I'm 77 and retired, a priest, a celibate. You may be like me. Or you may be married still, with or without your spouse. You may be a parent, a grandparent or, God bless you, a great-grandparent. Or you may be single, young, with the expectation of many years ahead. In any event, I hope each of you shares with me the joy of horizontal prayer. By horizontal prayer I mean, literally, horizontal: when I’m on my back, in bed. Age has taught me that I do some of my best praying in bed. I still advocate that parents teach their children to kneel at bedside in the evening to say their prayers. But my knees will no longer let me get down there. And if I do get down, I would have to call out to someone else in the rectory to get me up. God understands. In fact, I think God can’t wait till I get flat on my back in bed.
I do my best praying then. Sometimes, if I’ve had a very long and stressful day, I might fall asleep almost immediately. But that is rare. Generally, I have to lie there for a while before sleep comes. That’s when I pray.
I converse with God about the day I’ve spent, how it went, where I failed God or my neighbor, what graces came my way and how well I used them. I like to talk to God about the people I encountered that day, in person, on the phone, through e-mail or snail-mail. I often tell God how I disagree with the way he is letting the world turn round. I pray for those who die each day in Iraq or Afghanistan. I pray for understanding among Muslims, Christians and Jews.
I also turn often to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. I say at least one Hail Mary to win our Lady’s protection. My life in the liturgical practices of the church has taught me that the day never ends without recourse to Our Lady.
Prayer to Mary then turns my mind to the communion of saints. Over many years I have come to love and respect so many of them that I count them as intimate friends on whom I can depend to be voices for me before the Trinity. And in that number I include many people I have known over these past 77 years who have preceded me to the Pearly Gates.
At my age—those who are about my age will know what I’m talking about—I have to get up periodically to relieve my bladder. I take a nightly pill to forestall such an occurrence. But it never does. I think I take the pill just to keep my doctor happy. Anyway, I get up at least twice a night and return to bed. Now sometimes I am lucky and soon fall back to sleep. But often it is not so easy.
So here I am again, turning to prayer. I begin to think about the next day. And the first thing I think is: Will I have a next day? Or will God summon me before then? It is not a pessimistic thought. Many of my relatives and friends have died before this age. The daily obituary notices recount many deaths of people my age, older and younger. So I’m wont to say that prayer I learned in childhood. It may be childish, but it is a beautiful prayer and means a great deal to me at this age: “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I have known some of my fellow Jesuits who have died peacefully in their sleep or while sitting in their chair. I envy them—it’s a nice way to go.
Then I turn to the coming day, if God should grant it. I recall the intention for the Mass I will celebrate. It may be for a deceased brother Jesuit, or for a relative with cancer, or for our country in this time of national crisis. I talk to God about that intention. I bring God up to date on where I am politically, charitably, socially. I must admit I do much of the talking. But sometimes God does get through. I begin to see things more clearly. I realize there were times I was hasty in judgment or insensitive in action. I see new ideas opening up before me on how I can contribute to the graces God spreads through his church, particularly through its sacramental life.
I give some thought also to the Divine Office, the breviary, I shall be reading when I get up. It will take some time over the course of the day. Nowadays I pray it with much more devotion than I did in my earlier years. I give extra attention to it because I now read it on behalf of all the priests in my diocese. I know many of them are too busy to read it, so I read it for them.
The middle of the night gives me the time to raise to God the many friends I have from over 70 years, particularly those who are now in physical distress. A 92-year-old friend prays daily that she may die. I ask, God, why don’t you let her die? She would be so much happier with you than she is now with a body that refuses to respond to her willingness to love others. I pray for my friend the doctor, who, shortly after retiring, suffered a debilitating stroke. Since then he has lost a leg and, worse still, lost much of his enthusiasm for life. I pray for his wife, a nurse with physical problems of her own that prevent her from giving her husband the full attention he needs.
Dear God, you know what wonderful people these have been, how much they have done for others in very active lives. Yet now they wait. God, give them patience; give them cheer. I pray for a widow friend of 40 years’ acquaintance. Not only has she lost her husband; she also buried two of her five children. Yes, she has the others to look after her. But God, she is failing. Give her courage; give her comfort. And give her children the willingness to look after her, without depriving their own children of the attention they deserve.
I could stay up all night praying for these and myriad other causes.
On a rare occasion nowadays I am awakened by the alarm to rise and go to a nearby parish to say early Mass. That breaks my momentum of prayer.
Ordinarily I can get up when I wake up. Or I can lie there for a few or many minutes. I can pray again. Today, dear God, this day is for you. You have given me another day to live, or maybe only part of the day. If you call me home today, I hope I shall be rejoicing to greet you. But if I am to live another day, may it be to your glory. Let me bring sunshine into someone else’s life; let me be a support to my fellow Jesuits here in the rectory; let me learn how to converse with you, dear God, more and more. Teach me to pray.
I open my eyes. I look to see if the sun is shining on the church-school building outside my window. How I am cheered if it does. I see in my room all the souvenirs of a long life. They speak to me of so many past and present loves. They are my daily comforts. Each speaks a prayer to me; I speak a prayer to each.
Then it is time to rise. As I put my feet into my slippers, I offer a final prayer. God, I’m going about the day. I may not be as attentive to you throughout this day as I have been during this night. So please remember that I love you still. I’m here to do your will. And should you bring me to another night, I’ll lie again in bed, and our conversation will go on.