When you were small, in what feels like a different country, hidden behind hills of time, when you lived in the country called the NICU, I used to number the minutes. I used to count your breaths, the dip and climb of your oxygen. I used to pray each time you inhaled that the breath would come back out and that you would take another one. I prayed single words as you breathed – keep. breathing. one. more. breath. It was not that you were in imminent danger, exactly – the doctors told us daily that you were stable, that you were safe – but having once witnessed what it was for you to cry out for oxygen, I could never shake the need to count each rise and fall of your chest.
Today I realized I have stopped counting.
Now I watch the rise and fall of your chest with a confidence that comes, not from the little tube we slip in your neck each week, not from the nurse who watches over you in the long nights, but from you.
It comes from how you run from your room to the record player, how you bring us the puffs when you want more, how you love to be chased down the hallways. It comes from how you laugh when you see us, hair sticking up wildly in all directions, when you wake up from naps. It comes from how you press against me in this phase of being afraid of strangers and then how you push away from me back into the world. You are daring, you are adventurous, because you feel safe.
And so I stopped counting your breaths.
I tell you this as a way of telling you something about prayer. I prayed once by counting. And now that I have stopped, that I have dared to believe you’ll breathe without being watched, I find myself at a loss for how to pray. It was easy when there was panic, to keep me focused, to keep the demand right in front of God. Is this trust, I wonder as I watch you attempt to crawl up onto the couch? Is it resignation?
We are in a new country, God and I, unfamiliar and brighter. I have to squint my eyes to make out the horizons of where I think I might be going. In the old country of the NICU, the only way I could talk at all was to yell and to count. Now I have stopped counting and stopped yelling – what is left? How will I begin to say something again?
So I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, together with the Father who is without beginning and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages Amen.
I once memorized the feel of these syllables in my mouth, in the anxious wanderings of my freshly 18 year old heart, my knees knocking as I stood in the unfamiliar familiar, Greek and English twisting up and out, past icons and candles, the singing. Every Amen is a comma in the Eastern Church, a pause in the endlessness of worship. I would walk in, often a few minutes late from idling in the car afraid to walk in alone, worship having already begun. I would leave clutching the blessed bread from the priest’s warm hands, a piece of the liturgy to go into the world with me. Every Amen a comma, a pause.
Back then I thought it proved something to pray conspicuously. I would go into the small windowless study room on my floor, a few doors down from my room, holding a small white spiral bound book of Orthodox prayers – all but announcing my piety to the tangle of women walking the hallway or simply finding the time to take a shower, do their homework, sink their roots into college. I would fumble through the prayers at noon, holding a knotted bracelet to count repetitions of the Jesus prayer. I would make confession, ask forgiveness, pray in a more righteous voice as time went on. I hid my heart in the glorious prayers of other people – surely, God would be more impressed with me if I prayed in ancient words instead of my own.
But I want to tell you, Jack, you whose spirit is full of daring, full of courage, full of light – prayer for me now is laughter. Prayer is silence, prayer is half-formed thoughts I say in between tickling your stomach. Prayer is singing “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” night after night and feeling your head sink onto my shoulder as you remember where we are all going – out into that Jordan River, out towards home.
Do not be afraid if someday you reach for words – your own, the Church’s – and you find your hands come back to you empty. Do not be afraid if you come out of one type of prayer and walk the road for a long while without knowing what to say next.
Every Amen is a comma, a pause, and courage is sometimes pausing long enough to feel God’s friendship in the weight of your son on your shoulder. That is prayer enough. God hears.