When prayer is discussed in connection with the hope-crushing wave of gun violence that has been ravaging the United States, the discussion revolves most frequently around “thoughts and prayers.” Are “thoughts and prayers” really an appropriate response? Or are they just a way to ignore the problem? While I am sympathetic to the voices that encourage us to actually do something about these tragedies instead of simply “thinking and praying” about them, what I want to suggest here is that the communal prayer of the church can actually do something. We see this most poignantly in the vigils and prayer services of the local communities who are grieving the deaths of their friends and family members, but what about the prayer of Christians elsewhere in the country?
As Christians, we must believe that prayer, both communal and individual, does something. Not least, prayer draws us into an intentional, focused conversation with the Lord who made heaven and earth and who heals the wounds brought about by sin — including the Gordian knot of hatred, intolerance, bigotry, and violence. This conversation transforms the person and community who engage in the prayer. In communal and individual prayer, we follow the instruction of Paul to the Romans when he said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). James K. A. Smith, in a modern take on this idea, calls prayer a “calibration technology,” a reorientation toward the mind of God and away from the false loves of the world.
For most Christians — Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike — the Prayers of the Faithful (or Prayers of the People) are a unique moment in which, by joining our voices to pray for the concrete needs and concerns of the church and the world, we are transformed and calibrated as a community. At their best, the Prayers of the Faithful draw together the lives of the congregants, with their joys and pains, sickness and gratitude, fears and loves, and bring them as an offering to be transformed by encounter with the heart of God. This weekly coming together slowly etches a channel for divine grace in the heart and mind of congregations, and it is a crucial aspect of the communal experience of sanctification that happens in the liturgy.
This past Sunday at a Mass in Northern Virginia celebrating the Ascension, I experienced how this moment of communal attention to the heart of God could be a hopeful and transformative encounter in the midst of the gun violence epidemic. The Prayers of the Faithful did not merely mention “those” killed by “recent” gun violence. Instead, the deacon took the time pray for each and every victim by name:
- Robert “Bobby” Williams
- Herbert “Bert” Snelling
- Richard H. Nettleton
- Laquita C. Brown
- Mary Louise Gayle
- Ryan Keith Cox
- Christopher Kelly Rapp
- Alexander Mikhail Gusev
- Tara Welch Gallagher
- Michelle “Missy” Langer
- Joshua O. Hardy
- Katherine A. Nixon
He also prayed “in Christian charity” for the soul of the gunman, as well as for the families of all who were involved.
As the deacon slowly prayed each name, the congregation had time to be present to each individual, still so alive and vibrant in the mind and heart of God. The first thing that struck me was how long it took. It was difficult not to encounter the horrendous reality of gun violence in some small way while being held in that moment by the temporality of speech: we could only move over this as quickly as a human being could speak the names of the victims. So the congregation remained present in our prayer to that painful reality to which God remains ever present.
Second, the liturgical location of the prayer allowed us to meet the crisis together and in charity. We often encounter tragic headlines alone or in small groups, on our phones or maybe even in a physical newspaper. But the liturgical moment of the Prayers of the Faithful allowed the crisis to be encountered by us together as the Body of the risen Christ, in communion with the brothers and sisters who surrounded us as we worshiped that morning. Even as we were present to the reality of violence, our presence with one another and before the living God in our midst provided the hope that sanctification requires: the hope that this violence does not, in fact, have the last word. Rather, in this season of Eastertide, we remember that the last word is the Word of God, the Word that has conquered sin and death and that continues to bless us and fill us with transforming joy.
As we drove home, my husband and I began to wonder: what would happen if every parish across the country named each of the victims of gun violence in the Prayers of the Faithful every time a mass shooting occurred? What transformation, what calibration of the minds and hearts of Christians, could God work by our communal recognition of the world’s wounds in the light of the resurrection, in the light of that event by which God has spoken the definitive Word of blessing and joy?
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:50-53)