“2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.”
-Fr. Thomas Hopko, 55 Maxims for Christian Living
Every December I meet up in Chicago with my sisters-in-law and dear friend Beth to spend two glorious days visiting, window shopping, and dining out in the city. In 2012, our girls’ weekend fell on December 14th. That Friday we were strolling leisurely through the Christkindl Christmas Market, hot caffeinated beverages in hand, when an outdoor jumbo screen across the street from us began showing live coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
I will never forget the cold horror I felt staring in disbelief at the agonizing images of children being ushered out of an unfathomably heinous murder scene by police who would be haunted for the rest of their days by evil too sadistic to process.
I thought of my own four children sitting right at that very moment in their respective school classrooms oblivious and vulnerable to the darkness hovering threateningly over their feigned sense of safety. I thought of those parents whose babies had been gunned down and my soul groaned in anguish. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t stop crying. I wanted to go home.
The next evening, after catching a late afternoon train back to Indiana, I hugged my kids tight. My two youngest were unaware of the Sandy Hook tragedy but my older two had heard enough to be unnerved. My oldest daughter in particular, who was eleven at the time, was especially scared and angry.
“How could God let that happen? Why?” she whimpered. “I don’t know,” I answered honestly, with tears in my eyes because I hated that something so monstrous and cruel had infiltrated her tender mind. “Let’s pray,” I suggested.
The two of us, desperate for comfort and direction, lit candles and burned incense then stood to face our icons of Christ and the Theotokos. As the mother, the adult in that situation, surely, I thought, I should pray in such a way that expressed confidence in Christ’s perfect will and omnipotence. I should resolutely steel myself against faithless fear and doubt by bravely declaring: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I should fill the scary emptiness in her heart and my heart with defiant hope and determined gratitude but all strength and confidence had been shaken right out of me.
Right then, weakness and sorrow were literally all I had to offer. “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy,” I began. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. Have mercy on all who are suffering. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord Have mercy.”
Without first trying to conjure up feelings of courage, warmth or understanding, I leaned wholly “as is” into Christ Himself, not for answers but only connection. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus …” Turning inward away from earthly chaos toward the quiet depths of my spirit, I momentarily experienced prayer not just as a means to an end but as a state of being – a state of communion with Jesus Christ. His presence was enough. It was more than I even realized I needed.
Fr. Roman Braga, of blessed memory, in an article featured in the summer 2015 issue of “Life Transfigured: A journal of Orthodox nuns,” defined prayer this way:
Prayer is a permanent communication between man and God, whether one uses words, music, or silence. The Holy Fathers ascertain that prayer is the presence of God within us. One has to feel this presence as a pregnant woman feels the presence of the babe in her womb. Prayer is not a ready-made or a recited formula but it is a state of the spirit. Sometimes we may pray, but the mind is not at home and the spirit does not participate. But if we live in the presence of God and walk with Him daily, we are in a state of prayer, even if we don’t say any words. “
Many, many times I’ve become disheartened by my frailties, ashamed to the point of despair. Then I’m tempted to, like Adam and Eve when they became aware of their nakedness, hide from God. I’m tempted to distance myself from His Holiness. But then the words of Psalm 50 (51) come mercifully back to me: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
A broken and contrite heart: right now that’s all I have to offer. “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy,” I begin. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. Have mercy on all who are suffering. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord Have mercy.”
“Lord have mercy,” when I’m frightened. “Lord have mercy,” when I’m happy. “Lord have mercy,” when I don’t understand. “Lord have mercy,” when I don’t know how to proceed. “Lord have mercy,” in my bed when sleep is elusive. “Lord have mercy,” when I’m driving. “Lord have mercy,” when I’ve fallen. “Lord have mercy,” when responding to a family member or neighbor. “Lord have mercy,” when tomorrow seems too overwhelming to bear.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus… Come what may, Your presence is enough.
Every second of every moment, I need You.”