It was a beautiful Tuesday morning. I had just gotten to work at the graduate dean’s office, when the assistant dean called in to say that she would be late, because she had to find her brother. A plane, she explained, had just struck the top of one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. As we reeled from that piece of news and started to wish her good luck, she told us that she had just watched a second plane fly right into the second tower. That was, of course, September 11, 2001. And I knew as I ran over to another phone that I had to track down my sister-in-law.
My sister-in-law was safe, as was the assistant dean’s brother. But thousands were not, and millions were profoundly affected. Many of us who remember that day–really remember that day–will never forget where we were and what we felt as we watched the buildings fall and the dust fly. In some cases, it changed our lives. In many cases, it changed our perceptions of the world, or shattered some core assumptions. And I, like many others, wondered what I could do–what I could really do– for those who were suffering, including myself.
The following Saturday Gramma and I went to the 4:00 Mass, celebrated by our beloved Bishop Riley. Before starting the introductory rite, he asked us all to be seated. And he talked to us about the events of the past week, and offered a simple solution to the question that I and everyone else was asking.
There’s a reason the Church is called Christ’s “mystical” Body. Deriving from the Greek word (muein) for being initiated into a guarded or hidden knowledge–or, for being let in on a secret–the mystical Body of Christ is made up of all those who not only have the knowledge of God that He has revealed about Himself but also believe that the Word He has spoken to us is true. In the same way that the different parts of the human body communicate and work together and make a living union, we make up a working Body of knowledge and power, with Christ–Jesus, the incarnate Word of God–as the Head. Even more specifically, the Church professes belief in the “communion of saints,” the mystical union that exists among the faithful on earth, the blessed in heaven, and the suffering in purgatory. The blessed in heaven help the faithful on earth with their prayers, and praying together they both help the suffering in purgatory, who are helpless. As Jesus told Saint Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun whom He made the Apostle of the Divine Mercy: “It is in your power to bring them relief.”
Prayer is a powerful act. It involves, fundamentally, sending a desire into the cosmos and trusting that the desire will be fulfilled in time. And when enough people share a desire, and trust that it will be fulfilled, the world changes. Change can be for the better or for the worse; it all depends on the desire. But the desire is ours to act upon and to trust in. Now, you might dismiss desire and trust as simply not concrete enough, not substantial enough, not “of means” enough, and thus not really a power at all. But just think for a moment. Think what a different place it would be to live in if each of us–everyone reading this ‘blog, everyone on Facebook or Twitter, everyone with a computer or smartphone, everyone using the Internet right now, or what have you–simply desired that the next persons to cross our immediate left and right receive relief from something that they suffer, and then asked in trust that the cosmos fulfill that desire. Each of us would be praying for two people, and we would each have two people praying for us. That’s a lot of desire for relief going out into the cosmos, and a lot of trust that the way will be shown to make it happen. Enough to lift spirits. Enough to inspire action. Enough to shift culture. Enough to change the world. It can happen, it has happened, and it will continue to happen as long as we have faith.
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It was a beautiful Saturday morning. I was on my way out the door to go to grad school orientation, when my sister caught me to ask me where Mom was because the hospital was on the phone. I told her that Mom was upstairs, and I quickly went off to go catch the bus. That was September 11, 2004. And I knew as I closed the door behind me that God had taken Gramma to Himself.
This past April I was praying the Divine Mercy Novena, taught to Saint Faustina by Jesus. It was Day 8 of the novena–so, Easter Friday–on which Jesus requested Saint Faustina pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for “the souls who are in the prison of purgatory.” As I whispered the words of the prayer over and over again on my Rosary beads–“For the sake of sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world”–I closed my eyes and tried to envision the souls I was praying for. Throughout the experience I could sense Gramma there, and while I couldn’t see her I knew that she looked as she did towards the end of her life. She seemed close enough to reach out and touch, and almost hug.
As I progressed towards the end of the Chaplet, I felt her presence again. Only this time, she was as she was in her youth. And she was closer. And slowly I started to feel the words of the prayer become stronger as I spoke them, until by the time I started the fifth set they were booming from me–not like yelling, but definitely with bass and emphasis. And I continued in that way until the end, when the words quieted down.
I still am not entirely sure of how to process that experience. What I know for certain is this: Gramma was the one who taught me how to pray, and now she was praying with me on behalf of the souls in purgatory, so if she wasn’t in heaven before she certainly is now. She helps me, and she helps you too, and together we have a way and a power to help the helpless.
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No matter the situation, no matter our individual means, prayer is the one thing that any and all of us can do. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ. And this is the secret, the mystical knowledge that comes from the Head to all the members of that Body: that those who ask receive, that those who seek find, and that those who knock find a door opened.
There will always be suffering souls. It is in your power to bring them relief.