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Summer solstice

Long summer days can be more than a season for escapism

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

BOSTON-Summer floated in on an evening breeze off the Atlantic, "still, and warm, and peaceful," as Louis Armstrong would sing. The night sky filled with stars and a half moon rose above as I walked with my family in Boston's historic North End.

Not far from the waterfront is a Holocaust memorial, six towers bearing names and inscriptions recalling six Nazi concentration camps and the estimated 6 million who died in them. The brainchild of Holocaust survivors who resettled in New England, the memorial rises almost translucent along a lit walkway in the shadow of other, earlier monuments to freedom from tyranny.

One of the towers bears the engraved words of Holocaust survivor Aime Bonifas, who was captured for his work in the French Resistance, held in Auschwitz, and lived to become a pastor in the French Reformed Church:

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"Some Catholics, including Father Anyot, invited me to join them in prayer. Seven or eight of us gathered, secretly of course, in the shed used as a lavatory. In prayer we laid before God our suffering, our rags, our filth, our fatigue, our exposure, our hunger and our misery."

Even on your most cottony summer eve, picture the scene for Bonifas-eight strangers wedged into a reeking shed to kneel, bow, and raise hands in intercession, pleadings, thanksgivings, and confessions. And if you are tempted, like me, to approach the long days of summer as a time for escapism, let's instead see it as a great time to be serious in prayer.

"American culture is probably the hardest place in the world to learn to pray. We are so busy that when we slow down to pray, we find it uncomfortable," Paul Miller points out in his book A Praying Life.

Staying on top of a news cycle, striving to be engaged Christians who divine the wheat from the chaff in any day's headlines, adds to the treadmill where praying seems hard, and the perception that our prayers are irrelevant multiplies. John Edwards verdict, pro or con? Nigeria church bombings, why care? Presidential polls, who can decipher?

I say pray, even on these things. "Learning to pray doesn't offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart," writes Miller. A habit of prayer breeds quiet on the inside that leads us to love, cultivate, and give more as a result. It builds a relationship with God the person, and who wouldn't want to know Him better?

A friend recently moved 1,400 miles away yet we felt challenged to pray alongside one another. How? We synced our calendars (in this case we both have iPhones) so that even two time zones away we are praying for each other together-every day-and praying for mutual causes and friends, including one currently stationed in Afghanistan. My phone alerts me when it's time to pray, much as the forum bells in Rome summoned first Jews and then early Christians to pray.

I used to scoff at this kind of ritual, perhaps as part of my Protestant heritage. After all, by the Middle Ages the clergy needed a stack of books just to recite the various collects and readings that made up the prayer liturgy.

But the Scriptures themselves are full of fixed-hour prayers. "Seven times a day I praise you," wrote the psalmist in Psalm 119. In Acts 3 healing for the lame beggar took place when the disciples showed up for ninth hour (3 p.m.) prayers. Peter saw a sheet filled with clean and unclean animals when he climbed to a rooftop for noon (sixth hour) prayer. Peter was on the roof "not by some accident of having been in that spot when the noon bell caught him, but by his own intention," writes Phyllis Tickle in her book The Divine Hours.

Fixed-hour prayers can happen alone but also lend themselves to communal prayers-binding two or more around a dining table, or several time zones away, or, as Bonifas discovered, in an outhouse at an appointed hour. The point is, long days or short are full of hours-and reasons-to pray.



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