This post, first featured in the Segullah blog, is begging for more comments. So I’m posting it here for my wonderful and diverse readers, hoping you’ll respond. It’s Sunday evening here in Geneva, and wherever you are, whatever your belief system might be — even if you claim none at all— this might add to your private experience with The Sacred.
When Adrienne Zenzo prays, it’s a full body experience.
Eyes clamped shut beneath brows gathered like small drifts of chocolate mousse; ample features rustling-spreading-contracting like cocoa-colored suede being fitted around bones hardly discernible; lips as regal and rouged as Nefertiti; her monologue’s syllables peaking and lulling like a row boat on rough water sending a splattering of the sea salt spray of her saliva into the sunlight; a body that rocks the earth and yanks at heaven’s veil, too, with a mounting buoyancy and momentum that seems to be gearing for take off. Or for a dance. Or for a wrestle. Adrienne Zenzo doesn’t just say her prayers. She births them into the cosmos.
She calls God “Papa”, and every time she does so in her pulsating and vigorous prayers, one or more or all of her four children sitting with us in their 13 square meters of Parisian refuge, echoes; “Oui, notre cher Papa.” Their own earthly Papa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been living in Canada for three years while his wife and children, refugees as well, await passage there from France. Await passage to him. Passage to hope.
While waiting, she meets the LDS missionaries and local church members like myself, who teach her the restored Gospel. She, of course, teaches me and restores to me something broad and old about speaking with God.
When Birgit Holmesund prays, it’s as if God himself is at her elbow, leaning in on His elbows, too. Nodding.
Birgit is Norwegian, hale and sturdy, as vanilla blonde and angular as Adrienne is chocolate brown and spherical. We are all—five employees of Norway’s Staatskirke(state church); three regional state church youth representatives; and three professional theater folks, (like myself, and I’m also the token American)—we are all sitting around the large oval pine table in the Østenstad church’s communal meeting room overlooking the Oslofjord, where Birgit, imposing at over six feet and as imperturbable as a tall glass of heavy cream, is leading the meeting.
On today’s agenda? How to respond to the parental concern that the artistic director of the big upcoming (and state church-funded) musical, “Josef Og Det Utrolige Farvet Drømm Kåpet”, is. . . a practicing Mormone.
Ja. Dette er meg. (Yup. At’s me).
A bit cornered by the community’s suspicions about The Intruder, Birgit calls this emergency prayer meeting, which she opens by stating that “we will seek and carry out exactly God’s will.” With the bow of her head, a stillness enters the room, flooding it with a steady, low vibration. I wait for her words. But there’s only stillness. And more stillness. So much stillness, in fact, such lo-o-o-ng unfiltered stillness, I fidget for a moment wondering if maybe, I don’t know, maybe I missed some crucial cue? Was I supposed to say something? The prayer maybe? I peak from under my bangs, and see the crowns of so many patiently bowed heads. Then silence rises from floorboard to tabletop and ascends to the ceiling, while everyone continues to sit, heads bowed, in what’s beginning to feel to me like a full-length symphony of silence.
Birgit’s first mellow words, like bright yellow oil, seep into the density:
“Fader.” (Pause.) (Pause.) (Pause.)
Father. Help us.
Stark. Frank. But not a hint of IKEA assembly-line-shrink-wrapped prefabrication. Her tone, when she then continues to pray, is as textured and tightly woven as home spun boiled wool, plaintive and importuning, yet conversational, as if she is beseeching royalty with whom she just happens to be an intimate, sidling up to the king to whom she is a most trusted confidante. The queen herself, perhaps. Or at least his daughter. I have never known public prayer like this, so at once spontaneous and deliberate, with unselfconscious speechlessness here and there as if actually yielding to the interlocutor to, please, hjelp oss. To please respond. All those blank nonverbal gaps of listening or of finding the truer word, the courtesy they create of waiting quietly for the requested —and expected— heavenly answer.
When Maria Kellner prays, it’s. . .well. . .When does Maria Kellner not pray?
Shyly trailing Elders Crane and Hunter whom we’ve invited to dinner, Maria hides in the evening shadows off our doorstep, reluctant to show herself because she’s only just met these missionaries while the two have been filling time, tracting right up to our appointment at our home in the village of Grünwald, Germany. They’ve had a good discussion with the woman I only now discover has been my neighbor for a year, and happily bring her to dinner. That decision changes her life and mine.
By the end of this, our first of many hours together, I’m aware that I’ve been sitting in the presence of one of those rare people who are truly meek and guileless, a woman whose constant firehose gush of gratitude leaks from her eyes in unashamed rivulets of tears. Her stubby, reddened, arthritic hands—a worker’s hands, a caregiver’s hands—she uses to mop up her crying, then she presses them to together again like Albrecht Dürer’s “Praying Hands”, clasping them against her chest, talking about “der liebe, gütige, allmächtige, barmherzige” (the dear, caring, almighty, merciful) “Gott.”
Since moving from Bavaria, I’ve passed again through Grünwald, and surprised Maria once by showing up on her doorstep unannounced, much like she had shown up on mine that first evening three years ago. This time I hid off in a shadow, and when she answered her door wearing a visible temple garment, we cried in pure giddiness together, Maria’s marvelous claw-like hands clutched in that constant prayer under her chin.
With those same aching, praying hands, she now writes prayers to me. She is losing feeling in her extremities, though she doesn’t write of that. I know this only through others. Her fingers burn, her feet swell with edema. She uses ballpoint pen on sheets of onion skin paper. Her joints lock and throb through the nights, I’ve been told. She is buying and licking these envelopes. Her eyesight shows signs of macular degeneration, and she’s not yet 65. Stamps, she’s bought them for these prayer letters. She hobbles four blocks to “die Post” to mail them off to me.
When I fold them away, I whisper, “Amen”.
When Siti Maraliyanah prays, it’s five times throughout her day, head covered, on her knees, touching her head to the ground, humming or singing her thanks to her God.
“Pray is thank”, she tells me in her broken English with its thick Indonesian accent, “And if my family [who live on the coastal countryside of Java] need pray, they call me middle of night.” She holds up her cheap little scuffed black cell phone, smiling brightly. “We pray all night together on the phone.” And then she prays the next day again, of course, all five times or more, genuflecting and humming, brought low in her thanks.
A single mother of two raised in poverty by a Muslim fisherman father who sails the Southeast Asian oceans for months on end, and a stroke-victim mother who lost two of her own five children, Siti’s brother and sister, to bizarre deaths, Siti has lived a life for which most of us might not be able to “pray thank”. But for her, thanking (and admitting one’s own unworthiness before God’s greatness) is all that prayer is about.
When I watch Siti mouth her prayers of pure glorification, or more so even, when she prays with me, which she on occasion does, I’m rendered more than a bit aware of my own string of prayer requests, my self interest, my well-dressed but stodgy shallowness, my static recitations, my conspicuous lack of sheer and effusive “pray thank”, my limpid and lukewarm footnotes asking that God remember the less fortunate. (Since I know I will forget them.)
When Adrienne sways and croons and gets sweaty in her pleas to her “Papa”; when Birgit suspends the slap-dash crush of time and motion and ego in order to allow God’s spirit to enter and transform our praying space (or our praying selves) into a locus for revelation; when Maria draws those gnarled Dürer hands together to acknowledge—in every conversation, in every encounter—the goodness and mercy of her God; when Siti bows to the ground, singing her five daily “pray thanks”, I am taught the most important foundational reality of a living, vital faith: the absolute centrality of — the life-or-death indispensability of — unaffected, effective and change-effecting prayer.
Without that kind of prayer, writes pastor Dennis Lennon, author of the exquisiteTurning the Diamond: Exploring George Herbert’s Images of Prayer, we stand exposed to a “creeping paralysis of spiritual sterility, when the heart hardens into dry, barren formality and hypocrisy.” With powerful prayer, however—and with many endlessly sweet hours of powerful prayer, I should add—we are infused with living water and Christ’s blood, which save us from spiritual anemia. It is then we learn for ourselves the truth and beauty of what Lennon writes and what I know from experience to be true;
“What blood is to the body, prayer is to the soul.”
What is prayer?
How vital is your prayer life right now? Is it as necessary as blood is to your body?
In what circumstances have you learned your most powerful lessons about prayer?
How have the prayers and praying patterns of those of other traditions and faiths inspired you toward more meaningful praying?
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.