When relearning honest prayer requires a return to childhood
Gary Jansen Dec. 6, 2018
“Because you are his children, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, Father, Abba” (Galatians 4:6).
One day some years ago, I took my then 4-year-old son Eddie for a walk around the grounds of the beautiful St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, New York. For Eddie and me, both Harry Potter fans, this former 1920s Gold Coast estate became a real-life Hogwarts, a land of enchantment and mystery.
With its baroque, three-story mansion, tall oaks, gravel pathways, canopied trails, gurgling stream, and stone labyrinth, it was just the right place for the two of us to set off on a later afternoon adventure.
We had been to St. Ignatius many times in the past. We would take plastic swords (sometimes “Star Wars” lightsabers) and seek out villains to be fought and monsters to be conquered.
The vilest of these imaginary creatures was the dreaded Minotaur, half man, half bull, who was trapped somewhere inside a maze of woods that lay just beyond the mansion. Often Eddie was Theseus the Brave and I was the grotesque monster in search of a hero to devour.
That day, however, we had no swords, only sticks. I knighted Eddie St. George the Dragon Slayer and we spent the afternoon in search of an imaginary flying serpent. Once we discovered and vanquished the beast we carried it to the base of a six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary that stood atop a small incline on the north end of the property.
“For you, Our Lady, Slayer of Serpents.”
Afternoon quickly turned to dusk. We made our way down a hill beneath a copper and blue crepuscular sky, toward an enormous weeping beech tree, where other mysterious creatures were known to hide.
On guard and with sticks in hand, we entered the cave-like dwelling created by the drooping branches. We found ourselves inside a cathedral of shadows and shade, clambering over thick, exposed roots and crooked branches that looked like witch fingers beckoning us to draw closer to the trunk of the tree.
I kept my hand near Eddie’s back to catch him if he lost his footing. Once inside, we talked about Mario Bros. and dinosaurs and we played a quick pickup game of stickball with the large beechnuts that littered the dark ground.
Dusk quickly turned to evening. I told Eddie it was time to leave. As we exited this tree castle, a quarter moon struggled to shine in the east and the blue hill before us looked murky and desolate.
We were entirely alone. A light shone in the window of an upper room in the mansion some distance away. I reached out and took Eddie’s hand and we walked together. We stopped for a moment. I wanted to feel the air on my face and stand beneath the vast sky above us. And that is when my son said, “Daddy, I’m afraid. Don’t let go of my hand.”
I looked at Eddie, squeezed my fingers into his tiny palm, and said, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll always be with you.” He gave my hand a squeeze in return and kept close to my side as we walked in silence through a pale path cut by the dull light of the moon. We made our way to the parking lot, climbed into the family car, and headed home.
My son is older now and he no longer holds my hand when we go for walks. St. Ignatius and the mysterious landscape that was our playground were demolished a few years ago when the Jesuits sold the property to an investment firm looking to build condos I know that God asks us to be forgiving, yet certain things seem to me to be a little bit unforgivable. This was one of them.
But when I think back to that night I realize that in that singular moment, Eddie helped me experience and understand the purest and most innocent form of prayer:
“Daddy, I’m afraid. Don’t let go of my hand.”
I’m older now, too, and in the years that have passed I’ve come to see that the spirit of Eddie’s words is arguably at the center of every single honest prayer we ever utter: “I need you God, stay with me.”
What do these words represent? Surrender. A childlike openness to God’s great love and God’s desire to protect and help his sons and daughters.
We live in a time and place that stresses independence and individualism, self-reliance, and self-worth. To rely on another is to put oneself in a precarious position. But long before psychologists coined terms such as codependency and before theologians intellectualized God, somewhere, one quivering, frightened person looked up at the sky and asked an invisible presence to help him feel less alone.
“Father, Abba, I am afraid; stay with me.”
That night when Eddie reached out and took my hand, I was given a vision of what it must feel like to be God. I felt great love, great warmth, a great desire to offer comfort to my son. I wanted nothing else to do than to protect him, to remind Eddie that beneath this vast and sometimes troubling universe he’s not alone, that I was always with him.
Isn’t that what God feels for us? Isn’t that what God is always saying? Maybe we just need to surrender our complaints, to let go of our attempts to be brave, to know it all, and just reach out our hands and just say, “Father, Abba, Daddy, Dad, I’m afraid. Don’t let go of me.”
If we listen closely, a still, small voice will say, “I never have. I never will.”
Gary Jansen is a noted spiritual writer and director of Image Books and an executive editor at Penguin Random House. Among his many books are “The 15-Minute Prayer Solution,” “The Infernos of Dante and Dan Brown: A Visitor’s Guide to Hell,” and “Station to Station.” As a lecturer, he has been featured on NPR, CNN, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.
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