Let Us Proclaim the Mystery of Faith, Pt. II: Letters from Prison, AA, & When Words Aren't Enough
I walk out to the mailbox and pull out an envelope with a now-familiar stamp on the back, alerting me that it has been sent from a correctional facility. I open it eagerly and pull out the thin college-ruled paper, marked with line after line of elegant cursive. He is the little brother of my best friend, and one whom I remember only as a skateboarding teenager and gifted graffitist, now serving a couple of years on drug charges and our newly minted penpal. And my best friend, his sister, refuses to speak to him now and only told me he was in prison when I thought to offhandedly ask how he was doing.
My eyes scan the page and his words halfway down fall like a leaden weight in my gut. “I’ve been amazed lately at the power of prayer,” he writes. His lawyer got a pending case against him in another case dropped, he explains, one which could have meant another five years in prison.
He is amazed at the power of prayer, I think. Him. Someone who doesn’t even have the exquisite privilege of, say, going to the bathroom in a stall with a door. And here I am, traipsing through a veritable banquet of freedom, positively sodden with the stuff, and yet I strain to believe.
And I think of how Jesus chose to go to the outcasts, the smelly people, the people covered in boils who hungered for just one human touch, the people who’d made a terrific mess of their lives, the abject moral failures. He went to them because the sick needed a doctor, yes, but I think he also went to them because in brokenness there is hunger and there is humility and there is nothing left to lose. And because of those things, there is beauty.
After two years of college, after tripping (not on acid or mushrooms – that came later) through a hundred vertiginous boozy nights of chaos and a hundred mornings of cotton-mouthed shame, I finally decided I’d had enough and decided to attend an AA meeting. Actually, first I tried just walking into a church service, but at that point I really believe I rivaled Mary Magdalene with the sheer quantity of demons I harbored and after someone was kind to me during the greeting time my very skin pricked with shame and fear and I hurried out of the church with my head down.
But AA was magical. Here was a ragtag pastiche of broken people under sallow church basement lighting drinking diluted coffee out of sytrofoam cups. Gone was the brazen and noisy revelry of drunken nights and all the false camaraderie that came with it, sworn friendships and couplings that dissipated like dew in the sober light of day. In its place was something much quieter and sweeter and in many ways much more difficult, but real. Finally real.
Brennan Manning tells the story of a man named Max with whom he attended an alcoholic rehabilitation center. When he first arrived, the man was deeply in denial. During a group therapy session he suavely dodged and deflected questions about this drinking and routinely obfuscated or minimized in an attempt to make his alcoholism look like mere social drinking. Eventually the counselor called the bartender at a tavern that the man frequented to get a more accurate picture of his drinking, which drove Max nearly into apoplexy. Finally, the counselor called Max’s wife, who relayed the heartrending story of how their daughter had suffered permanently marring frostbite when Max left her in the car one cold winter night while he spent hours drinking in a bar.
“Max appeared to be having a coronary. He struggled to his feet making jerky, uncoordinated movements. His glasses flew to the right and his pipe to the left. He collapsed on all fours and sobbed hysterically,” Manning writes. The counselor, having blessedly broken Max at long last, directs the rest of the group to leave.
“Twenty-four recovering alcoholics and addicts climbed the eight-step stairwell. We turned left, gathered along the railing on the upper split level and looked down. No man will ever forget what he saw that day, the twenty-fourth of April at exactly high noon. Max was still in the doggie position. His sobs had soared to shrieks. [The counselor] approached him, pressed his foot against Max’s rib cage and pushed. Max rolled over on his back. ‘You unspeakable slime,’ he roared… “I am not running a rehab for liars!’”
Manning eventually shares how Max was radically transformed by the agony of facing what he had done and who he had become, and being painfully stripped of his self-illusion and made to face his own putrescence nakedly. “Max could not encounter the truth of the living God until he faced his alcoholism,” Manning says.
None of us can – until we face or are blessedly made to face our inadequacy, our idolatry, our wretched inability to make anything meaningful or beautiful or enduring.
I think of Alex, and the miserable and humiliating injunctions of freedom he endures daily. Some of his family has abandoned him. His father can’t afford to visit anymore since he was moved several hours away from the facility where he’d been previously. Amazed by the power of prayer, he says, still.
Can I be amazed anew, I wonder?
I am amazed at the power of brokenness to drive us to Christ. I think of AA meetings and NA meetings and my own grief group and I am amazed at the magical transcendent realms that are church basements, bastions of holiness not because of their inherent power but because broken people dwell there and thus so does the Most High, in these houses not built by human hands, as Stephen cried just before his stoning.
Every Thursday night for the past seven months I’ve met with such a group in, naturally, a church basement. It reminds me of those AA meetings I attended when I was making my first feeble attempts to respond to the Spirit’s gentle call. I like to think we have a similar vibe to AA: wrecked people, helpless to cope with the enormity of grief on our own. Our lives had become unmanagable. So we talk about the ones we loved. We talk about the living and the dying, the hospital stays and the protracted disease and the glacial decline and also the nightmare-shock of sudden deaths. We laugh. We cry. We shove Kleenex boxes across the table at the first sign of a trembling lip. We’re led by 70-something Ruth – fearless Ruth, a retired teacher with the adorable appliqued sweatshirts to prove it and a laugh that’s robust and delicate all at once, like an iris with its lovely frippery upon a hardy stalk. I think she really can laugh at the days to come, as Proverbs 31 says. And she does, heartily, after each time she shares one of her Reader’s Digestesque clean jokes or stories from her apparently bottomless cache of such things.
We say the Lord’s prayer together while holding hands at the conclusion of every meeting and it’s all I can do not to break into delighted laughter at Ruth’s scandalously intimate, musical inflection as she begs her daily bread and beseeches thy kingdom come in her warm and love-saturated alto. She comes as a friend and a daughter, expectantly, never doubting the grace which flows there inexhaustibly. Her colorful melody flits and dances above the grave, pallid monotones the rest of us offer: ourfatherwhoartinheavenhallowedbethyname. Why, I think, have I been trained to say it this way, like I’m reciting a list of actuarial figures? Rattling off a car warranty, rushing through something tedious but obligatory? Meanwhile, the prayer is Ruth’s joy and her privilege. I put in the time, the words. She gets to, and it shows. She knows Him.
Ruth is married to John. They met at a grief group after their spouses passed away and now they are an unstoppable grief-fighting duo except they don’t fight it; in their gentle way, seasoned by sorrow and seasoned by joy and seasoned by what is sacred, they allow it to be itself. They allow it to sit in stony silence. They allow it to cry angry tears. They allow it to smile at the good times and lament the bad times with a wadded-up tissue. They don’t try to shunt it into a shape, try to force it to be anything it’s not, or anything it’s not yet. They allow it to laugh, to rail, to regret, to marvel at the miracle of the relationship lost, at least lost for now.
But they know it’s not for good. And they know that, as my friend Evan says, “the flow cleanses as truth’s current carries it.” As His current carries it, and in the end transforms it.
John’s voice is like a hot buttered biscuit drizzled with honey, like a dish of lavender-scented soap molded into flowers. Don’t ask me what all that means or how any of it really works as simile. It’s just how it makes me feel. His voice is warm and velvety, soft and paternal. His voice makes me feel like all is right with the world and I can go to sleep now. If the crystal bowl of Werther’s originals that was always on my grandmother’s glass table had a voice, it would be his.
And I love that when he begins to tell stories, one hand resting on the table and rising for occasional gesticulations and the other wrapped around the handle of his cane, he is in exactly no hurry at all. He tells of working in the fields as a boy, he tells of how his uncle tried to shortchange his father on some deal and the strife that came of it, he tells of his family’s house burning down. He speaks of the 89 long days of his wife dying in the hospital.
When there is someone new at grief group and we go around the table, sharing our losses, John has the longest roster of anyone in the room: “Well, I lost my wife 24 years ago,” he begins. He pauses. “And I’ve lost my mom. My dad. My younger brother. My older brother. Both my sisters. Some cousins. Aunts and uncles.” He pauses again, thinks for a moment, and then shrugs. “Pretty much everyone,” he says.
One night I sat on the opposite side of the table from where I’d become accustomed to sitting and was startled and delighted to notice the poster taped to the wall, one I’d not yet noticed because it was usually behind me. The Bible verses written in thick black marker on poster board scalloped with craft scissors, the soft-focus portrait of Jesus in a meadow surrounded by children: these I’d seen. This new poster, at first glance, was as familiar and expected as those: a cross, on a hill, suffused from behind by a roseate dawn, with a peacock – paragon of exquisite beauty and grace among the animal kingdom – flanking it on one side. Flowers bloom among the meadow grasses, more majestic than Solomon in all his glory.
But as my eyes trailed downward I noticed the frog. A little incongruous, but fair enough.
And then in the lower righthand corner, but prominently in the foreground no less, I saw the chicken, a Rhode Island Red sprinting daintily toward some unknown vista. And I smiled, and remembered that God is an inveterate joker, and I felt deeply and totally assured that I was indeed exactly where I should be.
A couple months prior, I had wept while I talked about Lia, about how learning of her death had catapaulted me into a bleak alternate reality. Death became an immediate dwelling place instead of some abstracted town far down the road, inhabited by people I knew only by third degree.
And her death was both the cruel definitive blot of a period and an interminable ellipsis. No goodbyes. No foreknowledge. Bewildering things unearthed in the aftermath.
Lia, who struggled to know and be known in life, to love and receive love, now had her life laid bare for inspection. It made me nauseous because it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be and I know she’d be horrified. Yet I couldn’t seem to look away, couldn’t seem to stop wildly trying to piece together the clues, like a bleary-eyed detective in front of a corkboard feathered with clues, imagining if I wrest some peace out of them if only I could piece them together.
I talked until I couldn’t anymore and I just wept. A woman who had lost her husband of many decades several months prior pushed her chair back from the table and walked over to me and leaned down and put her arms around me, pressing her cheek against mine, and just lingered there, alongside me, with me.
Sometimes the most profound words aren’t words; they are touch, warmth, presence. Like Jeremiah, I hunger for words from God – “when your words came, I ate them.” Yet the writer of Hebrews says “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”
And Jesus, as the definitive word – “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” – asks us to eat his body and drink his blood. At times I balk, wide-eyed, at this command, along with the disciples. Who can understand this?
But I remember God does not call me to understand the mystery. He calls me to trust it. If words could explicate everything satisfactorily, if they could save me, if they could give eternal life and satisfy the deep naught inside blown open by my sin – what Walker Percy calls the “suck of self” – the offense of the cross would be abolished.
Words do wield incredible power. Words spoken to me in middle school still faintly smart decades on, and beautiful words spoken over me as well as tough-love words which cut through my pride and arrogance are still redolent of Christ in my memory. But sometimes silent presence cries out profoundly of love, of withness, of heaven itself.
I love words. Like, love them. My son once had to ask me to stop when I was walking around the house chanting ‘glissando’ quietly for the sheer pleasure of it. Words soar, words leap, words intoxicate, words sober, words cleave and words transform.
But sometimes, our words fail.
I think back often to a poem I wrote during my drug-saturated years, a poem that reminds me that God was pursuing me, even stalking me, patiently watching for me among the hills with rapt love while I spit in his face and chased every flittering hologram that beckoned.
All language left these little clefts
Our tongues, they just forgot.
But when he wept in blessings deft
He leaked the salve we sought.
When he wept, when he bled, when he suffered with us and for us. I know Peter says it is by his wounds we are healed and I absolutely believe that. But I also believe, in the same mysterious way that love of God and love of people are inextricable, we are healed by each others’ wounds, too. And so yes, the Spirit dwells here, now, in these worn, outdated church basements, full of broken people scanning the horizon of grief for His face and finding Him – wonder of wonders – right next to them. He is here, now, always. Immanuel – God With Us.
After that meeting, I walked up to the elderly widow who had held me so compassionately to thank her. She clutched my forearm and asked “what did you say your sister’s name was?” When I responded, she grinned. “My name is Leah, too,” she said.
It just happened. It wasn’t God. At this beautiful instance of seeming coincidence, the ripples of doubt prompted by Arrow’s declaration resurface. But in the moment the Spirit gives me a calm and unassailable assurance to the contrary.
Not a sparrow falls to the ground outside of his care, I said to her, and you are worth more than many sparrows, he says to me.