Good prayer is expansive. What do I mean by this?
First, our prayer must be as wide as the world. No one is to be excluded from our prayer. I love the hymn that says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” Can we say, there’s a wideness in our prayer like the wideness of the sea?
One of the most moving prayer experiences I had occurred in 2002 when I was attending a month-long conference in South Korea with about 40 other Sisters of Notre Dame from over 20 different countries. Each morning, we began with prayer, taking turns to lead it. One sister from Toledo, OH asked each of us to bring a copy of our local newspaper to the conference. (I brought The Cleveland Plain Dealer.) At the beginning of the prayer, she asked us to place our newspapers on the floor in a large circle with their front pages in full view. While she played some soft religious music, we slowly and silently walked around the room gazing down at the front pages of those very diverse newspapers. Even if we couldn’t read the headlines, we could at least “read” the pictures.
Then she had us take our newspapers back to our places, and she led us in a prayerful reflection. Pick a story, she said, only substitute a loved one—your parent, sibling, niece/nephew, friend—for the person in the story. Then read the story from that perspective.
I still remember the first story I read that way. It was about the rise of AIDS in China. There was a picture of a little boy, about 6, sitting on a cot next to his grandmother who was dying of AIDS. Both of his parents had already died of AIDS. His grandmother was the only person left in his family. I substituted my grandnephew, Aaron, for the boy since he was about the same age. That meant his dying grandmother became my sister. That also meant that his deceased parents were my niece Lori and her husband Dan. Reading the story that way underscored for me the tragedy of the situation.
I picked another story about a man on death row. He became my brother John. I read that story very differently when I substituted John’s name for the man. I asked myself, how would I feel if this man was my brother? What would I think or do? Reading those two stories from that perspective really moved me. It humanized the headlines. It strengthened my sense of oneness with the human family. It deepened and expanded my prayer.
When I say our prayer must be expansive, I am not saying we don’t pray for things close to home: a personal trial, a sick loved one, a parish need, a city issue. It just means we don’t isolate our prayer from what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the larger community. The best offertory petitions at Mass are those that include needs that are local, national, and global. As I have quoted before, the Talmud says, “Never pray in a room without windows.” We don’t have to take those words literally. It just means our prayer must be open to the world outside and beyond our windows.
St. Teresa of Avila said, “The purpose of prayer is good works, good works, good works.” Expansive prayer keeps us mindful of our Christian call to immerse ourselves in the needs and issues of our day—precisely because God is already at work there. A Presbyterian minister, Eugene Peterson, wrote: “always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so I can respond to it and participate in it and delight in it.”
Over and over again I hear people say, “We are living in unprecedented times.” And in some ways, we really are. It’s hard to imagine another time in our history when we faced so many critical issues all at the same time: a raging global pandemic, massive unemployment; catastrophic fires and storms; deep-seated racism; a contentious presidential election; a disturbing divisiveness; and certain accepted practices that threaten the very survival of our planet. Against such a backdrop, we may be tempted to retreat from this suffering world—to close our window—and seek solace in a prayer that is detached from the “mess out there.”
But we must not succumb to that temptation. Instead, let us ask Jesus to show us what we can do to help in these desperate times–whether it is big or small: helping to disinfect the church after Mass, checking in on a neighbor, sharing the tomatoes from our garden, writing to our congressperson, making a monetary contribution for disaster relief, helping a child with her homework, staying informed on key issues, and lifting our hearts and hands in prayer.
And if we find ourselves getting disheartened, let us hear the promise Jesus himself made to us, “Behold, I am with you always.”
Did any words in this reflection “move” you?
What helps you to keep your prayer expansive?
Recall a prayer experience that you would describe as “moving.” Reflect on the factors that made it so for you. Would you like to share it with us?
Our faith tells us that God is at work in the world even during these “unprecedented times.” Have you seen any evidence of that? If so, where?
Announcing: My new book, The Grace of Beauty: Its Mystery, Power, and Delight in Daily Life, is being released! (I’m excited!) You can find it on Amazon or the Twenty-Third Publications website. I want to thank all of you, our “Sunflower Community,” for encouraging me in my writing ministry. Your support helps keep me at my computer!
A Big THANK YOU to the 27 participants on this past weekend’s “Holding onto Hope” retreat sponsored by Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Center in Maple Mount, KY. The retreatants, from about 11 different states, were a delight to be with. And special thanks to Maryann Joyce the gracious director of the retreat center! And thanks to all of you who held this retreat in your prayer!
Our song is “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” written by Frederick Faber (1814-1863). Faber, a friend of John Henry Newman, was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1845. A talented musician, he wrote over 150 Church hymns. Faber’s lyrics have been set to many different melodies. This version comes to us from Ipswich, England.
Would you like to respond to anything here—the reflection, the pictures, the video, or something another reader said? If so, please do so below. My readers and I love hearing from our readers!