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September 4, 2003
"Let us bless the Lord."

"Thanks be to God."

Evening Prayer was finished at the convent, but the sisters sat back down and remained in their places. Sr. Catherine Grace reached down beside her seat and brought up a large brass bowl and a special wooden stick.

"Today the people of Florida will assist Paul Hill in his suicide/martyrdom, in revenge for the murders of Dr. John Britton and James Barrett. Pray for him and for his victims." She struck the rim of the bowl with the stick, and then passed the stick lightly around and around the outside of the bowl. A musical tone took shape from the percussion of stick and bowl, and it hung in the air and grew. We sat, silent, as she lifted the stick away from the bowl and the tone continued, fading at last into silence. A car drove by outside, its tires hissing softly on the wet street.

The sisters pray in this way every time there is an execution, anywhere in the United States -- every time the same, with the invitation to pray for the doomed and his victims alike. The word "revenge" is always used in the invitation to pray, for that is what state-sanctioned killing is. Revenge.

The man who was to die -- a man called to my own profession, a pastor to people who follow the Prince of Peace -- considered his deed an act of heroism, likening it morally to killing Adolph Hitler before the Holocaust could happen. He was saving lives, he said. Thirty or forty people would die if the doctor made it into the clinic that day, and that wasn't going to happen, he said. He suspected the doctor was wearing a Kevlar vest, and he was right. So he shot him in the head. And his driver. And his wife. His wife survived.

Now people are frightened -- will this mean a wave of attacks on women's clinics? Hill's followers -- interestingly, they are all men, people who will never become pregnant -- say they hope so, and are now praying for the courage to go and do likewise.

How do you pray for the headlines in the newspaper, the lead story on the radio? How do you pray for situations of violence and disappointed hopes for peace, for the times when human hatred tramples human love in the dust? How do you pray for the souls of suicide bombers when you can barely see, your eyes are so full of tears for their victims? How do you pray for the souls of the unborn and the soul of the doctor who would have cut off their chance at life, for the soul of the man who calmly took aim at another person's head and pulled the trigger?

To pray for another -- for your own mother, your own beloved child, for the person whose company you simply cannot endure, for the person whose deed makes your blood run cold -- is to turn that person over to the great love of God. Prayer is more than thinking kindly of someone -- that we can do on our own. Atheists can think of people. Prayer is different. It takes the puny love we can summon -- and sometimes our love is puny indeed, and sometimes we cannot summon love at all -- and adds it to the mighty river of God's love, which carries everything in its powerful stream. The good and the bad alike are no match for it. It is greater than we are in every way.

Put the things you cannot understand into that mighty stream. All of them. Put the things that contradict each other into that stream -- your own sorrow over abortion and your sorrow over the killing of the abortion provider. Your confusion about what is right. Your sorrow over state-sanctioned killing and your horror at the calm self-satisfaction of a murderer.

It is humanity's great burden that we do not know and yet must choose. Most of our ethical decisions are made in the dark. Some seem pretty self-evident and others give us terrible pause. Some plant their feet firmly in the middle of our desires and refuse them. And, in the end, none of us are completely clean. Not one.

Pray for your own ethical choices and the choices of others. Pray for what happens as a result of those choices. Stumble along and figure it out as best you can. Peer as far into the future as you can see -- never very far -- and try to see all the possible outcomes of your actions. Then take a deep breath and act. And throw yourself upon the mercy of God.


The Community of the Holy Spirit is a women's religious order in the Episcopal Church.
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