Some of you know that I hate living in suburgatory. I love the friends that I’ve made over the past two and a half years, I love my church, and I especially love my small group. But I hate suburgatory. I’m not sure how much is my own personal projection and how much is the actual ambiance of the suburbs. Anyway, I’m trying to process why spending the past three days in a spiritual retreat center in the middle of the city in Richmond was like heaven to me. And I’m trying to figure out how to carry the rhythm of prayer that I had down there with me to this suburgatory to see if I can create my own personal monastery here in the land of soccer and traffic jams.
I think what I hate about the suburbs is that it’s a land that has no history, or at least it’s designed to look that way. When I was walking around Richmond yesterday, what charmed me were the places on the red brick sidewalk where tree roots had made a giant wrinkle. I loved the rotting buildings that had no mark of any legitimate business being done except for a sign instructing packages to be delivered to the side door. I took pictures of the rusty train trestles and texted them to my wife partly because my sons love trains but partly because I find urban decay strangely beautiful. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Houston and spent most of my time there riding my bike along Braes Bayou, a concrete river covered in graffiti that carried raw sewage whose smell somehow didn’t bother me as a kid.
My favorite place though in Richmond was a little chapel big enough for maybe two people to sit in tucked away in the corner of the garden at the Richmond Hill retreat center. One of the women in the Richmond Hill community was embarrassed when I told her I had spent most of my day there because of how dusty and dirty she thought that it was. I said exactly. The concrete was crumbling a little bit. There was something green growing on the wall. It was a room with history. Richmond Hill used to be a convent in the 19th century. I have no idea when the chapel was built. But God was in that room in an ancient monastic kind of way.
On Tuesday night, I attended a centering prayer group made up of mostly 70+ year old hippie ladies and a few guys. They told me that to do centering prayer, you pick a word that describes your relationship with God to focus on and you think that word over and over again as you close your eyes and allow yourself to experience God’s presence. When your thoughts start to drift to to-do lists and other things, you bust out your word to bring it back. It actually works pretty well.
My word was “hunger.” And because of that, I felt moved to read Psalm 42, one of my favorite psalms: the one about the deer panting for the water (even though I can’t stand the tune of that song — perhaps the context in which I sang it growing up makes the whole thing trite and sing-songish). So I decided to figure out the first line in Hebrew: Kayal ta’arog al efikeh mayim; kein nafshi ta’arog elecha elohim. And that was what I used to pray.
Ta’arog means so much more than “panteth.” It is a desperate longing for something. The deer who wants this water is racing through the woods because he will die unless he drinks it. It’s not the tranquil, pastoral ambiance created by the corny hymn that we sing about it. And efikeh mayim is not just “the water.” Efikeh is the word God uses in Job in his whirlwind speech to describe the trenches at the bottom of the sea. So efikeh mayim is the deepest possible water. (Okay, confession, I did a Hebrew exegesis paper on this psalm).
Anyway, I couldn’t pray, “As the deer panteth for the water so my soul longs after you,” because that sounds like something that would be written on a Hallmark card for God that I could find in any of 20 supermarkets within a 3 mile radius of my home in suburgatory. I had to say “Kayal ta’arog al efikeh mayim; kein nafshi ta’arog elecha elohim.” And when I said that over and over as I was walking the labyrinth at Richmond Hill and sitting in that little crumbling cement chapel, I experienced the amazing fear of the Lord again in a way that I hadn’t since my Pentecostal week last September.
There’s also a refrain to Psalm 42 which says (in my translation): “Why do you dry up, my breath? And why do you stir disquiet within me? Wait upon God, for again I will praise Him whose face is salvation – My God!” In Hebrew it is “Mah tishtochachi nafshi umah tehimi alay; hochili elohim; ki od odenu; y’shuot panay velohey” (the ch is like Bach, not like cheerios). That crazy verb tishtochachi is also found in God’s whirlwind speech to Job interestingly enough, when God is talking about how he *sunk* the foundations of the world. Nafshi is often translated “my soul” but the word nefesh really means throat and it really refers to the life-force within the throat so I decided to make it breath.
When I think about a breath that “sinks” in a deer who is dying of thirst, it means that the saliva has all sunk beneath the surface of the throat which means the breath is now dried out. Imagine being in the woods exhausted from running because you are scared you will die of thirst, then stopping to catch your breath, and saying, “I will wait upon God and praise Him again (hochili elohim, ki od odenu).”
So these were the words I used to pray: these two sections of Psalm 42 along with the “Our Father” and the Jesus Prayer in Greek. I really don’t pray in other languages to be hip or anything. Somehow the words have a purity that hasn’t been spoiled by associations I make with corny hymns or other banal uses of the same words in my past. I said these phrases over and over again and somehow it took me to a pneumatological place that I haven’t been in months.
I was sitting in that little mildewy chapel. I grew quiet and then words that I didn’t know came out. I wasn’t trying to force anything. Honestly I was trying to be still, but every few moments I would have an eruption of sorts. I never know if what I’m doing is what other people are doing when they speak in tongues. I don’t think I’ll ever stop suspecting myself of putting on an act, probably because of my Baptist upbringing. I try to talk about it matter-of-factly to make it less weird. It was basically having things to say that are too emphatic for language.
I just wanted all that is ugly about me to be crucified so that I could have a purer taste of God’s presence, because He was there, but I wanted more of Him to be there. There was a moment when I saw something when I was closing my eyes. But it was like I was in a room that was dark and I was looking at a group of people from behind. It was spooky how much this resonated with what I read a few hours later in a Thomas Merton book about the medieval mystic St. John of the Cross.
According to Merton and St. John, the “visions” that people see aren’t really distinct, vivid images so much as shadows and impressions that “become” pictures through the process of narrating the experience. In my September experience, I had a vision at one point of some kind of massive temple. I can’t describe any distinguishing physical characteristic, or why I knew that it was a temple, but it was, and there was something terrifying about it.
In any case, I didn’t intend to get so autobiographical. I just thought that maybe I could hold onto what happened this week and not lose myself in the awful wasteland of suburgatory if I really do establish a regular discipline of prayer. And I’m not talking about prayer as “chatting with the man upstairs,” or going through some list of stuff to ask God for. That’s the suburban approach to prayer. It’s legit; the Bible tells us to bring our petitions before God. But the prayer that brings you into the throne room is a different sort of thing altogether.
Psalm 119:133 says, “Order my steps in your word.” That’s what the more contemplative, mystical form of prayer is about. It can make any sidewalk stroll into a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Suburgatory is the experience of reality as the utter absence of anything sacred. Everything is useful, efficient, convenient, practical, etc. Everything smiles at you, because everything you look at and listen to has the purpose of selling you something.
I’m going to try walking around in suburgatory saying the words of King David under my breath to see if it looks any different. I’m going to try taking 10 minutes at 9:00, 12:00, and 3:00, or whatever hours work to stop whatever I’m doing, light a candle, and say the same words that have been said to God in morning, noon, and evening for centuries. I hope I can find others to do these things with me because it really really makes a difference when two or more are gathered. Everything I experienced at Richmond Hill regarding prayer was rooted in the 15 minutes we took at 7 am, 12 pm, and 6 pm to gather as a community and pray together.
When that core rhythm is established, the possibility of kingdom time is created. Fasting is also essential when possible. It’s not the same to squeeze God-talk in while you’re driving or even before you go to bed at night. It needs to be a deliberate, even defiant interruption to all the uber-critical important-ness that you have going on in your life which happens at the same hour(s) every day. So who is willing to pray with me this Lent? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I want to escape suburgatory for good.