At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote a prayer that went viral. The day I composed it, there was a rat trapped somewhere in our walls. A dead one. As the stench crested and then started to fade, I watched the number of infections in our city of Seattle tick up, up, up. This was in the days before it had spread beyond the Pacific Northwest when we had only a vague sense that life would change when we had only just begun to see toilet paper shelves empty and hand sanitizer prices skyrocket on Amazon. I stood at the sink washing dishes while the pest control specialist was downstairs looking for the place in our wall that had become a grave.
I started reassuring myself. My husband could work from home. I could manage our son’s education. We would be okay. But then I thought, “What about everyone who is not okay? What about the people who were already teetering on the edge of okay before this catastrophe?” I thought about the images I’d seen on news sites of lines snaking around wholesale grocery stores, hands grasping for the last canister of bleach wipes. While this was an understandable impulse, it was not humanity putting its best foot forward. I wanted better for us. The prayer started to come together in my head.
“May we who are merely inconvenienced,” it began, “remember those whose lives are at stake.” In the Christian tradition, and in so many others, we are taught to value the lives and dignity of others, to seek the common good rather than our own individual gain. We are taught that we have a responsibility to each other, that we are bound to each other in one unbroken chain of being, the breath of the Divine that lives in each of us. The prayer held seven calls to remember that common humanity, to be mindful of those faring worse—much worse—than ourselves, and then an impossible hope at the end: “During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.”
I was tapping it out on my phone when my husband came upstairs with the news: the rat had died in a heating vent, and there was no way to retrieve its body. The air moving around it had desiccated it, whisking away the smell. The grave would remain a grave.
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I scrawled the prayer on a piece of paper with a Sharpie, posted it to my Instagram account, and forgot all about it. No one was more shocked than I was when it went viral. I hadn’t even written my name on it.
In the days and weeks that followed, I couldn’t keep up with the notifications, the beautiful images people had made of the prayer, the requests from the clergy of all different faiths and denominations to use the prayer in virtual services. The prayer was read on the floor of the US House of Representatives. I recorded it for Southern California Public Radio under a blanket in my bed. A college friend sent me a picture of the prayer hung in the window of a café in New Hampshire. I answered messages from Australia, South Africa, England. The prayer was translated into Spanish, French, German. My response to anyone who asked permission to use the prayer was, and is, yes, yes, yes. You can’t hoard a prayer. You can’t hoard hope. And the prayer was never about me. It was about us.
I lived those weeks in a daze of disbelief and deep encouragement about the heart of humanity. I felt as though I had cast one thread out on the wind and then turned around to find that thousands of people had come together to weave it into a beautiful, warm fabric. Some altered the words slightly to fit their circumstances; “the loving embrace of God” was occasionally changed to “the loving embrace of humanity,” and this heartened me. Jesus didn’t exclude, so I don’t make it my business to exclude either. I was glad that others had found a way to make the prayer for everyone, to affirm the sacred in every one of us. This wonderful wave of assurance of the goodness of humanity filled our home and my heart with the sweet fragrance of hope. I forgot all about the rat.
The prayer was written at a very different time than we are in now—a time when we placed teddy bears in our windows to cheer small children; when we clapped and sang for our healthcare workers every night as they returned home from their shifts; when we were more than willing to make enormous, albeit temporary, sacrifices for each other. It was before we began to fight over masks. It was before armed protestors demanded that the country be reopened. It was before a long-overdue reckoning with racism, in the wake of which we had to listen, again and again, to people explain with their words and with their actions why Black lives didn’t really matter after all. It was before we entered high gear in the ugliest election cycle any of us can remember. It was before the ugliest aspects of our American culture were put on full and violent display at the Capitol. It was a moment, a moment of extraordinary unity and goodwill. I am afraid the moment has passed.
We are a year in now, and the vaccine has dared us to believe that there might be light at the end of the tunnel. But we will fight over that, too, I’m sure. I’d be lying if I said my faith in humanity hasn’t been shaken. Is there any hope for us, for what in the Jewish faith is called shalom, and in the Christian tradition the Kingdom of God? I don’t know. But I keep writing prayers. All I can do is pour out what hope I have as ink onto paper. All I can do is cast my threads out onto the wind.
I never think about the rat anymore. But it’s still there, a mummy by now. We have never spent this much time in our house, all four of us banging up and down the stairs all day, death and darkness just on the other side of the drywall all along. When I think about the joy we’ve tried to cultivate for our young children, the connections we’ve tried to make with those who are outside of our own four walls during this time of isolation, it does me good to remember that it’s all been in the company of the rat.
Life and light—these are things I’d like to believe can’t be stifled, even by death, even by the hatefulness we’ve all seen on the news and on our social media accounts. I will admit that there are some people I don’t know how to go about loving. But I can’t stop wanting better for us. I refuse to give up believing that if we can just recognize that our lungs all breathe the same air, we can build a better world for each other. That’s my prayer. Amen.