Though I’ve never met her in person, I’ve admired Hilary Yancey for a long time. She’s a deep thinker and a beautiful writer, and, lucky for all of us, she’s recently released her first book, Forgiving God: A Story of Faith – a memoir about becoming a mother to a child with disabilities and the impact that experience has had on her faith and on her relationship with God. I haven’t finished the book yet, because it just arrived in the mail today, but let me simply say that I picked it up while I was sitting here at my desk, read the opening few pages, and really, truly did not want to put it down. It’s a privilege to welcome Hilary to the blog today; I know you will be touched by her words.
I remember the first time I prayed with my eyes open. It was on a drive home from high school, late in the winter of my senior year. I had just gotten my driver’s license and was nervously winding my way down the same roads I had been traveling for years. I could feel the car swing into the familiar right turns and how my foot anticipated the next stop sign. But my eyes darted from side to side, my hands sweated at “10 and 2” on the steering wheel and out of my mouth slipped a decidedly complex prayer: “Lord Jesus do not let me die on this road I JUST got my license!”
I’ve always been the kind of person who prays with her eyes closed. I found it easier to concentrate on the ideas of my prayers, to imagine how they were being sent upwards and meeting Jesus in heaven. I prayed in this way to stop being distracted by the things I saw around me, by a book I wanted to read or a pile of laundry I was supposed to do. I thought that by closing my eyes I could close out the world and so through my prayers ascend somewhere else, wherever it was I thought God was.
A few years ago, my prayer life changed. I was pregnant with my first child; we’d received a challenging medical diagnosis at our 20-week ultrasound; I’d never needed to pray more. But when I closed my eyes, it was darkness. There were no feelings of ascent, no sure footing. The world had interrupted my old patterns and it was impossible to close out the world because the world had shrunk to the space of my body expanding for my son and the world was with me everywhere I went.
By the time my son was born, I had given up praying with my eyes closed; I had almost given up the practice of praying. But I walked: to and from his crib in the NICU, to and from the family lounge where doctors met with us to share further diagnoses, treatment options, to and from my bed to the shower to the hallway again, and around the outskirts of the hospital building when I would call my friend to cry. I could not speak to God directly, except to yell, and so I walked.
And my footsteps became words, they became prayers, but open-eyed prayers, prayers of pressing into the world instead of pushing away. My footsteps took me both where I hadn’t wanted to go and where it turns out I needed to, to the place of being surrounded, immersed in the very experiences I had once prayed to avoid.
I walked my son to the doors of the OR, I walked the floorboards of our house listening to the breaths in and out of his new trach, I walked us around the lobbies of his follow up clinics and through the hospital hallways too many times to count, memorizing the turns – up one floor, left then right and around to the desk where they check your ID, down the hallway, slight right to the sink and then left and then Jack, my son, is on the right – all of this walking and I emerged with prayers carved into my feet, with prayers left on those floorboards and hallway tiles, echoes of what my mind couldn’t say but my body could.
I am still at the very beginning of learning to pray. I am still working on finding a new rhythm of conversation with God. But now, when I can’t find a way to say what I mean, when I close my eyes and feel only quiet dark, I start walking. And the footsteps become words, and the words become prayers.
I turn the corner and I am somewhere new.
Hilary Yancey loves good words, good questions, and sunny afternoons sitting on her front porch with a strong cup of tea. She and her husband, Preston, and their two children, Jack and Junia, live in Waco, Texas, where Hilary is completing her PhD in philosophy at Baylor University. Her first book, Forgiving God: A Story of Faith was just published by FaithWords. You can read more of her writing on her website and follow her on Instagram at @hilaryyancey.