“I pray to God to rid me of God”
CHAPTER ONE: REQUIEM
“Pray without ceasing.”
—Thessalonians I 5:17
Pseudo-Dionysius tells us, “We must begin with a prayer before everything we do, but especially before we are about to talk of God” (Divine Names Chapter 3). What is prayer? Our Lord tells us often how to pray—“Our Father who art in Heaven,” (Matthew 6:9-13)—and when to pray—“pray without ceasing”—and even what and whom we should pray for—“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22) and “Therefore, confess your sins together and pray for one another” (James 5:16). Our Lord, in his wisdom, even tells us how not to pray—“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:5, see also Luke 18). But this doesn’t quite answer the question, my brothers and sisters: What is prayer?
Prayer is language. And language is prayer. Prayer is language directed toward God. And language is prayer directed at both God and man. In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1); we all know this. And Christ was the Word made flesh (John 1:14). We all know this as well. And our language, our prayer, is the Word made word, our words that make the body that reflect and direct the Word toward the things of the world, our fellow humans, and toward ourselves. Our language is a transubstantiation from the Word into the word, from God into Christ, from Heaven into Earth. Our language is also the paschal, as passing over from word into the Word, from Christ to God, from Earth to Heaven. Our language is a constant repetition of these gifts, the aleph and omega of Christianity, the virgin birth and the passion. All language is prayer, and we pray without ceasing, in our hearts, minds and on our tongues.
This knowledge illuminates three dangers. The first danger is the problem of blasphemy. If I have said above that all language is prayer, how can that include blasphemy? I have two things to say to you: First of all, I say to remember that language is directed to both God and men, so that when men hear curses, God might hear praise. We cannot presume to know what God hears. Secondly, do non-believers blaspheme? Wouldn’t this be a waste of breath? In fact, most “non-believers” do nothing but pray when they pretend or attempt to blaspheme God. What men call blasphemy is perhaps a purer prayer, a prayer unencumbered with human sense, untainted by human expectations and knowledge, a language incomprehensible to all but God. The Beast of Revelation is a possible exception to this, but the Beast and the Whore of Babylon are finally defeated by the Word of God, verbum Dei (Revelation 19:13).
The second question you may have with this knowledge is the question of origin. Where does language as prayer and prayer as language originate? If, as is usually thought, prayer comes from man and woman, from our hearts, how can it reflect the divine Word? Can we, full of sin, possibly be holy enough to speak to God? And should we use the same tongue, the same mouth, the same language that we use to speak of insects, of cows, and of the filth of the world, of ourselves, in short, our sins, weaknesses, lusts and degradations, to speak to our Heavenly Father? If we answer that certainly prayers come from us, from our hearts, then how can we possibly think that we are blessed enough to speak to the Divine? Even the most pure among us, the Holy Father in Rome, has sinned. Think of the tremendous distance separating God and ourselves, and how small and inadequate our own sinful voices must be.
And if prayer does not come from us, if prayer is a gift from God, “Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17), then we have a strange condition, a circle, in which God presents a gift only on order that we use it to praise Him. God gives us a gift, language, only in order that we speak or give it back to Him. What kind of gift is this? Do we honestly believe that God presents us with the gift of prayer only to have us “regift” it back to Him? What kind of small God needs His gift returned?
I say to you now that language and prayer come from God, as all things come from God. I say to you now that language and prayer come from us as well, at the same time. Just as language preexists us, but we take it into our hearts to fashion it and express our deepest thoughts. Language is indeed a gift from God, which we form to make ours, which in turn we give to God in prayer. “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard” (Psalm 62:11). This is the dual nature of language, and it is this duality that answers these questions about origin by making them beside the point. Yes, language and prayer come from God, but the words come and from no longer have the same meaning. And neither does the word God. But I will speak of these things in other places.
Finally, you ask about silence. Is silence prayer? Or is silence the lack of prayer? Our Christ gives an example: in Matthew 27 when our innocent Lord Jesus Christ was accused by the chief priest and Pharisees, he responded with silence, “nihil respondit.” And when then questioned by Pilate, again he answered with silence, “non respondit.” These silences were not silences, these silences were full of language and prayer; these silences meant everything. Even more than blasphemy, silence is at the heart of prayer: silence is pure prayer. Silence asks for nothing, silence does nothing, silence represents nothing, silence degrades nothing, silence is nothing. In the nothing of silence, we speak to God, and God speaks to us, uncorrupted by the concerns of the world, uncorrupted by the concerns of ourselves, uncorrupted by any image of God. In silence, we avoid the hypocrisy of public prayer. In silence we approach the true nothing that approaches the silence of God. This is the prayer we must pray ceaselessly, the prayer of silence. In silence, we are one.
But beware. Even silence can become lyrical, can become public, can become impure and fallen. My words to you, my silence to you, perhaps falls back into lyricism: that is, my words and my silence are directed toward you and not toward God. That is the danger of prayer. That is its duality, its constant hypocrisy. That is its eternal, inescapable irony. May God grant us the ability to pray in true silence. May this be the prayer we speak before God. Amen.
It was a quiet Sunday morning. But hot, already seventy-something at six-thirty. I’d been having trouble sleeping lately: falling asleep immediately but then waking at four thirty and only maybe dozing until six forty-five when the alarm pushed me into the day. I wasn’t drinking—a couple of glasses of wine with dinner— so it wasn’t that. Thoughts of mortality, maybe, but I’d suffered those since my son was born. Age.
Both my body and my head felt heavy, thick, like parts of me—heels, wrists, butt, shoulder blades and the back of my skull— had liquefied in the night and settled in pools where my skin met the bed. I considered rolling over to shut off the alarm before it rang, but the Sunday gravity kept my limbs pressed in place. I’d thrown off the top sheet sometime in the night, so I lay stiff, completely exposed to the early morning. I thought suddenly of Dehmel, I don’t know why, in a similar position, slaughtered in the Oxford Hotel room. And of Lowenthal’s destroyed head. I had never been so wrong. Never. I felt strangely detached from all the victims, even Benderson. Which is to say I felt no guilt. I did feel bad, for being so wrong. And for Benderson being so wrong. And I suppose I sympathized with Dehmel, whom I knew least, and so who possessed the greatest innocence. Or at least likability. Maybe not: she married the fuck Lowenthal in the first place. What kind of woman would do that? I know what kind of woman would do that. And crazy Zemlinsky, who pled guilty to murder two of Sixto and the gardener to avoid any charges with Benderson. Everyone was happy to keep a lid on that. Zemlinsky would most certainly rot in Cañon City. But the girlfriend had stones, I had to give her that. Benderson got a full-dressed funeral.
Mostly I felt sorry not for them, but for myself. Benderson’s death affected me, sure, but it affected me mostly for how it affected me. When he was killed a part of my life was amputated. Truth be told, I had little affection for the man himself, but the past Benderson, the former Benderson, the Benderson whom I loved and who loved me, that Benderson I missed. But how could I have been so wrong? I needed to let it go.
I had to get up, get some coffee in me, see if Nicholas needed a ride anywhere, see if Hector needed anything. Work was slow, a couple of assaults and gang shootings, but victims were surviving, and I was consulting, not leading anything at the moment. Which was probably a good thing. So this Sunday was free. It would be too hot to run, unless I left soon, and I wanted to read the paper and take my time over my coffee. I’d hit the gym later; try to get the flab off my arms. One, two, three, up.
I sat on the edge of the bed and yawned. I looked down at my chest: my boobs seemed not so much sagging as disappearing. I wasn’t exactly missing them. I yawned again, and thought about my mother. Two mastectomies, and dead at fifty. Never saw her grandson. I was having a harder and harder time picturing her anymore. A quiet, uncomplaining woman, ambition and joy hidden or stifled by an often cruel husband. Said cruel husband was seeing out his last years in a Lakewood nursing home, visited regularly by his grandson, who liked to practice on the large Steinway Model B the Harmony Pointe Nursing Center had somehow acquired. Maybe I should go see him today. Take Nick and some booze. Maybe. Okay, time to get up, take a pee, and get some caffeine.
I went to the bathroom, avoided the mirror above the sink, then put on my thin robe and padded downstairs to the kitchen. Coffee smelled good, Hector must be up. He was sitting at the kitchen table, his face behind the Post, steam rising from his triple-sized McIntosh mug. He put the paper down when he heard me. “Hola.”
“Hola. Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine. I’ve been up since five. Too hot to sleep.”
“You going to mass today?” I asked, as I poured myself a cup of coffee and added half and half.
“Went last night. Then went to the Legion with Maxie and Big Pedro.”
“Stay out late?”
He shook his head, glanced at his paper. “Eleven thirty. Big Pedro’s old lady’s sick. Something with her belly. Could be cancer. Daughter’s coming up from Santa Fe.”
“That’s too bad. How old is she?” I sat down across.
“Same age as him I think. Seventy.” Coffee was good, strong. “Maxie says hi.” I looked at the headline: A SCORCHER! I looked across at Hector, who quickly dropped his eyes. “Why you trying to set me up with Maxie?”
“He’s fun and he’s got bucks. Could do worse.”
“I ain’t in the market. Besides, he’s ten years older than me.”
Last fucking thing I needed. “Read your paper.”
He lifted his right eyebrow quickly, like he was flicking off a fly. It was a gesture I recognized from his son, my dead husband. The day now seemed to stretch before me without much pleasure, interminable and hot. Hector took a bite of toast and set it down carefully on his plate. “You got plans today?”
“Nothing really, why? I was thinking about visiting my dad.”
“That’ll cheer you up.” He picked up the paper and angled it so he could both read and keep my face in sight, but he had to tilt his head so far back to read through his lower bifocal lenses that his necked popped loudly. He frowned and raised the Local Section up to his face.
“No, it won’t cheer me up,” I sighed. I thought of my father’s wild stringy white hair, the smell of piss and disinfectant, the swollen ankles of his catatonic roommate. I hoped the AC was working. How long had it been since I last visited? Before Memorial Day. April? March, definitely March. Christ. I’d try to get there well before noon, so I wouldn’t have to eat lunch with him. And bring him a bottle of something.
Would that be me, would that be the way I’d go out? I’d rather do a Benderson. Except for the dumpster part. And the naked part. And that wouldn’t be fair to Nick. Not that lingering in some hell home would be all that great for him either. I picked up the front page and started to scan.
I barely heard my cell ring softly in my bedroom.
He preferred staying in and eating Sunday dinner by himself. Since the German came (there weren’t enough Poles to make a difference), the after-mass meals had become tedious, the conversations dominated by theological gobblygook or legal hairsplitting, rather than light talk of wine and football. Here, he could focus on his food, and not have to think about questions of transubstantiation, statues of limitations or the woman’s pill for the following morning. At home he could concentrate on the delightful sensation of very young cow cooked quickly with fortified wine, butter, and pine nuts, not having to pause to pretend to listen to Father Vertov’s stuffy and incomprehensible theories, to smile thinly at Monsignor Belavaqua’s attempts at humor, or nod at Cardinal Green’s arguments about preteen boywhores. What did they know anyway? They never left the City. He was, as the Americans said, boots on the ground. Not that he had to listen to anyone anymore. He didn’t even have to pretend.
Here at home he could be alone with his chop, his string beans, and his wine. He could take off his shoes, sit comfortably in his shirtsleeves, listen to music if he so desired, and think or not as the mood struck. He wasn’t listening to music, nor was he thinking much. The veal was good, not dry like at the Secretary’s, although he would have liked a few more pine nuts. This was an exceptionally good wine, a 2001 Case Basse Brunello. He smiled to himself as he thought that he’d finish the bottle, yes, likely before dessert, which would then require a finé before bed. The beans, however, were not crisp enough, no, not all. He’d have to say something to Father Benoit. He took another bite of veal. Perhaps the perfection of the veal compensated for the deficiency of the beans, and if he were to chastise Benoit for the latter he’d have to praise him for the former. The veal was delicious, with just the right amount of vermouth. Sweet vermouth. He’d rather not speak to Benoit unless he had to. But he liked string beans, and very much would like to avoid a repetition of this particular experience. They were edible, yes, but not enjoyable. And it would be most unfair to Benoit to let him believe his kitchen was pleasing in all respects when it was not. He would have to say something tomorrow. He would mention the success of the veal as well.
He poured another glass of wine. Dabbed his lips with his napkin. He’d glimpsed the Holy Father earlier, walking with Beautiful Georg in the Apostolic Palace, his head bent and his arms clasped behind his back. Beautiful Georg gave him a tiny, nervous smile, and his Heavenly Father seemed to have closed his eyes. No matter, he was doing God’s work. The recognition came from God. Let not the left hand know what the right was doing. He was the right hand of God.
From whom all blessings came. Including this meal, this meat and this wine. He put a small morsel of veal in his mouth and kept it on his tongue. This was a beautiful gift, from Christ the Lord, and he was not worthy. No, he was not worthy to receive such a wonder, such a perfect morsel, such a delightful bite. From God to the mother cow, to the young calf, from the Tyrol butteros to the truck drivers, to the butchers, and then to Father Benoit, and the dairy farmers, the wine and spice merchants, the grocers, all to his table and then to his mouth. All under the watchful eyes of Jesus, a gift to him and to him alone. He moved the morsel around with his tongue and bit into it with his right molars. The juice of the meat mixed with the butter and spiced wine, ah, an intimation of Heaven, just this side of perfection. He was not worthy to receive such a bountiful gift, and he closed his eyes and bowed his head ever so slightly in gratitude and amazement.
He chewed slowly and swallowed, then opened his heavy lids and swallowed again. Another sip of wine, exquisite. Ad coenam vitae aeternae perducat nos, Rex aeternae gloriae. Amen. He set his glass down and quickly made the sign of the Cross in front of his face. Perhaps some grappa after the Brunello. He’d received a present of a couple of bottles of homemade grappa gialla from his friend, Monsigner Guzman, Jesuit. The Jesuits had everything. They were always so smart, and polished. He sighed. He’d done fine for himself, for a poor but curious country priest. He was educated and ordained by the Franciscans, and brought to the Vatican by Father Ciavonne, for whom he did a few small favors, three years before John Paul II died, and the German was installed. A couple of small ones would help him sleep.
God’s gifts. And God’s work. Food was one of God’s gifts. So was wine. And sleep. And Redemption. And to help pay for this, he did God’s work. As best he could. But it was not really payment. How could it be? It was more acknowledgement of the Grace of God. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He was weak, but his weakness allowed God and his power to work through him. He smiled and took another bite of the veal. It was not payment, no, for the gift was too great to ever be repaid. His work was a reminder, to himself, that he could never repay God for his gifts and blessings. His work was a prayer, a prayer of weakness.
He yawned. The wine and the heavy meal were having an effect. He took a forkful of the beans into his mouth and pushed his plate away. Besides the sogginess, they were sauced with too much vinegar. He swallowed with some difficulty. These too were a gift from God, he supposed. More butter, and perhaps lemon rather than vinegar would be an improvement. And certainly the cooking time halved: this is not England, Father Benoit. Although being French, he should know his way around les haricot verts. Belgian, not French. Perhaps that explained it. He was finished with the wine, and the grappa would be wasteful. As would additional wine. He recited the Ágimus tibi gratias and made the sign of the cross.
He yawned again and loosened his collar. It was stuffy in his small sitting room where he took his meals: the drapes were heavy and the small table fan ineffective. He was pleased he had an air conditioner in his bedroom. He would sponge himself with cool water before his compline. He looked at his calendar: St Benedicta of the Cross—Jer 31: 31 and Matthew 16: 16-18. “And I say to you that you are Peter, that upon the rock I will build my church.” He smiled. His cellphone signaled the receipt of a text message. And almost immediately his landline began to ring.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. But is the Lord with me? It doesn’t feel like anybody’s with me. Not with this terrible, terrible pain. I don’t get no sleep, Lord, hardly no sleep at all. I don’t know how I can stand it, Lord, how I can stand it. Bayer, Tylenol, Advil, none of it works, Lord, none of it. I talk to the doctor and the doctor, she’s a woman, she just looks at me. Maybe the priest will listen, maybe the father will have some ideas. My neck hurts so bad, I can barely drive to church, Lord, barely drive the six blocks to Mass. One of these days I’m going to end up in the hospital, Lord.
I’m sorry, Lord. I know you’re my savior and my personal salvation. I know you sent Your only son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die for my sins. I know you sent Your most holy servant, Saint Madron, to intercede for all those in pain, Lord, some with pain worse than mine. I know you don’t allow more than we can bear, Lord. And what is my little pain compared to your Jesus on the cross, Lord, it’s nothing.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. There’s no holy water. It looks like I’ll have to cross over to the other side, and I can’t see any little red lights on over here. It’s so quiet here in the cathedral, so peaceful. It looks like hardly anybody here. There’s an altar boy straightening the missals, but nobody else I can see. I like to say my confession before Mass, that way I can take communion with a pure soul. Mr. DeMarco, rest in peace, used to moan and groan every single Sunday. “What can’t you wait for eight-thirty mass once in a while? Even God ain’t up this early. It’d be nice to sleep in and have a nice Sunday breakfast every so often, wouldn’t it? I mean a man has a right to ask for that.” I slept like a baby back then. It was hard for me to get up. I loved Mr. DeMarco Lord, You know that, but I didn’t always love the foolish things that came out his mouth.
I do love this church, this I do. All the beautiful stained glass, praise You Jesus. Look at Jesus over there, rising to heaven, surrounded by those beautiful angels, isn’t that a sight this early morning. The light just takes my breath away, Lord, streaming through that blue and white. It hurts my neck to look up that high, but isn’t that a sight.
All the doors are closed and the little red light is on, so I’ll have to wait. There’s no nameplate on the door. Hmmm. I’ll just sit on this pew, I don’t mind waiting. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen. I’m not going to kneel, Lord, if that’s all right with you. There’s not another soul around. Oh, what’s this on my glove? Lipstick. I hope that will come out with some bleach. I can keep my thumb over it like that. I do hope I can get that spot out, maybe put some Shout on it first. I’ve had these gloves forever, simple white cotton gloves. The simplest is always the best. I have another pair, one for winter, thin leather Mr. Demarco, bless his soul, gave to me for Easter a year before he died. But these white cotton ones I’ve had forever. I don’t remember getting lipstick on them before. The door is still closed and the light is still on. That person must have a lot to talk about.
I don’t have so much to talk about. You know that, Lord. Not that I’m perfect, far from it, I’m a sinner and unworthy of Your holy grace. But my sins, they’re tired sins, Lord, small and tired. I don’t think I have a mortal sin left in me. Not that I’d want to, Lord, not that I’d want to offend thee. And the fathers, they don’t want to hear the same old same old, how I complain too much, how I’m vain, and selfish, and I want a new Sears toaster and a trip to Hawaii this Christmas, and I don’t do for others nearly as much as I should, Lord, and I don’t respect the memory of our dearly departed Mr. DeMarco, my husband of forty years, not because I don’t miss him, Lord, but because I can’t remember him the way I used to. I’m sorry honey, but it’s true. Those good fathers, I must bore them to tears. Especially that old one, Father Philip, the one who always gives me three rosaries to say. I think he’s sleeping half the time. I don’t like that young African, Father Antoine, who breathes through his mouth. You can hear him before you get in the booth. I wonder who’s in there now. It’s odd that they didn’t bring a nameplate. All of the other lights are off, and the door’s slightly open.
They’re really taking their time, Lord. It’s already a quarter to six. Usually they close up at six so people can get ready for Mass. I’m not sure there’ll be enough time for me.
Maybe if I walk by, someone will hear me and hurry it up. There’s usually never anyone here this early, that’s why I come. I’ve never had to wait this long before. Oh, oh, my neck. The other booths are empty; I can see that. Is there anyone else around who could help? I could ask that altar boy to see if he could find another priest, but that would likely take too long. I could wait until next week, I suppose. I’m going to get up and walk past.
I can’t hear anything. What’s that on the floor? Someone must have dropped their wallet. I’d better pick it up and give it to the deacon. There’re so many sneak thieves around everywhere, even in church. That’s why they have to lock the collection boxes. I could give it to that altar boy, but lead us not into temptation, Lord. I wonder who it belongs to. Willem Martinez it says. Colorado driver’s license. He looks like a crazy, like a drug addict. Four dollars. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Maybe he’s in confession now, that’s why it’s taking so long. I can’t hear anything, though. I shouldn’t stand up here like this, going through a man’s wallet.
Did someone spill wine on the floor? This church is usually so clean. Who’s been drinking in the confessional booth? Maybe someone snuck in and passed out last night. This isn’t right. There’s no noise, not a sound, and something’s spilled on the floor inside. I wish I’d brought my other glasses, but I don’t think its wine. I’ll knock. Lord, forgive me. Father, are you in there? Is everything all right? Father? Lord, this isn’t right. The door’s not locked. Jesus, forgive me.
It’s dark in here. Oh God, oh God, of Lord, of Jesus Christ! I can’t speak, I can’t breathe. He has no face! No sound, no sound. Lord Jesus, he has no face! Oh God!
Jeffrey DeShell has published six novels, most recently Expectation (2013) and Arthouse (2011), some art criticism, and a critical book of Poe’s fiction. He was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Budapest, and has taught in Northern Cyprus, the American Midwest, and Bard College. Currently he’s a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he lives with the novelist Elisabeth Sheffield and their two children.