Who is to say that God does not put you or me, and no other, specifically at a scene for the very purpose of saying a prayer which will make a difference in a life? Prayer is the conduit of goodness and grace in the world. Prayer is humanity’s awesome duty to God and to each other. It is, indeed, each person’s awesome privilege, linking us beyond ourselves to the very power of God’s infinite love. God taught me this truth at an early morning Saturday Mass.
I got to Mass earlier than usual that morning. In my book, there is no such thing as coincidence. It’s just that sometimes this reality is much more obvious than at other times. This was one of those times. It is my custom to sit in a pew on the right wing of my church. That wing was entirely empty when I arrived, so I chose to sit in the more coveted section facing the front of the altar. Even there, plenty of seating was still available, and I headed for a row midway up the aisle, but something made me stop at the third pew from the front and slide in about a third of the way. Even then I told myself, do I really want to be this close to the front? Finally, I decided I should stay put and not disturb those around me.
The Scene Unfolded
A couple of minutes later, a very thin, plainly dressed woman, maybe 40, came into the pew in front of me and sat down just to my left. She knelt down to pray, and then took her seat again. I’d like to think that I would have gotten up and gone to sit next to her if I had known what was about to ensue.
Next, a well-dressed man, also about 40, slid into the woman’s pew from her left side and sat next to her. When everyone stood at the Entrance Procession, the man began to lean in close to the woman, speaking low as he put his hand around her waist. Then, I thought to myself, if the two of them are going to talk with each other and show signs of affection the entire time, I’m going to just move back several pews to where I was going to sit in the first place; after all, this is not what I came here to witness. Or was it?
Thus far, the woman and the man I have described were only images caught in my peripheral vision, as I very much wanted to focus on the prayers for my own intentions and the celebration of the Mass, having thanked God sincerely, as on many an occasion, for having gotten me to the church on time, or, as on days like today, having gotten me there at all. But now, as if Jesus had gently shaken my shoulder and said, “Stop now. Take a look at what’s really going on here,” my eyes were suddenly open, and my heart became terribly distracted and disturbed by what unfolded in front of me.
The Woman was Distressed
As the man continued talking to the woman, I noticed she stood like a statue beside him, reciprocating neither words nor touch. When the congregation sat down again, the man all at once slid about five feet away from the woman to her left on the half-vacant pew. I felt her relief for an instant until he quickly motioned her to move over next to him. Of course, she’s not going to oblige him, I thought. She grabbed her car keys and began to get up. I thought, No! She sat back down determinedly. He kept beckoning. I watched her struggle, as she was perfectly positioned so that I, rather than anyone else around me, could not avoid observing the scene. She looked up to the large crucifix before us all with a tense, wearied, pleading face. I felt so sorry for her. What was going on? They had obviously come in different cars; each had a set of keys. I wanted to lean over the pew and tell her, YOU DON’T HAVE TO MOVE OVER. You can stay where you are!
The woman bowed her head, drew up two fists on her lap, and beat them quietly against her thighs. Surrender came too quickly, and she got up, almost dutifully, and moved next to the man. By now, my heart was pumping with frustration and anxiety. As for the Mass, I knew there was no use trying to further focus my attention to catch all of what Father was saying, or to listen with attentiveness to the prayers of the Liturgy. My main focus and sympathy were now with the poor woman in the next pew, whose plight I could only guess at. I desperately wanted to help in some way, and was convicted that I should, but felt at such a loss as to how.
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the woman remained kneeling with her hands covering her face, as she had done on and off throughout the Mass, that, for me, was speeding by, with God offering no immediate solutions to the entrapment in which she seemingly was involved. Then, slowly, as if forcing herself up, the woman limply joined her left hand with the man’s right as if expected to do so, for the recitation of the Our Father, already in progress. My heart sank as I watched her distraught features directed upward in supplication toward Christ on the cross before her, where I also locked my eyes at that point and pleaded with Jesus, Please help her, Jesus! Please help her, Jesus! over and over, as I could think of nothing else to do.
The Power of Prayer
I took advantage at the Sign of Peace to move toward the woman, avoiding the man who had been pestering her to tears the entire Mass, and hugged her, then whispered, “I’m praying for you!” With a furrowed brow and a weak smile that I could see up close now, she told me, “Thank you!” as sincerely as I have ever heard it said.
To my surprise, at the end of Mass, the man left the church without the woman at his side. She remained at prayer for a while before leaving, as the rest of us joined in the rosary.
When I got home, I told my sister about the episode and how I’d felt so helpless, unable to come up with anything significant to help the woman at the church. I told her that I felt God put me there on purpose that morning and that I had failed Him and the woman. I told her I was praying really, really hard for the woman, and my sister replied, “Sometimes that’s all God is asking of us: to pray really, really hard.” Then it all clicked and I knew my sister was right.
We underestimate the power of prayer, and overestimate, much of the time, our personal abilities to accomplish what is in God’s hands alone to accomplish. But He requires prayer of us always. Often the plight of others is well publicized, and hundreds, even thousands join in prayer for them. But sometimes, you or I may be the only one to witness a wrong, something you have no power over, except to pray.