Praying for 'something more'

By 
  • August 29, 2008

Labour Day came early this year, along with those September-school-starting feelings. Even for those of us who’ve been out of school many years, they can be startling. If you’re a parent of school-age children, perhaps you’ve been “getting them ready,” assisted as always by advertisers who prod weeks early. If you’re not, you may remember the years when you prepared for term-time, possibly with competing feelings. 

Even the computer store chappie said not to expect my computer to be repaired any too quickly, as herds of parents were getting their kids’ computers, abused over the summer, in shape for that First Day.

I may not have thought of this on my own: a certain 12-year-old girl made me wonder how many of us think of prayer as an essential part of preparation for a big event. Is prayer important, assisting and guiding and giving us life, a profound connecting point between ourselves and the Divine who permeates all creation? Or perhaps it’s a duty we must perform, a kind of insurance for getting to heaven (betting alongside Pascal), if there is such a place. Perhaps it’s half-mumbled, little-understood words memorized in childhood. (As Shakespeare’s Claudius sighed,  “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.”) Or it may be a futile fantasy, inducing people into thinking they’re talking to God.

Again I remember the Catholic high school teacher, whose poignant remark I’ve mentioned before. He was part of a team preparing for a Grade 11 class retreat. Somebody had suggested that the plan for games, food and more games might be improved by the addition of time for prayer and silence — time for the Holy Spirit. Unenthused, the teacher responded: “There’s the Holy Spirit, and then there’s reality.”

The question does come to me, often. Which is reality — the inner voice that guides in prayer, or the familiar touchable world that mostly seems so independent and distant from that voice? I know people who are hostile to the idea of prayer. Others smile indulgently at the harmless whim that taking time for prayer, and listening in prayer, are as necessary as breathing. Others again are curious but keep their distance, as though witnessing something odd and slightly alarming.

Then there are the ringing words of Cardinal Jaime Sin: “being Christian means living your life in such a way that, if there were no God, your life would make no sense.” Praying, if there were no God, wouldn’t make much sense. I used to have a long commute, which gave me gobs of time to reflect. I reflected on what other commuters reflected about, and wondered how many of them — as they gave upwards of an hour or two a day to driving — would think it silly to give, say, 30 minutes a day to prayer.

Somehow it seems fitting that a 12-year-old, unbaptized, uncatechized girl would, spontaneously and simply, call me to prayer. This summer, we held a young girls’ retreat at the country refuge where we invite people to come for respite. The girls came from families in difficult circumstances, whether financial or emotional. We were able to give them a few days of personal attention, fresh air, summer-time activities and fun: swimming, fishing, boating, hiking, playing games, learning to cook, chatting, doing crafts. They all blossomed like sunflowers, so I wasn’t surprised to get exuberant thank-you cards at the end. What did surprise me was the motif that appeared in all the cards: that the “something more” our refuge offers was the most-appreciated gift. 

“Thank you for helping us to pray,” began one. “Thank you for letting me cry,” said another. A third, decorated with crosses, noted: “I’ve been to many camps before. Some were good, some were terrible. But this one WAS THE BEST” (her capital letters). 

We’d told them in advance they weren’t required to pray, only to have their bodies in the chapel at prayer-time and to respect prayer. Without being asked, they joined in the singing, wanted to read parts and wanted to know how to reverence the chapel on entering and exiting as we did. It was nonetheless surprising that they should name prayer as a gift received.

Why did it surprise me? Why shouldn’t they take prayer as a gift? Isn’t prayer a delight, a joy, an opportunity? Not always, of course, as anyone who’s persevered in prayer will agree. We’re learning that Mother Teresa rarely received comfort in prayer. Even Thérèse of Lisieux, a saint revered for her prayerfulness, often found prayer agonizing. It doesn’t always feel like a gift. But to these girls, standing for the first time on that threshold, it was as fresh and enjoyable as the river, sunshine and campfire.

As we prepare for big events, and prepare our children for them, we might do well to let the children guide us on just what is needed in order to be ready.

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