Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study


One of the Super Bowl advertisements pictured an attractive young woman and man trying to talk with each other during an outdoor concert, only to discover that the noise from the band was so deafening that they couldn't hear what each had to say. So one and then the other produced a hand-held personal communication device and typed a conversation. The advertisement finished with the woman typing, "Now we can be alone together." She looked lovingly into the man's eyes and then they danced in the middle of the massive crowd, so lost in their love they obviously felt theirs was a private experience even as hundreds of people and thunderously loud music encircled them.

We are of course to believe that this love was made possible by technology.

Two weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times magazine written by a former writer-in-residence at St. Albans. The article was about the drug, ecstasy. People use the language of rapture to explain how they feel when they take the drug--an overwhelming sense of happiness, they say, and well being, and compassion for their neighbor. What researchers are discovering, however, is that ecstasy functions like so many other drugs--heroin, cocaine, alcohol -- whose business it is to make us apparently feel better about ourselves than we normally do. After a while, the drug doesn't work. First its effects are dulled, and the user takes more. Then it is no longer efficacious, and the user is addicted. Crippling side effects start to appear. Those side effects are not just chemical of course, but psychological. They eventually become so addictive and destructive a person can't function in society.

After hearing my first two examples, you might assume that this is a homily about the evils of technology and/or drugs. Believe it or not, this is a homily about prayer. Please do not tune me out because I say an embarrassing word, prayer. I admire theologians, I understand the need for dogma, and I firmly believe that religion must have a place in it for reason, but the edifice of my faith is founded on the phenomenon of prayer. I believe, with the young couple in love in the midst of a loud and apparently intrusive world, that we can be alone together with God. But I don't believe that prayer is ecstasy, except in the rarest of instances, or that chemicals can substitute for what prayer does.

I believe instead that prayer is work, patience, silence, and profound life. This cross helps me explain. First of all, think of the cross and Jesus' suffering as bathed in silence. You need to look at it, be still, breathe, come to attention, and listen. There are four points to the cross, and a crossing in the middle at his heart. Each place stands for different kinds of prayer. I will explain.

When we pray, we can begin above the head of Jesus and we sing praises. If we look up into the night sky and see stars, we know that galaxy after galaxy, universe after universe extend beyond the stars that are already dead by the time we see their light on Earth. We know then that we cannot explain--we are not omniscient. We cannot explain Creation. But we can wonder. The Bible speaks of the fear of the Lord, and it uses the word awe in reference to God. That is a great word. When we pray that first prayer, we praise and worship the Creator; instead of looking up and saying how great we are for discovering the unknown, we instead praise God and drop on

At each hand of Christ, we pray what is essentially human. We come down from the stars to this cross. We measure our human lives and know that, on the one hand, we must confess what we have done wrong to each other, to this earth, and to our Creator (Jesus died for our sins). On the other hand, we must give thanks to God for each other, for the earth, and for our life here together (we also give thanks for his death and resurrection). Confessing sin is out of fashion, and giving thanks is a forgotten duty. But you know, my friends, that not a day passes in which we do not sin against each other, and not a day should pass that we don't thank God for so much we have: the love of friends and family, our physical health, and the opportunities we have to strive for wisdom and understanding.

At Christ's heart is the prayer we begin each chapel service with, and that is intercession. We pray for specific people we know who are suffering--you hear the names twice a week--and we pray for groups of people we know to suffer: the poor, the hungry, prisoners, and so on. We hope that whatever psychic energy prayer generates flows up through God, gains His strength, and then flows down into the wounds of those that suffer. We also know that energy of prayer, going up to God and out toward others, in turn helps to heal our own wounds.

And that is why you might understand now that the prayer of petition is the last prayer in the cycle and at the feet of Christ, below the figure of his suffering on the cross. We have looked out of ourselves at the glory of the Creation, at our sins against others, at our thanksgiving about others and our intercession for those who need our prayers. Only then do we ask God, please grant me this. Our hope is that by the time we get to ourselves, we have been able to set aside our petty needs and can say, Thy will be done. For God's will is what is best for our lives.

I began with technology and drugs. A hand-held personal communication device, even if we eventually clone the human race, will never substitute for prayer because prayer is quintessentially human. If we lose prayer, we will no longer be human. There will never be a prayer drug either, because prayer is as much about being in the desert as it is being at a beautiful mountain lake, as much about despair as about ecstasy. Sometimes our prayers lead only to dryness, but that again makes it a central human urge: to listen for God when words or feelings come, and to listen for God when they don't. But as the young woman in the Super Bowl advertisement says, "Now we can be alone together." I urge you to consider that every day. Let us keep one another in our prayers, now and always.

Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Headmaster Vance Wilson delivered this sermon at Upper School Chapel, February 1, 2001.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435