Our Prayer Must Be Expansive

by Melannie Svoboda SND on October 5, 2020

Good prayer is expansive. What do I mean by this?

First, our prayer must be as wide as the world. No one is to be excluded from our prayer. I love the hymn that says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” Can we say, there’s a wideness in our prayer like the wideness of the sea?

(Photo by Sara. All photos are from Pexels)

One of the most moving prayer experiences I had occurred in 2002 when I was attending a month-long conference in South Korea with about 40 other Sisters of Notre Dame from over 20 different countries. Each morning, we began with prayer, taking turns to lead it. One sister from Toledo, OH asked each of us to bring a copy of our local newspaper to the conference. (I brought The Cleveland Plain Dealer.) At the beginning of the prayer, she asked us to place our newspapers on the floor in a large circle with their front pages in full view. While she played some soft religious music, we slowly and silently walked around the room gazing down at the front pages of those very diverse newspapers. Even if we couldn’t read the headlines, we could at least “read” the pictures.

(Photo by cottonbro)

Then she had us take our newspapers back to our places, and she led us in a prayerful reflection. Pick a story, she said, only substitute a loved one—your parent, sibling, niece/nephew, friend—for the person in the story. Then read the story from that perspective.

I still remember the first story I read that way. It was about the rise of AIDS in China. There was a picture of a little boy, about 6, sitting on a cot next to his grandmother who was dying of AIDS. Both of his parents had already died of AIDS. His grandmother was the only person left in his family. I substituted my grandnephew, Aaron, for the boy since he was about the same age. That meant his dying grandmother became my sister. That also meant that his deceased parents were my niece Lori and her husband Dan. Reading the story that way underscored for me the tragedy of the situation.

I picked another story about a man on death row. He became my brother John. I read that story very differently when I substituted John’s name for the man. I asked myself, how would I feel if this man was my brother? What would I think or do? Reading those two stories from that perspective really moved me. It humanized the headlines. It strengthened my sense of oneness with the human family. It deepened and expanded my prayer.

When I say our prayer must be expansive, I am not saying we don’t pray for things close to home: a personal trial, a sick loved one, a parish need, a city issue. It just means we don’t isolate our prayer from what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the larger community. The best offertory petitions at Mass are those that include needs that are local, national, and global. As I have quoted before, the Talmud says, “Never pray in a room without windows.” We don’t have to take those words literally. It just means our prayer must be open to the world outside and beyond our windows.

(hoto by Doria Shevtsova)

St. Teresa of Avila said, “The purpose of prayer is good works, good works, good works.” Expansive prayer keeps us mindful of our Christian call to immerse ourselves in the needs and issues of our day—precisely because God is already at work there. A Presbyterian minister, Eugene Peterson, wrote: “always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so I can respond to it and participate in it and delight in it.”

Over and over again I hear people say, “We are living in unprecedented times.” And in some ways, we really are. It’s hard to imagine another time in our history when we faced so many critical issues all at the same time: a raging global pandemic, massive unemployment; catastrophic fires and storms; deep-seated racism; a contentious presidential election; a disturbing divisiveness; and certain accepted practices that threaten the very survival of our planet. Against such a backdrop, we may be tempted to retreat from this suffering world—to close our window—and seek solace in a prayer that is detached from the “mess out there.”

(Photo by Nasha Volquez-Young)

But we must not succumb to that temptation. Instead, let us ask Jesus to show us what we can do to help in these desperate times–whether it is big or small: helping to disinfect the church after Mass, checking in on a neighbor, sharing the tomatoes from our garden, writing to our congressperson, making a monetary contribution for disaster relief, helping a child with her homework, staying informed on key issues, and lifting our hearts and hands in prayer.

And if we find ourselves getting disheartened, let us hear the promise Jesus himself made to us, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Did any words in this reflection “move” you?

What helps you to keep your prayer expansive?

Recall a prayer experience that you would describe as “moving.” Reflect on the factors that made it so for you. Would you like to share it with us?

Our faith tells us that God is at work in the world even during these “unprecedented times.” Have you seen any evidence of that? If so, where?

Announcing: My new book, The Grace of Beauty: Its Mystery, Power, and Delight in Daily Life, is being released! (I’m excited!) You can find it on Amazon or the Twenty-Third Publications website. I want to thank all of you, our “Sunflower Community,” for encouraging me in my writing ministry. Your support helps keep me at my computer!

A Big THANK YOU to the 27 participants on this past weekend’s “Holding onto Hope” retreat sponsored by Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Center in Maple Mount, KY. The retreatants, from about 11 different states, were a delight to be with. And special thanks to Maryann Joyce the gracious director of the retreat center! And thanks to all of you who held this retreat in your prayer!

Our song is “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” written by Frederick Faber (1814-1863). Faber, a friend of John Henry Newman, was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1845. A talented musician, he wrote over 150 Church hymns. Faber’s lyrics have been set to many different melodies. This version comes to us from Ipswich, England.

Would you like to respond to anything here—the reflection, the pictures, the video, or something another reader said? If so, please do so below. My readers and I love hearing from our readers!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas DeFreitas October 5, 2020 at 4:15 am

Hello, Sr Melannie, hello, all:

Gratitude for the video.

“…we make his love too narrow with false limits of our own, and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.”

Yes.

Peace and light, all.

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John Hopkins October 5, 2020 at 6:12 am

Wasn’t that song a gem?! Just copied the quote, Tom. Thanks!

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Pete October 5, 2020 at 4:54 am

Greetings,
Our soup kitchen has stayed open right through the pandemic. Not one of the volunteers has come down with the virus. We say a prayer before we commence to make a meal. Prayer has become very important for us. I have a grand-son-in-law who is an EMT/fireman who doesn’t believe in God because he sees too much tragedy. “If there is a God, why doesn’t he save innocent people from terrible accidents?” I’ve taken him on as a project. Prayer would make it so much different for him. Pray for ME that I am successful. Finally, wow, they have great voices in Ipswich, England . And they said Catholics couldn’t sing!

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Jean Canatsey October 5, 2020 at 11:41 am

Good morning, Pete!
My husband and I attended a National Musicians Convention in 1981 in Detroit. One evening many of the attendees were gathered along the balcony rails of the hotel atrium (on many floors) when someone started singing the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Everyone began to join in and soon it was one of the most beautiful and powerful musicals I have ever experienced. Catholics can sing when they feel the freedom to do so! I think that freedom comes from those around us.
Have a blessed day!
Jean

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John Hopkins October 5, 2020 at 6:08 am

Good morning, Sister Melannie…
Good morning, all….

What an important and timely message! Melannie, you write about political divisiveness, and while that expression implies an ideological gulf, it is a strict, narrow view that causes such a gulf. And despite what we hear about the straight and narrow path, I believe God wants us to walk on the “wide plains of His mercy.”

As many of you do, I have family members with whom I vehemently disagree politically. An election looms. I have asked myself how I will ever be able to talk to those family members again if the person I want to win doesn’t. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that if my person does win, I don’t even consider the possibility of those family members not talking to me. In fact, I don’t care.

That attitude is narrow, it’s wrong, and it’s not Jesus.
I need a wider heart.

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Jean Canatsey October 5, 2020 at 9:23 am

John,
I, too, worry about the aftermath of this election. We already have two sons who will not speak to us but it has never been a two way street. I pray daily for unity and for our ability as a country to actually listen to one another.
Jean

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Peggy Lockhart October 5, 2020 at 10:16 am

As Catholics, we have but one choice. I chose LIFE.

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John Hopkins October 5, 2020 at 10:46 am

Thank you, Jean! Have a blessed day!

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Jean Canatsey October 5, 2020 at 11:42 am

And you also, John!

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Linda Marie October 5, 2020 at 6:16 am

Good morning, once again I’m thankful to start my week with your reflection. I have been privileged to be part of a prayer group for over 30 years. When we pray for a particular person or concern we will often say Lord this is only the name we know but we know so many others suffer the same and need our prayers. But replacing names with someone we know and love takes us even deeper into prayer. Thank you for this wonderful insight. Peace and joy to you today and throughout the coming week.

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Clara October 5, 2020 at 6:35 am

Good morning, Sister,
Thank you for this beautiful reflection! I really loved the thought of envisioning your own loved one in a news story. This makes the world’s issues our own issues, which indeed they are!

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Kathleen Magiera October 5, 2020 at 7:14 am

Beautiful reflection Sr. Melannie!

The quote from the Talmud moved me: “Never pray in a room without windows.” In light of President Trump’s COVID-19 illness as well as so many around him testing positive, we must open the windows of prayer wide to let in healing.

Kathleen

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Ed Johnson October 5, 2020 at 7:24 am

Good Morning, Sister,
Today’s gospel from Luke with its theme of “Who is my neighbor?” seems to coincide with your expressions of wideness and expansiveness. It is tempting to lose hope in times such as these. Jesus lived right in the middle of the “mess out there,” as you called it. Are we not also called, in prayer and action, to do likewise?…….Such a beautiful, uplifting song! Peace and Blessings to all………Looking forward to reading your newest book!

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Mary M Nausadis October 5, 2020 at 8:48 am

Good morning to all,
The video was so uplifting and reminded me of when I sang in choir with all those beautiful instruments, feeling like I was being carried away by the beauty of the hymn, oftimes barely able to sing the words because of the emotion I felt…..I miss being shoulder to shoulder with my church community.
Prayer….I remember growing up when we would say family prayers, mother would always say, ” and we pray for those that are most forgotten, who have no one to pray for them”. I still do that, for there are so many that have no circle of prayerful family/friends.
I remember a retreat I attended where part of it was each of us bringing some ingredient that went into the bread that we were going to bake together for our meal. The retreat facilitator put the ingredients together, saying an appropriate prayer for each before it went into the mix; blessing it with oil when it was formed and ready to be put in the oven, with all of us giving it our own blessing. I was thinking what an added piece this would be when we are making something for someone else, to place their name in prayer as part of the ingredients …..perhaps as we collect our no longer used clothes and things to take to Goodwill, etc. we can pray for the one who will be using it next.
So many ways to love our neighbor, far and wide.

Thank you for your thought-provoking blog, Sr. Melannie,
Mary

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Jean Canatsey October 5, 2020 at 9:39 am

A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited the Adoration Chapel in the Basilica in St. Augustine, FL. As I knelt in prayer and gazed at the picture of the last supper which was hanging above the altar, my eyes were drawn to the shadowy form of a man who was slinking away behind the other apostles. I remember thinking he represented Judas and hoping that the form wasn’t me. I have never forgotten that image…..

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Elaine Snyder October 5, 2020 at 9:43 am

Thank you so much, sister, for this wonderful reading this morning. Expensive prayer for me often involves being outside. You mentioned in the retreat this weekend that the average American only spends 10 minutes a day outside. What a pity for them! I typically spend hours outside, and yesterday morning was able to attend outdoor mass. My prayer after mass was one of those experiences where it felt expensive, full, and seemed to envelop the world as I was able to see it. Thank you again for all the insights I receive from you! You are a blessing in my life!

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Jean Canatsey October 5, 2020 at 11:49 am

Dear Elaine,
My husband and I were unable to attend the retreat but I am amazed that the average American spends only 10 minutes a day outside! We live in Florida and have a big back porch. We prefer fresh air to A/C so most of our days (year round) are spent outdoors. I can’t imagine a better place to pray!
It would be wonderful if Sr. Melannie would post a copy of her talks for those of us who financially could not afford to attend.
God Bless,
Jean

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Patty October 5, 2020 at 9:54 am

Thank you, Sister. Lovely reflection to begin the week.

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Pam October 5, 2020 at 10:12 am

Thank you for another wonderful way to start the week… When I finish this response I am going to try the exercise of placing someone I know in a story of our morning paper…it is such an eye opener…you are so inspirational….
Thank you for doing your blog each week…

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Pat Torpie October 5, 2020 at 11:36 am

Thank you for the wonderful retreat on Hope, and thank you for this blog today. I love the Talmud quote about praying in a room with open windows.

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George Marsh October 5, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Thanks for including the thoughts of Rev. Eugene Peterson, that my prayer is not simply to petition God to do what I cannot, but more that I can participate with God in God’s actions in the world. God inspires me and others to imitate the good Samaritan. In so doing, I and others fulfill Jesus’s foretelling that humans would do greater things than He did.

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