Most people who meet me today do not realize that I stutter. The truth is that I have stuttered since I was a child and have worked every day of my life to speak as fluently as I do today. God has been engaging with me in my stutter in every syllable I speak, fluently or not. This is just as true now as an adult as it was when I was a child.
My journey with stuttering started in kindergarten when I began getting the feeling that whenever I spoke, words were getting stuck in my throat. I later learned that in the world of stuttering, this is called a block, when you are trying to speak but no sounds or air come out of you. It is an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling, and I remember being horrified of it as a child.
This was around the same time of my life that I began to pray. Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in a Boston suburb, I was exposed to prayer at a young age. When we would go to Mass on Sundays, I would always pray about my stutter. I would listen to the priest giving his sermon and be amazed that someone could speak so slowly, deliberately, and fluently in front of a church full of people. I used to pray that God would let me speak like that.
Stuttering in front of the class was always the worst. There was no avoiding it, no matter how hard I tried. I was starting to get really nervous on a daily basis about being called on or someone new trying to talk to me. I used to hide in the school bathroom and take deep breaths. I’d try to pray to calm down. Sometimes I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, talking to myself with my hands on my throat, trying to feel where the words were getting stuck and praying to God to help me.
I remember once in third grade, I was in math class and we were going around the room saying answers to a worksheet of addition and subtraction problems. I was sitting in the middle of the room and I counted the number of students who would give their answers before me. I figured out what number I was going to have to say. I still remember to this day that the number was eleven. I knew I had about a minute before it was going to be my turn and I must have practiced saying the number eleven in my head a hundred times.
Finally it got to me. I remember the dead silence as I blocked and it felt like the whole room turned around to look at me. I could not get a single sound out. I felt hot like I had a fever, and my body was tensing up in a way I had never felt before. The teacher put her paper down and looked at me. I stood up and walked to her and showed her my answer. “Eleven,” she said with such ease. I turned around and sat back down. Some students were laughing, but mostly they all looked at me with confusion, wondering what was wrong with me.
Not long after that, I started to keep a cross in my pocket. In between classes at school, I used to walk in the hallway with one hand in my pocket, gripping my cross. I would pray over and over again for God to help me get through the day. My cross would leave little indentations in my palm from squeezing it so hard. On days when my anxiety was worse, the indentations would be deeper.
During the school year, I would often go to speech therapy. My speech therapists did their best to try to calm me down and let the words ooze out of my throat instead being forced out. My favorite therapist used to tell me to imagine my throat as a block of ice, and my job was to melt the ice enough so that the words could just glide out of me. At night before I went to sleep, I used to imagine God swirling around my throat melting the hard block of ice that was in there. I would take deep breaths, trying to inhale God’s presence. There were many nights I fell asleep doing that.
During the summer when I did not have speech therapy, I used to read the Bible out loud. I have always had an attraction to the Bible since I was a child. I felt safer and more relaxed just holding it in my hand. I used to open to a random page and just start reading out loud from there. Sometimes I would pretend I was reading to Jesus. I would imagine Jesus as a grown man sitting in front of me, looking at me and listening intently.
One particularly hot summer night, I opened up to Exodus. My neighborhood street was so quiet. Yet even though I was sitting alone on my deck, I felt like I was not by myself. I started to read out loud and got into a good rhythm. I imagined myself reading to Jesus seated before me, the Holy Spirit saturated in the humid air all around me, and God in the starry night sky above me. I could feel my lungs sucking in the hot air and my body moving with the words as my vocal chords got looser and looser.
Eventually that night, I got to the part of Exodus when Moses says to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” I had to stop reading, as I started crying. I remember the tears welling up in my eyes then rolling down my cheeks. I felt called by God in that moment, I did not know what for or why, but I felt called. I also felt heard. I felt heard in a way I had never felt before. I felt heard in a way beyond words.
I have followed that call my entire life. Now here I am, thirty-three years old and an initially-professed monk at SSJE. It may sound crazy to say that I am grateful to God for my stutter, but it is true. Looking back at my life, I can see how God has engaged with me through the challenges I faced. I would not have the relationship I have with God if it were not for that challenge.
There have certainly been times in my journey with stuttering when I have felt abandoned by God. I have felt hopeless and overwhelmed. Everyone goes through these fights in their engagement with God. These fights are not a sign of failure, they are opportunities to fully engage with God.
Fully engaging with God means going all in. You are either engaged or you are not; there is no in-between. Times of trial make this clear. It is no secret that everyone struggles with something. We are all fighting battles in our head. One thing I have learned in my journey with stuttering is that it is essential to invite and fully engage with God in these battles. It is dangerous to fight alone.
Try fully engaging with God in a conversation about what you are struggling with right now. Go someplace you feel comfortable speaking both out loud and in your head to God. Tell God everything you are thinking and feeling, good and bad. Be as thorough as you can be; God is not going anywhere.
Make sure to express your anger and frustration with God too. Just like any other relationship, anger is going to happen when you engage with God, but it is what you do with that anger that matters. Consider what would happen in a relationship if you never fully expressed how you felt. You would never be totally engaged in that relationship. Our relationship with God is no different.
Do not look back on your life wishing you had engaged with God more. You have the opportunity to prevent that from happening right now. Embrace your struggles, fully engage them with God, and pour everything you’ve got into living through them. This is the path to God.