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  • Beyond the Jordan
  • Heather M. Surls (bio)

The Prayer Tree

One ought to remember the mosaics, the cornerstone of the church, the hazy view into Palestine. But I have seen too many mosaics and limestone walls. What I saw—what I remember—is the oak tree on the eastern edge of the archaeological site. It was a normal oak tree, with knobby bark, hardy leaves that look perpetually dusty, a sprinkling of acorns, pollen streamers hanging. Its lower branches, though, were tied up in trash.

Somehow I knew what it was without knowing: a prayer tree. It didn’t look holy; it looked dirty. It looked like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, with a wide greasy stripe where worshippers rest their foreheads, its cracks stuff ed with prayer notes in all languages, written on scraps of journal paper, receipts, and gum wrappers. Twice a year they pry the prayers from the cracks—one million every year—and bury them in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I, too, have a prayer there, buried somewhere beneath the dirt on the mountain prophecy says the messiah will split in two when he returns.

I step closer to look at the tree. I see blue and red ribbons—maybe the people who hung these came with a ready prayer. But it looks [End Page 11] like most people were unprepared. The lower branches of the oak are draped in flotsam: the ripped-out seam of a t-shirt, a black plastic bag, dried-up wet wipes, toilet paper, a piece of rubber, crumpled notebook paper. What kinds of prayers were these, requested by Muslims and Christians alike? Does the wipe plead for a baby, the plastic bag for peace? (I see Syria in the distance, and Iraq is a day’s drive away.)

My son is trying to climb the sagging rope between the path and the mosaics. I catch him, meander with our friends, try to be interested in the tops of columns and the faint outline of buildings. Mostly, though, I think about prayer trees. I like the idea of hoisting up a prayer and letting it flap before God while I move on. I’m a somewhat agitated woman these days. My attention span is frayed. I distract easily. Sometimes I feel like a pile of electrical wires, smoking and sparking on the ground. Prayer without ceasing, but without the labor—now that sounds nice.

Once I stood in the most holy site in Christendom, mesmerized by a row of burning tapers. Candles in churches—that’s the same idea as prayer trees, right? Wax crusted the edge of the sandbox they stood in. I was transfixed, staring at the candles as people milled around me.

Suddenly a priest walked up, gathered the candles in his hand, and blew them out. Their wicks smoldered, and then they were out with white smoke curls. I was stunned. Could he really just blow out those candles? People paid for those and prayed for those! What did putting them out mean? Seven years later, that memory still runs frantically in my mind, untethered, the questions begging answers.

Really, I am like the disciples of Christ. “Teach us to pray,” they said, even though they’d heard him teach month after month, probably seen and heard him pray hundreds of times. How many times have I prayed this recently, having just moved from the United States to Jordan? Enveloped in a haze of anxiety and exhaustion, the dailyness of washing clothes and wrangling a toddler, the uncomfortable nature of a new culture, language, and place, I have been reduced to this little sentence: “Teach me to pray.”

Leaving the site, I want a prayer tree. Those branches are stronger than my arms and can hold for decades. I’m like the prophet Moses—just [End Page 12] a mortal. Not far from here, in the Egyptian desert, he needed Aaron and Hur to hold up his arms as his muscles grew weary. I need someone, something, to hold me up, one on the right hand and one on the left, if this battle is going to be won.

Kite Flying

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pp. 11-22
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