Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully — Samuel Johnson (Goodreads).
Welp, I don’t plan on being hanged in two weeks’ time, but a worrisome CT scan and a midnight trip to the emergency room are kind of jump-starting my prayer life. So I can relate to the 200-year-old wisecrack in Boswell’s LIfe of Samuel Johnson. Without going into too much detail about it, let’s just say I’ll be sweating out a diagnosis for the next few weeks.
All of which, of course, gives me something to pray about.
As it happened, I’d been reading a couple of Ignatian, or Jesuit, websites that deal with the how’s and why’s of daily prayer. I still learn best from hard copy, so I had a couple of printouts handy to take with me to the ER. (I do some of my most attentive reading there — I even have a category on the blog I call “ER spirituality.” See HERE at the end of February 2020, for example, just as the pandemic was about to hit town.)
One thing about emergency rooms — you have plenty of time to read while you’re waiting to get test results back. Along with a back issue of the New Yorker, I had two pages printed out that explain a method for focusing prayer derived from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola:
- “Asking for a Grace,” by Andy Otto, a spiritual director in Atlanta who defines a grace as an “unearned gift of God” and begins prayer sessions by first asking for specific graces, “typically things that can be affectively felt” rather than rewards or possessions.
- “Gathering the Graces,” by spiritual director Becky Eldredge of Baton Rouge, who suggests “rest, peace, clarity, courage, hope, light, [or] love.” She adds, “Naming the grace we seek allows us to get in touch with what God might be offering us to learn more about.”
Eldredge explains the method like this: “Notice what word arises within you. […] When a word arises in your thoughts, turn this into a prayer. God as I begin, I seek the grace of _____.” She and Otto both follow that prayer with a more structured Ignatian meditation, like lectio divina or imagining yourself in a gospel story, and they reflect on it afterward. This, Eldredge calls “gathering” the graces. “Keep a journal of graces you ask for,” adds Otto, “and you’ll start seeing how God works in your life, cares for you, and provides to you what you need as free gift.”
All of this gave me plenty to chew on in the ER (especially after I’d checked out the New Yorker). I wasn’t 100 percent sure exactly what a “grace” was — I’m still not — but I decided trust and acceptance would be appropriate to the occasion. Acceptance was an obvious choice in the circumstances, but trust? Trust in the emergency medical staff, trust that whatever was going on would be treatable — and trust that this prayer technique would lead somewhere.
Gathering the graces comes later, though. After midnight in the ER, I fell back on a prayer I’ve come to rely on when things are getting a little too real and I need a trust-builder. I don’t have it quite memorized yet, so don’t always get the words exactly right. But it goes like this:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(It’s called the Prayer of Good Courage, and it has a background as checkered as my own. Composed by the dean of an English cathedral, it was picked up by American Lutherans in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. They brought it home at war’s end, and it got to be associated with the ELCA Lutheran conference center at Holden Village in Washington state. I first encountered it when I was singing with the Saturday evening praise team at Peace Lutheran, and I’ve blogged about it HERE, under a headline that’s sadly getting to be too familiar: “Praying for good courage in a hospital emergency room … and quiet confidence while sweating out a scary diagnosis.” The second part of the headline refers to a couple of family prayers in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer I grew up with. One says:
ALMIGHTY God our heavenly Father, we beseech thee graciously to comfort thy servant in his suffering, and to bless the means made use of for his cure. Fill his heart with confidence, that though he be sometime afraid, he yet may put his trust in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The rubric in the prayer book says it’s actually for people “about to undergo an Operation,” and I didn’t have it with me in the ER. But it’s another trust-builder, and what I need most of all these days is trust. I looked it up when I got home.)
I arrived in the ER a little after midnight, and stayed there for several hours. So after I’d absorbed the Jesuit spirituality handouts and read through the New Yorker, I was on my own. I don’t know exactly why it came to me, but I remembered an African American folk carol from Georgia that I play on the dulcimer. And it was just the trust-builder I needed at the moment.
The song is called “Child of God,” and I learned it from Betty Smith of Black Mountain, N.C. (I’ve blogged about it, too, HERE, and I think it’s one of my better pieces of writing.) It goes like this, “If anybody ask you who I am, / Tell him I’m a child of God,” with the repetitions you’d expect in African American vernacular music. You can hear Peggy Seeger singing it on YouTube, and the Beth’s Notes website for music teachers has lyrics and music in F. The lyrics first appeared in the Journal of American Folklore in 1899. It’s a Christmas song, and the next verse goes, “The little cradle rocks tonight in glory, / Christ child born in glory.”
Then comes the part that blows me away. I don’t want to get too theological here. Emergency rooms, I find, aren’t the best place to draw fine theological distinctions. But I think of the Christ child in this song as being more like Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ than the babe in the manger of other Christmas carols. Especially in the next verses:
The Christ Child passing, singing softly,
Singing softly, singing softly,
The Christ Child passing, singing softly,
Christ child born in glory.
Don’t you hear the foot on the tree top,
Foot on the tree top, foot on the tree top,
Don’t you hear the foot on the tree top,
Soft like the south wind blow?
That image just blows me away every time. (The pun isn’t intended, but it seems to fit the context here — so I’ll stay with it.) I can’t visualize the Christ child of the song, but I can hear the south wind gently soughing in the treetops. “The whole of creation,” says Fr. Rohr in Universal Christ, “is the beloved community — the child of God — not just Jesus.” The whole of creation, yes. When I was little, my father would take me out in the woods around our home in East Tennessee. They were more a southern Appalachian hardwood forest than the slash pines pictured above, but there were plenty of pines and red cedars. And every time I play “Child of God,” I hear the wind blowing in the pine trees down home.
Dad was a TVA forester, and he taught me about pine trees — yellow pine, or Virginia pine, has clusters of two slightly curled needles, and white pine has clusters of five straight needles. (He even taught me the botanical name for white pine, pinus strobus, and when I saw it and remembered it while fact-checking this post, it was like meeting a long-lost friend.) Anyway, I like the idea of walking through the woods with Jesus, or the universal Christ. Even if I can’t quite visualize him (that foot in the treetops is a problem), I can hear his presence in the wind, and the idea is deeply appealing.
Certainly it was appealing when I was in the ER!
Before too much longer the day shift came on, and I was discharged with no clear diagnosis and instructions to follow up with a specialist and my PCP (how easily the acronyms roll off our tongues in an age when we no longer have family doctors). We’re still in the process of finding out what’s going on, getting a diagnosis in other words, so I still need to work on trust and acceptance. Trust in the process, and acceptance of whatever the diagnosis turns out to be.
In the meantime, I’ve come up with a prayer of my own. It’s kind of an ecumenical patchwork of scraps from that African American folk carol, Jesuit spirituality, the Prayer of Good Courage from Holden Village, the Book of Common Prayer and the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (“[…] praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out”). Plus a couple of bells and whistles of my own. It’s a little different every time I try to put words to it, but it usually goes something like this:
O God of the south wind and God of treetops, of pine woods and second-growth Southern upland deciduous forests, walk beside me now as you walked beside Mary and Joseph in the grotto at Bethlehem, appear to me as you appeared to the shepherds and Magi; guide me, protect me and support me; give me your graces of trust, acceptance, quiet confidence and the courage to walk by paths untrodden, not knowing where they lead; and help me to know your will and give me the strength to carry it out.
It’s kind of a cut-and-paste job at best, but I think it says what I need to say now.
[Uplinked Sept. 18, 2022]