Mired in grief, a writer finds a measure of peace in a desert chapel.
How do I begin writing about prayer when I have not felt like praying?
It’s not that I’m angry at God. It’s not that I’m indifferent to prayer. But sometimes there’s a heaviness to suffering that only silence can hold. There are times when words fall short. Instead of rising from my lips, as my prayers once did, now they sink like stones, collecting on the ocean floor of my family’s pain. The tide betrays a rocky shore, remnants of my efforts, all those sunken words. In the morning, I’ll cast them into the ocean again. Grief, in this sense, is pure mysticism.
There is a weight to my words because my mom passed away unexpectedly last February. She was 60 years old—healthy with no existing medical conditions. But her pure and loving heart stood no match against a cardiac arrhythmia that took her in her sleep.
Just a few months before, we were dancing on my wedding day, all three of her and Dad’s children to be married within the same year. We felt that her best days awaited her, before a seeming glitch in the grand design stole her away.
As I write this, having found out two days ago that my wife and I will be having a child, I am simultaneously filled with wonder over the miracle of life and with a deep ache that just one more year with my mom would have fulfilled her dream of becoming a grandmother.
Some dreams will never be. There is no why, no explanation, no resolve. These are our own crucifixions. So, what does prayer look like when words fall short, in the anguish of our own Garden of Gethsemane? What happens when our words sink into a dense expanse and are coughed up with the tide?
Last summer, my wife and I finally went on our long-awaited honeymoon that the pandemic delayed. One day, the blazing sun in Sedona, Arizona, rose above the red rocks and invited us to a day of hiking. We soon discovered that surrounding wildfires had forced authorities to close the parks and trails.
We drove around dismayed, then saw a sign for a placed called the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Why not check it out? Our day’s plans had been derailed anyway. When we walked into the chapel overlooking the red rock buttes and scorching sandstone, not even the scrambling tourists and blatant disregard for “no photos” signs in the chapel could drown my awe.
As beautiful as the chapel and its location were, what captured my gaze was the 30-foot bronze crucifix raised high. It was almost as if Jesus’ broken body flowed downward into the golden trunk of a tree that climbed upward. Its branches stretched above Christ’s head, adorned with 12 leaves, paralleling St. Bonaventure’s image of the Tree of Life. Here was paradise and trauma intertwined, victory and horror colliding, Eden and Golgotha flowing outward into this very moment in time. Somehow, it was enough.
We sat in a pew, somewhat distracted by the couple taking a selfie at the crucifix as if it were a national monument.
“Should we light a candle for your mom?” my wife eventually asked.
“Yeah,” I said, rising to my feet.
I lit the wick of a votive candle. My wife held my arm, “Do you want to say a prayer?”
“No,” I responded. I did not have the words.
Somewhat self-conscious that I could not even offer up a prayer for my own mother, we exited the chapel. I stopped when I saw a humble green statue that no one seemed to notice. It was St. Francis, always seeming to show up in my weakest moments, perhaps because he realized poverty made us strong in Christ.
Francis, one of the few saints depicted without a book or scroll in his hands, did his own kind of Lectio Divina before the crucifix. So did his spiritual sister, St. Clare, most notably before the San Damiano Cross. I could not utter a word in that chapel, yet I was taking part in a great Franciscan tradition without realizing it.
Sometimes icons, symbols, nature, and art can take us where words cannot. We read them by allowing them to read us. This, I think, is its own kind of prayer. On the way down the mountain, having felt something in my soul that had been mostly numb since February, I took a photo of the chapel.
My camera captured something I hadn’t noticed in the glare of the sun: a sun dog bending over the chapel, almost like an eye gazing outward toward the heavens. I look at the photo often. It reminds me of the bronze crucifix and its outward gaze upon my life, as the cross somehow contains all the prayers I cannot yet pray.
A Prayer of Silent Trust
Suffering Christ, even when I
cannot feel you, I trust you are
near. When I do not have the
words, or when the words I
pray fall short of what I mean,
I trust you pray them for me. I
may not have the words, but I
offer you my gaze.