poet, teacher, and dad from the Midwest


Guilty Prayer

Guilty Prayer
publication date: Fri Jan 15 2021
ISBN: 978-1-59948-854-7
Main Street Rag

Main Street Rag


Book Review: Guilty Prayer Published by Two Bluestockings on February 15, 2021 

I spent the majority of 2019 taking a class on grief counseling. It came about in an odd way, but the main reason that I took the class was because I hated that no one seemed to know how to deal with grieving people. If you come from an evangelical background, then you know: “God works all things for your good.” “His ways are higher than ours.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.” 

 Those platitudes piled against my psyche after our house burned down. We all made it out alive, so why was I so sad? Why did I wake up smelling smoke? Why did I go into panic mode if I saw the sun reflect on a pane of glass? 

 I delved further into the idea of grief, observing how my family members were treated when dealing with loss. Mothers stopped talking about babies that were born sleeping. Fathers never said a word about uncles lost to suicide. If they did, the room got still, quiet, and a little icy. Nobody knew what to say, so they didn’t say anything. They left the bereaved alone to mourn. Not that I’m blaming them, yet it still seems a little trite to say: “That’s just how it is.” 

Enter Steve Henn. I first heard of Steve on Instagram. An account under the name of @indianasadman started following our podcast. He interacted with us a few times. I liked a few of his posts. Then, he sent a message and asked if I would like to read his book. He mentioned, or I discovered when looking into the book, that it included recovery from substance abuse and grief. 

The writing is raw. From sitting in the darkness, wondering if God is real, if He cares about you, if your family would be better off without you, Henn beautifully describes this pain. He obliterates our clean, beautiful idea of religion. Instead, he brings it down to reality. Prayers are often guilty, they often are full of pain, and they are often desperate…sometimes they even have swear words. Sometimes they make no sense at all. Especially when we are experiencing trauma and loss. 

 Loss brings to the surface a plethora of emotions. I’ve noted that people seem to wrestle with the idea of whether or not those who have passed can see us, whether they would be pleased or upset at what we have become. Consider this excerpt of “The Imperial Magisterium of Unrelenting Fortitude,” written after Lydia Henn’s suicide: 

 “…I used to sleep only on my side of the bed, wondering are you haunting me, cursing or blessing me. Now I sleep on the lump in the middle, as if wearing a hairshirt, or sack cloth, familiar like an injury that doesn’t heal.” (Henn, 2021, p. 18.) And this bit from “Poem for the Mother of my Children”: “I wonder if it was an inability to cope with 1000 minor disappointments that drove you to put the belt around your neck… you felt you really had no one… Because our oldest daughter and I shared an Apple account then I know she sent you message After message, begging for response, After you were already gone.” (Henn, 2021, p. 19) Toward the end, Henn writes: “And so now I can really start asking questions: Is God benevolent Like a dictator or benign like a tumor or malignant Like the thoughts leading my thoughtless legs to the bar on a Sunday afternoon?” (Henn, 2021, p. 39) 

 In this book Henn cracks jokes about our obsession with internet humor—how we use it to cope, when our lives are falling apart. He sheds light on our obsession with being the only ones who have the answers: “I’ll just be rambling incoherently about my Jesus who/ is the best Jesus who is the only Jesus who is the true/ Jesus and how stupid you are because stupidly you are” (Henn, 2021, p. 34). He really made me stop and think about the American Jesus, who is all pleasure, good vibes, and no suffering; and, how we correlate God with a fairy godmother who will make our problems go away if we hope hard enough. 

This is a short book. It has forty pages. Yet, it took me almost two weeks to read it. I had to stop and think about what he was saying. It was deep…I left notes in the margins, highlighted my favorite lines, and tried to strike up conversations about what it means to be human, using Henn as my reference. If you are a person who is grieving, Steve can make you feel normal. 

If you are a person who is frustrated with a substance abuser, this book can help you start to understand the darkness that lurks deep in the soul of a recovered addict. If you are a religious person, this book might offend you with its open-faced criticism of religion. If you are not a religious person, you will find your questions and doubts spelled out eloquently. 

 This book exposes grief in its depths. From the guilt of wondering if there was something you could have done, to the haunted feelings of the “might-have-beens,” to the vulnerability of burying the love of your life. Steve tells the truth when we’d rather not talk about it. The truth that somehow manages to still be beautiful amid its agony. 

 Jayna Gerhart  - twobluestockingspodcast.com