Today is the National Day of Prayer in the United States–or, as President Obama put it in his either-ironic-or-clueless-depending-on-how-much-slack-you-give-him presidential proclamation, our National Day of Giving Thanks for the Freedom of Religion that Allows Us to Abstain from Praying. There used to be an interfaith prayer breakfast hosted by the White House on this day, but the President has chosen to exercise his right to abstain from eating food that might have gotten blessing all over it, and canceled that.
In some ways, I’m with the President on this. We don’t pray as a nation, so why pretend once a year that we do? With the exception of legislative chaplains (who are starting to show an alarming tendency to go rogue and preach sectarian rants instead of asking a generic Deity to be named elsewhere to grant the lawmakers a nice day) we don’t pray officially anywhere. Saying “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and having “In God we trust” on our currency is not praying. There’s no mandatory prayer in public schools–something we Catholics actually rooted for, by the way, since the mandatory prayer was distinctly Protestant. We’ve swept the country as clean of national prayer as an Orthodox Jewish housewife sweeps her house clean of chometz before Pesach. Even in times of national sorrow, such as the days following the 9-11 attacks, the best we can do is seek the distinctly secular ministrations of Oprah Winfrey. Maybe the closest we get these days to a shared national prayer is listening to bagpipers play Amazing Grace as first responders, terror victims, and servicemen and servicewomen are carried to their rest.
That’s not to say we don’t pray. As individuals and in our diverse worship communities, we out-pray many other Western nations, not that there’s a devotional Olympics or anything. We are slackers when it comes to countries where one faith tradition dominates, of course: Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews in Israel, Buddhists in Nepal, Hindus in India are praying the pants off us, and their coreligionists among us are no slackers. We have other pockets of intense prayer in our midst, spinning the wheels of devotion and intercession around the clock: cloistered communities of monks and nuns, praying the Liturgy of the Hours; Zen practitioners in daily meditation; pagans and Wiccans honoring the steady dance of the seasons. In as diverse and overtly secular a society as ours, the value in a National Day of Prayer may lie primarily in taking time to remember and acknowledge the many and deep wells of prayerfulness that nourish American life–quietly, steadily, like the tree growing secretly in Jesus’ parable.
The Finger Rosary
On last night’s edition of NBC’s Rock Center, which retold in interviews and photographs the events in the White House situation room on the night Osama bin Laden was killed, we learn of an amazing exchange between Vice President Joe Biden and Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The exchange is recounted beginning at about 7:48 of this video segment, and it describes the key role that Mr Biden’s finger rosary played that night. Whatever you think of the administration or of the wisdom of the actions taken a year ago, this little piece of video is a powerful moment when personal faith breaks into our national life at the highest levels.
Advice for Beginners
If you want to join in the National Day of Prayer and you’re rusty, or usually an abstainer, here’s a terrific pointer (with the reminder that praying is about listening) from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. This is from her 2006 collection, Thirst, and a big H/T to Julie at Happy Catholic, who posted it some time ago.