Shortly after we welcomed Robert as a visitor to our fledgling congregation, he told me that we were welcoming him back to the Episcopal Church as well. It was early in San Francisco’s encounter with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Robert told me he’d spent some happy years in a Quaker Meeting, but when he’d gotten his diagnosis, felt he wanted more liturgy, holy words and action. And he felt hungry for sacrament.
Robert still looked well, but in the early 1980’s before anti-retroviral therapy, we learned to expect that friends who tested HIV positive would be in health crisis in months and likely dead months later.
When Robert first told me he was HIV positive, he asked that we not pray for him publicly, and he said he wasn’t ready for me to mention it to others in the congregation. He already knew that he’d be asking for public prayers and help later.
To begin Robert had simply come to his new pastor to say, “I need your help. My doctor tells me I’m facing a death sentence, and I can’t pray.” I asked him how his prayer used to feel before the diagnosis. “I had a strong sense of God’s presence. I’d speak and feel God listening, and sometimes I’d sense God speaking to me.”
I’d learned as a spiritual director to listen for anger when people said their praying felt suddenly dry or flat. Feeling Robert’s urgency to recover a voice and heart for prayer, I simply asked him, “are you angry with God?” Robert looked startled and maybe chagrined. “What right have I got to be angry with God? God gets to do whatever God wants, I guess.”
“Robert, I’m not talking about blame or asking how you might try imagine ‘God’s will’ in this, but if I were you, I’m pretty sure I’d be feeling a lot of anger including a lot of anger at God.” We talked some about the feelings he felt free to admit, an undirected mix helplessness and anger, until he asked me, “What difference would it make for me to toss that mess back to God?”
“If it’s all you’ve got to say to God, praying your anger might give you back a voice and ear for praying,” I replied. I gave him a copy of Pierre Wolff’s little book May I Hate God? Robert flinched as he took in the title, but then he grinned a conspiratorial grin. “You could be right.”
“Robert,” I told him, “it’s a quick read. Don’t pore over it, just keep reading, and keep and eye and ear to the weather. We’re about to get a big winter storm. When it blows in, whether you’re finished reading it or not, go out to Ocean Beach and pray your anger out loud. If you’re stuck for words, try shouting one of the angry psalms Wolff recommends, but I do mean shout. Pray the psalmist words in a voice so loud that the crashing surf won’t drown you out.”
I watched and wondered when the next big storm roared in from the Pacific. Next day Robert called me back. He had been to the beach to pray. He wanted to talk more.
He seemed different when I saw him, still speaking quietly as before, but he now knew where he was going and what he wanted to say.
Just as the storm passed over us, in the final downpour with the wind still raging, he’d driven out to the beach. At first he just sat in the car, staring as the raindrops pounding on his windshield blurred the huge waves crashing against the beach. He wondered why he was doing this, or even whether he really would. Then he got out of the car, walked down close enough that he could feel waves shaking the land and he started to pace back and forth, shouting the psalm. Before Robert had finished a dozen verses, he put the psalmist’s aside. Robert’s own words began to flow. He said things that astonished him, and his voice got bigger and his words more vehement, but he didn’t stop. He ranted and shouted his rage and accusation. He got louder and louder and louder and then…he paused as he told me this…”and then, I was done. I’d said it.”
“So what difference did it make?” I asked.
He waited before speaking, smiled a little, and shook his head. “I felt heard. And I knew I could say anything and it wouldn’t shake the love of that hearing. He paused. I felt known and loved. I had no idea. When the anger was all said, I was crying, grateful tears that I could pray again.
Musician and Sufi mystic W.A. Mathieu says “Listening is loving.” Joining Robert’s story to Mathieu’s wisdom tells me something I hope for when we pray together too. Throughout the liturgy, we’re saying things to God. Maybe what we most long for isn’t that God do something for us, but that we feel and sense God’s presence with us, with our whole selves, even the parts of ourselves that frighten us or that we disapprove of. As we pray, we’re listening or feeling to know whether we’re heard.
Robert’s breakthrough liturgy was alone at the beach. God had listened to him and walked with him by the surf. So he let his new congregation listen and pray and walk with him. From that beginning he prayed through quitting his job and going on disability, through letting the congregation cook imaginatively for him as he faced more and more severe diet restrictions and became housebound, and he invited us to pray his name and offer his doctor’s specific concerns Sunday by Sunday. He prayed until he was ready to go home to die.
How can all our prayer, alone and together become as honest, unedited, and whole-hearted as Robert was shouting the psalm over the roar of the waves? What loving, listening silence could our prayer discover if we learned to forgive ourselves and simply pray the feelings we dislike and of which we disapprove?
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.