This Ritual of Hallowing

One of my favorite parts of Sara Miles' memoir Take This Bread is how, after she starts a food pantry at her church St. Gregory, she gets pulled into a ministry of prayer, this despite all her skepticism about prayer:
The atmosphere of St. Gregory's drew people in: They came looking for something to eat, but often, like the woman seeking peace, or like me, they really wanted far more. I'd be lifting a box, in the noise and bustle, and someone would come up to me--a grieving mom, a lonely immigrant, a sick man, or any of the many varieties of crazy people who hovered around the pantry. "Will you pray for me?" they'd ask.

So I took a deep breath and began praying with anyone who asked...I'd get people such as Ed, a filthy white guy with long hair who'd frequently flop down on the curb, begging for help. One of our most insane and drug-addicted visitors, he'd sob and rant, in no particular sequence...I'd sit down on the sidewalk with him and wipe his nose. "Oh God," he'd say, "I can't go on like this. Help me, help me." I was sort of fond of Ed, despite his hysteria, so I'd pat his stringy arm and murmur until he calmed down a bit, then fetch him a snack, make the sign of the cross on his dirty forehead, and send him on his way with a few bags of food...

"It seems really hokey sometimes," I said to Lynn.

"I know," said Lynn. "But big deal. You just have to be there."

So I'd sit down next to people and let them talk or cry; I'd listen and put my hands on them; at some point, I'd pray aloud, without really knowing where the words were coming from. It felt homey, not mysterious. But it usually made me cry, too.
I like these passages in the book as they mirror my own experience. When you start to engage with people on the margins you are inexorably drawn into the experience of prayer. This despite all your skepticism and doubts.

What happens in prayer? Does God really listen and answer? I have no clue. But this much I've learned:

Prayer is an act of hallowing.

Imagine someone comes to you and shares a great burden. They share loss, failure, despair, fear, brokenness, or sickness. Their own or that of someone they love. What do you say upon listening? Thanks for sharing? Good luck with all that? I'm so sorry?

Something has happened, something was shared, that needs to be set apart from every other mundane and silly thing that has happened during the day. The moment needs to be hallowed--set apart, consecrated, made holy.

And so you pray. Prayer is a hallowing.

I think about the prayer time before our Sunday School class, a prayer that I often lead. We go around sharing a variety of requests. People are sick. People are traveling. People are struggling. People are broken. People are afraid. And after gathering all these requests, having openned ourselves up to each other, what are we to say in response? "Thanks for sharing everyone." doesn't quite cut it. The moment--where we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those rejoice--needs hallowing. And so we pray. Our sharing wasn't just "catching up" around the water cooler. Something sacred was going on. And so we pray. We hallow.

Do I believe God is out there answering all these petitions and requests? Again, I don't know. But I know that prayer--this ritual of hallowing--is the only proper response.

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16 thoughts on “This Ritual of Hallowing”

  1. This explains it.  I had great skepticism about prayer in the face of my father's suffering with a long-term illness, and my mother's suffering as his caretaker, but somehow I still had to pray.  I couldn't NOT pray, although every prayer was laced with doubt.  Knowing that others were praying for us made it possible for me to continue with my daily life.  It's not that the suffering was made holy - I don't believe that.  Maybe it's more that we ourselves were made sacred, in our very humanity, or maybe that God became more human to us, in that way making the human world more sacred.

  2. Yes, it's not a hollowing of the pain but a hollowing our our standing in solidarity with those in pain. And because of this prayer makes us more human.

  3. I have often felt completely helpless when I know prayer is the only response to what a person has shared with me... especially if that person doesn't believe in prayer and I know that any kind of miraculous answer is unlikely to follow.  This has given me an entirely new perspective on the true purpose of praying for others.  I'm so glad you shared this.

  4. Standing with the suffering, weeping with those who mourn, and crying out for those oppressed; Maybe this is the point of prayer, to see what God goes through with his children.

  5. I needed this some way I was driving this morning and praying and complaining to/at full of doubt that even though I have enough faith to pray/yell at God, do I really believe he listens or cares? I don't know, but there is still such a need for me. I can imagine even more so for those who are worse off spiritually/financially/whatever than I am.

  6. I think it's a part of needing to hallow--set apart and concentrate--parts of our own biography. That this particular fear or pain or brokenness in my own life is qualitatively different than what typically goes on with me in a normal day. In the territory of our soul and story there are sacred spaces and holy ground. Prayer for ourselves hallows these locations.

  7. Of course, in some cases, other things can be done that are likely to tangibly improve the situation if only a bit--e.g., making meals, providing transportation, financial assistance, visiting, finding someone with the skills or contacts that can help, or just listening and giving the person a hug.

  8. Very true. I wouldn't ever want to suggest that prayer replace the Works of Mercy. Mainly what I'm speaking to is consecrating a human interaction.

  9. I'm really glad you posted this today. I've been reading a lot of Gordon Lathrop lately, and he talks about how the participants in sacred spaces complement each other as signs of Christ--the pastor and the congregation, etc. The discussions I'm having in seminary just get so heady and intellectual that it all feels disembodied. And then I read things like this, and start bringing all that fancy liturgical theology back into an incarnated form. In a way, your blog pulls me back toward my vocation when the academy gets out of balance in my life. Thanks for reviving my heart and my imagination.

  10. The part of the Sara Miles story that resonates so with me is the unforced prayer.  Of course, you pray. There's an answer I want, but even more there is a communion I seek.

    To follow up on the idea of "hallowing" I find often that my intercessory prayers turn on the notion that God be hallowed in their life. I pray for God's holy work in their lives because while I am ignorant of what that person (or situation) finally needs), I am utterly confident in the One who can meet them.

  11. First-time commenter, though I've loved your blog for a long time because it reminds me it's okay to ask questions.

    I came to the conclusion long ago that prayer isn't for God as much as it is for us. After all, praying "your will be done" acknowledges that our petition doesn't make much difference to how God chooses to answer it. But for me, prayer makes me grateful on the occasions when I've prayed for something He was going to do anyway. It reminds me that I asked for this blessing and received it. Otherwise it's easy for me to take such blessings for granted. But I've struggled to justify why we feel the need to pray for others when your prayer for them won't necessarily do anything to produce the desired results. I like this explanation.

  12. Dear Dr. Beck--
    Your writings have helped me stay sane while I navigate through constantly-shifting doubt and wondering. Thanks for your extremely sharp intellect and your heart.

  13. I write to stay sane.

    More and more, when it comes to faith and doubt, I'm finding that my encouragement is this: rather than seeing faith as an object of belief can I use my faith as a tool to live more deeply, authentically and humanely? This post about prayer is an example of that approach. Rather than focusing on the metaphysics of prayer how can prayer make me a better human being?

  14. Thanks for cracking through and commenting.

    I largely agree with the frame that prayer has more to do about us than God, though I see it a bit different. Basically, I wouldn't say prayer has more to do with us, or that it's all about us. It's just that this is the part that I know about, that whatever prayer involves it involves this much, the part I know about. As for what is happening on God's side, if anything, I just don't know. So it's less a matter of limiting prayer or restricting its focus than an expression of unknowing and humility.

  15. Your blog, as well as my own journey in faith, is new, but I really love your website.  I stumbled it upon earlier today while searching out an answer on another topic and started reading through the more recent articles.  The notion of consecrating a deep, personal human interaction that makes all others seem more superficial than we like is inspiring.  This is a wonderful post.  Thank you for sharing.  I'm now off to buy "Unclean."

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