Almost everyone thinks that praying at least can’t hurt.
So the media response to the recent announcement by the mayor of Harrisburg that she would join an interfaith prayer and fasting effort to seek help for the city’s severe financial crisis was only mildly condescending.
It wasn’t taken very seriously, however, in part because some folks have given public prayer a bad name. Politicians often show up at staged prayer breakfast solely to burnish their images; football players regularly bow their heads in reverence for help in executing smash mouth victories.
Besides, even some religious believers tend to believe that spiritual matters have nothing to do with the knuckle-cracking business of solving a secular crisis like Harrisburg’s $3.5 budget gap.
Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson braved the doubters and scoffers. There were “things that are above and beyond my control,” she said. “I need God.”
She enlisted a dozen or so Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders last week in a three-day prayer and fasting vigil for “a more cooperative spirit” that ended with an ecumenical service.
“If all the brightest minds in Harrisburg’s government can’t solve the city’s financial crisis,” wrote Jeff Cox for CNBC.com at the outset, “maybe God can.” To protect his “realist” credentials, he added that the city “may not even have a prayer.”
Others called the vigil controversial. The Humanist Examiner said “many doubt [its] efficacy and propriety.”
A sincere effort
So what was this vigil and does it deserve a scrap of credibility?
From the evidence I see, this was an unusually sincere, authentic expression of seeking help, A prayer event in a fancy hotel in the glare of television cameras is a show, whatever else it may presume to be.It is clearly for the benefit of the public figures who stand to gain by it.
This seemed different. I heard a genuine note of humility and self-effacement in Mayor Thompson’s words, and the group of leaders seeking public “succor,” as they used to call it, weren’t preening for attention.
Mayor Thompson’s mission wasn’t to be bathed in the warmth of public approval but to find a way out of a human mess. It wasn’t an amporphous, self-centered goal (“look at me”) but a civic minded one that affects every citizenof the city.
She attached her prestige to a specific objective that posed the risk of making her look foolish. She shows the kind of motivation that enlighted the Biblical prophets who sought to remedy society’s ills.
Did it work? Well, if you judge the results just by the brutal black and white of the state budget approved on June 30, no. But it’s harder to judge results down the road, depending on what the participants in the prayer and fasting took away from the experience.
Shut mouth, open mind
I’m no expert on prayer, but of the varieties of it that are practiced, one in particular seems to me to offer hope. That is the “listening” kind which silences the mind enough to hear what a Higher Being is trying to say rather than bombarding HB with a laundry list of demands and suggestions. It is the “keep your mouth shut” school or prayer which allows an awareness of a fuller reality to penetrate our wired minds.
It is this approach, I believe, that can open the door to grasping broader understanding of where and how we live. It can get us out of ourselves enough so that we can see the common good and the relatednessof all life. Otherwise, if we just yap at a Higher Being with all of our personal obsessions, we remain locked into our own little worlds.
So if the three days of prayer and fasting got to the point where minds became open, maybe something good may yet happen.
The other requirement is that if the shut mouth/open mind moments do occur, that participants be ready to act on the higher truths they receive.
Higher truths have a habit of being at odds with the ways we normally do things. Selflessness, for example, isn’t our normal instinct. But why ask for divine help if there’s no intention to take it, even if it runs against the grain.
The founding of Pennsylvania as a “commonwealth” embodied a vision of the general welfare and demonstrated that leaders sometimes can catch hold of profound insights. Perhaps in a sanctuary in Harrisburg last week, something like that began to take take place again.
Ken Briggs writes regularly on issues of religion and spirituality for NewsWorks. He is former religion reporter for the New York Times and an adjunct professor at Lafayette College. He has written several books on the Catholic Church.