I recently had to travel by plane to a church conference. Anyone who has been in an airport, especially since 9/11 knows about the high focus on security. In airports this focus is not just in the hands of the TSA workers and law enforcement, but there is also an expectation that everyone be vigilant and aware of anything suspicious. Signs and looped recordings remind you:“If you see an unattended bag, or anything suspicious, report it immediately!” Airports are a place of expected heightened awareness of one’s physical surroundings. In my most recent trip to the airport I was struck with the thought that maybe it should be a place of heightened spiritual awareness or maybe “awake-ness”.
As a priest I usually wear my clerical clothes to the airport as there is almost always someone that wants to talk or ask for prayer. As much as I sometimes want to “fly under the radar” out of travel fatigue, etc., I’ve found its good to be in uniform, identifiable. But more importantly it has made me realize what a spiritually charged place an airport can be. People travel for many reasons. The circumstances can be joyous, sad, anxious, relieving, exciting, or even frightening for why someone needs to get on a plane and travel a long distance.
As I sat in the terminal I recalled the teachings of some of the Christian saints who spoke about “enlarging one’s heart” through prayer. The teaching is based on St. Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 6, but is also rooted in the example of Christ who, when fulfilling God’s plan of salvation “drew all to Himself” when He was lifted up on the Cross (John 12:32). In imitation of Christ, Christ within us actually leads us to lift more and more people up to Him in prayer and love. The saints taught that this begins with praying for those closest to us. Then we pray for those who ask us to pray for them. But as the heart is “enlarged” and stretched, Christ transforming it by His Grace, we are able to draw in those whom we do not even know, and even beyond this, our enemies and those who wish us harm.
I considered this while sitting in the terminal looking at the hundreds of people passing by me. People I would probably never see again in my life. My mind reeled at the idea of praying for all of them, it would be such a monumental task, and yet the saints speak of doing just this. There is a story in the Orthodox tradition that tells of a holy couple who lived in a particular city. They owned a shop. Some monks were sent there by their abbot to see what holy living was really like. When the monks returned, astonished at the Grace that poured forth from this couple, they asked the abbot how the couple had reached such a state. The abbot explained that the couple had no grudges or ill thoughts about anyone, and that the man would sit in his storefront, doing his work, and praying for every person that walked by, whether he knew them or not. What an amazing example of great faith!
I have, by no means, come close to this kind of prayer. I struggle even to remember to pray as I should for those who ask me to pray for them. But I thought about this more as I got on the plane, looking around at the people I would share the flight with, people I would never see again but whose lives were unfathomably valuable in the eyes of God. I thought about this as the plane took off, and I watched Indianapolis get smaller and smaller beneath me. I could see the cars get smaller and smaller, my view taking in more and more of a landscape, a landscape filled with people living their lives. In my view there was most certainly someone who was soon going to die, someone about to be born, someone who had received good news today, someone who had received bad news. In the mind of God, every one of these persons was known and valued. He doesn’t care “generally” for mankind, but personally. For me, I can only know a tiny portion of all the people on the earth, in my nation, in my state, even in my town. So what am I to do?
For one thing this realization of my smallness among mankind but value personally to God can help me not think too much or too little of myself. I can learn to be present to the people in my actual circle of connection while keeping in my mind (and heart) the vastness of life and experience in this world. If I listen to what Christ and the saints teach, I can learn to pray more, even for those I don’t know. Imagine the benefit to our own disposition, and the world around if we began to intentionally think each time we pass someone, “Lord, bless and have mercy on that person” rather than measuring, judging, or thinking ill thoughts about them. Its not easy to do. Like I said, I’m not near having it mastered. But I do know it is what the Christian is called to do, so there is no excuse for not trying.