The long and interminable hours of the night can be devastating. Those who struggle for life itself through the long hours of the night or who are tossed about by worries, illness, longing for the safe return of loved ones, loneliness, these particularly are they who know the Psalmist’s cry wrenched from his heart in the wee hours of darkness: “As the watchman waits for the dawn, O Lord, my soul longs for thee! Longs for thee in the night, my night, our night! Come, Lord Jesus, come!”
Living with insomnia, I have since my early twenties been one of these watchers in the night. Once I would have observed life at three in the morning as it played out beneath my window. In this season of my life, however, when I routinely rise throughout the night, I am picking up the Night Hours by Phyllis Tickle, uniting myself three times for just a few moments with an untold number of Christians and monastics across the globe who raise their hands and voices with urgency: “My soul longs for thee in the night.” I unite myself also to mothers by the bed of a sick child, workers on night shifts, cleaning agencies that work through the night, doctors and nurses and first responders, and now also to military spouses who fear for their loved ones recently mobilized to Europe for whom every day is still a night….
It was in the night that Ukraine feared they would receive the first incursion of Russia into their homeland. It was in that night, as on every night, that I rose and prayed alongside my unknown and anonymous night-watching companions. It was in that night that I prayed for women who feared for their lives, for soldiers training for war, for the mothers on both sides who knew their sons and husbands, fathers and brothers might never return to them…. For them I watched in the night.
And today we all read the headlines we have dreaded and hoped to never see. Our every day now has turned into the darkness of fear, and a feeling of dreaded powerlessness against the machine of war fills every hour.
Prayer seems such a small gesture in the face of all this. Could something so small have any import on the events of history, we could ask? Your prayers and mine, in the night, during the day, with every breath, calling out for God to rain down his mercy?
I say yes, and this is why:
Jesus commands us to pray for the whole world.
St John Chrysostom writes in his Homily on the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus teaches the apostles the Our Father: “Consider how Jesus Christ teaches us to be humble, by making us see that our virtue does not depend on our work alone but on grace from on high. He commands each of the faithful who prays to do so universally, for the whole world. For he did not say ‘thy will be done in me or in us,’ but ‘on earth,’ the whole earth, so that error may be banished from it, truth take root in it, all vice be destroyed on it, virtue flourish on it, and earth no longer differ from heaven” (CCC, no. 2825).
Through the act of prayer we become a space where love triumphs over evil.
Saint Edith Stein, Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, who suffered a martyr’s death at Auschwitz in 1942, assures us of the power of prayer and of offering one’s own life as proxy for another. Freda Mary Oben, Ph.D in her article “Edith Stein and the Science of the Cross,” described how Edith Stein took seriously the Christian disciple’s responsibility to combat evil and to become a space where love triumphs over evil. She writes, “When Hitler came on the scene, [Edith Stein] became a Carmelite in order to pray for the evil ones — the Nazi oppressors — as well as for the innocent ones, the Jews and all souls everywhere suffering in World War II. Shortly before her death she said to a priest, ‘Who will do penance for the evil that the Germans are inflicting?’ On the way to her crucifixion, the gas chamber at Auschwitz, she spoke of her suffering as an offering ‘for the conversion of atheists, for her fellow Jews, for the Nazi persecutors, and for all who no longer had the love of God in their hearts.’”
Edith Stein believed that even a single person offering her life for another has more meaning and power than armies and tanks.
Simple gestures such as this witness to the initiative of God which shapes the paths and journeys of history and of our lives.
Most of us are not in high-level positions such that our political decisions could affect the direction of events. We are, however, in a higher position than the government to effectively address the powers of war released on the earth. Through prayer we hold our ground and create an inner space of commitment and solidarity, of faith and of hope that can change everything.
The words of Saint John Paul II almost twenty years ago are prophetic for today. To the members of the diplomatic core on January 13, 2003 he said, “I have been personally struck by the feeling of fear which often dwells in the hearts of our contemporaries. [He listed the unresolved problems in the world of that year, and then continued] Yet everything can change. It depends on each of us. Everyone can develop within himself his potential for faith, for honesty, for respect of others and for commitment to the service of others.”
When John Paul II spoke of war he insisted that it is always a defeat for humanity, but with his characteristic call to us to not be afraid, a refrain which rang throughout the years of his pontificate, he stated again and again: “I plead with you–never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”
We are tired and the world is tired, yet we hold on to hope.
Though we are afraid, our choice to trust keeps us steady as we hold onto our indomitable certainty that God alone is our unwavering hope. God alone is sovereign of history.
Don’t be surprised that hope and trembling alternate in your heart.
These are seriously concerning times. My heart trembles, particularly when I think of what this could mean for me and friends and loved ones and my sisters throughout Europe. It is then that I reach out to my anonymous brothers and sisters who are immediately in the path of destruction in the Ukraine. In spirit I put down my trembling anxieties for my own welfare in order to stand at the side of children who are terrified, comforting and holding them, giving courage to mothers who are overwhelmed as they fear for the safety of their sons and daughters and husbands and fathers. I shed a light on the path of those who flee, and pray at the side of the wounded and dying. I kneel in prayer to the Holy Spirit in the rooms where decisions are being discerned and discussed and debated. Only God knows the way. God alone will show the way for each one and for us all.
I firmly believe that when each of us like Jesus reaches out together for the other, extending ourselves beyond our own trembling hearts to embrace the heart of this ever hurting world, when each of us carries the cross that is now upon us for the sake of the other, laying down our life that others might live, then and only then will we find peace…. Peace in our own hearts. Peace in between nations. Peace in the world.