By Stephanie Painter
On my first overseas trip, the opportunity to explore La Republique propelled me excitedly through museums and palaces marking France’s history. I toured with my high school teacher and classmates, passing through the Hall of Mirrors at Palace of Versailles and meeting Mona Lisa’s enigmatic gaze at the Louvre Museum. One morning, we visited Notre-Dame Cathedral, where the setting invited me to slow down and refocus. In this spiritual space, I felt a sense of duty to pray for someone in my life. Today I cannot recall whom prayers were lifted for, but my petition would have been for a person whose story and needs were familiar to me. Hastily finishing the snippet of prayer, I escaped the dim cathedral and moved to the next alluring site on our itinerary.
After returning to the United States, I began experiencing a more mystical call to petitionary prayer. Sometimes the urge arises and moves over me with a force as powerful as river rapids that once shot me down the Arkansas River. But in these moments, there is no terror. I do not know specific needs, only that there is great need. Ordinarily, I control the beginning of my petition and pray deliberately, essentially presenting a case to God. In contrast, these prayers for people encountered on my trip are astonishingly effortless. While traveling, my contacts with those outside our small group were limited. We leaned on French residents to supply our needs for food, lodging, and education. But were some of those exchanges deeper than presumed?
One evening at the start of the trip, I ended up lost and alone in the 1st arrondissement of Paris. I did not wander long because a kind couple soon guided me back to my hotel. That was a gift to me that moved me from a state of loss to restoration. The following day, I took the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower and gazed down on the streets of Paris. A woman dressed in a beautiful red sari joined me at the railing, and together we marveled at the city’s architectural gems. This encounter was a gift that offered fleeting communion and fellowship. Minutes later, I turned to leave, but our parting was not final. In the past 40-plus years, I have prayed several times for the Indian woman’s joy and for the French family’s refuge.
My scrapbook holds faded photos of grinning teens and floral displays at Luxembourg Gardens. Although I have no physical record of encounters with these people, they remain with me through prayer. In my ordinary human mind, I scramble for explanation. Why this repeated urge to pray for strangers with whom I had only brief contact? A phenomenon is defined as “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question.” Perhaps a psychologist would suggest that my recollections and prayers mirror a psychological state that is triggered when I feel personally lost or vulnerable, and that I whisper only to myself. No, this is different. I consider the thin places of Celtic spirituality. Thin place is a Christian term for places where the boundary between heaven and earth becomes more permeable, shaking us out of old ways of seeing the world. Venturing away from my Southern hometown, there were points where I was shaken into awareness of the world’s immense scale and its interconnectedness.
Leaving home, I also left behind familiar ways of praying to make space for calls that begin outside myself. The Holy Spirit joins us through space and time, calling for revival of bonds. And I will pray generously and well.
I love these lines from a Prayer for Travel: “Lord, as I set off on my travels, I pray that You would be with me and remain close to me as my travel companion as I go on this journey, just as You walked with Your two disciples along the road after Your glorious resurrection. Fill my heart with Your peace and joy, and remove any anxious thoughts, I pray. Guide me Father, and keep me safe throughout my travels, even when I am passing through rough and difficult terrain.” When I was 15 and unpacking mementos from a souvenir shop, I never expected such resonant and recurring spiritual relationship. As it turns out, they were never alone, nor was I.
Stephanie Painter is a behavioral health consultant and freelance writer