Sunday, January 3, 2010

Petitions 1: Broken Stones

An interesting experience: last summer I spent a month in China with another Jesuit shooting a one hour documentary about the journeys of Jesuit Matteo Ricci (and others) in China in the 16th century and beyond. It was, in a word, amazing, and maybe when I've finished this set of posts on the Mass I'll write a little bit about it all. We were in 11 cities in 29 days, staying in cheap hotels and filming all of these locations important to the history of the Catholic Church in China. (Ricci was not the first priest in China by any means, but he was the one that was finally able to establish relations with the Chinese, over many many years. Today he's a revered figure in China -- and there aren't many foreigners that are!)

Anyway, while we were there this other Jesuit and I would celebrate Mass from time to time. And a lot of the time it was just the two of us -- which for me is sort of weird. I think of Mass as a communal experience, and that means... well, definitely more than two. Three. Or 7.

Then again, the Gospel line is "where 2 or 3 are gathered," and that was our experience. We'd come home from these exhausting days of lugging our equipment and shooting, and the last thing you'd want to do is have a Mass.

One of the most amazing places we had Mass: on the 12th floor of a hotel, overlooking the Yangtze River at sunset.

And frankly, we were so pooped some nights that when Mass was over, we really didn't have much to say to each other. It was just go to dinner and stare. But during the Mass, something would happen, an upswell of feeling.

And it always happened during the petitions. We'd each have noticed people over the course of the day -- a lady cooking lunch for her kids in a shop; old men playing Chinese chess on a street corner; the taxi driver; a guy lugging huge boxes of full water bottles up and down a million stairs...

I kid you not, these were the stairs he'd climb, a million times a day, delivering fresh bottles of water to the salesmen at the top on this scorching day. When we saw him, he was drenched.

Sometimes we'd have both noticed them; sometimes not. Or the other guy would mention them and you'd realize, oh my God I did see that guy but I didn't even know I did.

So, we'd each bring these people to the petitions, and it was very moving somehow. It was like we were sharing from our hearts.

Now, I don't mean to say that hearing the petitions is necessarily supposed to create this tidal wave of emotion. On a Sunday you're just listening to what the pastoral team has come up with, and offering your own quietly. If there's a swell of emotion, it's often because of the people whose needs we're carrying with us.

But there are times when we hear someone or something prayed for and it resounds in us, there's a feeling, or maybe in the case of a sick person a desire to reach out and talk to their family, if we know them, to show support or maybe we just carry them with us as we leave.

When we offer prayers of petition, we do so hoping that God will hear our prayers and bring aid to the people in question. But perhaps petitions also serve the function of changing us who hear them, by expanding our mental and emotional horizons beyond the boundaries that we might have set. Ezekiel talks about having his heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh. I wonder if the prayers of others aren't one way that the stony places in our hearts get broken open.

One of the many amazing people we met in China, a teenage girl working at a restaurant, waiting to go back to college. Everywhere you go in China, most of the people serving you or working at the hotels or as guards are kids just like her. I couldn't understand a word she said, but something about her smile really touched me. I prayed for her a lot.


Ambrose said...

When is your documetary coming out? Is it just for the Jesuit community or for the greater world?

Rusty's music of the heart said...

I couldn't agree with you more regarding the petitions, Jim. I think they also call the congregation to put others first rather than thinking only of their own concerns....guess that is what you said, tho.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Ambrose, thanks for the question about the doco. It's in production right now, and the plan for release is next fall. And it's certainly not just for the Jesuit community; my sense is the director is hoping to sell it to schools, and who knows, maybe to television.

Stay tuned!

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

PS We had such an amazing time in your country. The people were just incredible.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Thanks, Mom!

Jeanne Brady-McDermott said...

Hi Jim, Last night at our small group we talked about the petitions... Your Mom mentioned to us you had just written something about them.. sooo many God-incidences.. Thanks for your teachings...makes things soo much easier to understand..
Our kids are giving Steve a trip to China for his 60th bday.. which is in Nov. we will give him the plans for it next weekend 1/16 as a surprise ..but will actually take the trip in Sept /Oct of 2010...looking forward to reading more about your documentary and perhaps getting to see some of the places that the Fr Matteo Ricci visited. Blessings on your day, Jeanne

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeanne. Glad these little reflections are helpful! And have a blast in China. It's an amazing experience.