Why I Pray

by Paula Huston |

Many years ago, easily 20 by now, I began having experiences of light—these, during a particularly dark and grueling time, and after nearly two decades of calling myself an atheist. They came unbidden, and there were only a handful of them. but they were real enough to move me from angry non-belief to tearful Surrender.

The first happened in my kitchen. I was kneading bread and mulling over my many problems when suddenly the room began to fill with a gentle light. I looked toward the window, assuming it was some trick of sun and clouds and time of day, but this was not the case. Meanwhile, as I stood there with my hands sunk in warm dough, I saw that the butcher-block, the double sink, and the wooden cupboards around me were becoming drenched in gold. I froze, waiting for whatever might happen next.

Nothing. Instead, after minutes or perhaps only seconds—weirdly, time had stopped too— the light began to drain from the air as quietly as it had appeared.

Does such an event come out of the blue? No, surely not. For months before, I’d been restless and disturbed by what felt dangerously close to a resurgence of religious longing. But
I had so very many reasons to resist: a broken marriage, secret guilt, vengeful thoughts, disgust at the very notion of an all-powerful, purely loving God who could prevent suffering but chose not to. Inside me, armies clashed in the night.

But then came the visitation of the light, followed by waves of relief and a dawning hope. Within weeks, I was reading Tolstoy’s Confession, and soon after, found myself weeping in the middle of the night while a steamroller crushed me under the weight of new, unwelcome self- knowledge. At the end of all this Sturm und Drang, I emerged, exhausted but freed from the stubborn tentacles of resistance. Still frail, still bemused, but a Christian once again.

Some months later, I had a second experience of the light, this time while walking in the countryside with a young friend. Again, time stopped and the air seemed to tremble with expectation. I looked down at the skipping child beside me, happily oblivious to what was going

Despite the insouciant bravado of contemporary atheism— and for years I was one of its most adamant proponents— the atheist adventure, sad to say, has no final destination except the crumbling edge of the abyss. Those who do not realize this have simply not yet traveled far enough along the path.

on but nevertheless gold as an icon. Then the wave passed over us and was gone.

If the first experience brought with it private self-revelation leading to reconversion, the second was prophetic: this little girl would eventually be lured into the dark byways of hell, trying to kill herself with alcohol, prescription drugs, knives, and finally cocaine. After years
of rehab, she would live with us for a time, and then fail again. I would grieve and grow angry and plead her cause before God as though she were a daughter of my own flesh. But thanks to the light, at the deepest level lay peace, for no matter what else happened to her, I knew she was riding on the wings of angels.

Why these particular manifestations and not some other phenomenon? And why, after a third and equally overwhelming experience six years later, did they stop, apparently never to return?

Interior of the Church at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA. Courtesy of Paula Huston

I believe these floods of luminosity helped armor me against the soul-killing temptation
of nihilism, which at that time constituted my gravest danger. Despite the insouciant bravado of contemporary atheism—and for years I
was one of its most adamant proponents—
the atheist adventure, sad to say, has no final destination except the crumbling edge of the abyss. Those who do not realize this have simply not yet traveled far enough along the path.

Christ is called the light of the world because “what came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:3–4). Nihilism, so attractive in our time because of the false freedom it seems to offer, cannot prevail against this light which has the power to flood the darkest spider holes. I believe these light phenomena were meant to wake
me from my complacent slumber, and once I grasped what was happening to me, there was no longer the need for them.

Instead, prayer became my lamp. Though there are hundreds of reasons to pray—
for guidance, for sustenance, for courage,
for a cessation of suffering, in praise and thanksgiving, in awe—two in particular have been most important to me. One is directly linked to my identity as a child of God, and the other to my particular place within a vast spiritual realm.

During that long-ago night in which I
felt myself being crushed under the weight
of compunction, things had never looked so grim. Could there be a bigger sinner than I? Yet by dawn, and even in the face of this woeful revelation, something else had taken hold: the conviction that hidden within me was a pearl of great price, a mysterious purity unsullied by the cartload of dross lying heaped upon it. And that God was waiting there to meet me.

Later, I would find validation for this notion in Julian of Norwich’s bold declaration, “In every soul to be saved is a godly will that
has never consented to sin, in the past or in the future.”1 Despite our indisputable propensity to evil, she was convinced, some part of us remains inviolate. Thomas Merton concurred: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion....This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”

This virgin point, he taught, is the nexus between what is human and what is divine. When we pray truly and honestly and, as St. Paul urges us, unceasingly, we hold open the portal to that place. When we stop praying, as we do when we become discouraged or weary or full of doubts, we quickly forget this connection exists and go back to living on the surface.

The 20th-century Cistercian, Andre Louf, uses a different image to describe this portal of prayer. Inside us, he says, lies a spring covered by a stone. It is not until we become conscious of the quiet babble of water—the ongoing

The second reason I pray is as a way of keeping vigil, of watching and waiting for the faint signs and indicators that point me toward my purpose. As the Camaldolese monk Bede Healy puts it, “To keep vigil is to maintain a state of poised alertness to the surrounding spiritual environment,”3 which, unless we truly concentrate, remains mostly silent and invisible.

prayer taking place beneath the surface of our distracted lives—that the stone falls away and the living water that Jesus describes comes gushing forth in all its wild beauty.

When I tap into this interior center of purity and communion with God, I know who I am—no longer a spiritually blind cave fish, but a creature of the light.

But I also need to discover why I am here, what my place and purpose might be within the kingdom.

Paula Huston and Father Bernard Massicotte on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean at New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, CA. Courtesy of Mike Huston

Thus, the second reason I pray is as a way of keeping vigil, of watching and waiting for
the faint signs and indicators that point me toward my purpose. As the Camaldolese monk Bede Healy puts it, “To keep vigil is to maintain a state of poised alertness to the surrounding spiritual environment,”3 which, unless we truly concentrate, remains mostly silent and invisible.

Prayer, however, sharpens spiritual hearing and vision. When I am in a state of prayer, I am focused on the subtle spiritual rustlings going on around me. Often the messages seem prosaic: go visit your father-in-law this morning, call Karen, sit Annie down for a talk. At times, however, they involve life-and-death issues: Chris is
doing drugs again, Ted is suicidal, get yourself
to a doctor. I am nudged along mysterious routes I never would have taken on my own. Only later—sometimes years later—can I see the significance of these seemingly unrelated happenings.

Keeping vigil through prayer led me to my third and final experience of the light. For more than a year, I was plagued by a diffuse restlessness that had no obvious cause; I loved my husband and college-age children, and I
was happy to be teaching literature and creative writing at the local university, so what was the problem? Only when I looked at this mysterious unease through the lens of prayer did it start to come clear; I was being called on pilgrimage. Eventually, I heeded that call, setting out for two long months alone around the world.

Partway through the trip, I found myself inside the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As I knelt beside the stone slab that once held the body of Christ, the tomb began to fill with the same delicate golden light I’d witnessed twice before. And I knew that, once again, I was being urged into new spiritual territory.

Julian’s beautiful words sum up best what I learned during those light-drenched moments in the tomb: “I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us; and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall. In this love all his works have been done, and in this love he has made everything serve us; and in this love our life is everlasting.”

 

Endnotes


  1. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), 118.
  2. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1989), 158
  3. Bede Healy, from a retreat offered at New Camaldoli Hermitage, February 5, 2010.
  4. Revelations 212.
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