Chris Visminas, Episcopal priest and Church historian, once led a discussion of Liturgy in my home parish. The usual complaint about liturgy is that because it’s the same — or practically the same — week in and week out, one can mumble one’s way through it without engaging. True, said Chris, but the beauty of it is that, on occasion, a bit of liturgy will rise up like a splinter and lodge itself painfully in the brain. And it will remain there until dealt with. I have found this to be true. Annoyingly so. No matter how hard I try, there’s always a bit of something worrying me. I’m pretty much over the creeds; they are so firmly rooted in their origins that I’ll never wrest much from them. But that leaves a whole lot.
This week, it was the Prayers of the People, Form I, as offered in the parish where I currently worship. (See photo for snippet and http://www.bcponline.org/HE/pop.htm for complete text.) It has been irritating my mind for two weeks and now it’s risen to consciousness. We use Form I during Advent. The leader gives the call and the congregations responds, “Lord, have mercy.” All perfectly ordinary. But look at these two calls, taken from their places in the litany so you can see them together:
Leader: For (insert military prayers here), let us pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Leader: That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach, let us pray to the Lord.
People: Lord, have mercy.
First, let’s look at praying for the military. In this parish, everyone serving in the military is named every week, followed by a fairly lengthy prayer for their protection. I don’t care for it but I can live with it. The parish is located in a place that came into existence as a consequence of war, so maybe that’s fitting. And maybe it’s a good thing to regularly remind us how many of our young people are employed in military service. Those who know them personally can include them in their prayers, send them notes, beseech God for their safe and rapid return. Since I don’t know any of them, I listen with awe to the length of the list; this is a small church in a small denomination in a small town, after all.
Then, a few seconds later we pray that we, personally, may die in comfort (“without suffering and without reproach”). What’s that? I want to die in peace and comfort, but I’m OK with the violence and chaos our “all volunteer” military personnel give and receive? I’m OK with those who don the uniform of Empire and go to any of our 700 bases abroad to “assist” the locals and risk getting blown up or shot, many in hopes of learning a trade or funding an education thereby? How can I, with any sense of justice, demand a peaceful end when I passively acquiesce to the violence endemic to the United States’s Endless War? How can I claim peace for my own end when so many return from war physically maimed or emotionally broken? And when our support for veterans seems to end with flowery phrases about their “patriotism” and “sacrifice”?
Asking the Lord to have mercy on them — on the young men shooting into homes out of fear; on the young women living in as much fear of the men in their units as of the “enemy”; on the officers covering up soldier suicides, sexual assaults, killing of civilians (euphemistically known as ”collateral damage”); on all who suffer from the corner-cutting of greedy, unaccountable private contractors who do so much of the work formerly done by real soldiers; on the recruiters who go into our schools and misrepresent military service to poor, idealistic kids — is an abdication of our responsibility for the mess they’re in, in our nation’s name. A more appropriate response might be, “Lord, bring them home,” or “Lord, teach us peace”. I’d like to add “now” but that might be asking too much of the Church, especially in this town.
The more I reflect on “That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach…,” the more distant from recent American experience it sounds. We die slowly, expensively, consuming resources that place us beyond suffering long before our bodies fail. As pensions and good medical insurance succumb to the greed of administrative corporations (fund managers and insurance and pharmaceutical companies, for example), dying will become either faster and more painful or more stressful as our heirs worry about paying for our sedated end. Who, besides the richest among us can aspire to die “without suffering”? As for “without reproach,” who but a middle-class white man, that most endangered creature, would even consider the possibility? It’s such a shallow, selfish, and silly prayer.
Or am I missing some deep irony here? I hope not. Lord, have mercy.
The Book of Common Prayer was last revised in 1979, and those revisions are the result of years of hard work. Consequently, the language reflects norms that are almost half a century out of date. It may be time for another revision, though I don’t think that’s a particularly good use of resources at the parish level. It might be helpful for parishes, especially those lacking a cohesive public mission, to informally revise the prayers to reflect the urgency of our collective need to return to justice, peace, and the common weal.