Any Christian who faces a crisis over which he has no control will turn to prayer. If man cannot improve, fix, or change the situation, then it very well must be God’s responsibility. At first glance, there is nothing wrong with yielding to God’s will or allowing the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide one’s path—indeed, these are essential aspects of our Christian existence. Still, prayer is not just a backup plan. If we direct our heart and mind to God in the good times, it allows us to feel the strength of the Holy Spirit when we are faced with the greatest challenges. This past November, I found myself in the middle of a natural catastrophe as wildfires consumed large portions of my hometown of Santa Barbara, California. When I realized the power of prayer in the worst of times, I considered what a change it would be if more people made such petitions a consistent part of everyday life.
Within an hour of the start of the fire, a sheet of flames lit the night sky on a ridge beside us. We scrambled through our home, gathering whatever we could not replace. This kind of wildfire intensifies anyone’s gratefulness for the little things. The hummingbirds that frequented the fl owers outside our kitchen; the familiar, welcoming smell of our house; the sound of dogs barking down the path by the rose garden—these were distinct features of our home that al disappeared. Such a fire also makes one grateful for the most important things in life: When we finally evacuated, our family was happy to be safe together; that was all that was important.
As we waited for the fire to abate, I received text messages from friends whose homes were more threatened than mine, and they asked me to pray that the winds would die down. I included them in my petitions to Saint Barbara and Saint Florian as I sought the intercession of the saints and unstinting grace of the Holy Spirit. As the blaze spread, I contacted a few friends to ask for their prayers, too. It seemed that only a miracle could save our home. My family received some two dozen offers of help and prayer. That night, we could have moved our entire home into storage if we had accepted half of those generous and genuine signs of compassion.
Unlike any other time in Santa Barbara, I felt a part of a real community. Neighbors were helping neighbors: They opened spare bedrooms for evacuees, they trucked boxes of other people’s valuables across town, and above all they prayed for each other. First, I wondered why it took a tragedy like the Tea Fire to send people into this mode. Why are we usually so indifferent to the daily trials of those around us? But after thinking it over, I realized that most people could have easily retreated to their own safe homes, smugly satisfi ed that they lived far away from the high-risk fire zones. That the community responded the way it did revealed our capacity to care for each other. I should note that this was not a sort of “common usefulness” devised by a bureaucrat, but a sense that one ought to yearn for the good of the community and not merely what is efficient or utilitarian. At the heart of such sentiments — as their crown and ultimate manifestation — was prayer, a distinctly immaterial activity of the mind and soul.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church prefaces its discussion of prayer with a striking and encompassing quotation from Saint Therese of Lisieux. She writes: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.” Prayer embraces the good and the bad. When a fire rages towards our homes, we do not turn our heart to God in bitter rejection of His will. Such dissatisfaction with God is more the heart looking inward for a world according to its own will. As I prayed, I certainly hoped for the best for everyone involved in the fire, but I also acknowledged with humility that in some way I had to affirm what was going on—I had to embrace this trial however difficult it may prove to be. Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper makes much of an “absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole” in his classic essay, What is a Feast? Pieper goes on to say that this affirmation “has [little] to do with shallow optimism” since we cannot shut our eyes to the world’s horrors and pretend everything is alright. Instead, it is an assent to what is, even the worst circumstances. Therefore, the greatest of tragedies, such as Christ’s crucifixion, are “meaningful in spite of everything.” This is not an easy leap to make in an era of materialistic rationalism, but it opens windows to a life of true joy and love. With no resentment or anger, Santa Barbarans whose homes were destroyed went about praying for their neighbors whose homes were eventually saved. I have never witnessed a greater show of real Christian prayer.
I believe in the power of such prayer to help a community flourish, at the very least in goodwill. More people directing their minds and hearts to God, in an effort to genuinely wish the best for their neighbors as they plead for the grace of the Holy Spirit, would produce considerably more opportunities for us to experience a substantive social existence. Think about what it would do to bring us into a closer communion with God and the Church, and how it would transform us into the joyful, routinely loving beings that we are meant to be. We should not be content that the willingness to pray emerges only in crises. I end with a prayer, asking the flames to remain long after the threat of fire is gone: Ure igne Sancti Spiritus renes nostros et cor nostrum Domine; “Enkindle, O Lord, our hearts and minds with the fi re of the Holy Spirit.”
Jordan Teti ’08, a Kirkland House graduate in Government, is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Ichthus.