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Well and Always

by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

The Cardinal came lumbering down the stairs with an uncharacteristic smile on his face.

"Good morning, Father, and Happy Thanksgiving," he said. "I have a little something for you."

With that he handed me two small, cloth-bound books, each about six inches by four, and both written by Reverend Raoul Plus, S.J. One was entitled How to Pray Well and the other, How to Pray Always.

"You will enjoy these wonderful little volumes," he announced. "They are filled with spiritual wisdom."

I thanked him, helped him with his overcoat, and followed him out to a waiting car. We were on our way to the cathedral for Thanksgiving Day Mass at 9:00 a.m.

* * * * * *

Ordinarily, the Cardinal preferred to ride in silence. I had learned from experience not to try to initiate conversations. This day, however, he was all talk. He would be going to the home of relatives for Thanksgiving dinner, he observed. This cousin would be there. This other would not. His priest nephew would probably arrive late. His youngest niece would undoubtedly sing for the family. And on and on. I could scarcely recognize the somber prelate for whom I had been working as secretary and with whom I had been residing for a little over two months.

* * * * * *

When the Mass was finished, I wished His Eminence a pleasant day, left the cathedral by a side door, and hurried toward the subway. It was to take me to the elevated which, in its turn, was to bring me home to the first Thanksgiving with my family since leaving for the seminary seven years earlier. At my side I had a small suitcase in which were packed the cassock and surplice I had used for Mass, my Breviary, the two books the Cardinal had given me, and a rather elaborately wrapped box of chocolates for my mother.

In the last car of the elevated there were only two passengers besides myself. They were women who appeared to be in their early sixties. They sat together across from me, chatting quietly, their breath forming little clouds of vapor in the poorly heated train.

I opened my suitcase, extracted the Breviary, and set myself to reciting the Office of the day. After a few minutes the women stopped their chatting. One cleared her throat and addressed me.

"My sister and I," she said, "have been wondering, Reverend, what is that you are reading."

"Is it a Bible?" the other inquired.

"Not exactly," I answered. "It's a Breviary, which is full of passages from the Bible but contains also readings from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and brief lives of the saints as well."

** * * * *

I rose from my seat, leaned across the aisle, and handed the Breviary to the first sister.

"It's one of four volumes," I explained. "Each day of the year has its own arrangement of Biblical passages, readings and prayers; and what is established for each day is read by all priests and many religious across the world. We call it the `Divine Office,' which is to say a kind of holy obligation or duty."

The first sister handed the Breviary to the other, paused, and asked me why everyone is required to read the same thing.

"It all started very early in the history of the Church," I replied. "Already in the fourth century monks were living together and praying together several times a day. When toward the beginning of the Middle Ages, more and more were leaving their monasteries to preach the Gospel for a time in distant towns and lands, it was agreed that they would recite the same prayers during their time away as their brothers back home. Thus, a missionary in Germany, for example, who had left his monastery in Italy would sense himself spiritually united with fellow monks and, consequently, supported and strengthened by them as well."

"Before long," I continued, "ecclesiastical authorities directed priests and religious throughout the world to follow the lead of the monks. To heighten a sense of the unity in the entire Church, the same group of readings and prayers, the same `Divine Office,' was to be devoutly recited by all who had given their lives completely to the service of the Lord. And we are still doing it this way today."

* * * * * *

The second sister closed my Breviary and handed it back to me.

"How lovely!" she exclaimed. "I am sorry to confess, however, that I am not very good at praying." She hesitated for a moment and then went on. "And neither is my sister. I think it is like playing the piano or the violin. You have to start early in life and stay with it. Otherwise . . . ".

"Otherwise," the first sister interrupted in a tone of self-deprecation, "you end up semi-pagans like us!"

* * * * * *

I opened my suitcase, placed the Breviary inside, and took out the two books by Father Plus. In the process the box of chocolates fell to the floor of the train. Recovering it and hurriedly stuffing it back into the suitcase, I passed How to Pray Well and How to Pray Always across the aisle, giving each sister one.

"Just this morning," I announced, "I was presented with these books by the Archbishop. I have not read them myself. Still, judging by their titles, I suspect you might find them interesting and helpful. You would make my Thanksgiving if you would do me the honor of accepting them. I can easily obtain a new set."

The two sisters demurred at first but finally agreed to accept my offer after I had written my name and address on a card that one of them had in her purse. As they hurried off the train at their station, each with a book by Father Plus in her hand, I felt like one of the resourceful missionary monks of the Middle Ages. The holiday had gotten off to a splendid start.

* * * * * *

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I went at lunchtime to a Catholic bookstore in the center of town to purchase a new set of Father Plus's books. It would not have been well, I felt, if the Cardinal were to learn that I had given his gift away shortly after receiving it. The following Tuesday, however, His Eminence stopped me on the way to breakfast to hand me a box of chocolates with How to Pray Well and How to Pray Always fastened to the top by means of a festive ribbon and bow.

"Two ladies left them with Sister last night," he reported with a quizzical look in his eye. "They gave her this card as well," he added. "I trust that it all makes sense to you."

I opened the card. Its message was as follows: "After Thanksgiving dinner, both of us read the books from start to finish. After that, we prayed together for the first time in a long while. We remembered our parents and our friends, and we told the Lord that we hoped you would always enjoy praying your Breviary with all of the priests, monks, and nuns of the entire world."

The card was signed, "Two `semi-pagans' who truly yearn to pray well and always."

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