Screen grab of meme shared to my Facebook news feed, Oct. 29, 2021.

For several months I’ve been wanting to jumpstart my prayer life, but until last week I never would have thought it would involve the heartache of praying for peace in Ukraine in the face of a failed World War II-style blitzkrieg that may yet turn into another Stalingrad; atrocities that appear to involve the deliberate targeting of civilians and refugees; or, arguably, a new phase of World War III. (Yep, that’s right, an ongoing world war that began in 2014. Or the continuation of one that started in 1914, depending on how you count the wars of the 20th century.)

For anyone who grew up in the aftermath of World War II, the echoes are all profoundly dispiriting. I thought we’d gotten past this stuff in 1945, but Feb. 24, the day the Russian armored columns moved into Ukraine, had an eerie resemblance in my mind to Sept. 1, 1939. Or June 28, 1914.

And there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it, except refresh the live-blogged updates in The Guardian every few minutes. Other than that, I’m left with thoughts and prayers, fully realizing they’re so often a cliche, a euphemism for inaction.

And I’m not the only one. The root problem — what do you do when you can’t do anything but pray? — was addressed in an article posted Feb. 24 to the Jesuit magazine America’s website. Also, quite movingly, by a lifestyle columnist in the Times of Israel.

I had to identify with Rachel Sharansky Danziger, who lives in Jerusalem and normally blogs about things like parenting and life in Israel. A week into the war, she wrote “I can feel history shifting underneath us” as the Russian army sought “to recreate a world of tyranny, of Might Makes Right.” Recalling her efforts to be of some help — somehow, to someone — she adds:

[…] as the day draws to a close, despair seeps in. I watch the burning buildings on the news, the death toll. What hubris, to think that the little we can do will make a difference! All those donations and posts and constant worries, they are but drops in an endless sea of need.

But this despair is a trap, I remind myself – like the rush of worries [getting her children off to school] in the morning. Both pull me into the position of passivity. Like those worries, this despair is a thing to overcome.

And so, as darkness seeps back into the world, I pray again.

What does Danziger pray for? She prays for the strength to say “here I am” to God — in other words, to find a way not to despair at “the enormity of the world’s grief,” as a widely circulated Talmudic paraphrase has it, but to be of service.

Almost precisely the same question, and with it almost precisely the same answer, came in the article on America magazine’s website. In it executive editor Ashley McKinless interviewed James Martin SJ, the magazine’s editor-at-large and author of several popular books on Jesuit spirituality, to make sense of her own cycle of despair, doomscrolling and prayer as she followed coverage on the internet:

What had been a mindless activity quickly became furious refreshing [her computer] in a quest for more details and developments. Interspersed among the news and commentary—videos of a CNN reporter changing into protective gear as explosions rocked Kyiv and [American political] partisans finding a usual target to blame for a conflict thousands of miles away—were prayers.

“[I]n earnest prayer that no blood is shed and that if it must be our country does not intervene in such a way as to make it worse,” Elizabeth Bruenig, a staff writer at The Atlantic, said in a tweet. I hit the like button.

“Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us,” the Catholic writer Shannon Last said. Heart emoji.

I liked a screenshot of President Joe Biden’s prayer for the people of Ukraine and a call from a Jesuit priest for Catholics to “get your Masses on.”

Then I asked myself the same question I always do in the wake of a tragedy that plays out in real-time on Twitter: What am I actually doing? Does liking a tweet count as praying?

I do that too, and I have the same question. (Although as an ecumenically minded spiritual mutt, I’m as likely to click on “like” or Facebook’s “care” emoji for a social media post from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Mindful Christianity Facebook group — or a lifestyle column in the Times of Israel). I think the rest of McKinless’ piece goes a long way toward answering the questions raised by the enormity of the world’s grief. She explains:

To get answers to these questions, I turned to my colleague at America, James Martin, S.J., who not only wrote the book Learning to Pray but has been a spiritual guide who, for the past eight years, has helped me process the (many) insecurities I have around my prayer life.

Fr. Martin did not disappoint.

To set the stage, McKinless asked him a penetrating question: “Are the prayers meant to ask God to change the course of events? To convert our own hearts toward peace? Something else?” And Martin gave her an answer that cut to the heart of it:

[…] I do believe God hears our prayers and responds, though sometimes the response is not through a sudden turnabout of events but by turning our own hearts: softening them, awakening in us a sense of compassion or even a righteous anger over injustice. So I think God both acts and also moves us to act.

The Q&A on despair was similarly enlightening. It deserves to be quoted in full:

[McKinless:] What advice do you have for someone who feels like their prayers for peace are futile?

[Martin:] First, to remember that God is mysterious and we don’t know how prayers “work” exactly. In other words, God is not a cosmic gum-ball machine where you “insert” a prayer and out comes a candy-coated result. God is always a mystery, ever beyond us. But that doesn’t mean that God is not interested in our lives. Christians don’t believe in the distant Aristotelian God as “Thought thinking thought.” No, God loved us so much that he became one of us, in Jesus Christ. And was willing to die for us. How much more “evidence” could we have of God’s desire to be near us?

Also, we may not get what we ask for immediately, in this case peace, but we must trust that God is at work in the world and that our prayers are heard. These days I am praying fervently for peace, especially in Ukraine. How will these prayers be answered? Perhaps by God’s opening hearts and moving thoughts to ways of peace, concord and reconciliation. Perhaps by awakening in us an intense compassion for the victims of war. Perhaps by filling us with outrage over the suffering caused by war.

Remember that this is one way that God “works,” by moving hearts to action. How else would God act in the world?

Rachel Danziger comes out of a different faith tradition, but she must have been on the same wavelength. Her blog post in the Times of Israel is headlined “Praying myself into action,” and she begins her day (after the kids are off to school) with doomscrolling:

The kids go to school, and I sit down to work, but I can’t force myself to focus. Instead I scroll down the news sites. I reread Putin’s speeches.

God, You Who did not make me a slave, give me the courage to stand up for other people’s liberty.

I read Biden’s remarks.

God, You Who gives sight to the blind, please give clarity of sight to our leaders.

I look at pictures of refugees in Moldovia, protesters in Russia, young Ukrainians preparing to defend their homes.

God, You are He Who clothes the naked. Help us care for those who were stripped bare from clothes and food and safety in this war. You are He Who provides me with all my needs. Help me provide others in turn now. You are He Who releases the imprisoned. Release our fellow humans in Russia from the tyrant’s grip. You are He Who straightens the bent. Help those who are bowed under fire right now to achieve victory, so that they can stand as straight and strong in body as they are in spirit even now.

Eventually, I do force myself to go about my day. I do my work, I donate money, I cook lunch, I share hotline numbers with relevant friends, I fold the laundry, I check the news again.

And she ends her day, after the kids are tucked into bed, by praying again:

I know: tomorrow I will wake up flooded with questions, with urgency, with worries, once again. And I will have to work and pray my way out of spectatorship again, and into action.

And so I pray once more, affirming to myself my refusal to be passive.

God – please, help the people of Ukraine now. Protect them, heal them, comfort them, extend Your wisdom to their leaders, Your strength to their defenders, Your compassion into the hearts of those who bring about their death.

But God, help us, too – help us rise to the challenge of this moment, and do what we can do to help.

There is blood on the ground in Kyiv. There are women birthing in metro stations in Kharkiv. There are elderly people hiding in their basements, children crying and explosions above their heads.

We pray for God to extend His hand and help them, but it is OUR hands and legs and hearts that are required, it is our “hineni” – our “here I am” – that history awaits.

That word, hineni, is Hebrew. It means “here I am,” but it means much more than that. It’s what Abraham and Moses said to God, according to an an explainer on the My Jewish Learning website, and it begins a prayer still recited at 21st-century Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Jacob, Samuel and Isaiah also began their service to God by saying “here I am.” Matt Axelrod, a cantor in New Jersey and author of the explainer, says:

In these episodes, Abraham and Moses emerged transformed. And so it is with the chazzan [cantor] on these most sacred days in the Jewish calendar. More than a simple indication of being physically present in a location, the word “Hineni” is more of an existential expression. I’m not only here, but I’m here. Spiritually, I’m all in. I’m prepared to reflect on who I am, what’s important to me, and how I can effect change for others.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot I need to learn about the Jewish tradition before I try to appropriate it into my own spiritual life. But I think it’s important. And I think I ought to try. For one thing, Alexrod’s article in My Jewish Learning is headlined “Hineni: A Prayer for the Ability to Pray.” Exactly what I’ve been wrestling with!

‘Here I am’: If not now, when?

And something in Rachel Danziger’s piece in Times of Israel resonates with Fr. Martin’s insistence that prayer should lead to action. (It’s a longstanding theme in his writing, as it is in Jesuit spirituality in general, and I’ve blogged about it before.) Especially now, when the fighting in Ukraine calls up memories of World War II and the Holocaust. Even the memorial at Babyn Yar, where 33,771 Jews were murdered in one day in 1941, was struck by a stray Russian missile.

I’m forcefully reminded of Hillel’s calls to action (and study) — “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” and “… if not now, when?” — and a meme that My Jewish Learning circulated after the 2018 murders at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. It’s a paraphrase of Talmudic sayings that command us to action in spite of “the enormity of the world’s grief,” and it quotes Rabbi Tarfon, a sage of the first century of the Common Era.

“You are not obligated to complete the work,” he said, in exile after the fall of Jerusalem, “but neither are you free to abandon it.”

That snaps me to attention every time I read it! Rabbi Tarfon, who lived through the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, certainly knew something about the enormity of the world’s grief; his commandment stayed with me, and I blogged about it last fall. It popped up then in my “memories” on Facebook, and it resonated at a time when scholars were increasingly concerned by the rise of “despotic politicians and authoritarian political parties” that, as Brian Klaas, a professor at University College London puts it, “systematically destroy democracy.” Klaas specifically includes America’s “party of Trump” in his analysis, but it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Now, with the war in Ukraine, we have even more cause to despair about despotic politicians.

I’m not Jewish, and I don’t speak Hebrew, but I sense there’s something in what Rabbi Tarfon said 2,000 years ago — and what voices as diverse as columnists in the Times of Israel and a Jesuit magazine in America affirmed when the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine — that I’m obligated, somehow, in some way, to follow. Pray for us all.

References:

Matt Axelrod, “Hineni: A Prayer for the Ability to Pray,” My Jewish Learning, 70 Faces Media https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hineni-a-prayer-for-the-ability-to-pray/.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger, “Praying Myself Into Action,” Times of Israel, March 2, 2022 https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/praying-myself-into-action/.

Ashley McKinless and James Martin, S.J., “Praying for peace in Ukraine—even when it feels useless” America, Feb. 24, 202 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/02/24/prayer-ukraine-242464.

“Hillel the Elder,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder.

James Tapper, “Obsessed? Frightened? Wakeful? War in Ukraine sparks return of doomscrolling,” Guardian, March 6, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/mar/06/obsessed-frightened-wakeful-war-in-ukraine-sparks-return-of-doomscrolling

Rabbi Tarfon, quoted in Pirkei Avot, Mishnah 2:15 [Sefaria edition], trans. Dr. Joshua Kulp https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.2.15.

[Revised, March 19, 2022]

One thought on “Thoughts, prayers, wisdom from the Talmud and acting against ‘the enormity of the world’s grief’ in wartime

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