How God saved me even though I wasn’t sure I even believed in him.
“Prayer arises, if at all, from incompetence; otherwise, there is no need for it.”
– St. Thérèse of Lisieux
I once looked up the word “sincere.” It means without decay.
The first time I ever sincerely prayed I didn’t even know whether I believed in God. I had no picture of God, no theology beyond eighth grade Sunday school. I was a lawyer, on paper. I thought religion was for simple, stupid people who didn’t have the courage to see the world clearly, as I believed I did. I was in the throes of acute alcoholism, and I had a moment of truth in the woods in Nashville (described in my book Parched), when I realized very clearly that if I didn’t stop drinking I would die.
I realized, without being able, or stopping, to articulate the thought that no human power can save me. And on the instant, and instinctively, the way a child who perceives himself to be in danger without thinking grabs his parent’s hand, I turned to God. I said the Lord’s Prayer.
That I did pray—not that the prayer was “answered,” but that I prayed—is the surest proof of God I know. Because the prayer came from somewhere utterly beyond, or below, or above logic, my ego, and the external identity I had formed to present myself to, and protect myself from, the world.
I prayed the prayer I remembered from Sunday school. I was an atheist in a foxhole and I prayed. I prayed and then I went in and mixed another pitcher of gin-and-tonics.
But a few months later my family had an intervention and shipped me off to Hazelden in Minnesota. From that day to this, I’ve never had another drink.
“If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” (John 14.14) “In my name” is the key. He doesn’t mean you have to say the words “Jesus Christ” or the prayer doesn’t count, although the name of Christ has unimaginable, explosive power. Still, you don’t have to say the magic words: you have to be utterly convinced of your own lack of power and to be open to help.
The protagonist of the David Foster Wallace unfinished novel The Pale King, observes: “I realized, on some level, that whatever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was one—and it wasn’t cool or funny.” You have to realize to the depths of your soul that the way you’re living is not cool and it’s not funny. That’s when God’s power will come in. That’s when Christ will come to us, whether or not we know it is Christ; whether or not we ever recognize him.
Christ came to me long before I recognized him as Christ. When I did come to recognize him, the question became: Why would I not want to partake of this crazy, beautiful, transcendent gift: the Eucharist, the Church?
But in or out of the Church, if we act like he tells us to act, we will be in the kingdom. If we don’t, we won’t be in the kingdom no matter how much we say, “Lord, Lord.” (Matthew 7.21)
When I say “how he tells us to act,” I mean rigorous honesty, ceaseless prayer, daily if not hourly examination of conscience, the willingness to make amends when wrong, a ruthless rooting out of resentments, a constant turning to God, asking for help, and saying “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Most of all, in my case, a perpetual acceptance of my deeply lackluster “progress” and faith.
But when I say “in the kingdom,” I mean alive. I mean able to rejoice that another lost sheep has been found. When I first got sober, I thought, “Yeah, I get it. I have to grow up. I have to look at the stuff I’ve done wrong, make amends.” I was grateful, I was even willing, but there was a kind of legalism about it. What I didn’t get for a long while—I’m not sure I get it now—was that the reason we do those things is to come alive.
That’s true if we’re alcoholics trying to get and stay sober. It’s true of everything we do as followers of Christ and members of the Church. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5.17) We follow the rules not to be “good” or to get straight A’s. We follow the rules to come alive.
Just the other day I heard a kid say “I haven’t had a drink for thirty days and I smiled yesterday. I haven’t smiled, really smiled, in ten years.” I would not wish alcoholism on my worst enemy but I would wish that experience—of seeing the light come back in the eyes of another human being—on every person on earth. You tear up, your heart swells with love, your whole life—all the pain, all the loneliness—was worth it. Just to have been alive to see this kid’s joy.
That’s the kingdom. You don’t care if you die penniless, alone, and under a bridge. You know, “I have lived. I have known love.”
In a way, I’m still on my knees in those woods in Nashville. “Deliver me from evil. Help me to learn how to love. Help me, for I can’t help myself.”
It’s the prayer that saved me then. Twenty-six years later, it’s the prayer that saves me now.