Let My Prayers Rise Like Incense

We burned prayer cards last night at my friend Michael’s house, on a truly cold evening under a last-quarter moon.

It’s an annual ritual, one that Michael—Director of the Stewardship Office of the Cincinnati Archdiocese—started a few years ago. As part of our annual archdiocesan appeal, we send donors a prayer card with their thank you letter from the Archbishop. We invite them to list their intentions on the cards and return them, to be prayed for at the three regional Appeal Thanksgiving Masses held in late summer. A small but growing number of donors do respond. The envelopes with the completed cards are opened and screened by Michael and his staff (sometimes people include additional donation checks, or notes with complaints, er, suggestions on how to improve the campaign) before being passed along to the Archbishop. The cards are then placed in simple wicker baskets and placed at the altar at each of the three Masses.

The first year this practice was initiated, Michael realized that it wouldn’t be respectful to toss the cards out with the trash at the end of each year. So he burned them in the chiminea on his back deck. It took forever, but he sat by the fire with a cup of Bourbon-laced coffee and prayed til the ashes were cold.

The next year, he asked a couple of us who work on the campaign to join him. More coffee, more Bourbon, more prayer.

Each year, the group has grown. There are family members and prayerful Catholic friends—priests of the Archdiocese, prolife activists, a theologian or two, families with kids of all ages. The chiminea has been replaced by a fire kettle as the number of responses has gone up over the years, and the Bourbon-and-coffee is now preceded by a barbecue with potluck additions. It’s got a name now, this annual event: Holy Fire. I created kitchen chalkboard art for it, as I have for other events like Michael’s daughter Sylvia’s First Communion (her brother Leo, whose Confirmation sponsor I will be next spring, has already requested ‘Jesus kickboxing Satan,’ which I suspect may be beyond my abilities).

Last night, we burned 4,000+ cards, handfuls at a time, stirring the embers and ashes, after the fire and the prayers had been blessed. We don’t look at the prayers when we’re burning them, but those who’ve read the cards say they most often carry the intentions so many of us hold in our hearts. Please let my children / grandchildren return to the Church. For healing—of cancer, of broken marriages, of the pain of losing a spouse to death or the living death of dementia. For jobs. For a light in the darkness of depression. This year, there were prayers for the protection of our religious liberty. And more prayers for vocations, more prayers for others in need, more prayers of thanksgiving for blessings than anyone can remember. The Catholics of the Cincinnati Archdiocese are generous with their pocketbooks and their prayers.

It’s a terrifically moving experience for everyone involved, and a special celebration of our solidarity as Church. As the smoke rose up in the cold night air, I breathed my own prayer of thanksgiving for being back home in this family of faith, and echoed the words of the psalmist:

Lord, I call to you:
quickly hear and answer me!
May my prayers rise before you like incense,
the lifting up of my hands as evening sacrifice . . .
~ Psalm 141:1-2

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