Praying With Tears by Kimberlee Conway Ireton

“The noun torah comes from a verb, yarah, that means to throw something, a javelin, say, so that it hits its mark. The word that hits its mark is torah… As we prepare to pray, to answer the words God addresses to us, we learn that all of God’s words have this characteristic: they are torah and we are the target.”

—Eugene Peterson, Answering God

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I sit on the sofa in a circle of lamplight. Night presses on the windowpanes. Cold seeps through them. But the heat rattles in the registers, and I am cozy under a fleece blanket.

The house is quiet. Everyone else is asleep. The stars have aligned tonight and given me a moment of silence, alone in asleeping house in the dark of a midwinter night.

My Bible lies open on my lap. I am praying through the Psalms again, morning and (when I can manage it) night. Tonight I read Psalm 11:

In the Lord I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Flee like a bird to your mountain,
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”

On the one hand, the poetry moves me—the image of the bird and the bow, the arrow on the loose, the destroyed foundations. On the other hand, the reality of the image hits a little closer to home than I would like.

These past six months I have been writing a memoir about my postpartum year with twins, a year marked by the darkest days I have ever known. Revisiting that dark time has been healing, of course, a chance to make sense of my experience, to see how God has redeemed it. But it also raises a lot of questions, questions for which I don’t have answers, questions like the Psalmist’s in this psalm: if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

In the darkness of my postpartum experience, I felt like the foundations of my life, of my self were being eroded and destroyed. And what do you do when you are no longer the person you’ve always believed yourself to be, when your faith—and therefore your identity—is shaken and you’re clinging to it by your fingernails and you know there’s a wicked something-or-other out there with a bow and an arrow trained on your grasping fingers?

Wrapped in my blanket, I shiver a little. But I am not ready to go to bed. The silence is rich, alive somehow, the circle of lamplight comforting, though I know the darkness presses at the edge of my sight. I flip through the pages of my Bible and stop at John 10. I’m not sure why, really, but I think the Good Shepherd story might cheer me, might remind me whose I am, and send that bow-wielder back to the dark from whence he came.

I read the Good Shepherd story. It’s a wonderful story, really, but so familiar as to cease to amaze. A pity, that. But I keep reading, past the space break in my Bible with its bold heading to show that we’re moving on to a new topic. Only we aren’t. Jesus is still talking about sheep. He says,

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

And suddenly, I am weeping. I read those words again and again, like a woman dying of thirst who has stumbled upon a spring. But this spring is inside of me, and I didn’t even know it was there. The tears keep coming, and I don’t even know why I’m crying. Something in those words released something in me, and it’s flowing down my cheeks.

Later, I will talk about this with my spiritual director, and she will help me see that these words touched a deep place of fear in me, the fear in which I lived during my postpartum darkness, the fear that I would cease to be, that I would never see my children again. These words of Jesus promise that life is forever, that I will never perish, that my children will never perish, that nothing and no one can snatch us from the hand of God. And I will say that I know that, that I have even written words to that effect before, many times. I will say I don’t know why this time they got through my intellectual filters and stabbed me right in my heart.

But for now, sitting on the sofa in a circle of quiet, I have yet to think those thoughts. I only know that Jesus’ words have stirred something deep in me, and though I don’t understand why, I also know that these are healing tears, tears of release and return and redemption. And I am grateful. Grateful for the words. Grateful for the tears. Grateful for God’s grace that would prompt me to read a familiar passage again and speak through it words I didn’t even know I needed to hear.

“Prayer,” Eugene Peterson says, “begins in the senses, in the body.” If that is so, then this night, I am praying as truly as I know how.

Post and photos by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, general misfit, mother of four, and author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.