Praying the Deus ex Machina
There are these Greek monks out on a mountain on an island who do nothing but pray three words. They sing, chant, and pray three words again and again, and again without amen: Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
They pray them aggressively, desperately, not to accumulate prayers, not to score them up on a cell wall, but just to try to pray the words once, once truly. With a life of saying those words they want to pray them just once honestly, brokenly, once to possibly say the three words and receive mercy.
I can hear them, on a still day when the grayness echoes, saying without ceasing those three words end to end, throwing everything desperately at the hope of a prayer. They’re giving everything, betting everything at the chance of three words. They’ll have no lives when they’re done, no grandchildren, no hobbies, no heritage, no retirement plan. But maybe, somewhere in there, they will have said a saving prayer. Maybe they’ll have wiggled open a three-word crack to let mercy leak in.
The disciples turn to Jesus, somewhere in the wilderness at night when it’s getting cold, and they say, We’ve heard the stories, we know about fields with pearls and virgins’ lamps and wedding parties. But tell us. This is the real question: How do we pray?
Just tell us, they say, for 400 years we’ve prayed to an empty sky, for our entire history we’ve looked to the east for a coming, the rising of an answer, an interruption in the story of holocausts, repressions, defeats, diseases, oppressions and slaughters. They’ve exhaled all the words, attempted all pleas, uttered all the names of God, and they say, Okay, just tell us, just come out come out wherever you are. We give up. What’s the secret? What do we say?
You can see it there, what he told them and they wrote down like a key, written out there long hand and un-coded, open and offered and waiting to be prayed. I know a man who prayed that prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster. I mean, I’ve known lots of people who’ve prayed it here and again, but this guy prayed it prayed it. Over and over trying to get it, to say it so the power came, so God stepped out from behind, to pray it so the empty words filled like a sail before the west-blowing winds of God. He gave it a year, everything for a year and then another year, praying it in different spaces, varying paces and pauses and accents. He felt ridiculous but he kept praying. It has to work, he said, these are God’s words. God has to hear them.
But nothing happened. The words stayed open on the page and the heavens stayed closed. No deus climbed from the machina. No break appeared, no intermission, no interruption, no final act. And the story continued, unchanged.
I don’t think I memorized the Lord’s Prayer until I was 18, or maybe 17. We weren’t much on pre-prayed prayers, when I was growing up, but we had this prayer we called The Prayer. If you prayed it, it would change everything. Everyone I knew, growing up, had their version of how they’d prayed the prayer and they always in every story had to go back to that break when God broke in, that moment of that feeling of peace or burning or being washed, back to that moment when they’d said the simple words, Dear Jesus, I am a sinner… That was it, that was the prayer, taught half-spontaneous, a call and response through the four texts and when you prayed it your world was interrupted by God, you were forgiven, were redeemed, named in the book of the saved.
I have a children’s Bible, yellow hardboard cover with a picture of men in colored robes and a shaggy-headed savior Son of God wearing white and blue, and on the inside in the front it says what day it was when I prayed that prayer, The Prayer. It doesn’t list deaths, or births, marriages or baptisms, but it tells me there was a day, a date I can almost remember, when everything changed. I was sitting on the couch, seven years old and sitting on a blue couch in a track house living room with my mom and saying How then shall I pray? What are the words? What’s the way in? and my dad came from the kitchen or somewhere and gave me the prayer and we prayed.
But nothing changed, nothing happened. The sky didn’t open and my soul didn’t shake. I didn’t believe in any way I hadn’t before. I didn’t feel God, or new, or clean, and I wondered, later, if I’d said it wrong.
Jesus is there on a mountain in a desert, with his arms spread wide, reached out as far as they can go in what could be an invitation to a hug, but for the contortion of his face, the twisting of his body, the bleeding of his head. Iron nails have been thrust through his wrists, holding him there, and there he is on a mountain named for a skull being raised to die in torture, a morbid silhouette. And he doesn’t pray that prayer that he said to pray, his prayer, the perfect prayer, the one about God in heaven being our father, being holy. He sees everything from up there, sees his mother watching him naked and dying, sees a world without a crack to let a deus in, and he says, in blasphemy, in prayer, my God, oh God, why have you abandoned me?
I saw this old man, so old he was made of wrinkles, his face like a parchment crumpled for a hundred years. He sat at the stoplight stopped in traffic with the door slid open on his blue box delivery truck. Blue, it was blue like the bluest sky on a brilliant day in May, set there against the world beaten to a colorless winter shade. His door was open, his plaid coat over plaid shirt against the cold coming down and he had a skinny scrawny leg stuck out on the brake and the other stretched out down to the clutch pedal. His right arm was reached out resting on the gear stick, left arm slung up over the wheel, a little wrinkled plaid-wearing man with his hands and feet pulled to the four corners.
He stared out to the sky, waiting for the light to change, for the traffic to break, for the day to end. And somehow, looking at him on the high seat through the open door, looking at that blue accident of color in a day of gray, I thought I heard a hundred stranded monks praying accidentally answered prayers, thought I believed mercy might still somehow breach the unbreachable sky and thought, Somehow, it’s going to be okay.