In divinity school, my TA suggested that we pray the Psalms with an intention that we wanted to manifest, trusting in God to make it so. I prayed for an end to the death penalty in North Carolina. The TA was a friend of mine; we had appeared in court together a few months before for our role in attempting to stop an execution. It was the only time I’ve had real handcuffs used on me, instead of the zip ties usually presented at protests. The police didn’t expect us to block the entrances to the prison, preventing the five required witnesses to the execution from witnessing. That execution was one of four that November, every Thursday night, skipping Thanksgiving in favor of executing the following Thursday.
I prayed ardently with the Psalms, and was amazed to see in the news a few weeks later that the European chemical companies who made the drugs used in executions were halting the sale of them to the US, effectively delaying indefinitely the executions scheduled on death row. There hasn’t been an execution since.
One thing I love most about the precarity of the Catholic Worker is the practice of praying for what one needs, what the community needs, in the way of goods or cash, and how it would show up with surprising specificity. Despite witnessing this provisioning many times, I never really took the practice on, which is why the experience with the Psalms stays with me. I’ve taken a more laissez faire approach. I was 22 and at the LACW when first asked, by a “freeway flyer” as we lovingly called our volunteers from the suburbs, where I saw myself in five years. I laughed and said I couldn’t hazard a guess, as five years earlier I would have never guessed I would be surrounded by bougainvilleas in the back of a kitchen on skid row. I said the most that we could hope for is that the person five years ago would be impressed by the person we are today. I told them what Ralph, a guest at the Hippie Kitchen, as our operation was known on the street, had said to me just a few days earlier: “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” It turns out that five years later I would be praying to end the death penalty in North Carolina, reading the Psalms. That wasn’t the plan.
That’s all to say that I’m not much for goal setting, but I have in fact run marathons and finished semesters and put on shows and learned instruments and earned degrees, so dedication and practice and effort and concentration are not foreign to me. It’s a matter of deciding to do it and doing it. It’s easier, perhaps, when there’s a deadline– a race day, a due date, a concert or wedding or something that defines the completion of a task. So, here’s my goal: I’m going to publish my dissertation by Christmas. I’m going to finish transforming it into a book by mid-October, and send it to places that will want to publish it. I’m meeting with a writing group every week to make that happen. Five years ago I finished my dissertation. Since then, I’ve been farming, providing housing to former staff and guests of the Catholic Worker, teaching in prison, and have married the woman I love. I wouldn’t have guessed any of that five years ago. The only person you have to impress is your self.