By Frank Wessling
The deepest prayer does indeed rise in us when we sense our helplessness, as Father Ron Rolheiser described in his Nov. 16 column. His examples of praying in the face of great personal loss reminded me of the night I had my own experience of such praying.
It was 51 years ago in a Milwaukee hospital. I had watched my wife being wheeled away at a trot by doctors desperately trying to pump more blood into her than was pouring out while they ran for emergency surgery. I didn’t know whether I would see her alive again — her or the baby who had made the previous eight months the most interesting of our six pregnancies.
I was left standing alone in a big half-lit elevator bay feeling alone, abandoned, helpless. Thought of my young children at home asleep in the care of a friend crowded in. At such times I guess there is something in us that works like automatic pilot. We breathe in, then out, then in, and out again, simply set in the moment. Noticing a door ahead of me labeled “Chapel,” I went to it and entered a balcony above the darkened hospital chapel. A small red sanctuary lamp near the altar below was the only light.
Praying felt natural in that setting and I began grasping for God in the usual ways. I know God was paying attention because very quickly I realized that this wouldn’t do. The moment wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about any thought or feeling of mine. It was so important as to be beyond me. No words would be right or enough. I had to quiet myself, be still. As this conviction rose in me I remember physically shaking myself to get rid of anything that might block the movement of God.
In the wordless quiet of that few minutes, my pent-up anxiety and fear dissolved. I even felt a sense of peace in thinking about the children and me possibly left alone — and gratitude for what I had been given in Mary Ann.
That experience of prayer is one I return to often as a model. Is that because it all turned out well? My wife survived with no damage and the baby was born in fine condition. Would I see it differently if the outcome had been different? Possibly. But what happened to me in that hallway and dark chapel balcony still stands as a gift of real consolation. It affected me deeply, while I did nothing.
As Fr. Rolheiser pointed out, at times of our greatest need, it is the Holy Spirit who acts if we allow, always for our benefit in some way.
(Frank Wessling of Davenport served many years as news editor of The Catholic Messenger before his retirement in 2002.)