Having grown up in the church as a pastor’s daughter, prayer became part of a routine to achieve “super Christian” status. I failed on more than one occasion to follow the rules I believed would earn God’s favor and make people think I knew how to be a good Christian. I faked it fairly well, using words to my advantage. I was often the student who contributed the longest monologue during Sunday school prayer time. To this day I can still remember the sighs, people fidgeting from restlessness as I tossed out a string of hyped-up cliché phrases asking Jesus to perform miracles—or at least help someone pass a math test.
Fast-forward several years and I was no better off. Having abandoned words for silence, I felt just as disconnected as I was in high school. Christianity, for me, had taken several bullets, creating holes in my idealized views of God, theology and the Church. While I used to “pray” all the time, I was lucky if I could piece together a sentence using any sort of phrase other than Christian jargon.
Back in January, in the midst of my faith slowly starting to fray, I boarded a Boeing 777 headed to London Gatwick Airport, hoping that a few months at a place called L’Abri would give me time to sew together the loose ends of my theology.
L’Abri is an intentional community 40 miles southwest of London. Not a school nor a retreat center, L’Abri falls into so many categories it’s best not to categorize it at all. Set in the deep countryside of Hampshire County, people from all over the world descend onto the L’Abri manor house for three months at a time like moths flying toward light. And they find that light in the midst of a sprawling estate of brick and stained glass, of green meadows and daffodils blooming in the English springtime. With days built around structure, we work in teams or study by ourselves for three hours every morning or afternoon—cleaning bathrooms, making meals, raking leaves; reading works by Nietzsche, making sense of the emergent church, searching for reasons why Christianity doesn’t support deism. There are no questions we can’t ask so we ask a lot of them, creating a hotbed of discussions that often end with “I don’t know.”
I came by myself, but over time have developed strong connections with those around me as we have peeled away our layers of pain and frustration, allowing others to see us, and accept us, as fragmented beings. I receive more answers to my questions through human interaction than by reading a book, and my understanding of the nature of God often comes about while folding clothes or chopping potatoes.
Today, a Saturday afternoon, I am neither working nor studying. I am on a couch in the morning room, the old library that we just finished renovating into a second, more intimate sitting room. There is a fireplace across from me, and Lauren is sitting next to it, nestled within the wooden arms of a rather large chair; I am next to Lindsey, staring at the coffee table, as she turns to Marcia, who is on her other side, and shares the details of the phone conversation she just had with her dad. As she begins to cry, I struggle not to, though I can’t help brushing the few tears that have started to fall down my cheeks.
She is crying over a myriad of issues, and as I listen my first response surprises me: we should pray for her. I have wandered back to Sunday school, to prayer time when we would all grab hands and adjust our bodies to show reverence to the one to whom we were speaking. We could do that now, I think. I could easily move to the coffee table so I can hold hands with Lauren, who can hold hands with Marcia, who can … Stop. My mind reels in these thoughts as Lindsey continues to share. There is no need to hold hands—mine is resting in the crook of Lindsey’s arm, and Marcia has placed hers on Lindsey’s forearm. Lauren may be across from us, but her red eyes reveal that she would hold Lindsey’s hand if she could.
When Lindsey stops, I listen to our breathing: a slow, rhythmic ballad of sighs. I start to feel as if I am sinking, my body slowly falling into a featherbed of silence, silence that begins to fill the room like heat rising from the ground. Or maybe I am not sinking at all; maybe it is God I am falling into. Maybe it is His presence that has settled in this space, spilling out from the center of the room into the four corners. I wonder if it is possible to pray without syllables or sound. Is Marcia laying her head on Lindsey’s shoulder better than having it bowed?
Rob Bell once said in a sermon that sometimes prayer is going without words. Was I a wordaholic? Had I spent so many years trying to come up with the right things to say, or running from the words I refused to say, that it took a trip across the ocean and three girls with the ability to keep their mouths shut to serve as word detox? In this brief half hour, I threw my view of prayer against the wall, watched as it shattered. All this time I thought I had to pray inside the lines, but now I see that there are no lines, there aren’t any rules, any phrases I can say to make me a super Christian—only a God who will meet with me anywhere if I am willing to meet Him.
Liz DeKlavon holds a B.A. in writing from Indiana Wesleyan University, and currently resides in Chicago, IL. She loves British pubs, road trips, creative nonfiction, and reading Annie Dillard.