Lisa Nichols Hickman: Praying between the lions

The lions outside the New York Public Library have been markers on Lisa Nichols Hickman’s faith journey for many years -- ever since her senior year of college.

When I was about to graduate from seminary, my pastor offered some advice: “I believe you need some time with Patience and Fortitude.”

I looked up in surprise. Not because he had suggested the need for greater spiritual discipline, but because my pastor knew me so well.

Patience and Fortitude, the two stone lions on either side of the entrance stairs to the New York Public Library, had been an encouragement to me when I graduated from Mary Baldwin College in Virginia.

Now, four years later, as I was leaving Princeton Theological Seminary, I needed guidance as I faced transition again. Knowing the story, my pastor thought I should go pray there. And he was right.

Even though these lions had been markers on my journey of faith for many years, I had never seen them in person. I had seen them only in a dream.

During my senior year of college, I was confused about my vocational direction. During freshmen and sophomore years, parents and students can laugh about such a quandary. But by senior year? Now was the time to know. With double majors in philosophy and art, and a minor in economics, options were clearly open. But no path was clear.

Then one night I had a dream.

I was standing at the bottom of the stairs of a large and commanding building. On either side of me were two stone lions. I woke up scratching my head. I had never seen such a place. As I shared the image with a professor later in the day, she pointed out that I had described perfectly the New York Public Library.

I had never visited the New York Public Library.

But as I learned more about it, I fell in love with those lions. Sculpted by Edward Clark Potter in the early 1900s, their first names were Leo Astor and Leo Lenox. During the Great Depression, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed them, knowing that particular qualities of faith would be needed to persevere. He named the lion to the south, “Patience,” and the lion to the north, “Fortitude.” La Guardia apparently joked that he went there to “read between the lions.”

This is the life of faith. The life of faith is a daily act of reading between the lines. We read Scripture, and through the work of the Holy Spirit more is revealed than the words on the page. We listen to sermons, and more is communicated than the words on the pastor’s manuscript.

Within those words there is always a little something more -- a prayer, a hope, a hurt, a grace. We pray, drawing on words to converse with God and to listen to God, and yet what is revealed is always deeper than the words themselves. Prayer is an act of looking for God’s mysterious and providential presence at work beyond the visible or audible word.

During my senior year of college, this practice became an invitation for discernment. I read between the lines of all that I had learned and the ways I had been encouraged by others. I read between the lines of both my gifts and my weaknesses and of my ultimate goals in life. All of a sudden there was much greater clarity in my vocational call.

I pondered the ways I could channel my gifts to reveal God’s graces in the world. I could write. I could speak. I could serve. I might even consider seminary. These options became clearer as I “read between the lines” of my life.

Four years after I had that dream, my pastor encouraged a visit to see those lions in person. I took the train from the seminary in Princeton, N. J., to the city.

As I walked to the library, I saw the lions, poised and confident, in contrast to my emotional state. I sat down on the steps and looked to my right at Patience and then to my left at Fortitude. All of a sudden, in prayer, it became clear this was the very stance I needed. The next big decision in my life could be discerned with patience and with fortitude.

With fortitude, my actions each day would be to move forward -- making phone calls, working on resumes, talking with colleagues and friends. Trusting that more knocks on more doors would allow more possible openings.

But that fortitude must be tempered by patience. My actions each day would also include a reliance on God’s actions, not just my own. Sometimes waiting for God’s will to be revealed takes patience greater than our own reserves.

The brilliant blue sky that spring day revealed the peace that had settled across my heart while praying between the lions: balance. My work, God’s work. Fortitude, patience. God’s work, my work. Patience, fortitude.

It has been many years since that moment of clarity and I still rely on the prayer for balance. Praying between the lions is a discipline perfect to the life of Christian faith and growth. The Lion of Judah, Jesus the Christ, was revealed once and will come again. We sit now between those two lion-hearted bookends: his past life, death and resurrection and the hope of his second coming.

Revelation 5:5 says, “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has prevailed to open the book.” There, in the pages of that book, revealing the word of God, we have an incredible opportunity to read between those lines and to pray between those lions.