Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers – “write hard and clear about what hurts” – could probably apply to those of us who pray as well.
A dear friend who had been through a particularly tough year wrote to me not long ago and asked for scripture to guide her thinking and praying.
Without thinking too much about it, a reflex more than anything, I suggested that she read the psalms. “Not all the way through,” I wrote. “Just dip in, here and there.”
A few days later she wrote back to say: “I had no idea how dark the psalms are.” The tone of her email suggested that they might have been too dark.
For every “make a joyful noise” in the psalms, there are several more: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The psalms teach us to pray.
Religious professionals – by which I mean people like me, the people for whom Jesus reserved his harshest words of condemnation – tend to think that people want to feel better about themselves. We reason that when they come to church they want to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.
One church member told me recently that he comes to church to “get really pumped up about Jesus.”
And so, consciously or not, we tend to plan worship along those lines – more uplift than reflection on what hurts. After all, you can’t drag people down and then expect to send around the offering plate.
But the history of spiritual writing suggests something different. More people, it turns out, should pray “hard and clear about what hurts.”
Over the last year I’ve prayed quite a few Ernest Hemingway-style prayers. Weighed down by worry and anxiety, I didn’t get all that “pumped up about Jesus,” but I did sense that my spiritual life was deepening and expanding in a way that it never had before – or that it hadn’t in a long, long time. I was praying honestly and transparently, hard and clear, about where I was in my life.
It wasn’t easy. It never is. But with the light of the season approaching – Epiphany – I find my spirit slowly and surely being restored.
From one of my favorite hymns at this time of year…
Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
(Art credit: He, Qi. Adoration of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.)