exercise in empathy, another name for prayer

A screenshot of a video released by the Ukrainian Police Department Press Service of military helicopters, apparently Russian, flying over the outskirts of Kyiv, February 24, 2022 

can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams? 

can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?

can you imagine? 

can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off? 

can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border? 

can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?

can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?

imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell. 

imagining is the birthing ground of empathy. 

and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer. 

empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.

empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.

truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.

but it’s the place to begin.

and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh? 

don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders? 

isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.

imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.

we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?

it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.

it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.

i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.

***

i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

–Ellen Bass

how did you learn to pray?

a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.

p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….