A friend once said to me in regards to my time spent at my local university, “Do you walk through the hallways with prayer in your heart?” I was silent in response. The question sunk deeper and deeper, and I wondered — what do I think of when I’m walking through the halls? I knew the answer almost immediately, but the necessary routine of pretending, cajoling with the truth, and the inevitable realisation that my initial thought was in fact the right one after all, had to take place. When I walk through the halls, my default mode is a facade.
I portray happiness, aloofness or various other expressions to prove some point to the passers-by, my fellow students. There is one intrinsic flaw in this approach. Everything I’m doing is designed to protect me. Albeit indirectly, but nonetheless, my goal is to affect how people see me, and thus, hopefully, their behaviour and thoughts towards me.
The reason the aforementioned comment struck so deep is that it revealed my internal tendency to look out for number one, to selfishness. The beauty and strength of the statement is its wisdom: existing in and with prayer, even if you don’t acknowledge its power, is an action directed towards the other, and not just directed, but fueled with benevolence. A person who walks with prayer in their heart notices the qualities of their brothers and sisters passing innocuously by. They notice their facial expressions, mannerisms, the quality of their laughter, their posture, all indications of the overall state of that person. They notice, as much as is possible within such fleeting contact, the heart of the other.
Our culture tells us to do what makes us feel good, to do what we want, if “they” don’t accept you, it’s their problem. Living in prayer is so very contrary to such thinking. To live in prayer can be painful and difficult because suddenly the burden and loneliness of the other becomes personal and is felt and known in a profound way. I cannot think of a more fulfilling way to spend a day. It is after the days I succeed in this pursuit, that when I crawl into bed weary from a long tiring day, I can’t help but smile with an ear to ear grin, seemingly arising from nowhere.
University life is a demanding and stressful one. If it isn’t unending deadlines, the ever growing shadows of approaching exams, or just trying to keep up in the continuous and unceasing curriculum, then it’s the stress of socializing, of fitting in, of wanting to be seen, or of recognizing one’s social and emotional poverty.
I can’t help but feel a deep underlying loneliness in my fellow students, a desire which I recognize within myself. There is a palpable hunger for authentic connection, for something tangible, real, and meaningful, for someone to recognize one’s personhood and dignity as a human being. The Servant of God, Katherine Doherty, a wise and humble woman, who was speaking with some university students decades ago, posed a question, “What do you want out of life?”
The students responded, “We want to be loved.”
Katherine in turn replied, “Then who is going to do the loving?”
It takes one small act to witness beautiful changes in a person’s demeanour. Something so simple and courageous as looking someone in the eye and smiling as you hold the door for them at the Subway. Another beautiful and profound woman, Blessed Mother Teresa, wrote an incredible poem about living out goodness. If I may adapt one line of her poem: your kindness may go unnoticed or be taken advantage of, be kind anyway.
As my own stress mounts and I become more polarized and emotional, I have to remind myself time and time again, everyone is feeling it. School is stressful. However, it is not only students who are carrying an enormous weight. We, as the human family, especially in North America, are carrying a heavy burden. With spiritual poverty, loneliness, and hedonism turning people further and further away from Love and its eternal Source, there is great pain and discontent in the hearts of many.
As I struggle to pray while I walk the halls, I notice quite a difference in my own body language when I succeed. It changes from a hardened aloofness, to something closer to a softened sincerity, with less defences and pretending, but strengthened with concern and respect. It becomes something which says, let us embrace as equals, not – I’m doing fine, check me out. Immediately an awareness grows in my heart of the pain that others carry, and with it a desire to do something, if only something small, to help.