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Summer Journal: At the Edge of Knowing

And What, Exactly, Do I Say Now?

“I began to practice prayer without knowing what it was.”

— St. Teresa of Avila

I walk down the bank to where the land ends and the water begins. It spreads out, shimmery and dark, a brimming abyss. Above is wonder: the strums of frogs tuning up for the morning orchestra, a blade of marsh grass bending to the weight of a blackbird, trunks of maple and pine and spruce pushing heavenward. With one boot touching the water and the other lodged into the earth, I ask:

At the beginning, did God feel this dizzy?

Lately, I haven’t been going to church much. It’s not that I’ve stopped believing. Or that the old stone building is any less holy a place than it’s ever been. The light still washes through the stained glass like liquid grace. The pastors still greet us with serenity and care. My fellow congregants still express their faith in ways that are, for the most part, humble and true.

The reason I stopped going to church is this: I’m not sure, anymore, that I know how to pray.

What is prayer, exactly? I grew up Catholic, nestling in beside my mother in her plush coat as the priest raised his arms to the families arrayed before him in the pews, knees together and eyes uplifted. Long before I could read, I knew the prayers printed in the missalette, the mantras of unstinting faith. I recited them as a schoolboy in blue pants and matching blue tie. I spoke them automatically as a teenager, my mind and eyes drifting in the direction of the nearest pretty girls. I carried them through college, early adulthood and parenthood, songs that came as easily as breath.

Even today, years after moving away from the Roman church, I can still summon those prayers, lose myself in their rhythms. In some ways, it is only now that I realize their power. It lies beyond reason, draws its force from the music of syllables, the strength of many voices joined into one.

So, yes, that is prayer. After I grew disillusioned with the church and its hostility toward women and human sexuality, I joined a Congregational one. There, I found worship services light on ritual and heavy on thoughtful consideration. The ministers work hard to mix it up, to be creative and fresh, sometimes to jolt us out of a too-easy faith. The prayers they lead awaken the mind and, often, stir the heart. What they lack in rhythm, they expand in consciousness.

That, too, is prayer. And for many years, it was enough. My wife and I decided that going to church each week would be an important part of our kids’ childhood. We would approach it not as an exercise in obligation, a campaign to claim a good seat in Heaven’s waiting room. Instead, we would embrace it as the best form of communion, a chance for the kids to see the value of the weekly discipline of participating in a faith community.

It was what we had hoped for. The kids’ eyes brightened at the ministers’ vestments, their voices rose in song, they became the latest generation to learn the Lord’s Prayer. There were Sunday school classes, Christmas pageants, a chance to scarf chocolate cookies at the parish house — and to come together in grief when first one, then another, of their classmates lost their lives.

But then came high school and they, like their peers, made for the exits to seek their own truths. For a time, my wife and I continued to attend. But the pew seemed empty beside us, and the prayers began to feel, to me at least, like little more than lines in a book. With the kids gone off at school or practice or parties, my time expanded and emptied. I thought I should be plunging deeper into prayer, engaging in heart-talk with God. Instead, I wondered, where am I? And what, exactly, do I say now?

“Our Father, who art in heaven.”

The words I’ve said thousands of times echo in my head. Today, nearly three years after my father died, the Lord’s Prayer has a deeper shade, an added weight. When I imagine a father in heaven, I think not so much of a vague God but of my earthly father somehow existing in the realm just beyond my eyes.

From a young age, I had feared the death of a parent. I worried that I would miss my mother or father so much, feel so alone. I do miss Dad. But strangely, I don’t feel so alone. As soon as he died, I swear, I began to sense his presence beside me, to feel his hand placed firmly in the center of my back, close to my heart. I hear his voice, that Missouri deadpan echoing through. Walking through the woods in the morning, I turn to him and feel my eyes grow heavy as I move into some gauzy place of connection. I speak to him and I hear him speaking back.

A friend tells me that death can actually bring people closer, by removing the veil that divides us during our lifetimes. When Dad was alive, I would travel to Florida to visit for a few days, motoring across the river in his boat, lighting out to the nearest greasy spoon diner for breakfast. But once back home, I would allow days and even weeks to pass without speaking to my parents. Now, I talk to my mother on the phone several times a week. And my dad? We talk most every day.

One morning, I walk the trails near my house. After meandering up and around a hilly loop, I descend to that place where the woods give way to an expanse of water. It reminds me of Florida, where our children were born and we strolled with them in the breezes drifting in from the Gulf of Mexico. It reminds me of the Nebraska of my boyhood, where the Great Plains echoed westward like an endless chord.

I have always felt most at home in places like this, at the edge of land, the edge of knowing. I stand for a moment in the stillness, allow my eyes to close, breathe the late summer air. This, too, is prayer.

Jeffrey Good is editor of the “Valley News.”