Of the numerous parts of my faith that theological studies have unfortunately confused, my intellectual understanding of prayer–what it is and how it works–has been most affected. Therefore, upon inquiry, I will not explain to someone how it works. I tell them I just don’t know. But I also tell them that I am often undeniably compelled to do it when I see people I love in pain, especially spiritual and emotional suffering. I am also compelled to do it when I see people I don’t know in pain. I tell them my most intimate moments with loved ones occur during prayer. And, more than that, I tell them that some simple part of me really, truly believes that it both shakes the earth and holds it together, and it does all other sorts of things.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle sits atop Capitol Hill watching over the cityscape with its big, round eye of a window. Since high school, I’ve periodically made pilgrimage to their Sunday night Compline service where their pitch-perfect men’s choir chants the evening prayers in a vast sanctuary full of Seattle’s most eclectic crowd. Some nights I sit in a pew next to a homeless man; other nights I lay on the cool concrete floor next to a cuddling couple who brought pillows and a blanket.
Tonight, my friend Casey and I chose the concrete in the front corner of the Cathedral where his friends used to congregate when they attended together in high school. Casey says the choir sounds different in that spot compared to anywhere else in the church. The sound bounces off the gigantic round pillar in that corner, he explained, giving the voices a magnificent echo.
When the choir began I closed my eyes and pictured the city below the Cathedral’s gaze. At first the perfect harmonies hovered magically above me in the room, like the perfect figurines of the Sistine Chapel. They just hung there, perfectly, while I imagined the city outside the sanctuary walls. As time went on, though, the hum of the choir grew and I saw it pouring, spilling out of the building’s walls, down its hillside and over the freeway passes, lakes, and landmarks. The sound was alive and twirling as it bounced from building top to building top, hopping on the city’s water masses like they were puddles on a rainy day. Soon my whole image of the city was reverberating with this beautiful sound…
Every Sunday night the choir fills that space with prayers so incredible that I can’t help but believe they change the world beyond the sanctuary. Most Sundays I don’t hear those prayers with my own two ears, but they are prayed nonetheless. They shake the city with their beauty, nonetheless. And that gives me great hope.
My friend Christine told me that when she heard the news about 9/11, she thought of the monastic community she often worships with at Big Sur in California. She told me that the whole world was in chaos, but she knew those men where praying. When everything was falling apart she knew they were holding us together with their prayers. A few people hold the whole world together with their prayers.
And now, I will tell them that it sounds beautiful. So absolutely beautiful, and so alive.