I have stolen other people’s prayers.
I know, it sounds really bad. I mean, who steals prayers? Why would someone even want to steal another’s prayers? I can certainly create my own and often do. But, before you judge me too harshly, I want to explain why I did it.
I want to tell you the story of how I became the Prayer Thief.
My crime spree began in a hospital in Upper Manhattan. I know a hospital is full of prayers, but I did not go there for them. I went there for a medical test, and had no intentions other than that.
As I was leaving, I noticed a sign on the wall pointing to the hospital’s Interfaith Chapel. Tired, and dreading the 100-degree heat of New York’s sweltering streets that day, I chose instead to follow the arrow. I opened the heavy oak doors, and entered a room with no obvious religious affiliation.
Inside, the blue stained glass windows at the front of the chapel had no cross or star. There was no Hindu or Buddhist statue. There were only were flowers, and an altar. This room was for everyone.
I sat down on a wooden bench facing the front of the room and quickly realized that one of my prayers had already been answered—the room had air conditioning. This truly was a miracle on this oppressively hot day. I soaked in the quiet solitude of the chapel, a rare respite in this city.
I was grateful.
My only companion in the room was kneeling in the pews on the left side of the chapel. She was covered from head to toe in surgical scrubs, and even her feet had the coverings used only in an operating room.
I did not know if she was a nurse, a surgeon or a mother who was visiting her child in the ICU. All I knew was that she was deep in prayer, kneeling before her God. She crossed herself, got up to leave and I was alone with the quiet, the air conditioning, and my own thoughts and prayers.
I prayed for help, and for the strength I needed to deal with chronic illness and so many other challenges I was facing at the time. I felt as though I had almost given up so many times before, and I prayed for strength to not give up this time.
I asked for help for family and friends who were experiencing hardships too. I spoke a bit to my grandma Doris, who passed away in 2000, and asked her for help as well.
Calling upon God and the angels, I also spoke a Hebrew prayer that I had learned in the last few years. I said the Lord’s Prayer, and then my own. My eyes closed, and I took in the quiet, peace and cool air. I stayed as long as I could.
As I left, I noticed a wooden stand against the back wall of the chapel, on it was a book. It was a simple, lined, spiral-bound notebook, like the ones I used in school. Lying next to it was a ballpoint pen. An orchid in a pot sat on the shelf beneath, its strong aroma permeating the area.
I began to look through the book, and realized it was a prayer book—its pages filled the prayers written by all those who had been here before me. There were so many. Some were in proper English and some broken English. Others were written in foreign languages.
I skimmed through them, feeling at times like an invader in someone’s personal diary, or in this case, a diary to God. One prayer caught my eye:
“For years I have come here to say a few words to my higher power to thank you for my family and my health and my happiness. I wish the same for all who live on this earth. Today is my birthday. I am 81 years old and I love every precious moment.”
For some reason, I imagined in my mind that it was a woman who had written this. Although there was no name signed, I could see her through her words. Her gifts in life were appreciated, and I cried tears at the beauty of her wish for others to have her blessings too. She came here on her birthday to thank God for her life.
This prayer was too good to go to waste.
Of course, prayers are not wasted, even when not written.
But these prayers were written. The silent prayers of many were not silent here, and I felt that these prayers to God had to be shared.
I took out my notebook from my bag, and began to copy down her prayer. After all, I was a writer, right? Was there a copyright on prayers? If there was, it was copyrighted to God. I had no idea, nor did I care anymore. All I knew was that I needed them.
This was the moment I became a Prayer Thief.
I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, the same grandmother I had been talking to minutes earlier. Her European Yiddish accent filled my ears,
“It was bad enough you steal lipstick from a drug store when you were 12, but prayers? Stealing prayers? How can you steal prayers?”
I smiled at the absurdity of it all, but continued on, of course. Nothing would deter me. I was on a mission. As I turned the pages of the prayer book, reading all the heartfelt prayers, I knew there was no turning back.
One after the other, I began to write them down.
One person wrote a plea:
“God, please let me get a job so I won’t be homeless.”
It was written two weeks before. Had their prayers been answered? Did they get that job?
“Dear Lord, put your hands around me.”
There was no signature. I knew that feeling of wanting an embrace and a hand to hold mine. I also longed to be carried in God’s safety, and to not feel so alone.
I continued my search for prayers and wrote as fast as I could in my barely legible handwriting, hoping I would be able to decipher them when I got home. There were so many, one after the other:
“Dear Lord, I ask you to help me. I know I made mistakes. Please Lord answer my prayers. Give me another chance.”
“Help me save my home and family.”
“I believe. Thank you for all that is, was and shall be.”
And yet another:
“Thank you God, I had no food today but you had someone give me food.”
There was no signature and no request for anything other than the gift of food they were given that day. The simplicity and yet enormity of that answered prayer touched my heart.
A man had written a healing request for his mom who was now in the hospital and very ill.
On one page, a sister asked God to help her brother who was on the “wrong path.”
The prayers, one after the other, their stories, their personalities, their wishes and hopes, their lives played out in images and feelings as I read.
I couldn’t get enough.
I could see and feel the energy of all the prayers in this book and then all the prayers that had ever been said in this chapel.
There were so many.
Then I could feel all the prayers in other hospital chapels and rooms in this city and other cities and towns all over the world—all the prayers in churches, temples, mosques and interfaith chapels like this one.
I could feel them all—all the prayers whispered today and shouted out everywhere. I could hear all the cries for help and feelings of abandonment and also of great joy, all at once. I could see people praying in every corner, every spot.
So many, in a prayer book bigger than I could even imagine.
My thoughts turned to a friend this week who wondered in a Facebook message if God had forgotten about her. She had been ill for many years, and felt as though her prayers had not been answered.
I have often wondered that too. Sometimes, I have felt so forgotten because I have been ill for so long.
Sometimes it all seems too much.
Are unanswered prayers proof that we are not being heard, or are we always heard? Should all prayers be answered when we want them to be? Or, is it all up to divine timing? Why are some prayers seemingly answered and some seemingly unanswered?
I wonder so often,
“When? When? When will my prayers be answered?”
Then there are the whys. The whys are universal.
The last prayer I stole was in choppy handwriting hanging off the straight lines of the notebook:
“Thank you God for everything you have give to me and not give to me.”
The grammar was less than perfect and the handwriting difficult to read, but the wisdom in this prayer far surpassed any I had ever whispered to God.
As I read, I said it over and over in my head, “Thank you God for everything you have give to me and not give to me.”
And then again in my own voice, “Thank you God for all you have given me and all you have not given me,” over and over again as I wrote it in my notebook.
“God knows best,” I heard. “Put it in God’s hands.”
I put my own notebook in my big bag, looking around to make sure nobody was watching. I felt like a thief, and in some ways I was. But I imagined that the cops of New York City had more important matters to take care of that day.
I opened the chapel’s prayer book to a clean page, the beginning of the next page, and wrote a prayer of my own:
“Thank you God for the blessing of this prayer book, and allowing me the opportunity to see all these prayers that others have prayed to you. I ask for a million trillion blessings for all of us. And, thank you for what you have give to me and not give to me.” ~ PT (the Prayer Thief)
Author: Julia Tuchman
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Emily Bartran