On un-prayed prayers being answered

Some revelations are dramatic and quiet at the same time. Sometimes we look so hard for solutions or healing that we almost miss the opportunity when it sidles up to us and walks with us rather than arriving with a trumpet blast. Think the after the event awareness of the road to Emmaus, Mary assuming he’s a gardener or the blind man seeing walking trees. Not all answers to prayer are even to ones we’re conscious of praying.

Late in the evening one night last week I was lying in bed reading a novel. It was the latest Shardlake novel, a series of Tudor-England set stories which are rightly praised as much for their psychological realism as their historical truthfulness and plot twists. They may wear the clothes of thrillers and crime, but underneath they are finely wrought character pieces about people you feel like you know and understand.

In the preceding novel the central character – Shardlake, a lawyer – found himself aboard the great Tudor ship the Mary Rose. This was a magnificent construction, by far the greatest English ship of its era and the pride of Henry VIII’s fleet. It sank in battle against the French, and this was where our hero found himself in the midst of one his typically brilliant stories, as personal as it was grand in scale.

The novel I was reading last week took place a year or so later. An incidental part of the narrative was that Shardlake was now clearly suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress (PTSD), though obviously that terminology wasn’t used in the book. This pricked up my ears as a medical professional I am seeing for treatment thinks I may be experiencing some PTSD in relation to a couple of things, not least the death of my friend and church member at the hands of terrorists in Nairobi a year and a half ago as well as being on the receiving end of an extended period of workplace bullying. I wondered if I might learn a thing or two.

Shardlake’s PTSD is quite different to mine; I primarily experience intense anxiety, he that (in stressful situations) the ground below him was pitching and yawing like the sinking ship had. At the point in the story I had reached, he was attending a ceremonial event at which ships were firing cannon in honour of a visitor; so intense were his flashbacks that he had to leave. On the way home he realised that so wound up had he been by the event and his flashbacks that he had never said a goodbye to the friends whom he had lost that day. The novel, in one simple paragraph, records Shardlake saying a simple goodbye in his mind, and seeing his symptoms instantly lift.

This rang an insistent, clear but gentle, bell. When our friend had died I had been necessarily busy – arranging, doing, pastoring, organising. Then I recovered. My position as pastor, as one of the ‘professionals’ at the funeral service meant that I simply never said goodbye.

So as I lay in bed, book in had, I breathed a simple goodbye in a house otherwise filled with sleep. The previously crushing anxiety didn’t completely disappear, but it did abate. A lot. A weight had lifted, and I continued with life. Which in this instant meant another couple of chapters, then sleep.

The next morning the anxiety remains, but it’s back in control, in its place.

I hadn’t been praying for release; I hadn’t been thinking about it or reading the Bible. God just graciously sidled up to me and spoke through an author who I suspect but don’t know for certain is an atheist – he’s certainly cynical and weary when it comes to religion. I, like everyone, need to say goodbye; so when the chance came when I was on one level unprepared but on another more ready than ever before.

Looking for something? Maybe you need to stop looking.

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