The River of Prayer

“There’s a river whose streams gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High” (Ps. 46:4).

I’ve sensed two rivers of late, though they tend to dissolve into one.

The first is a river of suffering creatures … the second is a river of prayer.

In this season of accompanying a family who is facing the decline and perhaps very soon death of a father, and scrambling to care in his absence for a mother with Alzheimers . . . in a season also of accompanying their son who has been my companion, as he sorts out what kind of path is possible in his life, and in what shape it might or might not continue to be able to include me . . . and in walking with physical symptoms that could have many possible causes and that have frightened and could debilitate me (or could dissolve as quickly as they came) . . . I have felt a keener sense of the much heavier and sharper sufferings of so many human beings (and other living creatures) past and present, from places near and far.

It is like a stream of suffering creatures, each of us so readily locked into whatever afflicts us, but also able at times to look up and recognize with empathy the struggles of another. I think of a character in an Elie Wiesel novel who was sitting in a concentration camp prison, looking at another prisoner: “Two question marks looking at one another — now that’s something.”

The second river is a river of prayer.

As I have tried to pray for the family in whose midst I’ve been plunged, but to whom I do not yet (and may never) belong, and as I’ve wrestled with deep old grasping fears of abandonment that go back many years and are always bigger than the situation at hand (even as enough real abandonments etch the fear more deeply into my bloodstream) . . . and as I have seen that we have to feel everything, we can’t skip the sleepless weeks — in the middle of all this, and in the middle of the river of suffering, I’ve sensed that prayer is like a river carrying all creatures who suffer . . . we are still squirming, still vulnerable and lost, like tiny shrimp who must go with the current . . . but the current of prayer is something we tap into, that is vaster than we ourselves, that is nourishing even as it delivers us somewhere we do not yet know.

It is worth it, to see both of these rivers.

But it doesn’t lift the responsibility from us to cease to let others hurt us out of their own fears, and to work to end the ways we harm others out of our own fear.

Perhaps the city of God is where these rivers mingle and conjoin, or where both rivers empty out into a vaster dwelling place.

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