Bringing prayer back into American daily life

Father John A. Kiley
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The local mosque in nearby North Smithfield sponsored an open house for northern Rhode Island as a gesture of friendship toward the Islamic community’s neighbors in the Blackstone Valley. St. James Parish in Manville shares much of the same territory as this mosque and in fact the imam’s sons belong to St. James’ Boy Scout troop. The mosque, a new building, has a Middle Eastern façade and a spacious interior laid out with Persian rugs to accommodate the day’s frequent prayer sessions. Quite visible on a wall is a digital timer with several different hours and minutes displayed. The device was similar to an arrival/departure mechanism one might view in an airport. Possibly the hours listed might correspond to times in cities important to Islam — Mecca, Medina, Bagdad, Cairo, etc. But no, the hours and minutes listed indicated the exact time of day that official prayers had to be said by that community in that mosque. Just as Catholic church bells used to call the faithful to the Angelus at dawn, noon and dusk, now the Islamic world is daily being reminded of its hours for prayer by a computerized apparatus.

The worldwide religions that arise from the patriarch Abraham all have a tradition of prayers offered at prescribed times throughout the day. The Catholic Church maintains this practice chiefly in its monasteries throughout the world and in the recitation of the Roman Breviary by its clergy. Selected prayers and readings from the Bible and from the Fathers of the Church and the saints are observed, ideally, before dawn, at dawn, at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., at dusk and at night. Other than in monasteries, it would be unusual and frankly unmanageable for the diocesan clergy to offer these prayers at the precisely appropriate moment. Prudent discretion is permissible.

Apparently a good portion of the Islamic world still does go out of its way to preserve the exact times for daily prayer. Groups of Islamic men are often pictured on television newscasts kneeling and bowing in their houses of prayer as demanded by their religious tradition. Some business and educational establishments locally have set aside a prayer room with curtains and rug reserved for times of prayer. In fact, political commentator Denish D’Souza claims that one of the chief gripes that some in the Islamic world have against the Western world is the almost total absence of prayer in public life. Prayers used to be said regularly in schools, and before public meetings, and at various commemorative events. But, lest someone take offence, such invocations are becoming scarcer by the day. Westerners can sometimes appear blasphemous, even Godless, to some of the larger world religions.

Clearly the Christian and the Judaic worlds have an ancient and enduring appreciation of prayer, both public and private. In fact, for most of Western history public prayer and culture overlapped. The Greeks and the Romans, the Christians and even the Jews when given the chance filled their calendars with prayerful events. The change of seasons, the cycles of the heavenly bodies, the stages of human development, all led previous generations to prayer — as the Church’s liturgical calendar and the seven sacraments well attest.

In this coming Sunday’s Scriptural readings at Mass, two occasions of prayer are offered for the worshipper’s reflection. Elijah is described standing on Mt. Horeb which is actually another name for Mt. Sinai where Moses often stood on memorable occasions. Elijah is encouraged to listen for God who might be passing by in wind or earthquake or fire. Recall that Moses’ encounters with God on Sinai were also attended by majestic natural phenomena. But God is not found in any natural wonder. Then a “wee, small voice,” as one translator happily words it, is sensed by Elijah and he knows God is speaking to him through quiet prayer. He recedes into the cave and prayerfully dialogues with God about his mission. St. Matthew in his Gospel account writes that, after Jesus fed the multitude and sent them on their way, “…he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.” Readers of the New Testament know that Jesus taking a moment, an hour, an evening, or a night for prayer was not exceptional. When the disciples woke up in the morning they knew exactly where Jesus was — at prayer.

The sad absence of prayer from much, in fact most, of American public life is lamentable. But, let’s be frank, Americans are not wearied by time spent at private prayer either. The “wee, small voice” of God is not only missing from our assemblies, it is also often missing from our homes. Prayer must once again become integral to American and Catholic daily life.