You could set your watch by how quickly my dad would come uncorked after my aunt’s Christmas newsletter arrived-about 3.5 seconds, if memory serves. Auntie M. was famous for her long legs, enviable year-round tan, and saccharine seasonal epistles.
The Christmas letter is a literary genre unto itself where a certain amount of braggadocio is to be expected. Worsening the situation, in this case, was that it was the 1980s and my mother’s brother and his family were living the high life in Southern California: Fortune 500 Christians, reaping the rewards of Reaganomics and a mega-church prosperity gospel.
Our humble house in northern Ontario was one street away from the wrong side of the tracks. The contrast between our two families set a pretty dramatic stage for my dad’s unforgettable “God is not” sermon-from-the-couch one Christmas, when a particular installment sent him careening over the edge.
As usual, the correspondence was peppered with references to God. No detail, from the sublime to the ridiculous, had been overlooked by the Almighty-such was his concierge-like involvement in their lives that year. “The Good Lord” had been credited for standing by my cousin’s side during a performance in the school play, procuring my uncle’s most recent promotion, and helping the maid at Circus Circus choose a mint chocolate of unimpeachable quality to leave on their pillows during a recent vacation.
In fact, so varied and sumptuous were the holy feats, her letter left me wondering if there was a different God for Americans and why Canadians got stuck with the boring one, who only covered the basics like salvation and damnation.
My father was incensed by the silliness. With a King James Bible in one hand and a flimsy page in the other, my aunt’s Bobo-the-Magnificent Clown God and Dad’s Fire-and-Brimstone God went head-to-head. He was unequivocal: God is not holding anyone’s hand through their stage fright, God is not orchestrating an ascent up the corporate ladder, and God is most certainly not overseeing the housekeeping operation at any Las Vegas hotel.
In his moment of fury, Dad confirmed my worst fears: God was not in charge of my day-to-day life; making good things happen while keeping the wolves at bay. I went to bed that night utterly terrified. I was also deeply ashamed and got down on my knees and prayed The Great Apology Prayer for all the selfish nonsense I’d been pestering God with. I asked him to disregard my previous petitions and promised to get back to him once I figured out how to pray properly.
Unfortunately, I never did get back to him. Shortly after that, I gave up bedtime prayers altogether.
And so began my odyssey with a difficult prayer life and my tendency, to this day, to label most of what my heart conceives as selfish jibber-jabber that I shouldn’t trouble God with in the first place.
I ran into a priestly friend recently and she could tell that all was not well with me. She’s a woman of such searing intuition that she can see through my happy-face facade.
“How’s your prayer life?” she asked.
I stammered and shifted and performed a variety of awkward gestures, trying to find a resting place for my arms before accepting I had to tell her the truth: “It kind of sucks,” I said. It has always kind of sucked, and try as I might, I can’t seem to rise above a baseline of dysfunction that seems to be rooted in lack of practice and a weak vocabulary for talking to God.
“What’s with all the books?” is a question I’ve often fielded from non-churchgoing friends when they’ve worked up the courage to ask me about church stuff they don’t understand. Once upon a time, it seemed odd to me, too, that faithful people needed a script to follow every Sunday-hadn’t they memorized it by now?
But now I see the books, red or green, as an umbilical cord to God. In my case, they’ve been the only decent vocabulary I’ve ever been given for prayer. If I didn’t have them, I’d have nothing.
Be it red or green, when I hold one of the prayer books in my hands I can finally let go of my doubtful, noisy mind that always seeks to judge its choice of words.
Instead I can follow along, in a meditative trance, like a child, keeping to the path of the spoken word, each poetic phrase like a bread-crumb, helping me find my way home.
Michelle Hauser is a former fundraiser turned newspaper columnist and freelance writer. She and her husband, Mark, live in Napanee, Ont., with their son Joseph, and worship at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Her work includes contributions to CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and The Kingston Whig-Standard. She can be reached through her website at www.michellehauser.ca.