40 Days: Four hours in the dark

Hours 8, 9, 10 and 11

I have written elsewhere that 40 Days for Life can be a leap of faith, where you stretch yourself and rely on God’s protection and providence. Last night was one of those nights. I decided to take a cold, late four-hour shift, the first two with my friend Roger and the last two, from midnight to 2 a.m., alone. (Watch Roger’s blog for more on last night.)

I want to make really clear, by the way, that no one is in any way expected to stand down there alone. That’s something I deliberately volunteered to do.

Not quite alone …

As it happened, another friend signed up for one of my “alone” hours, so let’s talk about the last hour first, when it was just me and God and my guardian angel. Knowing that there were some unfilled hours after my shift, the program organizer had stopped by and picked up the little 40 Days bag that contains sign-in sheets and resources and other miscellany. Along with it had gone our signs, an icon, a candle. I was surprised by what a security blanket those things are. They tell passersby: “This person is part of an organized event; people know he’s here.” Without them, you feel like just a guy on the street.

It was more intimidating than I thought it would be. Despite it being closing time for the bars, there wasn’t much foot traffic. One group that passed I thought was sure to take note of me and make trouble, but they passed on without incident.

It was also a beautiful, graced time. I prayed a rosary, the second of the night, and the Office of Readings. The temperature had dropped below 40, probably long before that last hour, and so I spent most of it walking to keep warm in my hoodie, long johns, hat and gloves. I felt surprisingly good, getting a little bit of a second wind. I might have stayed longer had I not needed to get to the bathroom. The moon, dappled by the clouds, slowly made its way over First Street.

In the dark and cold night, I was hit with a sudden rush of questions and doubts. I had been upset all day due to a disagreement with someone, and felt unsettled. And God’s grace flowed abundantly into all of that. From midnight to 2 a.m. ended up being one of the most consolation-filled times of prayer I have had in a long time.

As the bells tolled 2 a.m., I chanted the Salve Regina, blessed the vigil area with holy water and prayed that God would consecrate and claim it until people arrived later in the morning to continue praying. It was hard to leave. It is disappointing that we have had unfilled hours at the vigil, and part of my prayer is that God will raise up people willing to commit to making the sacrifice to stand out in the dark.

The first three hours …

Roger and I barely had time to say hello, let alone catch up, before we had company. People down there are remarkably honest about having alcohol problems. “Dennis” was one of those people. He asked if he could sit with us, and we said sure. We began to talk about his life, although it was a bit hard to tell which parts of his story were true. He was variously a retired U.S. Marshal, military police and active duty police officer talking into his shirt collar as though it contained a radio to call in backup, because he wasn’t quite sure if we were actually there to pray or if we were just in clever disguise, possibly assassins.

Dennis said he was Catholic, and he prayed a rosary with us, frequently interrupting to ask for money or to pose questions about whether or not we were for real. God was again asking how my patience is going, and how well I’m really recognizing the dignity of the human person.

It was interesting that as Dennis became more convinced we were just praying and being sincerely kind to him, he grew more comfortable, even saying a prayer for us before he left, after about 45 minutes. Walking away, he got into a loud conversation with a police officer in the alley, probably not his backup. It’s pretty clear Dennis is homeless, and I think we were both acutely aware of how blessed we were to have a warm place to sleep that night.

As we were praying, we would often wave at those driving by, a lesson I picked up from another regular participant in the vigil. It’s a way of spreading peace and good will. One individual I waved at was a driver for a food place that shall remain nameless. He honked excitedly and rolled down his window with a big thumbs up, which was nice enough.

What was nicer still was the epilogue. As Roger completed his shift, another friend showed up for the next hour. About 15 minutes in, a car pulled up. The man rolled down his window and asked if we were fasting that night or just standing out in the cold – an astute question. I said we were just praying that night. He quickly mentioned his friend who had driven by and handed us some warm food from the restaurant. He said they supported our mission and drove off with a friendly smile.

Can I share one of the fruits of my prayer in closing? Part of my prayer was “lectio divina,” praying meditatively with Scripture. I was meditating on the passage from Luke’s Gospel where the woman cries out that the womb that carried Jesus is blessed, and Jesus responds that blessed is he who hears the word of God and keeps it, which of course is the primary reason the Blessed Mother is so blessed (see Luke 1:45).

May we all be like Mary during this 40 Days, hearing God’s word to us, and keeping it. Let us be like Mary and treasure these things in our hearts (Luke 2:19, Luke 2:51).

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