My theological expert on the voluntary school prayer debate is the late Sister Mary Augustine.
In the mid-1950s, she was my high-school geometry teacher, a woman wise to all angles save one: how to induce prayerfulness in her students. Before her class, immediately after the second bell, we would rise, gaze at the crucifix above the blackboard and involuntarily pray the Hail Mary.
During recitation, I came to know something of the fear of religious persecution. If I looked as if I really were praying--eyes lowered, hands folded with fingertips pointed heavenward--the class bullies would take note and beat my hide during recess for being one of "Gussie's goody-goodies." If I played it cool--mumbled the words, made the sign of the cross as if I were shooing flies--I risked a cuffing from Sister Mary Augustine. For her, a kid who prayed with any less devoutness than St. John of the Cross during his dark night of the soul needed to be brought back to the true faith by a smash of the ruler.
I didn't think much about God during these schoolroom prayers, except to remember that since my Hail Mary's likely weren't going higher than the ceiling it was good that God was everywhere. President Reagan, in calling for a constitutional amendment to legalize prayers in public schools, didn't tell us whether he had any Sister Mary Augustines in his educational past. He didn't mention either whether he has any evidence that prayers in private or parochial schools produce graduates who are more virtuous, more attentive to God's ways or more loving of their neighbors than graduates of public schools that don't sanction classroom worship.
Such evidence would help his case, except that then the issue would shift from, may the children pray, to, how much they may pray. If one minute of school prayer can be proven to be linked with a national 10 percent decrease in juvenile delinquency and a 10 percent rise in children doing their housechores without parental nagging, then Ronald Reagan might well press for two minutes. Or five minutes, or 20 minutes. With the clock running, little red schoolhouses, like people, could be born again--into neighborhood houses of prayer.
The churchifying of public education may suit the Falwell wing of the Reagan camp and its drive to impose its version of morality on everyone from saint to heathen. But it says nothing about removing the hindrances to prayer that existed in my parochial school nearly 30 years ago and which would be present in public schools today if prayer time were to be constitutional: the kid in the next aisle and the teacher watching from the front whose notions of prayer and piety differ from mine and yours.
If even any anecdotal proof--which suits Ronald Reagan on most serious policy issues--existed that prayer in private schools was a meaningful exercise, it has yet to make its way into the public debate. I have met almost no Catholics of my generation who recall their classroom prayer as occasions for communion with God.
Teachers like Sister Mary Augustine, who knew more uses of the ruler than Pythagoras ever imagined, were themselves the victims of a rigid code of religious conformity. They were merely the unwitting enforcers of the code. Too often, their personal goodness and warmth were blocked from coming out. In today's Catholic schools, the goodness and warmth are being shared by the sisters with the children, but the recitations of vocal prayers still ring of the rote and dryly ritualistic.
The process reflects the problem discussed by Hubert van Zeller, the Benedictine priest and spiritual master: "If prayer is designed as the raising up of the mind and heart to God, it is of paramount importance that it should be our mind and our heart . . . We forget that because the relationship is one of the heart it must necessarily be peculiar, individual."
Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines and homes as well as rosaries, mantras, candelabrums, prayer wheels and prayer rugs are in ample supply for all those whose hearts want individual communing with God.