Stories about our horrific hurricane season will be told for weeks to come. Most will eventually be forgotten. However, there is one that I am sure will endure for years, namely the heroism of one Colette Sulcer of Beaumont, Texas.
Sulcer’s car got stuck in a parking lot near an Interstate 10. It is unclear why she was on the road but some have guessed that she, with her three-year-old daughter Jordyn, was trying to escape flood waters which were rising rapidly, driven by a rainfall of up to two inches per hour. Ms. Sulcer exited her vehicle, put Jordyn on her back and tried to walk to safety. But witnesses saw the powerful flood currents sweep mother and daughter away. When rescuers got to them, Sulcer was face down in the water and little Jordyn was clinging to her back. It appears that her little pink backpack also helped keep her afloat. After rescuers pulled them from the water, Ms. Sulcer never regained consciousness, but Jordyn was taken to a hospital and is recovering. Police said that in her effort to save their lives, Ms. Sulcer did exactly the right thing, carrying Jordyn on her back. Shortly thereafter relatives said Jordyn told them, “Mommy was saying her prayers” in the water.
Mommy Was Saying a Prayer
That is the topic of this article: When we are in extremis, people of faith have the consolation of prayer. Stories of people in circumstances like those of Colette and Jordyn who called upon God abound. Many years ago, a friend from our parish went deep sea fishing on a party boat. The boat went down and the man found himself in deep water without another soul around. When we asked him what was going through his mind his reply was what you would expect of a Catholic man: “Hail Mary, full of grace…” Happily, the Coast Guard did find him.
Recently a friend of ours was on a cross-country flight that ran into extremely heavy turbulence. With the aircraft shaking violently, this person reports that many were passengers were unabashedly praying out loud.
I was not a frontline combat troop in Vietnam, but I did live through some scary rocket attacks. I freely admit that, with each explosion, I eagerly appealed to God for the self-control not to appear afraid in front of the other guys in the bunker. G.I.s pray for unusual things.
Even Christ in his final agony called upon His Father with the words of Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (vs. 1). Read further in the Psalm for a picture of the nightmare Christ was enduring:
“My strength is gone, gone like water spilled on the ground” (vs. 14).
“You have left me for dead in the dust” (vs. 15).
“A gang of evil men is around me; like a pack of dogs they close in on me; they tear at my hands and feet” (vs. 16).
Who Do We Rely Upon In Extremis?
Many years ago I listened to a radio talk show, the subject of which was the proposition, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Many listeners called in and the discussion was vigorous. Some were combat veterans who readily averred that, in the midst of deadly combat, they were quick to call upon the Savior. There were others who said they were so devoted to their atheism, they would never invoke God, no matter how scared they were. My recollection is that none of these said they were ever in a foxhole.
So this is the question I am contemplating: When you are at the extreme, what do you do? And by extreme I don’t mean having a bad day, a run of bad luck, or are just disgusted with the world. I mean when you are literally at the hour of death, absolutely alone, without resources, helpless to resist the forces overwhelming you.
The scoffers will say calling on your “invisible friend in the sky” is a waste. Best to suck it up and rely on yourself. And I am sure these people are just the type of stalwarts to do so. Nonetheless, Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Introduction to Christianity, reminds us that even unbelievers have doubts. I hope no atheist ever finds him or herself in a situation like Colette Sulcer’s. But if one does, what will go through their mind? “Oh well, too bad, looks like my number’s up”? “Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles”? One has to wonder if any of them would entertain the thought that maybe calling upon the God they have been spent their lives denying might help.
What Can We Expect From Prayer?
For the faithful believer prayer in extremis offers several important benefits. Often it gives the strength and confidence to face adversity head on, knowing that God is with you. Equally, it can give the consolation to accept what cannot be changed, also knowing that God is with you. The unbeliever will say, “No, no, these things do not matter. Unless your God delivers a miracle, I will not accept him.” Well, I guess they are entitled to their opinion.
For me, the answer to my question is found in one of the most poignant moments in the Gospels. It appears in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. Jesus has given His disquisition explaining that He is the bread of life come down from Heaven. The listeners begin to argue among themselves how this can be. The saying is too hard to accept. Slowly they begin to drift away. When all are gone, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, “You, my friends, will you also leave?” (John 6:67) And Peter gives the answer that undergirds our faith to this day: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” (John 6:68)
That’s it. That’s what makes it possible for us to hang on when what the world offers is revealed to be a “whited sepulcher.” There is a great line from the movie Rebel Without a Cause. One of the characters asks the leader of a motorcycle gang (played by Marlon Brando), “What are you rebelling against?” Brando’s character cynically replies, “Whaddaya got?”
We have got is the God/Man who gives us the words of everlasting life. He and His words will never let us down. They will be with us even in our hour of greatest fear and desperation. They will strengthen and console us no matter what the world throws our way.
I am convinced that prayer helped my friend hold out until the Coast Guard rescued him; that it helped those terrified people on the wildly bouncing aircraft; it certainly must have helped me since I am here 50 years later writing this.
And what of Colette Sulcer? An atheist might say “See, she prayed to God and look what it got her?” I reply that it all depends on what her prayer was. I have no way of knowing, but I would bet that, like any mother, she was saying a prayer that her daughter Jordyn would be saved. Colette perished. But her prayer was answered.