[Editor’s note: Today, we bring you an oldie and a goodie from Helena Sorensen. In this Lenten reflection from 2018, Helena tells the story of how her fast from God paradoxically opened up more space for her to enter God’s presence.]
I’m new to the liturgical tradition. Growing up, we thought Episcopalians and Anglicans were people who didn’t have the nerve to call themselves what they were: Catholics. Lent fell neatly into the same category of things I didn’t know much about or care much about. From a distance, it looked like self-flagellation. I wanted no part of it.
Until this year. This year I was ready for Lent, and I knew exactly what I wanted to give up: God. In the weeks leading up to Lent, I’d come to a place of extreme frustration and exhaustion. I’d been pleading with God, straining to see his goodness through the pain of prayers long unanswered. I felt as if I’d been dashing myself against a cliff. I was battered. I was done. I stopped praying, stopped asking, stopped talking to him at all. I stopped reciting the liturgy with my church congregation, stopped going forward to take communion. I no longer read the Passion translation of Luke when I got up in the mornings, and I skipped whole rows of daily readings from Gail Pitt’s “First We Were Loved.” I wanted everything to go quiet, and it did.
What a relief! That was my first reaction. No more weeping and wrestling with God. No more begging for answers, for healing. My mornings were free and uncluttered. I was surprised to discover that not talking to God felt like Sabbath.
When my frustration with God, my anger at him, my feelings of grief and abandonment, choked off all possibility of prayer, even then, I could sing.Helena Sorensen
But something else happened in the following days. I found it difficult to stick to my commitment. I kept bumping into situations in which I normally offer a kind of knee-jerk prayer. I might drive away from my house, for example, and whisper a brief, panicked request that my children will be okay while I’m gone. Maybe a car swerves into my lane on I-24 and I throw up a quick, “Oh God, help!” Or an appliance makes a funny noise, and I beg the Lord to hold it together a little longer. During Lent, I wasn’t supposed to say those prayers. I’d determined to stop. So I caught myself; I stopped. But without the prayers, I was left with nothing but the fear that drives them. I discovered that knee-jerk prayers have nothing to do with connection or relationship. They don’t rise from a place of trust in the God who is for me. They’re more akin to the practice of reaching into a wall niche and touching a household god before going out. They’re automatic, superstitious, and they’re getting me nowhere.
My next discovery was more confirmation than surprise. On Sundays with our congregation, or in my car with the iPhone connected, or in my kitchen while cooking dinner, I could sing. When my frustration with God, my anger at him, my feelings of grief and abandonment choked off all possibility of prayer, even then, I could sing. I could always sing. Anne Lamott discusses this phenomenon in Traveling Mercies:
I went back to St. Andrew about once a month. No one tried to con me into siting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him. To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing…it was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open.
Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.
Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life. But I had to leave before the sermon.
—Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
Music is sneaky that way. It’s a trick that “splits you wide open.” And I suppose I betrayed my commitment, because I didn’t only sing on feast days. I couldn’t help myself. I sang on many days, and that channel of communication stayed wide open.
It didn’t take long before I missed God. There were things I wanted to discuss with him—choices to make, ideas to explore. Things were rising in my heart that I didn’t know how to handle. I felt lonely. Of course I wasn’t alone. There is no separation between us. But God honored my commitment, waiting patiently without shaming or bullying, giving me time to catch my breath and look around before finally bringing my eyes to meet his. He waited while I remembered that I can be furious with my beloved and absolutely adore him in the same moment.
God is so close and so quiet that he hears even the solitary whispers of my longing. I can shout my pleas from the rooftops every morning till I die, but those cries won’t be heard any better than my first little whimpers of hope.Helena Sorensen
Then came Easter morning, and I expected a glorious reunion, a slow-motion run into the arms of Jesus. Except that we hadn’t been apart, not really, and it was cold and rainy on Easter morning, and all the emotions I’d set aside while I gave God up for Lent came roaring back. The dam broke, and I was a mess. All day. I never did feel triumphant.
Today the sky is clear and the sun shines. The hostas push fat spears out of the soil, and the Japanese maple unfolds its red lace leaves. I am entering slowly into the joy of Resurrection. But I learned some things on my forty-day journey. Before Lent, I’d convinced myself that God would answer my prayers if I prayed hard enough, with enough passion and fervor. I thought I would be heard for my “much speaking.” I had to break myself against that lie before I could see the truth. God is so close and so quiet that he hears even the solitary whispers of my longing. I can shout my pleas from the rooftops every morning till I die, but those cries won’t be heard any better than my first little whimpers of hope. They’re tucked away safe, every one, whether I’m praying today or not.
I remembered that singing is prayer, and for me perhaps it is the very best kind.Helena Sorensen
I learned that what I thought was prayer was often only an expression of fear. Giving those prayers up was a wonderful choice, because now the Lord and I can begin a conversation about my fear. I can chuck the household idol.
I remembered that singing is prayer, and for me perhaps it is the very best kind. Why it opens my heart so easily and so fully is a mystery. Maybe it’s science. Maybe it’s a matter of spiritual dimensions. In any case, it’s a lifeline, and I’m grateful for it.
I learned that my community is present with me in my places of struggle. My friends listened with compassion and understanding when I told them what I was doing for Lent. My church congregation recited the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer while I sat in the pew. My silence did not deter them. During Lent, I couldn’t ask God to advance his kingdom or send my daily bread. My church did it for me.
I learned, too, that while I cannot control God, neither can I escape him. To one who knows nothing of his heart, the realization might feel oppressive. But Lent is about making space, and this year I discovered just how much space there is. I am united with God, finally and forever, yet within that unbreakable union is all the room I need to ask or be silent, to rage or rejoice. I am seen and heard and held secure. Thanks be to God.