Nov 24, 2011 0 Share

Sharing the Sacred

Close-up of hands cupped around burning candle.

Last Thursday, I attended a L'Arche supper that ended, as L'Arche suppers always do, with prayer time. (L'Arche is a faith-based non-profit where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.) As is the L'Arche DC custom, the evening's cooks led us in prayer. Cooks often lead prayer by passing a candle and sharing a favorite part of the day (or a favorite scent of fall), but on Thursday night, the cooks decided to go a more traditional route. They asked us to say the Lord's Prayer together.

It was a good idea in theory. In actuality, though, it turned into a bit of a mess. Most of us whispered the prayer, trying not to upset one of our Spanish-speaking members who gets upset whenever people speak English in unison. Furthermore, Leo (the L'Arche resident leading us) could not quite remember the sequence of phrases that make up the Lord's Prayer. As such, he inserted hums and trills where words ordinarily would be, recommencing the prayer wherever he remembered more words.

I was trying to watch Leo's lips and follow his lead, but that meant that I was hopelessly out of step with the rest of the table, as they were saying the prayer without pauses or hums. When an “Amen!” came from one end of the table, those at the other end of the table were still speaking. My husband Jonathan and I grinned at each other. Far from being unsettled by moments like this, we've grown accustomed to finding the humor and beauty within them.

The whole experience reminded me of my brother, Willie, as he is the leader of mealtime prayer at my parent's house. I've mentioned Willie's “trail blazing” prayers before, saying, “...when Willie leads dinnertime prayer, I am astonished at what he says every time: ‘Thank you God for heaven and for prayers and for my sister Caroline and Jonathan in Washington DC…' No one prompted Willie to do this. It’s simply how he expresses himself, a reflection of his heart. He may not always engage with me when I visit; he may not want to talk for long on the phone. But when he prays, I am clued in: He cares.”

The recent prayer time at L'Arche had me thinking about the insights that my brother's prayer has to offer. For me, Willie's recited prayer is replete with clues to his inner world. First, Willie is thankful “for heaven and for prayers.” I'm not sure what he thinks about heaven, but loving my brother has led me to believe in heaven as a place in which there are no barriers between people. It would not necessarily be a place without autism, but perhaps a place where the limits of autism on Willie's part (and ignorance on mine) would fall away, allowing us to connect and share more easily. But at the end of the day, all I know about my brother's heaven is that he is thankful for it. And that is so little to know, but in some ways, it is enough.

Next, Willie gives thanks for prayers. I wonder if he expresses this gratitude for his own prayers, or for the prayers of others, or both. Whichever it is, when Willie says, “Thank you God … for prayers,” he is glad to be able to pray. To say what's on his mind and heart. To share who he is and what he cares about with us. To lead us as a family.

Lastly, my brother prays for me first, every single time. He prays “for [my sister] Caroline” every day, without fail. Every time I hear it, I'm amazed by the importance he places on our relationship. If I ever doubt that it matters to him that I'm his sister, I just have to listen to his prayers to know that it does matter. In fact, our sibling relationship itself is akin to that L'Arche prayertime: an oft-muddled, messy, wholehearted attempt at sharing the sacred.