected. I do it because I believe that the people next to me are my neighbors who also deserve to live full and whole lives.
So my prayers these days: help me to know where I am most needed. Help me to know where my skills can best be used. Help me to know how to be whole. Help me to know how to listen. And then I am silent. I let my gut and intuition speak. I see what bubbles up. Then I get to work.
Through it all I feel God’s pleasure that I am fully alive. God doesn’t need desperation, God needs wholeness. God doesn’t require me to walk a tightrope, God requires me to show up where I am and get to work bringing about God’s kingdom.
I don’t have to be anything other than who I am. Who I am is enough. I will learn and change and grow. I will get more clear on who I am and what I need. I will learn to be a better friend and partner and person. But I will learn best from a sense of enoughness instead of sense of lack. I will learn better from a sense of peace than from a sense of desperation.
I will soak in the silence. I will pray. I am enough.