The Marco Polo Prayer

Sometimes I can’t feel god.  I used to think this was because of something I had done.  That god had withdrawn from me.  I learned in church that god cannot dwell in unholy places so I assumed if I couldn’t feel god then something unholy was going on inside of me.  I felt shame about this.  I thought it meant something bad about me.  But I was wrong.

I am not sure exactly when I figured this out.  It was sometime after I had given up on doing everything correctly.  After I had shed another cage.  I observed that there were good people—people that I knew to be truly good at their essence—that didn’t keep all of the commandments, that didn’t worry about all the things.  I wondered if they felt god.  I believed they did.  I wondered if we could really distance ourselves from god.  And why would a god, who truly loved us, want distance from us?  

This didn’t make sense.  

I thought about the times when bad things happen to good people.  Like when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 21. Like when my friend’s babysitter was picked up for a DUI with her kids in the car the night she left for a trip across the country.  Like when my sister’s daughter had her first seizure the night she left on vacation.  Like when my grandmother’s oldest son was born with a heart defect.  Like when my friend’s daughter developed leukemia and was maimed by the treatment.  Like when my other friend gave birth and then broke her leg four days later at the same time as her dog was dying of cancer.  Where is god in all of this? Where are you, god!?! 

“I’m right here.  I’m right here.”

God is always here.  Right here.   

I learned this in the midst of my own suffering.  Mark Nepo related his experience with terrible sickness from chemotherapy to Oprah on her Supersoul podcast.  After a night of vomiting to the point of vomiting blood, Mark’s wife asked, “Where is god?” And Mark, in a moment of excoriated clarity, declared the knowing, “He’s right here.” 

This idea of suffering and god has formed a new kind of prayer for me.  I find myself, in moments where god feels particularly distant, asking, Are you there, god?  Then I answer for god, I’m right here.  It’s like a game of Marco Polo, where I call out and god responds. And it always feels true.  God is right here, in the happy, in the suffering, in the mundane.  God is here inside of me.

God is in the peace AND in the suffering.  God is both.  God is all.  

So if god is in all of it, all of the human experience, then surely it is sacred.  Sometimes we get this confused in our minds.  We think god will preserve the righteous.  The scriptures are filled with this sentiment.  Yet bad things continue to happen to people we know and love and people we’ve never met that we only hear about in tragedy via the news.  That voice in my head that wants to distance me from god would say, If you would have done this differently then this might have gone differently, or If you were really listening to God you might have avoided tragedy.  Or prayed harder or been kinder or read more scriptures or donated more money or whatever things are on the to-do list of the “righteous.”

Cheryl Strayed wrote this in a life-changing (for me) installment of her advice column, Dear Sugar.  It was in response to a letter writer who was struggling with her belief in god after her infant daughter developed a brain tumor that required invasive surgery.  Please visit this link for the full piece, as it is beautiful:

“Countless people have been devastated for reasons that cannot be explained or justified in spiritual terms. To do as you are doing in asking if there were a God why would he let my little girl have to have possibly life threatening surgery?—understandable as that question is—creates a false hierarchy of the blessed and the damned. To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs an illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion. It implies a pious quid pro quo that defies history, reality, ethics, and reason. It fails to acknowledge that the other half of rising—the very half that makes rising necessary—is having first been nailed to the cross.”

The Human Scale, Dear Sugar

The very half that makes rising necessary—is first having been nailed to the cross.  Maybe we are all to be nailed to the cross in this life.  We are meant to be set ablaze.  And even as this is happening we are meant to reach out to each other and up to god.  Maybe god is the love the burns between us in such moments of vulnerability and pain.  Maybe that is a close as we get to understanding god’s love for us.  Maybe that’s when we touch it.  

What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?

The Human Scale, Dear Sugar

What if god was here, right here, always?

Cover art for this piece: I saw this on display at The Broad museum in LA. It’s by Edward Ruscha, The Right People and Those Other People, 2011.