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Spoken Words (David Burman, SHH '13)

Every weekday morning, at 8 AM, we have morning prayer. This can be a bit tough. For me, a good morning happens when I wake up at about 8:30, take a few deep breaths, eat one or two delectable bowls of rice chex, and then go right back to bed until about 10:30. Instead, I have to be awake, dressed, and (hopefully) breakfasted before 8 AM even happens. Then I have to tramp over to the chapel (40 whole yards away from my room!) and sit down.  And then I have to say a bunch of words.

Between songs, prayers, readings, and a sermon, services in the Episcopal Church are very word-centric, similar to the way that the Black Forest is very tree-centric. Many of those words come in the form of prayers or creeds that the whole congregation says together, and this is especially true at morning prayer. Aside from a couple of Bible readings that are read by the leader alone, almost the whole of the twenty-minute long service consists of all of us St. Hildan interns and a few others saying psalms, prayers, and canticles (hymns of praise derived from scripture) in unison. The language is always beautiful, always pointing to all that God has done and is doing in the world, but, at times, when it’s so early in the morning, all of this speaking can feel like little more than just that: speaking. No glorious approach to the divine, just words.

I have been finding, however, that the words we say in morning prayer have been staying with me, and coming out at odd times. I currently am working for AIDS Project New Haven, a non-profit agency that offers a variety of services to those infected with or affected by the HIV virus while also implementing HIV prevention efforts. My role is to coordinate Caring Cuisine, a program that delivers meals to people who are less able to prepare food for themselves due to the debilitating effects of the virus.

It was in this connection that I recently found myself saying Hail Marys in a van. I have been enjoying the internship over all, but on a recent Thursday afternoon I was a little stressed out. It was toward the end of a long work week, and I had to deliver meals to four of our clients whom our volunteers had missed earlier in the week, using the Caring Cuisine van. Two of them live in Fair Haven, east and north of downtown New Haven, and the other two in West Haven, south and west of downtown; basically, I had a long drive ahead.

I felt somewhat alone; just me and the van, delivering meals to people I had never met who live in houses or apartments that I had never seen. So when it came time to drive onto the on-ramp of Interstate 91 (interstates stress me out), I found myself speaking, perhaps just to keep myself company. It’s been a couple weeks now, but I can remember: the on-ramp’s running out; it’s time to merge. Check the rear-view mirror, check the blind spot. Now here come some words that the leader of morning prayer says to us every morning:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,

Blessed art thou among women,

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Now I’m merged, now I’m rolling. But I have to move to the left, just not too far left; have to switch to I-95 South. Check the mirror again, check the blind spot. Now I say the rest of the Hail Mary, the part we all say together at Morning Prayer in response to the leader:

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners now,

 And at the hour of our death.

Ultimately, I think I said about four full Hail Marys during the portion of the drive that took place on the interstate. I did not, as I said them, deeply contemplate the meaning of the words. In a sense, I was doing nothing more than saying words, and thus calming my nerves while I changed lanes.

But perhaps this is not such a trivial thing. Somewhere on the confused, car and rain-clogged interstate, I found a sort of peace, a sense that God was with me, and it happened because I was saying some words. So maybe morning prayer can be helpful, even if it doesn’t always seem to be at the time; perhaps the mere act of saying prayerful words can help God’s presence become clearer, even if the meaning of those words is not fully thought through.

In fact, I have discovered the words don’t always have to be prayerful themselves to help calm me and give me a sense of God’s presence. A week later I was again alone, driving to an unfamiliar part of New Haven (to meet a new client this time) and on this occasion I calmed myself by narrating my driving in a sort of pseudo-Shakespearean dialect. I remember it going something like this:

Forsooth! An intersection approaches! Yea, verily shall I stop, for the light is red. Now indeed have I come to a meeting of the ways! Let us see, what doth the street sign report? Behold! This is Howard Street! Truly shall I flip the blinkers, the better to indicate that I shall turn right. Forsooth! The light is green! By my troth, I am off!

This is not really prayer of course, but I amused myself, and that alone helped center my attention on God’s love; just as God penetrates every corner of the earth, so can humor accompany me into new places. We would never say anything like this at Morning Prayer (although much of the language is reminiscent of Shakespeare), but these were spoken words, and I am finding out that spoken words seem to be heard by God wherever and whenever you say them.  

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