“Devout souls ascend to God more frequently, promptly, and with lofty heights.”
Francis de Sales, from The Devout Life
My mother was raised in the coal regions of Northern Pennsylvania. A true “coal-miner’s daughter,” my childhood was laced with stories of coal hills, mine collapses, local heroes, shanty towns, powerful unions and the company store. Some of my relatives even participated in the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish terrorist sect committed to evening the score with the corrupt anthracite mine owners of the late 1800’s. To my family, the old refrain “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get; another day older and deeper in debt…” was no folk anthem – it was their harsh reality.
I think I learned to draw near to God riding with my grandfather around the steep, deadly bends that encircled Big Mountain. He was a soft-spoken man with laughing eyes, a wizened face and rough hands that spoke of decades of hard labor. Every time we would near an edge in that old rusty truck, I found my infantile spiritual life awakened, as I cried out to God as I understood Him to be; my Rescuer from Grandpa’s erratic driving. Grandpa’s hand on mine made my divine connection seem more real, I think, even though I knew deep down that both of his hands should have been on the wheel.
My mother recounts how she and her siblings, along with the families of the other coal miners, would come to the worksite every day to wait for the horn to blow, signaling a long day’s end. The men (and boys) would ascend from the shadowy depths, pouring out like a wave of velvet, blackened water from the rocky hole, and the children would eagerly wait for each face to softly contrast with the lightless, gaping door of the mine.
As their game, the miner’s children would guess which black-sooted figure was the frame of their father. Covered from head to toe in the dust of the coal they spent their days seeking, these men were all but unrecognizable from the residue of their search.
I find prayer to be like what I imagine was their daily labor experience. I readily descend into the mine of God’s heart, and it seems that nothing comes easily to me. I must choose to whistle every song, wrestle for every revelation, dig through emotional rock and clay, blood on my hands and trembling weakness in my heart. Some times, rare times, I leave with a whole barrow full of precious encounter. Some times, most times, I come out with nothing in my hands but more blood and dirt to show for my venture.
Yet, when I ascend from the mine of prayer, I find that I am not the same as when I entered – others may be the only ones who see the difference. I am covered from head to toe in that which I sought in prayer. The residue of His glory is the treasure I leave with, and the reward for another moment, God-lived.
Over time, I believe the residue of such encounters builds, and a wiser pursuit of God reveals to me His love, found both in the heavy riches of His power, and in the light dust of His beauty. His presence, then, is not so much found in the nuggets I desperately intended to leave with, but rather in the lingering presence of His love; now covering my sweaty brow.
“So where does Wisdom come from? And where does Insight live? It can’t be found by looking, no matter how deep you dig, no matter how high you fly. If you search through the graveyard and question the dead, they say, ‘We’ve only heard rumors of it.’ God alone knows the way to Wisdom, he knows the exact place to find it.”
From Job 28 in The Message.