Jangling rosaries and other simple stuff

Here's a little secret known only to faithful religious believers and, perhaps, to journalists who are willing to pay close attention to their lives: People who pray a lot know more about doubt than people who dedicate little or no time to serious prayer. It's logical, if you stop and think about it. Here's a rough parallel: People who love and practice journalism know more about its weaknesses (and doubts) than people who hate journalism. They also know more about its strengths.

What's my point? It always amazes me when journalists seem to think that it's strange that religious people struggle, from time to time, that doubt. There are times when even the most dedicated believer has to pray: "... Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."

I bring this up for journalistic reasons, after several GetReligion readers sent me notes about a recent Washington Post story about a Catholic parish that practices the 24-hour-a-day practice of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. This is a good idea for a feature story and this piece has its moments, even if it finally veers into that familiar pseudo-National Geographic tone suggesting that the reporter is writing about the obscure practices of an exotic tribe on the other side of the planet -- not members of our nation's largest religious flock.

One key is that the piece describes this mysterious liturgical in language that is as flat and literal as possible. Take the lede, for example:

The woman with the red rosary opens the red door and sees Jesus Christ. He is six feet away, encircled by a gold sunburst, flanked by two candles, heralded by a single cricket outside in the shrubbery of suburban Maryland.

That's pretty. There are some nice images. But, uh, the cricket is acting as a "herald"?

Here's an extended passage at the top of the feature that captures the mood of this unique scene and takes it seriously.

In the midnight hour, the chapel in the church in the grove of oaks is a still-life tableau: the beige carpeting, the 13 burgundy chairs, the peace lilies, the wicker basket full of handwritten petitions from parishioners, the sunburst monstrance with the exposed Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the actual body of Christ.

Theresa Nino, 52, is here to adore Him face to face from 12 to 1 a.m., when the next adorer arrives. Someone must always be praying in the chapel of perpetual adoration at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, and the duty is handed off every hour, day after day, night after night, among a roster of 300 adorers.

Theresa prays for people grappling with the damage from Hurricane Irene.

She prays for the people suffering through the famine in the Horn of Africa.

She prays for her 80-year-old mother-in-law, who is scheduled for surgery in Chicago.

She prays here because she sometimes feels as though she gets lost in “the humdrum of life,” as if she’s just a housewife of no importance. And so she gives this midnight hour to thanksgiving -- for her three centered daughters, her loving husband, her parents who emigrated from Poland -- and, suddenly, her soul bursts with energy, with purpose, with desire to bring this inner peace to the outer world.

Things get a bit more complicated a few lines later when 66-year-old Pat Bradshaw takes the next shift.

May the heart of Jesus’s most Blessed Sacrament be praised, adored and loved with grateful affection in every moment in all the tabernacles in the world, even till the end of time.

Pat, a registered nurse, prays for the military, especially service members stationed abroad.

She prays for God to enter the heart of a doctor who began performing late-term abortions in Germantown last year.

She prays for her deceased husband, whom she pictures in heaven, and for her sister-in-law, who has pancreatic cancer. Who has had pancreatic cancer for more than two years. Who isn’t getting better despite the fact that God is four feet away from Pat’s jangling rosary.

Pat acknowledges doubt, then sidesteps it.

Try to skip past that jangling rosary and the whole "despite the fact that God is four feet away" thing. Ignore the needle prick about her late husband, "whom she pictures in heaven." The key is to remember that these strange natives in this strange chapel have never dwelt on these mysteries in any serious way (as opposed to the penetrating thoughts of the journalist paying a brief visit).

What does it mean that Bradshaw "sidesteps" her doubts?

Is this assumed, simply because she continues to return to the chapel to pray in this manner? Perhaps the editorial equation is rather basic: Simple believer prays. The prayer is not answered in an obvious manner. The believer acknowledges doubts. She returns to pray anyway. Thus, she is "sidestepping" her doubts. She is not showing faith. She is not doubting her doubts. She is "sidestepping" them.

How do we know this? What does Bradshaw have to say about this accusation? Surely the writer asked her some questions (journalists get to do that) and heard her answers.

Actually, as far as this story goes, she had nothing to say. This believer is not offered a chance to explain what is happening in her heart, mind and soul. She does not have a chance to address these hard questions about life, death and eternal life. It seems that her voice is not worth hearing, on this crucial issue.

No, she is "sidestepping" her doubts. Case closed.

You see, these exotic natives are so, so, naive. Their faith is so simple and childlike. It's kind of beautiful, but it's also very sad. Right?

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