Fathom Mag

Prayer is wild.

A vast open silence I don’t quite know how to fill.

Published on:
May 22, 2023
Read time:
5 min.
Share this article:

For the first three decades of my life, my faith was made of habits. Bible study, church attendance, tithing: each was a brick I laid, over and over, row by row, in the building of a tidy edifice. Bible study, church, tithe. Bible study, church, tithe. As far as I could tell, those were good habits, habits that were making me a better person. Or at least they were making me better at doing the things the people I loved wanted me to do, which seemed like basically the same thing. 

But prayer didn’t make the habits list. Prayer was different. Prayer didn’t feel orderly; it felt wild. A vast open silence I didn’t quite know how to fill. The expectation of an encounter with someone I didn’t exactly know. Every time I skittered into it, after a moment or two, I shuddered right back out again. Plus, prayer wasn’t noticeable. No one could tell whether I was praying or not. The privacy of it all made prayer seem less essential. I simply wanted to make people happy, and if no one was going to know, then no one was going to be pleased with me for my bit of hurried internal monologue. What was the point? 

Maybe there is no beginning with prayer, only the gradual realization that someone has been listening to us all along.

But a faith that’s built to please other people doesn’t hold. In my thirty-third year, when a series of traumas caused my life to collapse, the structure of my faith collapsed too. A faith tailor-made for others no longer sustained me. For a time, I stopped going to church and Bible study altogether. And it was just when I found myself unexpectedly sorting through the wreckage of my former life that I began to hear the call of the wild. 

Filling the Void 

When I told my therapist, “I think God is calling me to pray more,” I couldn’t quite interpret the look on her face before she replied, in her slow and quiet way, “I think he is.” I wondered how she knew what God was asking of me, but then again, I figured, God was probably calling everyone to pray more, so it was sort of a safe bet. 

Then what happened? I can’t really say. It wasn’t like the Von Trapp children learning to sing when they hike up into the resplendent Alps and Maria says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” There weren’t any ABCs or Do-Re-Mi-s. Maybe there is no beginning with prayer, only the gradual realization that someone has been listening to us all along. 

I knew I’d begun to believe God’s ear was inclined to my voice when I started mentally shouting  for God every morning before my eyes opened, searching for him before I sat up in bed. It was a bit like being a baby and calling for someone to come get you out of your crib. Help, was what I usually said, or I can’t do this, or Give me strength. Sometimes I kept talking for a few seconds, or a minute even, and sometimes I fell back asleep. 

But the impulse was there, and it was new and interesting to me. I’d heard cynics deride prayer as calling on an “invisible sky daddy,” and I could hear the sneer there, the absolute contempt for anybody stupid enough to imagine a daddy in the sky. But I’d been wounded by my own father, and thinking of God as father was enough to make me want to run in the opposite direction, so when I noticed I was lying in bed calling out to God like a young child crying for—let’s say, an invisible sky daddy—it felt like progress. 

And so I kept trying, exploring other expressions of prayer. Sometimes I drew my prayers. I got this idea when I was teaching the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which depicts the narrator talking to God, and I thought I ought to try it myself. The fascinating thing about drawing your prayer, graphic novel style, is that when a person in a graphic novel talks to the person on the other side of their box, that person usually talks back. So when I drew my little stick figure sitting next to Jesus, and penciled some words in the bubble above my head, I had to think about what Jesus would say in response and write that in the bubble above his head. Jesus and I had some really surprising conversations that way. I never knew what Jesus was going to say before he said it, and it always turned out to be something kind, unexpected, and sometimes even funny. Imagining Jesus’s responses pulled me further into prayer. 

The most startling prayers of all are the ones that get answered.

Some friends taught me about something called listening prayer. You sit in a circle, and someone tells a problem they’re having or something they’d like to hear God’s thoughts on, then someone asks God to speak, and then you all just . . . listen. You listen for the Bible verses that pop into your head, or the song you want to play on your Spotify app, or the word or idea that’s coming inexplicably to mind. Sometimes it’s more like looking than listening. And after a few minutes, everybody shares what they saw or heard, and “the usual caveats apply,” my friend Alex always says, which means that the person who’s being listened for always gets to decide what the various words or images mean to them, and if it has the ring of the Holy Spirit to it, or if they just want to smile and nod politely. 

Returning to the Wild      

The most startling prayers of all are the ones that get answered. Once I asked a woman who’d suffered an unimaginable number of miscarriages if I could pray for her to conceive again, and she said yes even though she was an atheist. I remember I put my hand on her shoulder and asked God to do what God does, and a few weeks later she was pregnant again, and that child is now eight years old and has a six-year-old sister. I’ve prayed for lost objects to be found—keys and dogs and homework papers—and each one of them shortly afterward “hove into view,” as Brian Doyle says about the massive sturgeon named Herman who lives at the Bonneville Dam and occasionally rises to the surface of his tank. I’ve asked God for a used minivan for under $7,000 with less than 100,000 miles on it, and my children put in that they wanted it to have doors that worked (our old van’s didn’t), and to be navy blue, and wouldn’t you know that was the exact car my co-worker turned out to be selling. 

Some prayers don’t get answered, of course, or not in the way we want them to be, and in that list, I have to tally my son’s major head concussion, which did not immediately resolve itself and did in fact end his soccer career; my daughter’s lost track spikes, which I may or may not have accidentally thrown away; my relationship with my father, which is still nonexistent; and my friend’s twin boys, who both died in utero. Why could I place my hand on one woman’s shoulder and ask for children to grow inside her, and they did, and then place my hand on another woman’s belly and ask for continuing growth for the children who were already inside her, and they didn’t? That is a question that has no answer. Or at least not an answer that I know.

Regardless of what seems to happen or not happen when I pray, I am learning to keep laying myself on the doorstep of eternity. To write or sing or dance or draw or speak to the One who is always listening, listening, listening. To believe that the song that thrums deep underneath all other songs is his, and its one note is love. 

Prayer is wild. A vast open silence I don’t quite know how to fill. An encounter with someone I don’t exactly know—but every time I turn to his listening ear I want to know him better. And so I keep walking into the wild. 

Sarah Sanderson
Sarah Sanderson writes and speaks about faith, trauma recovery, and the beloved life. She lives with her family near Portland, Oregon. Sarah Sanderson’s first book, The Place We Make, is due out from WaterBrook in August. Learn more at www.sarahlsanderson.com.

Cover image by Yann Behr.

Next story