During my time as a Jesuit novice (spring 2007) I spent a month working at a children’s hospital run by the Missionaries of Charity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. That month was probably the most moving of my two-years in novitiate, the time in my life when the Gospel most seemed to take on flesh before my eyes.
The Gospel coming to life is, of course, a wonderful thing, but it is not always an easy thing, and my time in Haiti was no exception to this rule. I experienced several sustained moments of searing self-questioning regarding how I was living the religious life, and there was the heat, too, the lack of water, the sporadic electricity, the smell of sewage in the air—and all the sick kids in the hospital. Malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, parasites, burns, abuse, and on and on. Of all the places I had traveled in the world before then—Kazakhstan, East Africa, the Middle East—something about Haiti made it seem the most broken. The MCs’ compound was perched over an empty streambed filled with garbage, wandering pigs, and excrement. It stunk all the time.
There have been few times in my life when I was drawn so intensely to prayer as I was in Haiti, and yet I found myself often stuck, wondering what exactly I should be praying for. There were just so many needs crying out unmet: the individual wounds and diseases of all the kids, my own becoming-clearer-every-day shortcomings, even those lacks—quite different from the privations in Haiti, but real nonetheless—of my own society back home. I needed to pray for God’s intercession, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted him to do.
I have felt similarly these past weeks, following the earthquake’s aftermath, not knowing quite what to say to God. I haven’t brought myself to watch much coverage on TV. Commentators will occasionally describe such devastation as “unimaginable,” but I can imagine it all too well, and I don’t want to.
Feeling overwhelmed in prayer is not, ultimately, a bad thing, and God most certainly uses such feelings to work his will in our lives. In Haiti, I eventually found myself immensely comforted by praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the breviary, especially the intercessions from those two offices. All those prayers for God’s help—not just mine, but the Church’s prayers—seemed to say everything I wanted to say and everything I was forgetting to ask for, too. It is good to pray, not just on my own, but with the Church, especially at times like this, to be able to put myself into the prayer, knowing how inadequate my own words will be but also knowing that I am not doing so alone. The Church’s prayer begins and ends in the prayer of Jesus, and that is a prayer simply bigger than all our needs.