Thursday, October 20, 2016
Simplicity in Prayer
Every flight to Houston before and after mine had been cancelled whilst a storm brewed over the Gulf and made its way to the Louisiana coastline, right in the way of my eventual second path. My own flight, scheduled for a 6PM departure, only boarded at 8:30PM. I casually asked the airport director if they had put any extra fuel in the plane; he replied no. After the plane detached from the terminal our 737 taxied for a minute and then the roar of the engines stopped. We would have to wait an hour for takeoff while other tardy flights made their way to Houston. After 70 minutes of sitting in the dark without any gin or beverage service we blasted off in one fell swoop and within 25 minutes we were over Houston. Which is where the real point of this article begins.
I have never been too fond of devotions other than the Rosary if for no other reason than that they are too wordy, that they say too much on our behalf and give us no time to think or listen. The repetition and Christological focus of the Rosary, like the liturgy of the Church, allows me to lose myself for a few minutes in the presence of the Divine.
This simple approach to prayer left the conjecture of the mind and descended to the heart after the first few lightning bolts appeared off the east side of the plane. The storm which was supposed to be over the Gulf stayed over Houston. The lightning was not just getting louder, but closer, illuminating the unlit interior of the plane, contrasting the albescent natural light to the artificial, mustard hues of the Houstonian highways below.
During my prior flight I was privileged to be sitting next to a dead-heading pilot who talked me through the landing procedure. The plane approaches the runway parallel and makes two turns to the same side to line up the aircraft. This allows the crew to survey the runway before committing to a landing. We made two right turns. And then another. And then a left. And another left. And another. And a right. They were not ready to land. They were just buying time, which would not have been so troubling had I not asked about the fuel situation while boarding (America only requires 10% more fuel than the length of the journey, which in this case was 24 extra miles of jet fuel). During our various turns the plane began to pitch, no more than the usual few degrees at first, but slowly increasing as we neared the coast until the plane rolled in 20-30 degree increments.
At this point I began to consider prayer, if for no other reason than to assuage my own discomfort. And yet, I thought, is this not a bad reason to pray? Prayer is not a psychological trick or a pagan "centering" meditation and I was not at risk of death. Some deep breathing exercises were more appropriate amid the visible discomfort of my fellow passengers. From the aisle I saw that the only persons who had not yet turned paper white were the Indian with the window seat and the chunky man who occupied both the adjacent seat and some of mine.
After fifteen minutes of turbulence we made our landing descent. Every time the plane lowered its altitude it rattled, a little at first and then very violently whenever it seemed we could descend no more. An overhead compartment was knocked open. when the cars on the road below were visible the plane shook like an M60. The pilot gave up on the descent, hit the thrust, and we climbed back into the clouds. I began thumbing around my Rosary beads; should I pray it? The rattling returned. We were attempting another descent.
We are beginning our landing approach. We are currently at 3,000 feet. Please be sure all trays are in the upright position.
The Rosary? Too many words. The Jesus prayer? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. No, too many words. The name of Jesus, the original Jesus prayer would do. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus! The rattling returned. If we had been driving on an unpaved road we could not have met more resistance in attempting to lose altitude. The pilot could not lower the aircraft any further without violent rolling and the incessant machine gun noise. I had experienced turbulence before, but nothing like this. Jesus.
One benefit to the older form of the Jesus prayer, simple repetition of the name of Jesus, is that it focuses one not merely on the idea of God made Man and the related definitions of the Church, it more importantly narrows the spiritual gaze to the person of Jesus. Which was good, because when we gave up on our second approach the plane banked to the left with I-45 below. After a few more bolts of lightning a gust of wind interrupted our turn and positioned our plane such that the wings were perpendicular to the ground. For a moment, a brief second, for the twinkling of an eye the plane had no lift and began to stall, sliding some immeasurable distance towards the cars and street lights below until, in a Holy Breath worthy of the Paraclete Himself, the plane quickly fell level again and the air pressure jettisoned the plane back up. The wings flapped like a bird's. "I don't think they're supposed to move that much," I thought, "but I'm very happy they can." We were climbing again. Jesus.
By now everyone who had an open window and who was not screaming had shut their screen closed. The Indian had joined the Caucasian passengers in turning white. Parents were now lying to their children, who have a better instinct for the truth than we give them credit for: "This is completely normal. It's just like a roller coaster. It's all going to be over soon." At one level that last statement was certainly true.
Jesus. Why did I fear a plane crash? I feared the drop more than the sudden stop. Thomas a Kempis was denied canonization for less. Or did I fear finding out something about Christ that went beyond my thinly disguised want of comfort? My thoughts wandered to Dostoevsky's imagined return of Christ on earth, wherein people merely gaze upon Him and are drawn to Him not from His teaching, but rather from His presence. Would I have to stand "before the awesome judgement seat of Christ" if another, stronger wind came at the next bank? He has been talking to all of us aboard this 737 for all our lives; soon we might finally have to listen. Jesus.
Eventually, after the long holding pattern, we dove again below the clouds, again the plane rolled like an old tanker, and again it shook like a military grade gun. This time we forewent the air pressure resistance and found ourselves a few hundred feet up. The pilots killed the thrust and our pitching plane slammed flatly into the runway a minute later to thunderous applause.
After disembarking I marveled at my resignation during our final landing attempt. The initial temptation had been to make Christ into something He is not, my private comforter, a spiritual security blanket. The Jesus prayer instead made present Christ as He is. Although I did not find myself comforted, I did find myself satisfied. There is an honesty that comes with simple prayer ratified by the Saints, prayer that is as much a gift as faith itself, prayer that lifts us up to God rather than infelicitously reduce God to our own level. Such is the simple
"Yes, sir. You can still get to Florida. You can connect in Baltimore."
"Yes, you would just need to fly back to Dallas tonight and—"
"I'll just take my money back."
"Your money back?"
"Yes. All my money back."