It's just a little before six in the morning and the alarm on my cell phone is ringing. It's winter, and the air in the room is cold and sharp; I grab a warm sweater as I stumble out of the bedroom and head down the stairs. The house is quiet, the family asleep; I'm reminded of some words of the 16-century Spanish poet and mystic John of the Cross: "One dark night, fired with love's urgent longings—ah the sheer grace!—I went out unseen, my house being now all stilled."
On this dark morning, my home silent around me, I'm heading into the gloomy basement, flashlight in hand, fired by those same urgent longings. It's time to pray. Some while back I converted a corner of our basement into a makeshift chapel. It's a simple and rather inelegant affair: lengths of blue cloth, bought at a thrift store and pinned to the exposed rafters, form the walls, and three old rugs cover the concrete floor.
A couple of yard-sale armchairs and an old bookcase provide the meager furnishings, and under the single window is a prayer desk I picked up years ago from a redundant chapel in England. On the windowsill sits a battered electric lamp, a candleholder and a wood-mounted print of the San Damiano cross before which Francis of Assisi used to pray. This is my Jerusalem, my temple: the holy ground where I encounter the presence of God.
It seemed cold upstairs, but the air down here is frigid. Shivering a little, I kneel at the prayer desk, light the candle and open my prayer book and Bible. Making the sign of the cross on my lips, I recite the traditional opening words of the liturgy: "O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise." Then, as Christians throughout the centuries have done (especially in monastic and liturgical communities), I begin the day's prayer by softly chanting Psalm 95, the great invitation to worship: "O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation" (v. 1). And as the psalm unfolds, I absorb the poet's encouragement to sing, to rejoice, to celebrate God and his creation, to recognize his care for us. Buried in the heart of this psalm comes a challenge: "Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts." Here is the work of today—which is also the work of the whole of life. I'm called daily to open my heart afresh to the living Word of God. I know I need this reminder but, to tell the truth, I'm daunted by the possibility that God might actually speak. I feel like an Israelite at the foot of Mount Sinai, overwhelmed by the swirling clouds at the mountain's summit, the bursts of thunder and the flashes of fiery lightning.
How can I bear to hear God's voice, let alone listen to it, interpret it, comprehend it? "You speak to us," Moses was told, "and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die" (Ex 20:19). Wouldn't hearing the voice of God be something like seeing his face: an experience so great, so consuming, that our mortal frame would be unable to contain it?
So it's with caution that, in my prayers, I approach the reading of Scripture itself. The contemporary Coptic saint Matta el-Meskeen understood this well when he wrote: "There are those who always fast to read the Gospel. There are those who, when they read the Gospel alone, always kneel. There are those who always read it with weeping and tears." The candlelight flickers as I turn the pages, and my heart trembles a little too. What will I hear? How will I be called, how changed? Will I be comforted or inspired? Or is it today that my life will be turned inside out? It has happened before—to others and to me.