One of the toughest moments I have ever witnessed in my life is when many years ago a beloved priest of mine unexpectedly lost his daughter, Ruthie, in a tragic event. She had gone to a party and had drunk too much, then came home and passed out in the back seat of the car. Her sister, who had been the designated driver, left her there thinking that she’d sleep it off and either wake up in the middle of the night and stumble into the house, or else come inside in the morning. Ruthie did neither. Instead, she aspirated while lying in the car and died. She was nineteen and had never been a big drinker. This was one of those horrible moments when a combination of one bad choice and an unexpected bodily response resulted in the unimaginable.
This all happened on a Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, we all gathered for church, unaware of what had happened. There was Father Forrest, the young girl’s father, there in his vestments, ready to celebrate mass.
He, of course, told everyone before the service what had happened and we all sat there aghast, not just at the injustice of such an untimely death, but also because here he was – this girl’s father – at church rather than at home grieving privately. He looked at all of us and said, “The mass brings me comfort. I need to be here this morning.”
I remember hearing him begin the service with “The Lord be with you,” and in that moment I realized that all of us needed the Holy Spirit more than usual that morning just to help us put that sad and senseless death into some kind of perspective. Father Forrest celebrated the whole Eucharist with a strong voice that day and I sat in awe of this man who could be dealt such a major blow and still find his way to church a few hours later.
I asked him in the ensuing days how he had coped that day when he’d discovered Ruthie in the car. He told me, “I just kept saying the Jesus prayer over and over.”
I said, “The Jesus prayer? What is that?”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“And what made you say that?” I asked.
“Because that’s the prayer I say over and over as part of my daily devotional. It is considered by many to be the perfect Christian prayer because it declares the faith in a spirit of humility. It saved me that morning when I found Ruthie.”
I went home and immediately put the Jesus prayer into practice, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. If this had served Father Forrest so well, then I felt certain it could only help me.
That was almost twenty-five years ago and I have repeated the Jesus prayer over and over for most of that time. I now know how this seemingly simple phrase “saved” Father Forrest that fateful day. Saying those words over and over becomes a mantra, sweeping the mind clear of all disquieting thoughts and images and leaving space for hope and healing.
My beloved friend, who is now a retired priest, by this point has outlived two daughters and his wife, and I suspect that he still makes use of the Jesus prayer in his daily spiritual practice. I imagine he might be uttering it in the last moments of his life.
As for me, I hope to follow in his good example and continue to make this one of my devotionals. His steadfast strength is a gift that he has given to me and to all those who have known him, and the comfort he received from the mass and from prayer serves as a guide to us all.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen