From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Reflections magazine
by Rilda Baker
Soon after I came to the Episcopal Church, I heard the phrase, “We are a prayer book people.” Indeed it wasn’t long before the prayer book patterns of Eucharist became more familiar and I felt my prayer and practice habits shifting in response to the patterns of Sunday worship. But when I prayed The Great Litany for the first time I truly experienced the power of liturgy and common prayer.
The date was September 11, 2001 — a Tuesday. Beginning at 7:30 a.m., I spent nearly nine hours with students and colleagues at a large public high school in San Antonio. The minutes crawled by as we rode the emotional roller coaster unleashed by watching the morning’s horrors broadcast from the East Coast. Then we sat with the afternoon’s rumors and uncertainty until the 4:00 p.m. closing bell.
I had called the parish office at noon and found out that worship would begin at 6:30 that evening. With a scant four months’ experience in an Episcopal congregation I had no idea what shape the evening service might take. I just knew in my bones that I needed to be in the sacred space of St. Paul’s, across the street from Ft. Sam Houston, where people had prayed for over 125 years. It was not the solace of being near military protection I sought; it was the strength of spiritual community.
People were already in the pews when I arrived at 6:15. The Paschal Candle (unlighted since the Feast of the Pentecost) was lit. When our priest entered following the crucifer holding high the processional cross, I felt energy move around in the nave. You could hear prayer book pages fluttering, opening to The Great Litany. No one seemed in a hurry. Once it was silent again, we began the call and response conversation. As petitions and intercessions were read, more than once I struggled to respond when particular lines of the Litany gathered up what we had witnessed that day, one painful experience at a time, and brought them all before the Lord in our collective cries for help:
“From all evil and wickedness . . .
From the assaults of the devil . . .
From all oppression, conspiracy,
From violence, battle, and murder; and
From dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.
That it may please thee to make wars to cease in all the world . . .
That it may please thee to have mercy upon all mankind . . .
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” (Book of Common Prayer, pgs 148-152)
Weeks or months later, I looked into the origins of The Great Litany and learned that it was first published in 1544. But on September 11, I heard it in the present tense, a here-and-now lament and cry. More than ever, I understood that prayer book liturgies are never tied to a single moment in time or confined to a particular space. Rather, they bind us to the faithful of all ages and thereby shape our lives as Episcopalians.
Now fast forward to August, 2017. Since August 13, Coastal Bend churches had been preparing buildings and grounds for uncertain weather conditions, which as of Thursday, August 24, were declared to be Hurricane Harvey. That day Fr. Jonathan Wickham (All Saints, Corpus Christi) posted on his Facebook page: “San Antonio and other inland Texas friends: our new friend Hurricane Harvey is coming for a visit this weekend, and he’s looking to be quite a handful . . . Please PM me if you can offer a safe place for Coastal Bend evacuees.”
Facebook photos and comments began to come in from people reporting their plans to seek safety. Fr. James Derkits of Trinity-by-the-Sea (Port Aransas) posted that his church building was boarded up and added a picture showing the black-letter painted message across the plywood-clad red doors: “The Lord bless you!” The faithful sheltered in place in Corpus Christi or left Rockport and Port Aransas behind following mandatory evacuation orders.
Coastal Bend messages and photos soon began to affirm that we Episcopalians are a liturgy people. Prayer books had been tucked into the suitcases and backpacks of evacuees who departed the Coastal Bend for an uncertain period of exile.
Announcements circulated on social media inviting people to “gather for prayer” at a particular time, sometimes at a particular place, but more often for a live feed on a particular Facebook page. Even as he fled Mustang Island, Fr. James Derkits reached out to tell people there would be Night Prayer on Friday evening at 9:00 p.m. and Morning Prayer on Saturday at 10:00 a.m., the day after Harvey made landfall.
So it came to pass that liturgy was on the move along the highways and byways in the diocese.
Often it seems that lectionary and liturgy are in collusion as my 9/11 experience showed me. So they were on Saturday, August 27, when Fr. James and a small College Station group began the live feed for Morning Prayer. The appointed psalm was Psalm 137, recited with heightened awareness given current circumstances:
“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
When we remembered you, O Zion….
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
upon an alien soil?” (verses 1,4)
The reading from Mark even hinted at potential results of Harvey’s assault on the Coastal Bend and areas northeast:
“As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’” (Mark 13:1-2).
Those days immediately after Harvey’s destructive strike social media posts revealed how anxious people were to worship in their own communities. Fr. Jonathan posted a Facebook invitation to the August 27 Eucharist (included suggested attire): “Services at All Saints’, Corpus Christi at 10:30 this morning. Spoken liturgy, Holy Eucharist Rite II, out of the prayer book. Come if you can — hurricane recovery casual.”
A couple of days later, Trinity-by-the-Sea was able to live feed August 29 Morning Prayer liturgy from their Port Aransas church. The Rev. Mary Earle commented on their Facebook page: “Thank you for giving us the living example of starting from praying.”
For the people of St. Peter’s, Rockport and their priest, Fr. Jim Friedel, the first post-Harvey Eucharist was held in a parking lot on September 3 under the relentless Texas sun. Written above their Facebook photo of that service is a line from an old gospel hymn: “Jesus calls us, o’er the tumult . . .” Below the picture one Rockport resident added this comment: “I worshipped in a beautiful sanctuary this morning in Las Vegas, but not as beautiful as this. Peace and love to you all.”
Most recently, on October 29, the Eastern Convocation’s Partners in Ministry celebrated their Fifth Sunday Eucharist at St. Matthew’s, Kenedy — the first joint worship for these six congregations since Harvey pummeled the area. Thanks to the Rev. Bonnie Reeves (Trinity, Edna) we can hear the story first-hand through Facebook posts from two people who were present:
“A powerful sermon by Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson at St. Matthew’s in Kenedy, along with congregants from Edna, Goliad, Refugio, Hallettsville and Port Lavaca. Our Partners in Ministry congregations.”
“It was a GREAT day! 60+ people at Mass. For me, it was like an all you can eat buffet of Faith and Fellowship . . . I can’t begin to tell y’all how great and filling was the day.”
If these liturgical experiences have anything to teach us, if they can inspire in us any response, perhaps it should be to act on this encouragement from the letter to the Hebrews (10:23):
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
Sometime during this Advent, read the Great Litany in The Book of Common Prayer, pages 148-152.
Rilda Baker is a teacher, writer, and Spanish translator. She directs the Diocesan Retreat Society and is a member of St. Paul’s in San Antonio. Reach her at email@example.com.