The Desert House of Prayer
April 22, 1999
Sitting in the chapel, watching through the large window behind the altar as sun rises over saw-toothed mountains, splashing light over cactus—prickly pear, cholla, barrel, a saguaro—as well as sage, creosote, and mesquite bushes. The air is full of doves, cardinals and pyrrhuloxia, wrens, thrushes, and house finches. Just outside the window, a scrawny rabbit hops out of some sagebrush and down a path toward the guesthouses.
I’ve left Maine’s mud season behind, but not my ongoing anxieties. Last night, as the wind rattled windows and coyotes howled like elementary kids on a playground, I continued wrestling with God, with Jesus, and with what I should do with my life after leaving the high school classroom—all compounded by yesterday’s news from Colorado.
I suppose the lesson here is that even on retreat you can’t escape the world. I’d gone for a walk through the Saguaro National Park, hiking along washes through red cliffs sentineled with saguaro, expecting any minute to run into John Wayne leading a cavalry troop singing “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” returning from my reverie to find Mary Lee in tears as she told me of the shooting of 25 high school students by two of their classmates. Violating my resolution to avoid reading the newspaper while on retreat, I read of the horror show that was Columbine, imagining the scene—the baggy pants, the hats worn backwards—seeing I don’t know how many students I’ve had over the past thirty years, either dead or wounded or pulling the trigger.
This morning, unable to sleep, I’ve come to the chapel to sit in front of the butcher block altar and the candles in their wrought-iron holders, and wait for 7:00 a.m. and morning prayer and to look out the window and wait for some kind of answer, some kind of serenity.
The sun has crept over the mountains, setting the top of the giant saguaro aglow. All of a sudden I’m not looking at a cactus in the desert, but at a birch tree swaying in the wind, and I’m sitting in front of another altar, staring through another window, this one overlooking the Penobscot River in Bangor, Maine.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with my daughter this week. Oh, she’s been here, sort of like the sky overhead, but, two thousand miles away from home, wrestling with this other stuff, I haven’t paid much attention to her. Now, however, I think of the November day a month or so before she died, when I discovered the chapel in the Eastern Maine Medical Center.
It had been a particularly ugly day in Room 436. Laurie developed a fever of 102°, Mary Lee’s latest letter complained about bouncing a check, I’d argued with Laurie’s mother, who wanted me to complain to our daughter’s primary physician about one of the nurses.
When I left Laurie and my ex-wife to go back to the Ronald McDonald House, I took the elevator as usual, but, still upset about the day, got off on the wrong floor. Just as I realized my mistake, I found myself in front of a door marked with a small brass sign: “Chapel.” I didn’t know the hospital had one. Tentatively I turned the doorknob and walked in. The first thing I saw was a large round window framed by brown, gold, blue, and red glass behind the altar, looking out over the river. Along the riverbanks, a large birch tree metronomed in the wind. I felt as if I were looking at an animated stained glass window.
I lit two pillar candles on the altar, sat down in the front row of chairs, and stared out the window at the rushing water. This room seems so quiet, I thought. Even in Laurie’s single room at the end of the hall, there was always a steady undercurrent of noise from machines or voices in the hall or near-by TV sets. Here, there was only the beating of my heart and the word “Why?” pounding in my head. Why couldn’t anything be done to make my daughter more comfortable? Why did she have to get sick in the first place? Why was she dying?
I stared into the circle of stained glass. The window blurred. Wet flakes of snow lathered the glass, turning the circle white, scouring me to bone. The candles on either side of the altar seemed to glow more brightly, their light dancing. As I watched, the flames seemed to come together, enfolded by the stained glass around the white window. Then, I too become enfolded and from somewhere I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.”
At first, I didn’t realize what I’d heard. When I did, I became angry. Okay, help, I thought. Help me make sense of this mess. Help me understand the reason for Laurie’s pain and why she’s going to die before she’s ever really lived.
But I couldn’t take my eyes from the candles. From somewhere in the ceiling fresh air cooled my face. I felt my body loosen. The stained glass seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.
“Don’t ask why, just ask for help.” The words didn’t come from a “voice” and they didn’t come as any kind of sudden epiphany—just a gentle, insistent, ever deepening understanding, as if the words had always been there, but that only now, in the silence of the chapel, could I hear them.
My sense of peace, of course, didn’t last. When I returned to the hospital that evening, Laurie was vomiting dark green bile, and although I began stopping regularly at the chapel after that, I didn’t think much about the words I’d heard until after my daughter died.
And it’s not until now, over ten years later in Arizona that I realize that “don’t ask why, just ask for help” is the only response I know of to the death of a child, whether from cancer or from a bullet. I think of all the help I’ve received over the past ten years—from counselors, from clergy, from spiritual directors, from friends and family, especially Mary Lee, who may have kept me alive. And I wonder if it’s not time for me to start thinking about trying to help others. God knows I don’t have much advice, but maybe just telling my story and listening to others is enough.
So while I haven’t been able to leave the past behind, perhaps leaving home and coming here has given me a new perspective on that past—a new way to respond to it. I look again out the window at the giant saguaro cactus, standing with its arms upraised, as if in prayer or praise. Sometime this week, I learned that these cacti, which often live to be a hundred and fifty, even two hundred years old, don’t start growing arms until they’re sixty. Next week I’ll be 56.
I’ve got time.