Some weeks ago a companion and I drove to the shore. As is my custom, I sought to start out with a travel blessing. Asking God’s protection on travelers is a traditional Catholic practice that has deep roots in the scriptural witness; it is also, as I discovered many years ago, a profoundly meaningful practice for our own lives. The prayer’s importance had been brought home to me, once again, last summer, in an especially painful way, as a colleague of mine was killed by a drunk driver while on her way home from work.
For myself, I had copied many years ago one of the prayers from the “Order for the Blessing of Travelers” in the Book of Blessings, adapting the wording to the fact that I prayed this prayer in my car, usually without a priest, deacon or lay minister present. My prayer reads:
All-powerful and merciful God,
you led the children of Israel on dry land,
parting the waters of the sea;
you guided the Magi to your Son by a star.
Help us and give us a safe journey.
Under your protection let us reach our destination
and come at last to the eternal haven of salvation.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
When I handed the prayer card I keep on the dashboard of my car to my companion to read before heading to the shore, he stumbled over the prayer’s ending, with its quick transition from the particular journey at hand to the end of life’s journey and our “eternal haven.” My companion suggested that a comma was needed between the two lines, with their separate destinations. Not being one to stifle people’s prayer wishes I handed him a pencil for him to introduce a comma in the prayer, between our immediate “destination” for the day and our coming to the “eternal haven of salvation.”
Days later, when I picked up the prayer card before setting out in my car again, the newly introduced comma began to trouble me. I realized that this comma interfered — not only with proper grammar (a minor concern when it comes to authentic prayer) — but also with the deep truth that our life’s journeys ultimately are one. It seems to me to be one of the true gifts of liturgical prayer to insist on reminding us of that, again and again. Would we, in our own prayers, routinely conclude with a gesture toward the end of our lives? And yet we cannot ever know when a prayer might be our last, or when an immediate destination might will become our final one. Witness the example of my colleague who was killed by a drunk driver on her way home for dinner. I have learned to appreciate the many liturgical prayers that, with their strong eschatological endings, encourage us to be mindful of the fusion of horizons that is a part of our journey. The journey, after all, is always deeply one.
One example of this is the Church’s night prayer, Compline (i.e., that which completes the day). Written deep into this prayer is the fusion of two horizons, namely the coming of the night and the coming of our own ending. As we confront the closure of a particular day and our falling asleep, the prayer opens to our last falling asleep from which we will not awaken in this earthly life. Simeon’s song, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,” is one moment in this liturgical fusion of horizons. There are others throughout Compline. Some of the traditional Compline hymns expressly hold the night and the hour of our death together. A contemporary rendition of the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum puts it thus: “We praise you, Father, for your gift of dusk and nightfall over earth, foreshadowing the mystery of death that leads to endless day.” The concluding prayer also fuses these two horizons: “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”
I have now removed the comma my companion penciled into my text for the blessing of travelers. I will claim that my life’s journey is one. But every time I now pray this blessing before setting out in my car I remember the troublesome comma, and its lure to think life’s journey can ever be safe, or safely apportioned. That is not possible. Our only safety for all our journeys to lead us ever more deeply into God’s own life and presence.