Guided to Grace
This morning I had a rare opportunity for a prayer time, courtesy of the dog. She woke my husband and me up promptly at 6 am, panting and whining to go outside and then have a long drink of water. I shuffled downstairs (a miracle in itself), let her out, and made myself some tea, vowing to stay awake this time instead of crawling back into the sheets I knew were still warm. It had been too long since my last early morning prayer time, and I owed it to God to take this opportunity for one.
As I sat down in my favorite rocker, a pile of religious books and my Daily Missal on the table to my side, I felt shame at how long it had been since the last entry in my prayer journal. Over this past year I’ve felt closer or farther away from God from day to day, or sometimes even minute to minute. The extreme ups and downs of emotions, energy, and stress in a global pandemic have either drawn me closer to the Creator of all Good, or frankly just closer to my Netflix watchlist. Lately the balance has settled closer to Netflix and I have found myself staring guiltily at my pile of devotional books and my rocker while my son complains yet again about having to do virtual school or I summon the energy to click through to one more Zoom meeting.
But this morning was different, and as I settled in with a steaming mug of chai warming my cold fingers, I shuffled through my pile of books and found Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night. I bought this book (Warren’s newest) a couple months ago without engaging in my usual “read the first page and see if I want to turn it to page 2” ritual because I knew it would be amazing. Apart from Warren being one of my favorite Christian authors (and secretly someone I want to be my friend), this book has to be proof of God’s providence; Warren started it long before the Coronavirus pandemic and finished it just as the pandemic was starting. God clearly knew that we would all need a book on how to pray and live and be in Christ during a long, metaphorical night. As I read, rocked, and sipped my tea, one sentence stopped me cold: “[God] participates in our suffering, even as—mysteriously—in our suffering we participate in the fullness of Christ’s life.”
I sighed in the same way that one of my children does after they recount a nightmare or confess a fear from the safety of my arms wrapped around them. It was total release. I felt my whole body relax, the near-constant knot of tension at the base of my skull finally unfurling. I wanted to go back upstairs and sleep, not out of fatigue or weariness but from deep, secure contentment.
Without realizing it, I had turned my suffering into a cross instead of seeing my sufferings at the Cross. I had fallen into the temptation of thinking it was all up to me to actively seek God’s presence as if spiritual intimacy is an eternal game of whack-a-mole and I get points for my quick reflexes. I look to see where God will pop up next and if I don’t see it, it’s because of some deficiency within myself. If only I prayed better, if I got up earlier, if I went to Mass more, I would find “the peace beyond all understanding”. But that’s not how God’s grace works. All this time that I’ve been waiting, foam mallet in hand, thinking God plays games that are in my control, Jesus has been where he’s always been: on the cross, making even suffering holy.
By moving the emphasis from recognition (an active practice) to participation (a passive grace), Warren reminded me of what has always, already been true: I don’t have to make any special effort to have my life intermingled with Christ’s. He’s already there, in every joy and early morning prayer time, but also in every cry of anguish and frustrated sigh. And certainly in my sleep-dazed morning prayer brought on by a thirsty dog.