From “Mountain Vespers” service for Holden Village by Dr. Kent Gustavson

Many of us pray best in church, or in the resonant silence of an empty cathedral. Others pray at home, relying on candles, music or other aids to help ease them into a prayerful attitude. Me? It seems like I pray best in emergency rooms.

The same goes for hospital rooms, and when I was in St. John’s Hospital last month for pneumonia and a cardiac ablation, I blogged about it, quoting a rabbi and musician named Tzvi Gluckin:

In a situation like that you don’t think. You don’t rationalize. You don’t remember your philosophy lecture from college. You don’t wonder about the existence of God or the effectiveness of prayer. You pray. 

(Debi blogged about it too, in her annual gratitude list. While you’re on her blog, take a look around. It’s called Seriously Seeking Answers, and it explores “religion, personal choices and the meaning of life.” Not to mention some awesome nature photos and cat pictures.)

One of the prayers I turned to in the hospital is known as the Holden Village Prayer or Prayer of Good Courage, originally composed in the 1930s by the Very Rev. Eric Milner-White, dean of the Church of England’s cathedral at York, and associated in this country with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Holden Village retreat center. It goes like this:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And I turned to it again this week, when Debi was taken to St. John’s for what turned out to be a kidney stone. It came on suddenly, and I didn’t have time to pick up a book on my way out to follow the ambulance to the emergency room.

So I sat helpless on one of those little plastic chairs in the ER — I think we’ve all been in that position — knowing only that Debi was in pain and I couldn’t do anything to help her. Last month I’d tried to memorize the Holden Village prayer. (Long story — let’s just say I found it timely.) Debi had more presence of mind than I, and she brought a legal pad. So I repeated the prayer to myself. Over and over. And jotted it down as the words came back to me. Was I memorizing? Or was I praying?

And as the words came back, they were a comfort.

I still couldn’t do anything for Debi in the circumstances, but the thought that God’s hand was leading us and God’s love supporting us eased my anxiety a little. And repeating it, in effect memorizing it again, gave my mind something constructive to do. At least more constructive than imagining worst-case scenarios, which is my default setting.

We were in luck. They prescribed pain meds. An orderly came in, wheeled Debi out for a CT scan. Wheeled her back. More waiting. More repetition. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go. It’s like I told my students the year I taught an intro to advertising course — repeat something long enough, and you start believing it. Knowing only that your hand is guiding us and your love supporting us. A nurse came in. Or was it a doctor? I was too distracted to know. The CT scan showed a kidney stone. The sense of relief was palpable.

A few minutes later we were on the way home with Debi’s discharge papers and a ‘scrip for pain meds. I can’t pretend my prayer had anything to do with with the outcome, but maybe that’s not the point.

I don’t think the Prayer for Good Courage is about miracles. It’s about trust. Faith and trust, I’d say. It doesn’t ask for miracles. It asks for the faith to go on. With good courage, not knowing where we go. I’ve blogged about it before, in the early days of the pandemic, because I think it has a special resonance for our time of unknown perils. Even when I’m nowhere near an emergency room.

According to an explainer on a Holden Village podcast by the Rev. Nancy Winder of Seattle, who considers herself an “unofficial historian of the prayer,” a version of Dean Milner-White’s prayer was circulated by Anglicans in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. There it was learned by American Lutherans who were incarcerated with them, and in later years it “popped up everywhere,” after ELCA’s Holden Village retreat center was established in 1958 at a former mining camp in Washington state.

(The picture at the head of this post shows Holden Village, and it features a musical adaptation of the prayer by Kent Gustavson, a composer and journalist who wrote a liturgy called the Mountain Vespers when he was a staffer at Holden. He’s also something of an expert on Doc Watson, and his setting of the song sounds little bit like one of Doc Watson’s southern Appalachian ballads.)

I learned the Holden prayer at Peace Lutheran when I was singing with the praise team at our former Saturday afternoon contemporary service. I can’t say I ever learned to fully appreciate pop-flavored contemporary worship music, but I loved the service. And the prayer has stayed with me.

A couple of other prayers — well, one of them is a hymn — that have stayed with me since I was in St. John’s in October. First, the hymn:

Hymn — “The Will of God is Always Best”:

An 16th-century Lutheran chorale (WAS MEIN GOTT WILL in German), attributed to Albert, Duke of Prussia, aka Albrecht von Prussen. It’s one of the first generation of sturdy, didactic Lutheran chorales composed specifically for congregational singing (you can hear an audio file on YouTube). When I was admitted to the hospital, the preliminary diagnosis was lung cancer. And a cardiac ablation was ordered, to fix a rapid heartbeat apparently brought on by whatever was going on with my lungs. So my cousin in North Carolina, from whom I learned to love the hymnody and history of the Reformation era, emailed me, quoting what he described as a “difficult prayer” in the second verse:

God is my comfort and my trust,
My hope and life abiding:
And to His counsel, wise and just,
I yield, in Him confiding.
The very hairs, His Word declares,
Upon my head He numbers.
By night and day God is my stay;
He never sleeps nor slumbers.

A difficult prayer for difficult times! After I got out of the hospital and looked him up, I learned Albert, Duke of Prussia, lived in difficult times, too.

Albert ruled for more than 50 years during the tumult of the Protestant Reformation. He started out in 1510 as grand master of the Teutonic Knights, a medieval Catholic military order that ruled in eastern Germany and Poland. He joined Luther in breaking away from the church, and got the king of Poland and the Holy Roman Emperor (who, as Voltaire famously said, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an emperor), to recognize him in the newly created secular post of Duke of Prussia. At first the duchy flourished, but in later years he was embroiled in theological controversy, and his political wings were clipped by a regency imposed by Estates of the Prussian nobility. He and his wife died of the plague on the same day in 1568. Difficult times, indeed. Not so far different from our own.

But, as Wikipedia notes, Albert was the first German ruler to “to establish Lutheranism, and thus Protestantism, as the official state religion of his lands.” (That may come as a surprise: Luther’s patron, Elector Fredrick of Saxony, remained a lifelong Catholic.) Also Albert’s duchy of Prussia “pav[ed] the way for the rise of the House of Hohenzollern” and, ultimately, as a crowdsourced website called felicitously puts it, he “is often attributed as the father of the Prussian nation, circuitously responsible for the amalgamation of Germany” as we know it today.

I don’t want to draw too many parallels between my life and that of a 16th-century German nobleman. Frankly, there aren’t many. But the very hairs, God’s Word declares, / Upon my head God numbers — we have that much in common. So my cousin’s difficult prayer gave me something to think about in the hospital, and it brought a kind of relief to remember I wasn’t calling the shots. Couldn’t have called the shots, if I’d wanted to. After a few days, a PET scan showed a nasty — but treatable — case of pneumonia, with no malignancy. In fact, whatever it was that showed up on the CT had gotten a little smaller, and I was told that’s consistent with an infection looks like after a week of IV antibiotics.

All of which left me exulting, “Glory, hallelujah! I’ve got pneumonia!”

Another hymn that stayed with me that week in the hospital was the old American folk hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” Fear not, I am with you; O be not dismayed … Feeling upheld by God’s righteous, omnipotent hand, I blogged about that one, too.

Episcopal prayers for ‘quiet confidence’:

After I’d been admitted to the hospital for a couple of days, I asked Debi for bring me a copy of the 1928 version of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that I grew up with, along with a couple of historical tomes I quickly found I didn’t have the patience to read under the circumstances. But under the heading “Forms of Prayer to be used in Families,” I found something that seemed perfectly tailored for a guy who was looking at heart surgery, even a relatively common procedure like an ablation:

For One about to undergo an Operation.

ALMIGHTY God our heavenly Father, we beseech thee graciously to comfort thy servant in his suffering, and to bless the means made use of for his cure. Fill his heart with confidence, that though he be sometime afraid, he yet may put his trust in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Appropriate enough, under the circumstances. But here’s one that said exactly what I needed to see — and say — at the moment:

For Quiet Confidence.

O GOD of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength; By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The ablation went smoothly. I understand they almost always do. And I’ve been out of the hospital a little more than a month now. But I still like that prayer. I think I’ll put it next on my list to memorize.

[Revised Sept. 13, 2022]

One thought on “Praying for good courage in a hospital emergency room … and quiet confidence while sweating out a scary diagnosis

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