The Power of Hand-Me-Down Prayer

Posted by Maureen Pratt on 4/12/16 3:26 PM

Hands in prayer
Image: istock.

A staggeringly great wealth transfer has been happening for more than a decade and will continue for the next 30 to 40 years. From the greatest generation to baby boomers to the generations after them, it’s estimated that more than $42 trillion will change hands! But, besides tangible assets, there is the giving of another legacy, one whose value cannot be told in dollars and cents, or appraised worth. It is the legacy of prayer.

This spiritual legacy’s value might not be obvious at first. A scuffed and battered Bible or a crinkled cardboard box containing a jumble of rosaries, scapulars, and religious medals all might not look like objects worth keeping. But those scribbled notes in the margins of a Bible might reveal clues to an ancestor’s personality. Mass cards might mark important dates of birth and death that might otherwise be lost. Scapulars and saint medals reflect particular devotions and can tell of a relative’s prayer focus and faith journey. A childhood book about saints might rekindle faith that was once lost.

Truly, it is the story behind these items that holds worth and, often, connects us to family faith history that would otherwise be lost.

Prayer Hand-Me-Downs
Image: pixabay.

Increasing in Faith

Just before I left Illinois to return to Los Angeles after Christmas vacation, my mother gently pressed a small, old book into the palm of my hand. It weighed next to nothing, and I could see that the black leather cover was smooth from constant use. Prayer book? I thought. I have several already and don’t need another. Why is my mother giving this one to me?

“It belonged to my grandmother, my mother, and then me,” she said, her hand suspended over the tiny volume. “Now it’s time for you to have it.” Suddenly the humble little book took on a profoundly personal meaning, and the gift went from puzzle to precious. No longer just an old volume of antiquated vintage, the prayer book became an unbroken link connecting three generations of strong, faithful women to me. I eagerly accepted it, tucked it into my carry-on, and embarked on a journey of discovery and delight.

The Tertiaries Companion: A Prayer Book for the Members of the Third Order Secular of St. Francis of Assisi opened the door to faith traditions and practices that my grandmother and great-grandmother had enjoyed, but that I knew nothing about. Both were members of the Third Order Secular, and both had clearly taken good care of the fragile volume, but I had no recollection of this growing up.


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As I settled down with the book after a long flight home, my mind was full of questions. What was the Third Order Secular of St. Francis? What did my ancestors do as members? How might this impact me? As so many journeys of faith do, I started with prayer, beginning with the section called “Evening Prayers.”

As I worked my way through four pages of specific praise and humble supplications, I imagined my great-grandmother cradling the book after a long and physically arduous day of chores. I thought of my grandmother turning the feather-light pages as she sought comfort and inspiration.

I remembered my mother’s gentleness as she presented me with the volume. I could almost hear each of these women’s voices as I prayed, and felt uniquely blessed, connected not only with God, but also with the faith and prayer carried through my family. It was one of the most powerful prayer experiences I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t wait to do and learn more.

Telling and Living the Story

As I explored the book and its context further, I discovered that others, too, are coming into items related to family history and faith. Sometimes, the religious items left behind by family members might seem completely foreign to those who inherit them, but that makes them no less important to family faith traditions. Joan Voss cannot even read the prayer book left to her by her grandmother, but she has a vivid memory of an experience that tells her everything she needs to know about how precious it is. Voss, director of liturgy and music at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, California, saw firsthand how fiercely her grandmother Bernice protected the book when other hands wanted to take it away.

“My grandmother was born in Poland in 1902,” Voss tells St. Anthony Messenger. “She moved to the United States in 1920, and she and my grandfather were devout Catholics.” Voss’ grandmother went to Mass regularly, but she was not fluent in English. “She always carried a Polish-language prayer book,” Voss remembers.

Eager to learn more about her Polish family roots, Voss convinced her mother and grandmother to make a trip to Communist-controlled Poland in 1977, the year Bernice turned 75.

“It was a tough trip,” Voss says. “We didn’t go on a tour; that’s what made it so difficult. We had to jump through a lot of hoops just to get there.” But as soon as they arrived at the Warsaw airport, they had more trouble. Unbeknownst to Voss and her mother, Bernice had tucked her Polish prayer book into her purse, carrying it into restrictive Communist Poland.

Hands on Bible

“I remember when we arrived in Warsaw being startled that there were armed guards in the airport,” Voss says. “The authorities took Busia [a Polish term of endearment for “grandmother”] to a separate line. When we got through customs, we didn’t see her. We were quite frightened.”

Time passed. Voss and her mother waited, growing more nervous by the minute. No one would tell them where Bernice was, or what had happened to her. “Finally she came toward us, teary-eyed,” Voss says, “and carrying the prayer book.”

Voss learned that the authorities had interrogated Bernice about the book. “They were holding her,” says Voss, “asking her, ‘Where did you get this book?’ ‘How long have you had this?’ ‘Why did you bring it with you?’”

A possible reason for the interrogation was that the book’s copyright date was after 1920, when Bernice immigrated to the United States. The Polish authorities might have suspected she had defected and was now trying to get back into the country. But no matter how strong the pressure to give it up, Bernice would not relinquish the book. And now, although the cover is peeling and the pages are well-worn, Voss would not think of giving it up either. “Objects carry the weight of the mystery of life,” says Voss, smiling as she turns the pages of a book whose language she cannot read, but whose meaning she takes firmly to heart. “Her life is in this.”

Image: John-Mark Kuznietsov.



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Categories: Prayer