Mary Kenny: Retreat, pray, love
The universality of human hopes and worries are expressed in prayer requests
Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30
The doors of the old church were open, and you could see, even from outside, a blaze of candles by a side altar. I'd been told about the prayers and candles offered before the statue of St Rita, an Italian woman of renowned holiness (born in 1381), venerated in this seaside resort in Brittany. And between two stands of candles (the tapering kind, for €1, the longer-last candle, in a jar, €2), an open book of prayer requests.
What do people pray for? The list grows at a rate of about two pages a day. It expresses hopes, fears, anxieties and preoccupations that must surely be universal.
Many are about sickness and health, and there is surely a story of worried family and friends behind each entry.
"Miraculous St Rita - protect our beloved JJ felled by a heart attack, that he be returned to us." "Protect my children and all the family. Give us the strength to accept and overcome the illness of our two boys. Help us to give of our best." "St Rita: My prayers that my daughter Angela recovers and my daughter Sophie finds true happiness." "St Rita - help me to endure illness." "For Alexander - seriously ill." "For my friend Brigitte, seriously ill. Watch over my family, especially little Yvonne, 15 days old and fragile." "Look after my family and in particular my ill son." "St Rita: save my daughter and my grandchildren. Give me health."
Some messages express thanks for recovery, or other blessings. "Thank you St Rita for curing my husband of prostate cancer. Watch over my children and grandchildren. My prayers are always under your guidance." "Thanks!" (in German.) "Thank you St Rita - from Patrick." "Thank you for looking after my family." "Thank you, O Lord, for giving me the strength that I need to look after those I love." And most poignantly: "Thank you for giving me my life, my God."
People don't often seem to pray for money, except perhaps to express general anxiety about the wider aspects of survival. "Deliver us from all our financial problems, health and work." Prayers for the general state of the world are less frequent than personal concerns, though they do appear: "St Rita: bestow reconciliation on us. Send us peace in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ukraine." And: "Put hope and peace in my heart broken by the violence that roams in the world."
There are many prayers for guidance in life decisions: "St Rita. Please look after me and guide me in my decision and trust it may be the right one." "I sent the letter: Lord, let it be well received." "For Baby and for my projects - that they work out well." "Give me confidence to face the future." "Help my brother Charles in his studies." Many an Irish mother's penny candle has been lit in this cause.
Those struggling with difficulties are always mentioned. "For Jean-Michel, that he may be helped with his handicap." "Help LD, in her struggle for happiness after all the misfortunes she has endured without complaint. Thank you for blessings."
And what mother's heartbreak must lie behind this supplication: "I place in your hands the sorrows of our family - the disappearance of a son without motive, who has been out of touch for a year."
The themes of birth and death are ever with us. Many are the visitors who light a candle in remembrance of those they love. "Father, Mother and my brother Daniel: Rest in Peace. I love you and I will never forget you."
"Summer 28.08.2006-31.08.2006. Forever missed." What tragic episode occurred at the end of August 2006 that is graven on someone's heart?
(In German.) "For my father, who died today." A summer visitor must just have learned of a father's passing and went to light a candle and record a message.
"Rest in Peace, Jordan, watch over your brother. Phil and Christiane." One brother died, one remains.
And there are prayers in hopes for a baby. "For Daniel and Catherine - that their dream of becoming parents is realised." "Eternal love! Let us hope for the fruit of our love! Jean-Louis and Anne." "That our marriage be blessed with a child."
On the altar to St Rita - depicted in an artistically tasteful statue that must date from around 15th or 16th century - there are many flowers and engraved signs just saying "Thanks" (Merci), as well as a dedicated formal prayer to the saint, who is described as "the saint of the impossible": "All human help has failed me…I beg you, deliver my poor heart from the pain that oppresses it - calm my spirit."
Outside, in the everyday world of politics and news, the French media tells us about the government's determination to enforce laicité - secularism - in the nation's public affairs: the new minister in charge of regulating Islam, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, is a strong republican secularist. That's as may be, yet inside the sombre confines of old churches, ordinary people still place their trust in the divine intervention of a 14th-century Italian saint.
Rationalists may scoff that a wife may think that St Rita has cured her husband of prostate cancer, rather than modern medicine. But if a prayer written down in a book (and the week's prayers are offered at Mass each Friday) helps, comforts or relieves human sorrows, then let it be. Prayers are usually sincere: nobody is doing it to keep up with the Joneses. I added my own prayer, but then that is always the same. Accept the things I cannot change: courage to change the things I can.