Entries in prayer (5)
The depiction of St. Michael the Archangel conquering Satan used to strike me as one of those wacky medieval bits of Catholic iconography. That was before I had a child.
Now I relish the idea of a mighty champion kicking demonic butt, because my kid is going out into that world, and sometimes it seems to resemble this terrifying dreamscape by Raphael. On this Saturday night, when the perils that may await our children are much in the news, this prayer goes out to all who face mortal dangers, whether spiritual or physical.
Prayer To St. Michael The Archangel
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle.
Be our safeguard and protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
To start the week, a prayer from beloved spiritual author Henri Nouwen. I often actually find my fists clenched and find it almost impossible to relax my hands, even at rest; I am loathe to speculate on what this implies about my spiritual life, but this beautiful invocation may help.
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.
And what you want to give me is love—
unconditional, everlasting love.
Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch-born Catholic pastor, professor, and author of more than 40 books developing his "theology of the heart." His is a radical spirituality, not watered-down therapy. For example:
"Maybe someone will say to you, 'You have to forgive yourself.' But that isn’t possible. What is possible is to open your hands without fear, so that the One who loves you can blow your sins away." For more of his wonderful insights on unclenching our fists, go here. If you, like Henri and me, have struggled with depression, you might want to start wtih The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, one of his most intensely personal works. Have a blessed week!
To know me, is to know how much I love the gospel story of the 10 lepers healed by Christ (Luke 17:11-19). I love it so much I named my graphic arts enterprise "Tenth Leper Press." And now I have discovered this enchanting painting by Mormon fantasy artist James Christensen. I am reproducing it without permission, so maybe if I link to his gallery where you can buy a copy, they will forgive me.
The story obsesses me for many reasons. One is the rough mathematical accuracy (in my experience) of "one out of 10 lepers says thank you." The story acknowledges the pain of all unthanked healers and givers ("Were not all ten cleansed?" Christ asks, a question that always pricks my heart.) It also reflects how often we cut and run after fate seems to deal us a break; sometimes, you just don't want to be reminded of your old self, or how bad things might've been. The Tenth Leper, who comes back and "falls on his face," does more than thank; as Mark Lane, C.O. of the Oratory of St. Boniface has pointed out, this guy must now grapple with a new identity as a healthy person, and (as happened in Monty Python's Life of Brian), he may now be out of a perfectly good job begging piteously. Healing can be scary; it brings a whole bunch of new expectations.
But gratitude is something we can get right even when we're too dysfunctional to accomplish much else. If you are blessed with a human healer in your life, let them know. (For an awesome tale in that vein, see below.) Here is a prayer that channels the Tenth Leper. I honestly don't know where it came from.
The Prayer of the Tenth Leper
Jesus, Master, have pity on me.
Touch me in my isolation.
Heal me of my afflictions.
Free me to serve you with a glad heart,
And draw me back always to thank you
For your infinite mercy and love. Amen.
The Grateful Patient: An Uncanny Tale
In a previous post, I posited only half-kiddingly that my dad, a Catholic convert with a bottomless heart, was a bona fide saint. Here is, perhaps, a bit of evidence for his "cause" (as Catholics call the project of getting a saint canonized): When my dad died of leukemia in 1985, the hematologist/oncologist who had cared for him, and all of us, with great compassion was unfortunately traveling in his native Italy on medical business. We stumbled out of the hospital in a fog of grief, and I never got a chance to thank that physician for all his care. I meant to call, really. Years passed. Twenty years, actually, and then some. One day, on a guilty whim, I googled the doctor, who was still in practice, and e-mailed him a note of thanks.
The doc promptly replied, saying he was touched (if, I suspect, a bit puzzled) to have gotten such a note so long after losing his patient. He admitted that he did not recall my father individually after all these years, but vividly recalled the week following his death; when he was to have flown back to New York, he changed his flight on an inexplicable, strangely persistent hunch. Doing so, he recounted, may have saved his life, since a terrorist attack tore through the terminal from which he would have departed, killing 16. I learned two things from this interchange: (1) Yeah, Daddy's first miracle, and try convincing me otherwise. (2) Cool things can happen when you swallow your pride and say thank you, even when it's ludicrously overdue.
For today's Lenten prayer, I have scanned a yellowed and dog-eared card found in my dad's old Catholic missal (the prayer book with the Latin and English words of the Mass). I love the "Our Father," but this one is the "My Father." As in, my father lived this prayer. He also embodied its earnest, fervent midcentury style, being a Catholic convert from the era of Fulton J. Sheen's Life is Worth Living broadcasts. The prayer is called "Learning Christ":
My dad's life was indeed "strong in its purpose of sanctity." He lived his faith in every encounter, as a father, neighbor, insurance salesman, passing motorist...but perhaps most of all as husband. The man who saved this prayer card was married (after a 15-year courtship) to a beautiful but troubled woman who lived her life in the grip of fear, insecurity, anger and cynicism. I believe I am the offspring of the world's greatest optimist and its darkest pessimist. And in all the years of their marriage, my father never gave up his patient campaign to ease my mother's embattled heart. Turn the card over, and his inscription (Q for Quentin, M for Mathilde) reveals that he gave it to her four years before they finally married, while he was still a military policeman guarding FDR during World War II.
"Learning Christ" might sound a bit sanctimonious or impossibly pious to our post-modern ears. After all, therapy and self-fulfillment are our touchstones now, not "putting ourselves aside." But you will have to take my word for it that the man who lived this prayer was the happiest man I've ever known, and the freest. He lived each day in joy and died at peace, beloved by all who knew him. Through him, I "learned Christ" a little more every day. Corny as it sounds, I am quite convinced he is a saint. If you're in the market for an intercessor, Richard Quentin Becker would, I'm sure, be happy to hear from you.
Just, wow. I was going to post my absolutely favorite, butt-kickingest anti-depression prayer right up front in Lent...and I discover it is actually a Lenten prayer! Not for Roman Catholics, but for our Eastern Orthodox brethren. Folks, I give you:
The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter. [kneel, bow, or prostration]
Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience and love. [kneel, bow, etc.]
O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen. [kneel, bow, etc.]
St. Ephrem the Syrian is a Doctor of the Church who lived in present-day Turkey from about 306 to 370 AD. He wrote in the Syriac language and was a prolific author of hymns, many composed to combat the rampant heresies of his day; they would be sung by all-female choirs playing lyres, which sounds a lot more interesting than CCD class.
The prayer above, however, was composed by his later admirers, who admired him so much that they would make stuff up and sign it "Ephrem the Syrian," apparently. (Even then, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.) What makes this prayer kick butt, of course, are the moves prescribed within. Apparently some Eastern believers bow from the waist and others actually do the whole flat-on-the-floor thing. I would tell you what I do, but then I'd have to kill you. (Hint: I have osteoarthritis of the knee, so it's nothing worthy of The DaVinci Code.) However, any kind of moves you can do accomplish a twofold purpose:
1. You wake up and focus.
2. You feel like an idiot.
3. Oh, yes, three is: Because of (2), you "pray in your room in secret" just like Jesus ordered. Which is kind of cool.
For those of us who suffer from depression, the prayer contains a powerful appeal to avoid "acedia," the dreaded monastic spiritual affliction of just not giving a crap about anything (certainly not about religious practice). This concept is a rich and tricky one, since acedia mutated into the better-known deadly sin of sloth, and it's hard enough dealing with the biochemical burden of depression without mixing it up with a deadly sin. The spiritual author Kathleen Norris explores this conundrum at rambling but sometimes illuminating length in her book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life.
The rubrics (physical positions) prescribed in the prayer seem designed with depression sufferers in mind. Sometimes, you just need to get moving. (The wise prankster St. Philip Neri once had a melancholic young man approach him for spiritual direction; instead, Philip lit out for the streets of Rome, saying, "Run with me!" to the astonished young man. A personal trainer for the soul!)
If you're not ready for bowing or prostration, crank this up; it's a Little Richard rarity. I don't know if St. Ephrem would have approved, but I suspect St. Philip would've loved it.