How I Pray Now

I figure the shelf life of this article, published in the September issue of New Covenant, is just about over, so it’s okay to put it up here. The column, written by a different person each issue, is a regular feature of the magazine.

I wrote my contribution in June, which explains the specifics of the “now” in question, but , believe me, not a thing has changed in the past few months.

The question is…how do I pray now?

If by “now,” we mean – this very moment, or close to it, that’s easy. I’ve got it covered.

A young man who used to be a boy and before that was a baby stands in a driveway under the hot Florida sun. His dull gray 1985 Dodge Colt is filled to bursting with boxes.

According to my plan, my son would have been spending the past week sorting through his possessions and packing. But who cares what I think. He finally got around to it this morning, studying his posters, his sports card collection and his video games and then looking helplessly at me.

“What should I take?” he asked, over and over.

I understood then that his reluctance to pack wasn’t simple sloth. It was the hesitation any of us feel when it’s time to move on. We want to go, we know it’s for the best, but we can’t imagine life without the old stuff, the familiar habits, the well-worn chair.

What should we take?

He got through it, though, and we’ve filled his car with all of those boxes, a couple of suitcases, his basketball and the thin yellow comforter that has been on his bed since he was five.

For years, I have been deeply conversant with the paths my son trod. He lived in my house, I saw his friends regularly, I knew their parents. I was friends with some of his teachers and even taught in the high school he attended for a time. (Poor boy.) We eat dinner together almost every night. Our house is small, so paths cross frequently. He knows his room is always open for my inspection and at least once a day, I turn from my computer to see him flopped on my bed, ready to tell me the latest sports news flash that I’m not interested in but pretend to be anyway.

His destination – the city where he’ll be enrolling in college and starting summer school in a week or so – is not unknown to me either.

He’ll be living with my parents during the summer term, sleeping in my old bed and working at the grocery store down the street. He’ll be taking a couple of classes at the same university I attended. In the fall he’ll move into a dorm on campus, a dorm I never lived in but passed every day and visited frequently. He’ll go to Mass at the same Newman Center I practically lived at for four years. He’d better.

And there’s cheap long distance, and there’s e-mail.

But still.

This is it. From this point on, I will see my oldest son at best a few times a year.

I won’t know his friends, I won’t see his homework, I won’t be able to look up from my work at, say, two-fifteen in the afternoon and think – “Okay, he’s in seventh period now, he said he was going to Eli’s house after school for a little while, so he should be home around five.”

To be completely honest, there is a sense of relief at the edges of all this. My oldest is extremely high-maintenance, living in a home filled with introverts. He and I have argued at least once a day since he was eight. Part of him has been straining to move on forever, restless for something – I don’t know what and neither does he – that fulfills him, that simply isn’t to be found here.

But part of him can’t bear the thought of leaving. Standing at his car now, he is grinning gamely, but a week ago, he sat with me, fighting tears. He was just so scared. Of everything. Of not being able to cope academically, of not making friends, of missing us. He didn’t want to go.

But he’s going. In about two minutes, he’ll start the car and he’ll drive away.

His little sister is crying. She’s been crying since I picked her up at school and told her that when we got home, her brother would be ready to leave.

His younger brother isn’t crying. He’s busy mentally already moving into his older brother’s big room, a task which he will complete in about a fourth of the time it took the previous resident to clear out. He’s holding a camera, taking pictures.

I make him put the camera down for a minute, and the four of us gather in a little circle. We pray for our oldest son, our oldest brother, that God will guide him on his journey and give him support and comfort in the upcoming months. Amen.

There’s one more hug. A key turns, an engine sputters to life, and he’s gone.

And I start praying. Really hard this time.

I simply don’t know what else to do.

I had the same feeling a few months back when my younger son took a spring break class trip to Paris. The trip had been planned for months, and I hardly thought two seconds about it. I wrote the checks, went to the meetings, got the passport and the traveler’s checks, but I let the traveler himself decide what to pack and how he would spend his time. I didn’t worry at all.

But then, as I drove away from the airport and a big plane – his plane – flew over me, I was seized with panic and helplessness. What kind of a horrible mother was I? My fourteen-year old son was traveling thousands of miles to a foreign country without me? And I was just letting him go?

So I prayed.

Now I have to tell you that intercessory prayer and I have always had a rather tenuous relationship. I’ve always done it, of course, but with varying degrees of faith in what I was doing. I’ve prayed for my children constantly, but the truth is, the core of my faith practice was formed in the fabulous post-Vatican II era, and you know what that means. I was trained to find my center and discover the spiritual resonance in James Taylor songs, but hardly a word was said about formal prayer and less about intercessory prayer. For years, I labored spiritually under the impression that intercessory prayer was rather childish and not what the progressive Catholic girl should be up to, and that’s hard to shake.

Plus, I’m a natural skeptic. Whatever the message -- my child reports he’s finished his chores, my husband tells me I look nice – my instinctive response is, “Oh, yeah?”

So for years, the matter of intercessory prayer has tied me in knots. I desperately want to have an easy reliance on it, and I know I should, considering Jesus tells us to do it with confidence, and, well, He should know. But my brain can’t settle the issues. Doesn’t all of this make God’s actions somehow contingent on our actions? Is that consistent with God’s nature? Isn’t intercessory prayer somehow both an act of trust, but distrust too? You’re trusting that God will answer, but aren’t you also saying that you don’t trust Him to take care of things without being told? I just don’t understand, and intellectually, more often than not, I don’t see the point.

Then my son drives away.

There’s nothing left I can do to take care of him anymore. But I still want to. And oh my God, I still have to.

So that’s how I pray. Now.

I sent a copy of New Covenant to Christopher in the beginning of September. When we talked a few days later, he thanked me and said that it was (of course) “cool.”

So – I asked, unnecessarily – you read it –

“Three times,” he admitted.

When I wonder how he’s doing, if he’s managing to balance all the demands of his new life, and worry, above all, what he’s doing to cope, I think of that.

He read it three times.

And I wonder if somewhere in that little fact, there lies – dare I say it? – an answer to a prayer.

Amy Welborn

Originally published in the September 2000 issue of New Covenant magazine.