Julio stood behind the blue door, waiting. Blanca stood there too. Julio was neither tall nor young, and his back curved slightly beneath his cotton shirts. Blanca was not tall either, but she talked enough to make one think otherwise. She had joined the church as a young woman, never married, and kept the house while her brother corralled cattle in the campo and came home rarely, and with whisky. When Julio came home for good Blanca decided that it was time for him to be baptized. And so he was.

I believe that Julio enjoyed our visits; we sat around the kitchen table drinking orange Tang and slowly worked our way through the lessons. Julio’s questions would provoke a protest from his sister—But Julio, you already know that!—and they would peck back and forth with familial sharpness. Blanca’s white hair frizzed in the humidity; Julio’s blue eyes nipped back. But for all that, it was pleasant in its own way. The breeze hanging behind white kitchen curtains; the December sunlight creeping through the door; the darkened rooms we never saw.

At church, Blanca sat near the front. Julio chose a side pew in the back. He looked young, his suit coat too large, his hair carefully parted and combed over, still wet. He listened the way you hope those you teach will listen, and his eyes stayed open. He consistently refused to pray.

Every week we asked him as we sat together in his sister’s kitchen—Julio, would you like to offer the prayer this time?—and every week the polite refusal—Oh no, oh no, no thank you, I cannot, I do not have right words. We asked questions. We probed. We bore testimony. We prayed. Blanca rubbed arthritic fingers and clucked. She prayed too. And as we left she promised—we will work on it some more.

What keeps a person from prayer? Stubbornness? Pride? Fear? Trembling?

Julio believed in God. He believed in worship. And, as he would tell us when we asked, he would pray one day, one day when he found the right words, the words one might use to address one’s God. Then he would begin to pray in his heart. And one day he would pray for us too, aloud, and before I left.

The week that Julio began to pray he did not wait for us to climb the concrete steps to the blue door: he hurried down, arms wild, saying—sisters, sisters, I have practiced my prayers! And then he led us into the kitchen, served the warm Tang, and left. He returned carrying a blue spiral-bound notebook.

Every page filled with red ink and a careful, looping, script.

Our Lord and Father,
Thou art more glorious than I can say …

6 comments for “Psalms

  1. What a beautiful story!

    One thing I had a hard time explaining to my missionaries when I converted, is that for those raised in some other faiths (or none at all), it is very deeply ingrained in us that you Do Not Pray Aloud. I was raised believing that praying aloud meant that you were not as much praying to God/HF as you were to show people how pious you were. I no longer hold that belief, but I do still refuse to lead prayers, whether it be in church or a more informal setting. It simply makes me uncomfortable.

  2. Jim F., Nick, and Susan M, thank you.

    Ginny: I really appreciate your comments—I think that while we may understand on one level that prayer does not have to conform to a certain form in order to really “be” a prayer, we still maintain a fairly specific set of expectations in the church: form, language, tone, and, of course, the expectation that a prayer will/can be said aloud, even when praying in private. I’m not necessarily against the expectations in and of themselves (although when they become rigid and brittle and excessive I find them annoying), but I do think it’s useful for my own experience with prayer to look at it from another perspective. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. I, too, find it very hard to find the right words to pray aloud. I pray silently, though.

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