Sunday, September 14, 2008

Peaceful Presence at the RNC

September 2008

From the moment I heard about the project, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. Back in June, a soft-spoken Catholic woman came to a meeting of an interfaith dialogue planning group I attend in St. Paul, Minnesota. She told us that her Catholic community would sponsor a “Peaceful Presence,” a space dedicated to silent prayer from 8 AM to 8 PM each day of the Republican National Convention. The goal was to create a silent haven of prayer very near the noisy, combative energy of the convention. Those present would be invited to focus their prayerful attention on peace, cradling the more contentious energy of the convention and its environs with care and compassion. All would be welcome to enter, as long as they respected the silence and the non-political nature of the space. Each day would be punctuated by three worship experiences, each from a different religious tradition. The group had reserved the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church near the convention center and was beginning to get the word out and to find leaders for the worship services. I was thrilled and immediately handed her my card.

When the day of my service arrived, I came early to the church to sit in the silence with the others before I needed to serve as their prayer leader. I knew that I had been excited about the opportunity. (I had even e-mailed some peacemaker friends around the country, letting them know how tickled I was that I'd be teaching Compassionate Listening down the street from the Republican National Convention.) But I was utterly unprepared for what would happen to me when I stepped into the church.

The sanctuary was enormous and traditional in style. At first there was just a handful of people scattered in seats around the sanctuary, each in his or her own private space. All in complete silence. The quiet in the room was exquisite, and the sense of prayerfulness powerful. I felt deeply drawn into the quiet, happy to be in this place, happy to be part of this sacred enterprise.

My instructions had been to just stand up at the time scheduled for my service, to introduce myself and begin. I stood up, prepared to offer the brief introduction to Compassionate Listening that I had agreed to do. But deep inside, I was loath to break the silence, which was so deep and beautiful. Balancing my commitment to teach and my desire to honor the silence, I began to sing a soft chant on the word "Shalom," hoping to gently sing the group (now a group of twenty or so) out of the silence. We sang together for peace, quietly and tenderly.

When I began to speak, I told the group how moved I had been by their silent prayer. I mused about the project of creating a peaceful presence down the street from the RNC, about the sacred generosity of those who were spending many hours in this place, offering their time to pray for peace – at the convention, in our country, and around the world. "I suspect that many of us," I said, "are people who at times – in our own lives, in our own spaces, pray over the newspaper, pray for the world, seek to offer our prayer as a cushion for the world's suffering and a gentle embrace around people in conflict. But there is something remarkable about our bringing ourselves and our energies here, to this place. I am so moved by those of you who have come here day after day this week. I am so honored to be here with you."

I did my thirty-minute meditation on Compassionate Listening, then sang the group back into the silence again with the same "Shalom" chant. I wrote Jewish prayers for peace in the book of personal prayer on the altar, then took my seat again to settle back down into the silence. I heard some people quietly leaving, but I could sense that I was not alone. There were a few of us, alone again in the huge sanctuary, filling the space with stillness and with our heartfelt hopes for our country and for the world.

When it was time to leave, I embraced the coordinator of the project. She sweetly gave me a single rose as an expression of thanks, but I had already received an enormous gift. Out on the street, the light was bright, people were hurried, police barricades were everywhere. But inside me was a great well of quiet prayer, and I was grateful.