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When the inner demons clamor, get on board a raft of prayer


This spring in Minnesota has been perfect for ducks and gardens. The gentle rain nudges lilacs toward bloom and helps settle the young perennials I’ve just transplanted. As long as the sun puts in his appearance at least once a week, I’ll take the rain.

It’s easy to sing the praises of this kind of precipitation: it nourishes backyard gardens, makes farmers happy and, best of all, offers us all an excuse to lie on the porch and nap to its lullaby patter instead of mowing the lawn. It’s a gift from God, this springtime element that brings forth ”all this juice and all this joy,” to use a Gerard Manley Hopkins phrase.

So I don waterproof boots and tote my umbrella to walk the dog, who, perhaps wisely, doesn’t seem to mind getting wet at all.

A rain in late spring holds not only the promise of full summer but the inevitability of autumn. In one whiff of wet earth, I detect the whole cycle of seasons. At once I know Hopkins’ delight in the newness of spring and the innocence of young souls, jaded summer when promise peaks and autumnal fading awaits its turn, then the silence of winter, and round again to the merest glint of promise: If a frigid white February gets too oppressive, at least spring is coming.

A friend and I just discussed turning 40; I’m not there yet, he’s just faced it. He is somewhat disturbed that he’s not quite where he’d imagined he’d be at this age, though from my purview, he is an accomplished man with many gifts and many friends, a clear sense of values and an abiding faith.

Yet he speaks of “groundlessness,” a Buddhist concept that there is no certainty, there will never be definite answers to all the questions we have, from “Should I give a buck to this beggar?” to, “Is there an afterlife?” Sometimes the inner demons will not be placated.

Forget Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to “live the questions,” I want a yes or no and I want it now. Because we’re not in the spring of our lives any more: It’s summer turning the corner to autumn, a long glorious autumn though it may be.

But now, as my dog, Luna, and I splash through puddles, avoiding low branches heavy with drops, I think, “prayer.” It is the only answer to the ground shifting beneath us, an ark in the flood of personal and world matters that can crack even the solidest foundation.

So I pray for people who’ve asked for prayers, people whose whole life cycle is presented to them with each surgery, each round of chemotherapy, each unforeseen turn of fate. I ask the God of life-giving spring water -- who is the same God of frozen water driven by angry winds, snowfall turned to avalanche, of too much water in flood and hurricane -- to be with a friend dealing with cancer of the fallopian tube, whose first treatments seem to have been effective but who is now dealing with recurrent, unidentifiable pain.

I pray for a former neighbor and her husband, newly diagnosed with bladder cancer, which seems operable. He is an artist, a heavy smoker, an introvert. I pray for the people in Kosovo, and in gratitude for relief workers, war protesters and people of conscience. I pray for strangers I glimpse crossing the street as I imagine their troubles.

I pray to the God of holy water and tears about my own anger with my perpetually tardy daughter, a plea for grace and patience when she simply will not put one sock on after the other, the most banal of tasks that would ensure her readiness to leave the house and get into the car to go to school.

I’ve talked with her teacher, who has independently noticed the same phenomenon. When I say something dumb like “hurry up,” my child looks up with a poker face, and deliberately turns back to the task at hand, whether putting on socks or applying toothpaste to a toothbrush. The teacher and I refer to it clinically as “the slow thing.” It is maddening and it is hard not to hold this quirk against my daughter, to honor her own pace that will not be hurried.

Spring rains and summer thunderstorms will come whether we’re ready or not, never mind that we’ve scheduled a barbecue, an outdoor wedding or a camping trip. Midlife comes, too, with all its self-doubts, medical catastrophes and ongoing debates about such crises as changing waistlines, hairlines, careers -- or socks. My prayers alone may not be able to change the world. But maybe our collective prayers -- desperate or measured, silent or voiced, formal, impromptu, liturgical, private, hesitant, practiced -- are the boat that keeps us upright and afloat, and that’s enough to ask for.

Maybe the answer to groundlessness is to let go of the dock and float downriver on a raft of prayer until the waters recede and you touch Mother Earth once more.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999