Not all days are good days. Sometimes I sit here feeling helpless and useless. Sometimes I want to eat or need to go to the bathroom and all of my helpers also need to do whatever it is they are doing, and I have to wait. And I try to wait patiently, and sometimes I feel impatient instead.
That's when the thinking starts to take over. I think I should be able to get myself in and out of the bathroom or fix my own snack. I remember that this isn't how it has always been even though it is how it is now. I remember, and I think I'm supposed to be able to take care of my own damned self. Dress myself. Feed myself without dropping food down my front (draped with a dishtowel) or onto the floor. I remember that the old me, regular me, could get in and out of a car -- and drive it -- and roll over in bed and walk uphill and cook and shop and... You get the idea. I get mad.
Sometimes I'm angry about what I can't do for myself and even more angry about what I can't do for anybody else. I have a sister-in-law with a new baby, and I can't help her. Some people I love very much have had some significant losses, and I can't help them, not even with a visit or a meal or a hug.
When I was in college I knew a woman who was planning to finish her education and join a Carmelite monastery. Carmelite nuns are cloistered, which means that they take a vow of silence along with their vows of obedience and poverty and chastity, and their lives are dedicated to prayer and to work, in that order. When I was 20 I could not even conceive of such a life, but I didn't question the value of a community of women whose primary vocation was prayer. God knows the world needs prayer.
Now, here I sit, in my little cloister. I don't do much. I do my physical therapy exercises, walking up and down my hallway, playing with silly putty, standing at attention to strengthen my neck. I can type, obviously, but, between predinsone-induced brain fog and fatigue, there are days when my thinking is pretty fuzzy and serious reading or writing is a struggle. But I can pray. I guess.
I want it to feel like enough. I have taken very seriously the need for me to pray for others in this season, these others, especially, who have been so faithful in praying for me and in doing all the things my body won't do. So I turn to God, or I try to, and sometimes it feels like prayer, and sometimes it feels empty and I feel helpless and useless.
That's when the thinking starts. What is prayer supposed to feel like? Something? Sometimes it just feels like thinking -- thinking about other people's troubles or losses or celebrations or struggles. Is that prayer? Sometimes instead of remembering, I forget. I forget that I said I'd pray for her or him or this or that, and then I talk to you and you remind me and I feel guilty, because I'm just sitting here. Can't I at least pray?
Sometimes I get mad at all the lousy stuff that happens to other people. Why is she in so much pain? Why did they have to suffer this loss? Why, why, why? Then I'm facing a God I'm not sure how to pray to anyway.
Sometimes I tell myself that it's enough for me to gather up all these needs, the ones I remember and the ones I've forgotten but that God still remembers. I gather them up, like piling odds and ends into an old rag for a knapsack and tie the four corners in square knots and hold them or fling them toward the light, toward God. I don't know what else to do or how else to do it, and it most definitely does not feel like enough or, sometimes, like anything at all.
Saturday night was one of the sometimes when the thinking starts. This time was a consequence of everything feeling a little too normal -- sitting on the couch, watching a movie -- but with the little wrinkles around the edges of the smooth surface -- the near-impossibility of raising my hand to my mouth to get a piece of popcorn in, the turtle-on-my-back helplessness when it's time to get off the couch. I went to bed cranky and woke up cranky and took it all, my own odds and ends, to church and sat with them and wondered what God was going to do with All That. And I listened.
Know what I heard? God said, "I don't really need you." In a nice way.
It's the truth, of course. "Where were you when I founded the earth?" God asks Job (38:4). And me.
That's not to say that I don't think God has work for me to do. Important work. Kingdom work. I believe God has me -- and you -- alive today for a reason. God's reason.
As I sat there in the pew, I stopped trying to pray for everybody else and noticed what was happening inside of me, and I realized I was empty. I wanted to give, but I didn't have anything to give. I was forced to allow it to become my story, my need, to ask God to fill me up and notice what I needed to be filled with. I'm not all that happy about the answer.
I want, so badly to feel useful and helpful. I want to have capacity, to be filled with the blazing fire of the Spirit which was the theme of the Pentecost celebration. The limp rag of truth is that I was tired, and I needed sleep. No tongues of fire or speaking in foreign languages or roaring wind. I needed an early bedtime. How quaint.
As I lay in bed last night, I kept returning to what I now knew, to the awareness that laying there, trying to sleep, was my way of allowing God to fill me up. Sleeping was a way of saying yes to God. A way of praying. This is my vowed life in the cloister, the poverty of disability, the chastity and silence of my solitude at 3:30 a.m., the obedience of turning my attention to God even when, especially when, that feels just exactly the same as doing nothing.