Part 9 in a series; see other parts here.
We all know the terrible feeling that follows the realization of a mistake: it’s a human experience whose commonality ranks somewhere between waking up and breathing. Sometimes this experience provokes defensive anger, as we try with all the violence we can muster to make the mistake stick to somebody else. Even when we manage the necessary legerdemain, though, the gnawing at our hearts remains. Even if most mistakes aren’t exactly the Furies pursuing Orestes after he killed his mother, they can still be nastily persistent ghosts.
Just as prayers never manage to stay entirely private, our mistakes are almost inevitably interpersonal. Dealing with them properly usually requires dealing with the other people involved. And yet, coming to the place where we have the wherewithal to deal means that some transformation within us needs to occur: to deal, we have to be all at once the person who made the mistake and somehow no longer that person.
The occasions of our mistakes do not always permit retreat to a tower where we can properly pray the thing out and get in a position to face the people we’ve wronged with perfect contrition. In fact we only rarely have such an opportunity: usually, we land in the moment underprepared, with no other option than improvisation, and we really hope not to play any wrong notes (or at least not any wrong wrong notes, as Thelonious Monk would say).
Still, we long for the tower, for the chance to lay everything out before God and hope that it could be put into some kind of order that’s not too embarrassing. If only there were a place where the demands of time and other people would retreat long enough for us to pray as we wish we could.
True, there are moments like this, and sometimes we can manage to cultivate more such moments, but sometimes we couldn’t make the time if we wanted to, and we feel badly about it because we really feel we should, at which point we need a sinner’s tower to deal with our inability to get to the sinner’s tower, which is a terrible mess indeed.
But maybe all of this trying to be alone and sort it out isn’t the only way. Maybe the tower, instead of or in addition to being a solitary place, can also exist among other people, sinners just like us. In keeping with early 17th-century printing conventions, the 1633 printing of The Temple (the collection of poems in which “Prayer ” appears) prints “sinners tow’r” without an apostrophe to indicate whether the possessive is singular or plural. Gloriously, then, it can be both: we can treasure the times when deep, solitary prayer is possible, and we can also learn how to make our life within the community of sinners more prayer-like.
If we come to terms with the fact that we live most of our lives cheek by jowl with other sinners who to varying degrees long for that time alone in the tower to sort things out or even just to catch their breath, we can start trying to give at least glimpses of that experience to the people around us. When we give another person our ear and our attention, we pray by offering them a kind of prayer. Whereas the Tower of Babel compounded the confusion in the world, the tower we build for others by listening begins to heal that wound. For what more could we pray than that?