Wednesday, July 20, 2016

*Pause at the Asterisk

Open thou, O Lord, my mouth to bless thy holy Name; cleanse also my heart from all vain, evil, and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding; enkindle my affections; that I may say this Office worthily, with attention and devotion, and so be meet to to be heard in the presence of thy divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I always begin my recitation of the Daily Office with this prayer taken from the Anglican Breviary, because it reminds me of the posture of attentiveness with which we are called to pray. Prayer is not supposed to be perfunctory or distracted or incidental. And yet, I have been known to rush through reading the psalms (and everything else) during the Daily Office, especially if I'm standing in a crowded train or bus struggling to turn pages and flip ribbons in that fumbling, one-handed manner without dropping the book or falling over a nearby commuter. As the bus jerks and jostles me, I am grateful for those days when I can take my time to savor the Word of God over a leisurely sipped cup of coffee. On busy days, there is probably little attention and devotion, and an abundance of wandering thoughts. Sometimes, all I can manage is to just get it done, so I can move on to the next thing.

The Book of Common Prayer notes on page 583 that "an asterisk divides each verse into two parts for reading or chanting. In reading, a distinct pause should be made at the asterisk." I have been in congregations where the asterisk is completely ignored, and in others where the pause is so long and plodding that it makes me want to jump impatiently out of my seat. I think there is wisdom in that tiny asterisk, whether the pause is long or short, because it forces us to take a breath and stop. We should do a lot more of that. The pace of the world is so furiously fast that we often fail to pause and think before we speak and act. Our attention seems to be dominated these days by the relentless threat of terrorist attacks, the never-ending ping-pong of presidential campaign rhetoric, and the instantaneous reactivity of social media. I often feel weary, and wish I could take a break from this assault on my senses. I need to recharge my batteries, but there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight. It just never stops. I need an asterisk for my life. Who's with me?

Earlier this week, I was beginning my morning commute standing impatiently on the platform waiting for the train to come. Seated next to me was a transit employee in her fluorescent vest, who eyed my clerical collar and struck up a conversation. She asked if I was a priest and where my church was, and after I explained what the Episcopal Church was, she introduced herself as Leticia and requested that I keep her in my prayers. I offered to lay hands on her and pray with her right there, if she wished. She readily agreed and told me what she would like to pray for. So, we prayed amidst the morning hurly-burly in the background, and she thanked me profusely. And I thanked her. Leticia offered me an opportunity to pause. We had forced an asterisk into the day's script. We had created a moment for attention and devotion and to thrust our wandering thoughts aside. It was wonderful. I wonder if our inability to pause is a function of habit, and whether more moments for intentional reflection and retreat from the maelstrom might be available to us if we simply learned to pay closer attention to the opportunities already available to us in regular unfolding of our days. Maybe that little asterisk is an open space to let the Holy Spirit in and speak to us.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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