I can’t pray. I just don’t know how to do it anymore.” That’s what I told my husband, Dennis, one evening recently about midway through Lent. The parched desert had become an asphalt parking lot. Nothing was getting through. Dennis pointed out that my long history of writing prayer books and reflections, doing meditation and yoga, reveling in feast days and fast days made it a little peculiar that I would find myself so completely at a loss in this department, and he had a point. But lost I was.
A few days later, my friend Michele asked if I might join her for Mass at a parish about 20 minutes from our home. Her daughter Sarah, who happens to be one of my daughter Chiara’s best friends, would be serving as cantor. So off we went, Dennis, Chiara and I, to a neighboring church, never imagining what this little country parish might have in store for us. The liturgy was beautiful and moving, the homily inspiring and nourishing, the community just lovely. I was smiling all over, inside and out, feeling like I was home for the first time in a long time.
As we left, Chiara pointed out that she not only understood the homily and enjoyed the music but that the priest looked happy to be there with us. It was true. There was a palpable joy in this place, and it made all the difference. The icing on the cake was the warm welcome the pastor gave, not just to those visiting from other parishes or towns but for those “dipping a toe” back into church life. He didn’t just welcome them; he thanked them, and his gratitude for their presence there—for all of our presence there—seemed heartfelt and sincere.
When we were debriefing later that evening over a glass of wine, I told Dennis that I realized why I couldn’t pray. Even though I have spent a lifetime honing spiritual practices, from the traditional to the esoteric, I could not find an entry point without community. I thought back to the meditation class I took last year. I had woken up early every single day for 10-15 minutes of silent prayer and meditation for months at a time. When the class ended and I stopped joining the community, the daily home practice quickly fell away as well. We need each other, even when our hearts are breaking, even when our souls are aching, even when discord and disillusionment make us want to stay away.
Earlier that same day, I had been cleaning the house and listening to Michelle Obama read her memoir “Becoming” on Audible as I scrubbed toilets and wiped down mirrors. As her soothing voice shared a story, I stopped. I knew the Spirit was at work again. Michelle Obama was talking about the day she met Nelson Mandela and the way he had faced his unjust imprisonment for more than two-plus decades, not with bitterness but with resilience and tolerance. She continued:
“I flew home propelled by that spirit. Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”
And that was when it hit me. Yes, I, too—and you as well, I’m sure—are planting seeds of change, through our insistence on openness and transparency, through our presence within our communities, a presence that says, “We will not be run off by the worst among us.” It’s not always easy; in fact, it’s almost always difficult. Staying put usually is.
Now, a few days later, as I listen to Lenten chant while I work and prepare for a five-day silent retreat next week, I need to thank Michele and Michelle for pulling me off my solitary path and reminding me to put the bitterness behind me and plant a seed, even if I never get to see it blossom.