A Crick in My Neck: Prayer As Authentic Voice


(system) #1

Continuing Spectrum’s series on the Spirituality of Parenting, Joelle Chase picks up where she left off (see her previous post, Beyond All Odds: Prayer As Silence, here), finding yet another way to pray through her father’s cavernous malformation (abnormally formed blood vessels, leaking blood) in his brain stem.

I wake with an achy neck, a premonition of sorts. My dad’s surgery is just one week away, and it seems my body is carrying fear of the unknown as literal pain in the place where his hemorrhage happened. And could happen again, any time, any unpredictable time. And next time it might not be just numbness in his toes. Next time he could lose his vision, hearing, speech, mobility … life.

The surgery doesn’t guarantee a cure. The neurosurgeon is as experienced and deft as they come, but this thing in my father’s brain isn’t easy to remove. The list of outcomes post-surgery are the same as without the operation. But the risk is too great not to try, not to hope for the 50% possibility of a happy ending.

My neck hurts. The pain doesn’t go away. I’m sent home from the office, beg a friend for an unscheduled massage, take Advil and a long hot bath. No relief. My silent prayer, simple presence to God-who-is-with, presence to my father and what is, has taken tangible shape at the back of my skull.

The phone rings, and it’s my dad. I listen, holding my head awkwardly to avoid the needles in my neck, as he explains: the results of his pre-op MRI have arrived. The lesion in his brain has shrunk to less than half its earlier size. Not only is the surgery impossible, it’s unnecessary. The neurosurgeon believes there is no longer concern of future hemorrhaging.

My own numbness—of heart rather than toes—melts, leaving a puddle of gratitude in its place. Words return to my prayer. Thank you. Thank you for a bit more time with this man in my life.

I know God doesn’t need my thanks. I say it because I can’t help but say it. The words come as naturally as the silence. Thank you.

I don’t know what I would have said if the outcome had been different, if my dad did go through surgery, the excruciating pain of recovery, the struggle to regain use of his own voice. I know others haven’t had such happy endings. And their prayers, however spoken or unspoken, were no more or less proper than mine. I don’t think God is interested in propriety.

I hope I would have been just as ready to pray exactly the words I needed to, whether words of anger, fear, grief, or surrender—which are their own kind of “thank you.” When we speak with our authentic, truest voice, we are sounding gratitude for Grace, the perpetual welcome God gives our naked selves.

It takes a full week for my neck’s knots to unravel. In the body’s language, tension in the neck is symptom of a voice held back, suppressed, denied. My earlier silence isn’t the problem. That hush emerged from a place of great freedom, knowing I can be exactly as I am with God.

No, my body is telling me of some other way in which I am keeping mum that is not healthy. If I don’t speak up and out, this lesion will hemorrhage and wreak havoc, worse than the surgery of finding and removing the blockage.

With God it’s easy to be real. My faith and family, especially this father who lives what he preaches, have taught me that God’s presence is unconditional; nothing I do or say can keep Love away. But others aren’t so gracious. Years of living with their standards and expectations—from church, school, employers, culture—have created my most acceptable voice, the not-me voice that says what they want to hear or keeps quiet when they don’t want to hear anything at all.

For years I told myself, “Shut up!” even though I would never say that to anyone else—how harsh, rude, cruel. I’ve guarded my words judiciously, choosing those most likely to keep me safe and secure. It seems to work, but at what cost? The tight muscles in my neck are hinting at the risk. My self-imposed silence may well sever soul-nerves and paralyze my authentic voice permanently.

I’m reading one of my favorite writers, Terry Tempest Williams. Her book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, surprises and stirs a forgotten voice within me.

As Terry’s mother struggled with cancer, she told Terry to keep her journals, but asked Terry not to open them until after she was dead. Terry promised and didn’t crack a cover of the books in a tidy row, representing years of her mother’s life, until her mother’s breath returned to God. When Terry finally did open the journals, she found them empty, each one. Empty.

Terry’s book explores the ways in which we, women in particular, are silent. Whether chosen out of fear, desire for privacy, to honor sacred mystery, or forced quiet by church (in her mother’s case, Latter Day Saints), society, other louder voices. Terry doesn’t attempt to fill her mother’s journals’ empty pages, but reads their blank faces as invitation to reclaim the power of both speechlessness and words.

She extends the same invitation to her readers—to discern how and when to be silent, to speak, but not in the ways we’ve become accustomed to, children speaking only when spoken to. Terry reflects on the beauty and mystery of our voices. Like fragile feathered things, they need nurturing, protecting, empowering. Our voices need intimate spaces of mutuality, giving and receiving, where they can be fully fledged and free.

I begin to knead the knots in my voice, the places where I’ve been stuck—either speaking things untrue to my authentic self or repressing things that must be said because my soul demands it. I begin by bringing awareness of God’s presence—praying itself through me moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat—into the rest of my life. My natural prayers of silence and language find their way into other conversations and human interactions. I play with being quiet when my not-me-voice wants to say something to keep my not-me-identity intact. I experiment with speaking aloud when inside I’m quivering or ashamed, remembering the ground of my being is Mercy and Compassion.

Perhaps you are trying too, to listen to the voice of God’s own Spirit breathing and groaning through you, the voice that is often ignored or repulsed because its silence is too empty, its speech is too strong. And maybe you’re tenderly teasing out the knots, loosing a lesion so the life-blood of your soul can flow unrestricted.

Gradually, as Mary Oliver writes,

the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own

Words eventually fail to describe this voice and the way God lives inside it. Terry writes, “Love is where I both find my voice and lose it…. The most beautiful words cannot be written, unfortunately. Fortunately.”

Near the end of this book, I stumble over Terry’s confession. She is diagnosed with a cavernous malformation. My breath catches. She doesn’t say how her story ends.

But I know there is Love, a different kind of silence, the solid bedrock that undergirds all words and even the Word, Christ, that took on flesh and dwelt with us. The mystery—inexplicable, unspeakable—of God’s love forms the very basis of every instance and incarnation of God’s life in the world.

What does God’s voice in you long to speak or share in silence?

Joelle Chase is Director of Messaging for the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Joelle graduated from Andrews University with a Bachelors in Elementary Education and spent two years teaching in a one-room Adventist school in Montana before moving to Albuquerque. She and her husband, Peter, are putting down roots on a small urban homestead with their two dogs, fruit trees and water cisterns.

Jerry Chase, Joelle’s father, is pastor of the Akron First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ohio. Two years ago, his family—wife Brenda, children, parents, and sister—joined to celebrate his ordination and birthday the week his surgery was scheduled, three momentous occasions concentrating and converging gratitude for his life. Jerry has spent his most recent birthdays helping to unearth other mysteries on archaelogical digs in Jordan and Cyprus.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5327