December 27, 2013

Every person I know who reads The Post is drawn to the paper for his or her own reasons. My daughter is addicted to the political coverage. My workout buddy, who likes to dish about local luminaries as we do our lunges, has always scanned Style before we hit the floor. My lofty, pithy friends — who love sounding even loftier and pithier than they actually are, especially at dinner parties — won’t leave for said dinner parties until they’ve thoroughly perused the op-ed page. A woman in my prayer group who just got a new Shih Tzu pup depends on the paper for, ahem, the pup himself — who we’ll just say is “in training.”

Me, I like the obituaries.

I read them every day, and they’ve become an important part of my prayer life. It’s a comfortable, calming routine: As I read each obit, I whisper a quick and silent “shooting prayer,” as I like to call it, not only for the dead but also for the living — for those left behind who mourn and memorialize and eventually make peace with their loss, whether that loss was slow and lingering or sudden and tragic.

Usually, I say the names aloud. Doing so takes only an additional nanosecond, and the very act itself seems to propel the prayer a bit more forcefully out into the universe. Claiming the name — hearing it fall from my lips — also strengthens my sense of spiritual connection, to God, yes, but also to the people I’m praying for. (I don’t call them strangers, because I don’t believe they are.)

I’ve lived in the Washington area for 30 years. That’s a lot of obituaries and a lot of shooting prayers. Sometimes, the names and faces of the deceased linger in my memory and stick with me throughout the day: A woman my age who left behind four small children and a husband she’d been married to for 30 years. I lingered on her photo that morning a second or two longer than I normally do: Was that sadness in her eyes on the day she sat for that photo, or had she simply been tired from a long day at the office? Bless her soul, Father.

Was that a locket attached to the thin chain around her neck, and if so, did it hold a photo of her children? Did the 16 lines of her death notice adequately capture her time on this earth?

Bless her soul, Father.

How are her family members dealing with her loss? Are they faring well, perhaps beginning the long journey toward acceptance and peace? Bless them too, Father.

The refreshing, redemptive thing about the power of prayer is its malleability; it can change its size, shape, form and structure whenever it needs to. It sounds silly (and perhaps a bit macabre), but I look forward to my prayer time with the obituaries every day. It has become a powerful, practical prayer tool that has fortified my prayer life in ways large and small. How? Because when we pray for others — especially those we’ve never met but to whom we are directly connected nonetheless — we expand the territory of our own hearts. And when we draw closer to others, we draw closer to God.

So next time you scan the obituaries, try your hand (and your heart) at a shooting prayer. Start small: pick one, maybe two. Say the name of the deceased aloud. Find a tiny detail in the photo — a brass button or a flash of an earring or maybe the crooked smile on the face of the father of five who succumbed to cancer. Take a moment to connect — not only with them but also with God. The act itself, the stilling of oneself to reflect, to pay final respects and to recognize a life well lived is something of a prayer in and of itself.

We know that prayer is a powerful and perfect force. We know that it is a mighty and miraculous source of spiritual comfort. Shooting prayers change things. What sweet relief, then — the brightly lit awareness (or at least the simple hope) that, when it comes time for me to draw my own last breath, whisper my own last goodbyes and utter my final farewell prayers, perhaps someone I’ve never even met might do the same for me.

Kristin Clark Taylor, Great Falls

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