So I’m sitting at St. Clement’s trying to get a good cry in before I start the day. Like you do.
It’s an odd hour, so there are only three or four people there. Most of us are scattered, but one, an old African man, is kneeling front and center, in the middle of the aisle, orans position and everything.
I already like this guy. He reminds of another old African man — come to think of it, it could be the same guy, either via bilocation or by some more conventional mode of travel — who I used to see in the Adoration chapel at the Catholic Information Center in D.C. He seemed to be there every time I went in, any time of day, just sitting and looking at Jesus, smiling a little. Sometimes he’d read the paper, but mostly he’d just smile. I always wanted to learn to pray like him.
The fact that the kneeling pray-er at St. Clement’s is African isn’t particularly important, except that it comes into the story in two ways.
First, because I almost never see American-born people do this. I never see them make a spectacle of themselves while praying. I think of the church I used to attend in Phoenix, where I’d come in drained from a day of teaching no-good middle schoolers, looking for some solace. More often than not I’d find somebody posted up at the foot of the cross, swaying and wailing in Spanish, crying out loud to the Lord to take notice of them, for Christ’s sake.
That’s okay. We Americans are not demonstrative. Blame the Puritans, as for so much else. And to be fair, Jesus does say that we should pray behind closed doors, so as not to show off. But I never begrudged the wailers their wailing. I always connected them with the blind man in Mark 10, the one who keeps shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (emphasis mine; I always hear italics there), even after the apostles try to shut him up.
This kind of thing is very embarrassing for people with a sense of decorum. Jesus, luckily, is not a stickler for decorum. Besides, there’s all the difference in the world between shouting to show off, and just shouting because your need is so acute. Having such an acute need for Jesus that you forget your dignity — that’s how I want to be.
Second, the African-ness of this man manifests itself in his accent: he’s praying out loud. He’s speaking very softly, at first, but he gets louder and louder as he loses himself in the prayer. Or, actually, in the song. I think he was just talking at first, but he’s singing now. Holy, Holy, Holy; then Come, Holy Ghost; then Praise To the Lord, the Almighty. He knows all the words. He sings Haugen as lovingly as Heber, because it isn’t about aesthetics, for him. These are love songs.
His voice is not great, but it isn’t bad, either. Though, when he gets to the “And I will RAAIIIIISE” part of I Am the Bread of Life, I wince in advance, wondering how far short he will fall of the note, which, let’s be honest, like so many of the notes in 20th-century, ostensibly populist hymns, is hopelessly beyond the range of 90% of the population.
At this point I see with horror that a respectable-looking white lady has gotten up from her pew and is approaching the singer. Whether she’s upset by his lack of reverence (!!!) or just resents having her own prayers interrupted, it’s clear that she’s going to tell him to stop.
I briefly consider intervening. I’m in the back of the church, but it’s nearly empty; and having been a teacher, I can make my voice boom when necessary. A simple “Let him sing” would probably do the trick. But while I am still wrestling with this — would it be ostentatious? Would I be interrupting everyone else? Why do I always want to stick my nose in everywhere? — she has reached him. She bends down, puts her mouth to his ear, and whispers something. I freeze.
The singer, happily, doesn’t. He is either too deep in prayer to hear her, or he simply ignores her. He continues the verse as if she wasn’t there, and starts the next one. She stands for a few seconds, fidgeting, and finally gives up and goes back to her pew.
Sing on, man, I think. Pray for me. I bask in the glow of being on the right side of things, bask in my own righteousness, bask in the fact that I am not like her. Bask in the knowledge that Jesus likes people like me.
Until I realize that, had I been sitting at the front of the Church, I might have witnessed a different story. I might have heard what the woman had whispered. Which might have been — could well have been — “Sing on, man. Pray for me.”
In that parable, I’m the Pharisee.