My friend, my mentor, the man sharing a meal with me, looks across the table and asks me, “What are you praying for right now?”
I just shared with him the whole ugly, tragic story of my family member’s deep journey into mental illness. I look down at my burrito and make some discouraged gesture. “Just to get through the day, I guess.” I look up and catch his gaze. “It feels so weird to be going about my normal life, going to work, eating lunch, when someone I love so much is on the edge of catastrophe all the time. I really want to be able to help – but I just don’t think I can, not in any real way.”
He’s looking at me intently, compassionately. “Yeah. I think you’re right. He needs help – but it can’t come from you. Not this time.”
As with so many times when we talk, I find myself relaxing because he gets it – gets why I’m struggling with this. A lot of people have been counseling me to just put this person’s problems out of my mind. They’re not my problems – he can and will make his own decisions, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
And they’re right, but there’s also more to it than that. There’s the ache of not-rightness, of just missing him, and there’s also something more: the injustice of a world where someone in the depths of mental illness seems to have nowhere to turn.
We talk about the poor a lot at the church where my mentor and I both worship. The need to stand in solidarity with the poor; God’s preferential option for the poor. Now the poor suddenly, vividly, means someone in my family, and I don’t know how to care for him, and I don’t know who will. On a profound level, this is my problem, because it’s God’s problem.
My mentor suggests I pray about this tension. Put this whole mystery into God’s hands. Pray for God to bridge that chasm between this person and the help he needs to survive. And pray that I will find some way to help, even if it’s not what anyone would have expected.
As always, I come away from our meeting feeling fed in more ways than one. I feel my burden lightened because I’ve been reminded that I’m not carrying it alone – that God does care and will stand with the one I love. And maybe I can too, in some way I can’t yet see at all.
A few Sundays later at our church, the homily is about the practice of meditative prayer. This is odd, because our wonderful priest rarely talks about personal spirituality. He almost always talks about the societal dimensions of the Gospel: nonviolently resisting empire, building God’s kingdom and living there instead. But today the Scripture speaks about Elijah hearing the still small voice, and Father Bob speaks about how beautiful, how essential it is to silently sit in God’s presence.
Suddenly I sit up and take notice. There it is: an answer to my prayer. That is something I can do for my loved one: I can sit in God’s presence and let God rub off on me, little by little.
I can’t love this person properly when all I can see is his illness, my own hopeless inadequacies, overwhelming darkness. But I can ask for God’s perspective on the situation, God’s ability to love through anything. Sitting in silence, I can learn to listen for that still, small voice eclipsing all the drama of fire and winds and earthquakes.
And when I soak up God’s love, it can’t help but spill over from me into the lives of all my family and friends.
So please, friends, pray for me that I’ll have the courage and self-discipline to continue seeking God’s face in prayer. It’s so tempting for me to seek distractions instead. Those have their place, but ultimately they don’t provide me with the real joy I need to counterbalance the pain of my current reality. I need to honor this answered prayer, turning my heart to the One who is my help.