Why I don’t pray like I use to, Part 2


“Have one hard cry, if the tears will come. Then stanch the grief, by whatever legal means. Next find your way to be somebody else, the next viable you—a stripped-down whole other clear-eyed person, realistic as a sawed-off shotgun and thankful for air, not to speak of the human kindness you’ll meet if you get normal luck. Your mate, your children, your friends at work—anyone who knew or loved you in your old life—will be hard at work in the fierce endeavor to revive your old self, the self they recall with love or respect. Their motives are frequently admirable, and at times that effort counts for a lot—they prove that you’re valued and wanted at least—but again their care is often a brake on the way you must go. At the crucial juncture, when you turn toward the future, they’ll likely have little help to offer; and it’s no fault of theirs (they were trained like you, in inertia). More likely they’ll stall you in the effort to learn who you need to be now and how to be him or her by tomorrow or Monday at the latest. Yet if you don’t discover that next appropriate incarnation of who you must be, and then become that person at a stiff trot, you’ll be no good whatever again to the ruins of your old self nor to any friend or mate who’s standing beside you in hopes of a hint that you’re feeling better this instant and are glad of company.” (Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life)

Many things came home with me upon my discharge; prescriptions, phone numbers, appointments, and handouts.  Many things came home with me, but me. I didn’t get to come home. I passed away. I was a DNR. It would have been helpful had a doctor or nurse told me that my discharge meeting was actually a wake and that an unavoidable funeral lay ahead. The Chris that was admitted to the hospital was not the Chris who came home months later. That Chris is dead. And that’s a good thing because he had a great deal to do with why I got sick, stayed sick, and it took so long for my depression to go into remission. So lets agree to let Lazarus lay. Rest assured, tears were shed and a grief was observed.

Life in remission feels like what I imagine a prisoner might feel like upon his release. Your sentence is served, but moving back into society is hard. You don’t need the you that got you arrested. You don’t need the you that allowed you to function on the inside. Recidivism is high for depressives because we often go back to the dysfunctional habits and enabling people that contributed to our illness. So you can go back, but it is at great peril. I was lucky, I got to go home to my loving wife. I was lucky, I got to go home to a supportive daughter. I was lucky, I got to go home to a host of doctors and therapists. My family and medical professionals are one thing, but my faith was another.

If I had had a broken leg there would be therapy. If I had had an addiction there would be rehab. I had depression and I had a psychiatrist. But, I had had faith. And had I been anyone but me, I would have had a pastor. Alan Moore best captures what it is like for a pastor to need a pastor.

Rorschach: “I heard [a] joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says ‘But Doctor… I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.” (Alan Moore, Watchmen)

Long-term medical leave relieved me of the burden of serving a congregation. I should mention that I have served congregations longer than I have been a member of one. I had spent more years behind the pulpit than I had in front of one. The rhythm of my week anticipated Sunday’s arrival. Only now when Sunday would come, I had no place I had to be. No one was expecting me to show up a in suit and tie with a recently printed sermon in hand. I missed the nuisance of wondering what suit and which tie. Sunday comes and now my nuisance was, “do I get out of bed or not?” It seems obvious how unhealthy answering the latter question could become. The new Chris is a creature of habit and routine, my nuisance became, “where do I worship this week?”

To call what I did worship is misleading. What I did was go church-shopping. Church-shopping is hard when you’ve spent so much time making churches appealing to would-be consumers. (I am the worst critic even when I’m being charitable.) Each week I picked a new church to sit in observing all the etiquette expected of a believer in a sanctuary. I went out of habit. I sat in a pew out of habit. I stood for hymns out of habit. (I confess that I couldn’t be bothered to sing those same hymns.) I recited creeds out of habit. I smiled and greeted total strangers during the passing of the peace, again, out of habit. Each Sunday made me think of church, a cipher for my faith, as a bad habit like my biting my nails.

The motivation of habit only went so far. I could fake everything from creed to deed, but I could not bring myself to pray. At first, I bowed my head and closed my eyes sitting or kneeling in silence. Etiquette demanded it. At the very least, I didn’t want a parishioner to ask me why I wasn’t praying with reverence and the proper posture. Gradually, the hold of etiquette loosened. The pastor says, “let us pray.” I sit upright. I looked straight at the pulpit. I thought about how nothing was happening and nothing would happen. I thought about Ambrose Bierce’s thoughts on prayer being our “[asking] that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.” I dared G-d to prove me wrong. I dare G-d to prove me wrong. My dare is not born of disrespect or disbelief. My dare is just my way of seeking the possibility of faith post-depression. I want a faith that is without fear and superstition. (Fear and superstition best describes my faith while my depression was active.) I can’t at present say I have found such a faith. Nevertheless, I am still seeking it. And I know that the G-d I shared with others is a grace-filled loving parent. And whether this is a passing phase or a permanent position, G-d like any loving parent will not disown their child. “There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstanding, distortions and questionable definitions than the word ‘faith.’ It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used to the healing of men.” (Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith) As I heal so might my faith. As I heal so might find my will to pray.

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