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Prayer after the calamity


In the past two weeks, both the deep meaning and the fragility of our daily life have been brought to our attention in the harshest manner. As the symbols of American commerce and might lay in smoking ruins two weeks ago, shocked disbelief was followed by feelings of fear, sorrow, grief and rage.

Many flocked to churches, prayer services and vigils to find solace for pain and confusion. As Americans absorbed the madness of terror, we sat next to makeshift altars bearing candles, photos and flags. We took it personally. We sent reminders of our love to our loved ones. We asked: Can we make sense of it? What should we pray for? Where is God in all this?

While many rushed to do something, others retreated within -- or did both. We’re an extroverted country, yet it seemed that reliving those moments over and over again when we witnessed the death of thousands of fellow Americans couldn’t help but impel us to reflection.

As people of faith, we felt challenged at the deepest levels by events.

“This tragedy has literally brought us to our knees, said a priest friend of mine, and he is correct,” wrote Gregory Pierce on his Spirituality at Work Web site. “The question we must all face is what do we do when we get back up.”

NCR talked to people around the country about how they were praying in these days after calamity.

Steven Picha is director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. In the midst of one of its internship programs on Sept. 11, the center gathered to pray in the turmoil. “Since then I think we’ve all been going often to that silent, still space within, where we can just sit and be with the gnawing inner tension, the unknowing,” Picha said. “We are bringing everything to prayer now, our feelings together with candles and flags. We don’t know what will come of this. We can’t fix everything right now; we can’t find the exactly correct thing to do that will turn this around. We can’t even get the grief to go away quickly. But we can spend time nurturing an emerging wisdom we will be needing in the days ahead. That means patiently enduring and waiting with the tension and discomfort. We have to be there, listening for that voice from God, that whisper that always comes.”

In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the center held a prayer vigil in solidarity with the millions of victims of violence and hatred in the world. Picha said: “We offer contemplation as a third way. It’s not fight and it’s not flight. Dom Hélder Câmara, the Brazilian prelate, said: ‘When I feed the hungry, I am called a saint. Yet when I ask why they are hungry, I am called a communist.’ Now we may be called unpatriotic when we ask questions about why people hate us so much, but it’s necessary. That’s why we have to be working out of that ongoing inner centering prayer, even when we are too busy to pray.”

Patricia Livingston, author, retreat leader and national speaker on prayer and spirituality, in the midst of leading a sabbatical group at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, told NCR: “While leading a day of reflection yesterday on the paschal mystery, I realized how much our primal Christian images illumine this tragedy. The paschal mystery, of course, is that God is with us in our dying and rising. Another primal image lies in the story of the road to Emmaus: Jesus’ disciples, shattered and shocked after the crucifixion -- for them a display of the power of death. They grieved, and yet they didn’t see the risen Jesus right in their midst breaking the bread. They didn’t yet have those resurrection eyes.

“Many react by running around trying to do something. My husband is an action type. He’s been busy with his job, which actually connects him with the nation’s priorities. He works on software for anti-terrorism programs. When he asked me where I go to deal with this event, I told him that it is to that dark, silent place within, my inner sanctuary. It’s always been there, of course, but I first located it long ago when I had a stillborn child. People who have suffered know that place. Terrible events come to us all, those cycles when the grain of wheat falls to the barren ground. Many young people are probably going there now for the first time. And on first arrival, it’s frightening, unsettling. It doesn’t feel like home,” she said.

“The mystery at the heart of our Christian religion says: Dying and rising in life leads to seeing things with resurrection eyes. We cower like the disciples in the Upper Room did and then a voice comes and says ‘Peace to you.’ All who suffer know that when there has been an attack on the tall towers of your being, that not only did rebuilding occur, but that process was filled with love and hope. It will happen again and again.

“I’ve noticed unusual courtesy from flight attendants and other passengers,” Livingston said. “A telemarketer the other day asked me if my family was OK. The forces of creation are at work, even in these sad days.”

Gertrud Mueller Nelson is a liturgist and artist who lives and works in San Diego. Her image of the World Trade Center Towers replaced by lit vigil candles illustrated our editorial page last week. “When I have no words, I draw,” she told NCR. “I make an altar and put things there that need to be brought before God. A woman came into the church where I work the day after the tragedy. A musician, she needed to play her guts out on the piano. You do something that comes out of who you are, then you go out and give blood or money or take your shovel to where the work needs to be done. You use e-mail to teach peace, question our motives, share stories, to beg people to ask the right questions, to have patience.”

Nelson celebrated the Sept. 17 feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, mystic and visionary, by drawing an icon of Hildegard’s vision of wholeness at the heart of the universe, and spreading it across the Internet. “I feel like we stand on the brink of a whole new world. We are stepping off into it and can depend only on God’s grace. I think often of W. H. Auden’s famous poem, ‘September 1, 1939,’ written on the eve of World War II. It’s been a solace. Auden’s vivid images of towering buildings groping the sky, of children afraid of the night and lost in a haunted wood leads to his conclusion: ‘We must love one another or die.’ ”

Philip St. Romain is on the staff of the Heartland Center for Spirituality at Great Bend, Kan., and the author of 17 books on prayer and spirituality. He told NCR: “My prayer these days has been filled with images from the television. When they come up, I entrust them to God’s care. Prayer, meditation, contemplation, all of these treasures from the Catholic spiritual tradition, help us to get to a place deeper than fear. I don’t have a problem with the flag being present for Christian gatherings. If it’s given more significance than that, then there’s a problem but for now, to me, it signifies that we are taking our country to God and asking God’s blessing, mercy and grace.”

Trappist Fr. James Behrens told NCR that his community in Conyers, Ga., “prayed in pain. We prayed from a numbing sense of loss, from fear. Perhaps we prayed from that place called Gethsemani, a place where Jesus prayed and no answer was forthcoming. God calls us to respond to these days of profound loss with the kind of hope that can only be seen beyond Gethsemani, to the light that is God in our world.”

Loretto Sr. Mary Ann McGivern, coordinator for Community Networking for Peace, Justice, Mercy and Compassion, put these tips for action and for prayer up on her community’s Web site: “Keep asking what a loving response to terrorism would look like. Keep insisting that we not kill more civilians. Listen to one another. Allow our hearts to bleed. Take political action. Call Congress. Say no to war, to blind retaliation. Say no to terrorism and say yes to compassion, justice and peace.”

In a statement from the presidents of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in response to the terrorist attacks, St. Joseph Sr. Kathleen Pruitt and Franciscan Fr. Canice Connors wrote: “We are united in our fear, sorrow and vulnerability. We must also be united in our efforts to end terrorism and violence. We are equally united in efforts to renew and sustain right relationships grounded in mutual respect. Justice for all people is the sure foundation for peace. This is not the responsibility of national leaders alone; it is the responsibility of each person of faith, regardless of ethnic background, national heritage and way of life.”

In the days and months ahead, we will continue to pray in the wake of this great calamity.

Jesus, when asked to comment on a Galilean disaster (Luke 13:4-5) in which a tower fell on 18 people killing them, said rather sharply: “Do you imagine they must have been more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all come to an end like theirs.” Scripture scholars explain that repentance here means the conversion of heart that comes with faith and prayer.

“There’s good spiritual precedent for reflecting and assessing in any time of great sorrow,” said Fredericka Methewes-Green. “The Hebrew scriptures show a consistent pattern: A devastating loss was a signal to repent, turn and change. That didn’t mean the enemy was ‘right’ or God liked them better, only that it was time to learn a hard lesson in the spiritual life.”

In the midst of tragedy perhaps the real balm we seek in our prayer is that kind of conversion, the age-old spiritual task of replacing stony hearts with a heart of flesh. n

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001