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Prayer at the sound of sirens.

Decades ago, a group of cloistered Carmelite nuns in Schenectady, New York built a monastery on what was then the outskirts of the city. But urban areas have a way of spreading out. Now, instead of living in the countryside, where the sounds at night are limited to cricket calls and owl hoots, the nuns live alongside a major inner belt amid aging housing. As a result, the night is sometimes fined with the scream of sirens, the shattering of beer bottles, and the occasional crack of gunshots. When one of the Carmelites was asked what those noises meant to the women who inhabit the monastery, she gave an unexpected reply: "Every fire engine and every ambulance that goes by reminds us to pray for the sick." Said another: "We are reminded of the need for prayer and at night to pray for the sins of the night."

I feel an instant rapport with those responses. Like a baptized Pavlov's dog, I have been praying at the sound of sirens since I was a child. I learned that response as a kindergartner at St. Ann's School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The Ursuline sisters who instructed me would stop teaching whenever an ambulance or fire engine wailed by on busy Cedar Road. "Let's offer a prayer," the sisters would say, and the class would recite a Hail Mary or Our Father for a stricken stranger being rushed to the hospital or for an unknown family whose house was in danger from flames.

Those nuns, of course, didn't invent the idea of caring about strangers; they were simply continuing a tradition as old as the Bible. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God's people are exhorted to care for strangers, who are also called in various translations aliens and foreigners: "You must befriend the alien for you were once aliens yourself in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19). Strangers were elevated to their loftiest place when Jesus identified with them by saying: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matt. 25:35). Caring about strangers means praying for them, too. Jesus gave us the ultimate example of that when he prayed for the strangers who were in the process of nailing him to the cross.

I don't require sirens as a noisy goad to pray for strangers - an obituary or news item will sometimes do it. That's because I often include in my prayers someone who seems to be without anyone else to pray for them. On occasion, I pray for famous, or infamous, people, such as Saddam Hussein. More often, however, I pray for the completely unknown and neglected: an unidentified homeless man whose body is found along a deserted roadside, an elderly woman who passes on and leaves no survivors, an entire family that drowns when a ferry in a Third World country sinks, the hundreds of people who are killed in forgotten wars in nations that change their names overnight. When I hear on the morning news that a murderer has been executed, I pray for that person and his family as well as for the victims and their relatives.

As I have prayed over the years at the sound of sirens and on the occasion of obituaries, I never thought of what I was doing as a spiritual work of mercy, but of course it is: praying for the living and the dead. I do it because I believe in another traditional Catholic teaching: the Mystical Body of Christ. Those unknown, forgotten, neglected, and nameless people I pray for are not really strangers - they are part of the church, they are, as John Donne wrote, part of me.

My daughter-in-law, Christine, was recently asked by a non-Catholic coworker why Catholics pray to the Blessed Mother and the saints. I told her to ask her friend whether she has ever asked anyone to pray for her when she was sick or in trouble or to pray for her relatives when they were dying, out of a job, or facing some other difficulty. We believe what Jesus told us about prayer in the story of the widow and the judge: the more we persist, the more likely we are to get a favorable reply. So we ask friends and others in our parish to storm heaven with entreaties, and we also turn to others in the church, including the Blessed Virgin and the saints. It doesn't matter if they're living or dead. We're all in this together.

Because I believe we're all in this together, I pray when a police car races by my house (it might be my son, Matt the cop, behind the wheel), when an ambulance speeds past me on the highway, or when people in some hidden corner of the globe are devastated by a typhoon or revolution. It is not only for altruistic reasons that I offer those prayers. I also pray for two completely selfish reasons. For one thing, it makes me feel good. For another, I hope that someday when I need it, someone I don't know will offer a prayer for me as I lie in an ambulance or a hospital bed - or a coffin.
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Title Annotation:praying for strangers
Author:Breig, James
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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