We sat under an awning in the July heat, sweating beneath our dark suits and dresses. My father’s casket gleamed in the sun. The funeral service at the church had ended about twenty minutes earlier, and the committal service was about to begin. The retired pastor leading the service stood near the head of the casket and cleared his throat.
“In times like these it’s hard to know how to pray,” he said.
I leaned over to my wife and whispered in her ear, “That’s why you read the prayers out of the book.”
Words fail in times of grief and fear, in times of suffering and its threat, in times of job loss and physical isolation. We can’t ignore the impulse to pray, and yet the enormity of a global pandemic weighs on us and robs us of words. How can we possibly find words adequate to this situation, words through which we might approach God on our own or lead others in prayer?
While a pastor might be expected to know how to pray at a funeral service, no one should be expected to have exactly the right words during a global emergency of this magnitude.
How can we possibly find words adequate to this situation, words through which we might approach God on our own or lead others in prayer?
But we still have the books.
We still have the resources of thousands of years of faithful people praying to the God of Abraham. We have the Psalms. We have the collects of the church. We have the recorded prayers of saints and other Christian leaders over the centuries. And we can use these resources of history to guide our own praying in times like these.
There’s one prayer in particular I’ve been returning to again and again, a prayer that has helped me pray when I can’t find the words.
Each night I sing to my ten-year-old daughter before bed. What should be ten minutes of singing turns into a half-hour of singing, laughing, talking, playing with stuffed animals, and praying.
Not long ago she bought a small tin filled with prayer cards printed with verses from the Psalms and other passages of Scripture along with classic prayers from Christian history. She flips through them while I sing and chooses one for me to read.
One she has asked for frequently in the weeks since the pandemic has begun to impinge on our lives is a favorite of mine, a collect from the Book of Common Prayer, sometimes attributed to Saint Augustine:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
This simple prayer covers many of the needs of the world right now, needs both far away and close to home. Each petition seems perfect for the current crisis, and as I read, sitting on the edge of my daughter’s bed, I use the petitions as prompts, and we add people and situations we can think of; we name the sick, suffering, and afflicted.
While each petition helps us pray, I’m especially drawn to the first and the last.
During Holy Week Christians remember that, before Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked the disciples to keep watch with him and pray. But they slept through the vigil.
I think about those drowsy disciples as I read the first petition: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night.” That petition includes those who lie awake afraid and alone in hospital rooms; it includes doctors and nurses risking their lives to tend the sick; it includes grocery store clerks restocking shelves in the middle of the night. We’re asking the God who promised never to slumber or sleep to sidle up to them in their midnight weariness and support their work with a gracious presence.
We’re calling on a God whom drowsiness cannot overtake.
And each night the last petition arrives on my lips as a pleasant surprise, a petition I never would have thought of on my own: “Shield the joyous.”
Those three words appear as a reminder that a virus cannot banish joy from the world, and that those who manage to experience moments of joy need not feel guilty or apologize. The appropriate response to joy is simply to experience it as fully as possible, acknowledge it as gift, and give thanks.
I sometimes pause there and tell my daughter how much joy I’ve found in the last few weeks of being at home with her and the rest of our family—joy in our praying together, joy in the family games, joy in delicious meals, joy in walks through the neighborhood. And we pray that the joy may endure.
The appropriate response to joy is simply to experience it as fully as possible, acknowledge it as gift, and give thanks.
I do that aware that not everyone has such joy in this season of social-distancing. And I do it aware that the time might come when the other petitions fit our circumstances better. That we might become the sick, suffering, and afflicted.
But for now, joy.
When we get to the end, I tuck the card back in the tin box and finish singing. I help her find Bubble Bear, Blanket, and Boo, who always seem to slip out of the bed, and tuck them around her neck. I kiss her on the forehead and switch off the light.
And I leave, thankful that in times like these, in times when I feel inadequate to pray, we have the prayers of others to tutor our faith and guide our tongues as we step gently into the presence of a God who keeps vigil with us both in our suffering and in our joy.