It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
~ Mary Oliver
I think a lot of us have been praying this week. These past few weeks. This whole summer.
Or maybe now, in retrospect, we realize we were praying. Or we should have been.
“Now is a time for prayers” has been rightly criticized as an insufficient response to violence. Prayer is no substitute for action. Words are no replacement for deeds.
But just because prayer is insufficient doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary. In the face of violence—violence of bullets, violence of swords, violence of words—prayer is not enough, but prayer is necessary nonetheless.
When I say prayer, I don’t mean prayer of the “God save us” variety. That’s a prayer of helplessness, a prayer that at root says, “We are powerless in the face of this.” But we are not powerless. We have power. We have agency. We are citizens in a democracy. We are armed with a power to communicate, a power to broadcast words and images, a power to mobilize people, undreamed of in our own lifetimes. We are immensely powerful. So a prayer of powerlessness is not the kind of prayer I mean.
When I say prayer, I mean the kind of prayer Mary Oliver refers to: “the doorway / into thanks, and a silence in which / another voice may speak.” This is a prayer of calm, a prayer of centering.
When I say prayer, I mean an act of humbling ourselves by becoming quiet and still: “Pay attention.”
When I say prayer, I mean an act of making room: allowing another voice—the voice of another person, the voice of the divine, the still small voice of our own souls—to be heard.
We have witnessed violent images, so many violent images. And we have heard violent words, uttered by angry souls with angry mouths beneath angry eyes.
In the face of such anger and violence, we may resist the quiet for fear of what we might hear. But I would suggest that now, especially now, is a moment to be quiet. It is a moment to listen. It is a moment to pray.
We don’t need to linger on the moment. We shouldn’t make it too long. Prayer must lead to action. But action without prayer, deeds without reflection—well, that’s precisely what we’ve witnessed, in sadness and terror, these weeks and months.
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. In fact, it needs to be simple, as simple and as profound as the radical act of being quiet, paying attention, listening, and patching together our own words. This the fierce quiet of strength, the unconquerable quiet of resilience.
Despair is not an option, nor should it be. We are created in God’s image, blessed with incredible capacities of thought and feeling. And if we stop to listen, we can hear a still small voice calling us to be generous, compassionate, and loving our words and deeds.
Now is the time to hear that voice, and to amplify it a thousand-fold in our hands, our feet, and our mouths. Now is the time to listen to ourselves, to encounter strangers and listen to them. Now is the time to find the questions we share, the stories we share, and in so doing to re-humanize one another.
Despite its many flaws, I still believe deeply in the possibility of this American experiment we’re part of. Can we find a way to live together, to overcome the parts of ourselves that nurture grievance and resentment into hatred and violence? I believe we can.
We won’t do it through words alone. We won’t do it without real work and change. But we also won’t do it unless we pray, unless we slow down enough to breathe and listen and recognize the fellow images of God who are our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our fellow travelers on the planet.
Stop. Pay attention. Listen.