by Austin Bay
November 24, 2004
Prayer is a tough subject.
Thanksgiving shouldn't be.
The old saw that there are no atheists in a foxhole isn't quite true. I've known two or three. These men were fine, reliable soldiers. One fellow in particular had a distinct, visceral disdain for religious faith, but all were thankful when a patrol or convoy returned to base with no one killed or wounded. Instead of thanking God or even thanking goodness, they chalked it up as "a good mission."
For me, a good mission was great, but merely noting the success was never quite good enough.
I found I prayed a great deal in Iraq, usually at night when I was trying to go to sleep. Prayer, however, wasn't always a nighttime exercise. One afternoon in July, while walking down a sun-blistered street in Baghdad, I prayed a silent, open-eyed prayer. I prayed that there were no snipers in the buildings rising above both sides of the road. For sure, it was a prayer predicated on fear, but nonetheless sincere. That sunlit street had the feel of a Psalmist's shadowed Valley of Death. There were no bullets -- it was a darn good mission.
In nightly prayer, I thanked God for making it through another day. I thanked God for the men and women I served with. I prayed for my wife and children. I also prayed for the people of Iraq, particularly the children I'd see in the streets of Baghdad.
I tried to pray for our enemies. I made the attempt, but didn't do a good job. Slicing off a hostage's head on camera combines snuff flick and pagan human sacrifice. Forgive me, but my ability to pray for such an enemy is inadequate.
Yes, prayer, faith, moral action in the world -- tough subjects.
I wore a cross and a mezuzah on my dog tag chain. Bishop George Packard, the Episcopal bishop for the Armed Forces, gave me the St. George's cross when I visited him in his New York office last March. After he gave me the cross, he held my hand and offered an arresting prayer: He thanked God for giving me the opportunity to serve. He also prayed for safe passage and safe return.
Two Texas neighbors gave me the mezuzah. Inside the mezuzah, on a miniature scroll, was the Hebrew "Traveler's Prayer" (tefillat haderech ).
"May it be Your will, Eternal one, Beloved of our ancestors, to lead in peace and direct our steps in peace, to guide us in peace to support us in peace and to bring us to our destination in life. Deliver us from the hands of our enemy and lurking foe, and from robbers and wild beasts on the journey, and from all kinds of calamities that may come to and afflict the world, and bestow blessing upon all our actions. Grant me grace, kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who behold us. ... Hear the voice of my prayer for You hear everyone's prayer. Blessed are You Lord, who hears prayer."
The mezuzah has a screw cap. Sweat slipped through the grooves and ate out the edge of the prayer's paper, Unroll it today, and it is like time eating on papyrus.
God hears everyone's prayer, the prayer declares. I believe that, but given the experience of war I do not quite understand why I believe that.
In his prayer, Bishop Packard compared a military tour to a dangerous journey. The Traveler's Prayer also recognizes the danger and terror as it asks God to guide us in peace. What a terrible paradox, but what a necessary prayer -- to ask for God's peaceful guidance in a world of war.
It will be the greatest thanksgiving when all of our servicemen and women return, and all of us live in genuine peace.