by Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M.
Initially featured in the Assumption Catholic Church Weekly Bulletin of 6/05/2016 and reprinted with permission
Have you ever answered the telephone by saying “Ahoy hoy”? If so, then you are answering the phone correctly, at least according to its inventor Alexander Graham Bell. When Bell produced the first commercially viable telephone device in 1876, he proposed that the nautical term for hailing a ship be adopted as the proper way to respond to a ringing telephone. The following year, though, Thomas Edison wrote to Bell Labs, suggesting that “Hello,” an obscure English word of dubious origin, be used in answering the phone, because it produced a fuller sound and could be heard more easily with that era’s primitive technology. Within ten years “hello” had become the standard way of answering the phone, although Bell himself continued to use “ahoy hoy” the rest of his life, as does Mr. Burns, a very tradition bound cartoon character on The Simpsons. The word “hello” is used so often in conversation today that it is hard to imagine that 150 years ago it was virtually unknown. Perhaps in a few more generations, with the rapid expansion of texting and other forms of electronic conversation, the word “hello” will have passed back into obscurity.
In this bit of historical trivia, there might be a gentle reminder for all of us when it comes to communicating with God, what we usually call prayer. At Mass we pray as a community, but to maintain a personal connection with God we also need personal prayer. There are time-tested forms of prayer and time tested prayers themselves; but these prayers and ways of praying have to be adapted to our own personality and our own changing needs and circumstances. It is also important to remember that a way of praying that a friend or family member finds very meaningful may not work for us. Sometimes in life (and perhaps at certain times during the day) we need the comfort of familiar prayers. Many families have the tradition of saying a prayer or grace before meals. Even the busiest person can take a few seconds to say “thank you” to God and to acknowledge the source of all our blessings. Similarly, prayers like the rosary, or prayers to particular saints, or the Hail Holy Queen, which we pray after the weekday Masses, can reconnect us with our tradition and center us on what is true and eternal. On the other hand, we may feel constrained by the structure of set prayers or find the repetition boring rather than a tool for focusing our minds and hearts. Some people find a more informal, conversational form of prayer more appealing. And all of this may change for us over the course of a lifetime. I may take comfort in the routine of familiar prayers during times of calm; but during times of stress or fear or anxiety, I may want to simply tell God how I am feeling and how the stress I am experiencing right now is making it difficult to pray the way I want to pray (and thereby be actually praying!).
The retired parish priest and spiritual writer, Fr. William Bausch, reminds us of a form prayer that can be very important to us during bad times. He calls it “the prayer of embarrassment.” This is the prayer of people who suddenly run into difficulty. They want to turn to God, but feel embarrassed or squeamish about doing so because they have neglected prayer and Mass for such a long time. It just seems wrong to turn to God only when you have nowhere else to turn. You feel that people who have been more faithful to God are passing judgment on you. Bausch says at such times that “it is good to remember that the prayer of embarrassment is a valid prayer. You’re dealing with a God who has no pride. You’re dealing with a God who is so humble . . . that he runs to the prodigal son, sweeps the house looking for a penny, and leaves the ninety-nine sheep to gather in the one.” For God, the prayer of embarrassment is “music to the ears and joy to the heart.”
As we progress in prayer we often find ourselves saying less and reflecting and listening more. This is the basis of what is called meditative and contemplative prayer: Just take a passage of scripture or even a single verse of scripture and sit with it for a period of time, repeating it a few times if necessary. Can saying so little really count as prayer? Absolutely, because all prayer really begins with God. We would not be able to say “ahoy” to God, if God had not said “ahoy” to us first.