Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Where Two or Three are Gathered: Prayer at the National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral
Yesterday Washington National Cathedral was quiet. Just a group of 10th graders from Alabama and a few small clutches of pilgrims wandering the nave. I had been to the Cathedral several times before, but I’d never been on my own without an agenda, so I relished the opportunity to inspect and dissect every detail.

The Lewis & Clark Window
I sat quietly before the Space Window contemplating the cosmos and that tiny piece of moon rock set into the window. I stood in the alcove devoted to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee -- memorialized in glass and stone -- and wondered at the courage and convictions of both men. I had the observation deck all to myself and got up close and personal with the cathedral’s flying buttresses, gargoyles, and grotesques.

As I wandered through the nave once more, a calm voice came over the loudspeaker calling anyone in the room to the Holy Spirit Chapel for a service of Intercession. Visiting a beautiful house of worship of any stripe can be an enriching experience. But the building is just a building. What separates a sanctuary or synagogue from a baseball park or library is what happens within the building. To fully experience a concert hall, you have to attend a concert. To fully appreciate a church, you have to attend worship -- to use the space as it was intended. So, I made my way to the Holy Spirit Chapel.

Sitting on one of the wooden chairs in the chapel was a kind-looking, older man. He’d lit two candles on the altar where the crucifix was shrouded in Lenten purple. He looked up and smiled, welcoming me into the empty space.

“Would you be willing to help with the service?” he asked, handing me an order of worship and a stack of prayer requests. I was willing.

Together we read a Psalm and a short scripture, and then we began to pray. A service of Intercession is simply a service where one person -- or many people -- pray for others. The gentleman, a Verger at the Cathedral, handed me a pile of prayer requests. At the Cathedral, as at many other churches, they have small cards upon which visitors can write their prayer concerns and requests. There’s a small box into which those slips are placed. The Verger and I took turns reading those prayer requests out loud and lifting them to the heavens.

We prayed for marriages that are failing... children who are dying... sick fathers... friends without jobs... the mentally ill... babies who have yet to be born and couples trying to conceive. We prayed for President Obama and for the victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile. We prayed for families separated from one another by continents and by anger. We prayed for brothers and sisters away at war and for the soul of one young man killed in action last May. We prayed for businesses failing and families floundering. We prayed for the environment, the economy, and for peace on our planet. We prayed for new marriages and new babies. We prayed for cats and dogs in need of healing. We prayed for fathers and mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, husbands, wives, sons, daughters...

There were prayers written in Arabic and in Spanish which we had to trust that God had already heard. Some of the prayers were written in childish hand writing; others in elegant script. Some slips simply listed a name or two or three -- and we lifted those names to God knowing that nothing is a mystery for the all-knowing one.

I found myself imagining not only the people for whom we were praying, but also the people who had been so thoughtful, so intentional that they asked us, complete strangers, to pray for them. And I found myself praying for these unselfish people as well knowing that worry or fear or pain or love had moved them. And the Verger and I added our own petitions; sitting with this man I’d never met, I found myself speaking aloud of challenges which have forced my husband and I to live in separate cities for the last year. Together we prayed for members of his family caught in turmoil. We prayed for Elle, an infant at my home church who is very sick with a horrible disease for which there is no cure.

When all the names had been said... when we’d prayed for all things, great and small... when the lists had been exhausted, we closed with a prayer together.

Certainly the names etched in stone and immortalized in glass -- George Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller -- they are worthy and important figures of faith, but each day within those stone walls, the names of the anonymous are lifted up with equal grace. After all, the National Cathedral is not a museum. It is a house of God. And the prayers of the people, whoever they may be, are heard there.

Intercession is held each weekday at 2:45 pm in the Holy Spirit Chapel. For more information, visit the Cathedral’s website: Washington National Cathedral.

A Note
One of my favorite scenes from the series, The West Wing, takes place in Washington National Cathedral. Excellent writing, acting, and a great way to get a sense for the Cathedral's space, too.

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