prayers lean upward on the dark

Posted by on March 31, 2010


From A Timbered Choir, by Wendell Berry:

A man is lying on a bed
in a small room in the dark.
Weary and afraid, he prays
for courage to sleep, to wake
and work again; he doubts
that waking when he wakes
will recompense his sleep.
His prayers lean upward
on the dark and fall
like flares from a catastrophe.
He is a man breathing the fear
of hopeless prayer, prayed
in hope. He breathes the prayer
of his fear that gives a light
by which he sees only himself lying
in the dark, a low mound asking
almost nothing at all.
And then, long yet before dawn,
comes what he had not thought:
love that causes him to stir
like the dead in the grave, being
remembered–his own love or
Heaven’s, he does not know.
But now it is all around him;
it comes down upon him
like a summer rain falling
slowly, quietly in the dark.

*  *  *

Since last September my husband, in the third year of a five-year PhD program, has been diligently preparing to take his written and oral comprehensive exams. Finally, in the middle of this March, they came and went. Thankfully, he was prepared, he passed, and relief and joy followed in the wake of the stress and adrenaline surrounding this trial (just in time for Holy Week, I might add). I was proud of him because I could tell that he had prepared so well. But still there was a certain helplessness involved in this experience, and now, in retrospect, I realize that these exams are not the kind of “test” that “good students” do not need to fear because they are such good students. They are intentionally agonizing so as to function as an initiation rite into a more serious phase of the PhD program. At least, that is my best interpretation.

Worthy or not, ready or not, the tunnel that he had to enter was still a dark and scary one. I witnessed him enter and come out on the other side. Watching him withdraw into that narrow place was an ordeal of sorts for me too, although, of course, a much lesser one. He was not as mentally available for conversation as usual, and our family routine has not been normal for some time–something we both really hate. He was quiet and distracted and sometimes just spaced out during the three days of the written portion. Perhaps even our girls experienced their own uncomprehending versions of daddy’s exam days. There was an instance when he told Esme he would pour her some milk. I watched as he fixed her a sippy cup of water instead and set it down distractedly in front of her. A few hours later I found the milk sitting out on the counter. He was obviously preoccupied, thinking of Ephraim the Syrian, or–I couldn’t say what. It wasn’t my particular dark tunnel.

But only a year ago, at the end of March, I went through that harrowing tunnel of childbirth, while Jeff stood by. I won’t revisit that, since it is all covered in the archives of this blog. And anyway, it is so distant from me now. Spring is here; that baby will soon turn one. She is interested in the contents of drawers and cabinets. She cheerfully pulls my dish towels onto the kitchen floor; she feeds herself blueberries in her high chair and claps a lot just for the sake of clapping.

Between these two Easters, two Aprils, I could cite other notable dark dips, followed by bright hilltops in the life of our family. It’s true: life is a series of small deaths and resurrections.

Lent is almost over now. Church is going to wear us out between now and Easter, I imagine. Over and under all the formal and corporate prayers, though, there is, for me at least, that private prayer that sometimes brings me out to my rocking chair in the middle of the night, wrapped in a blanket, wakeful, thoughtful, and aware of a sense of yearning inside myself that is old and not really placated by marriage, motherhood, or friendship. I always imagine that this particular yearning is the force behind the entire Psalter. “We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken and we have escaped.” That line stood out to me from the Presanctified Liturgy on Holy Tuesday. It has the ring of absolute disbelief from the perspective of the bird.

I learned once that patients who undergo operations are much more likely to come out of their anesthesia and recover if they have someone waiting for them to wake up after the surgery. Patients who have no one waiting for them are less likely to make it. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who has made heaven and earth,” the Psalm continues.

I hope I will meet the beloved on the other side of all of these horrible tunnels. Even so, when I come out into daylight, I may still feel the need, like the bird, to blink in disbelief.

Posted in: Poetry Wednesday
  1. Jenny Schroedel
    April 1, 2010


    I was so delighted to see that you'd posted today. I love the idea of life as passing through tunnels, frightening, though they be. The poem is beautiful. I had to read it a few times to digest it, and even now my mind is going back to it. I think I love most the line about him stirring in the grave like the dead, being remembered….and also the image of the soft rain. There is this awakening to life, to love, to hope, that comes after the dark tunnel.

  2. Marfa
    April 1, 2010

    Beautifully written. Congratulations to your husband…it must be a relief. I like how you put it…the test is the kind that is not really testing knowledge! Those always made me very anxious. I wish you a good Holy Week and a bright and joyous Pascha!

  3. amber
    April 3, 2010

    "It's true: life is a series of small deaths and resurrections." Of course I agree with this, it seems to be my life's motto. I love reading your posts. I love the way you weave things together–tunnel, birth, death, bird blinking in the sunlight.

    On another note entirely, I dreamt last night that you published a book about your "theological journey" and that you sent a copy to Fr John Behr, forcing him to acknowledge your theological prowess. I think you really should write a book, although it may be unnecessary to send it to Behr.

  4. Julia
    April 4, 2010

    Amber, you crack me up. If I ever write a book, I will have to send a signed copy to Fr. John. Maybe he would find it very useful as kindling for a fire. Or he could tear out the pages for a paper mache project, or something like that.

  5. anna j
    April 7, 2010

    Dear Julia–
    Several comments you made resonated deeply with my own recent journey of self and saviour-discovery . . . but that conversation belongs in a late-night chat over glasses of wine–not in a blogger comment 🙂
    One thing that was particularly interested to me, mentioning Easter is that I got to participate in my own little bit of Greek Orthodox tradition [briefly noted on my blog], coming as a complete surprise to me. I couldn't help but take it to mean that I needed to reconnect with you SOON, somewhere, somehow . . . 🙂
    love, anna