“Renew The Grieving World”: An Interview with Teresa Berger

Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at YDS. A native of Germany, she holds doctorates in both liturgical studies and constructive theology, and she writes about how these disciplines intersect with gender theory. She also posts at the liturgy blog Pray Tell. After the Brussels terrorist attack in March 2016, she contributed a prayer at praytellblog.com. She described it as “merely one attempt to pray in the face of human-made catastrophes.” The prayer has since been requested by various congregations and other organizations for liturgical use after any number of tragedies. The first four lines cite or quote hymn-writer Isaac Watts, paraphrasing Psalm 90, and the final lines echo Psalm 104.

REFLECTIONS: This prayer attracted immediate interest. How did you come to write it?

TERESA BERGER: As a scholar of liturgy and a person of prayer, my intention was to momentarily move out of our fast-paced barrage of media analysis, which exceeds anything that anybody really needs, and express lament. I wanted to avoid any quick-fix prayer, the kind that asks God to make everything better suddenly. There are times, in moments of grief, when we need other ways to stand before God.

REFLECTIONS: You posted it after the Brussels attack, then again after the Orlando mass killings in June.

BERGER: Yes, but I stopped posting it after that. I didn’t like the idea of trying to figure out when to bring it out again. So many tragedies were occurring. Do we pray when 32 die in Belgium but not when 50 die in Afghanistan? We can’t say certain tragedies “merit” a prayer and others don’t! These days, as part of my morning prayer, I pray for those who will die that day, with special words about those who may face death by violence.

REFLECTIONS: You’ve given much thought to liturgical practices in cyberspace. Did you write this prayer with the internet in mind?

BERGER: No, I simply wrote it with my own turmoil in mind. It was a way of shutting myself off from the media frenzy in order to find out what it was I might legitimately pray. I began to ponder what such a prayer would need to look like for it to bear the burden of the day’s violence. I wasn’t planning to share it necessarily. I wanted to force myself to wrestle with words instead of just verbalizing aloud.

REFLECTIONS: Prayers of lament appear to be rare. Why?

BERGER: The challenge after a tragedy is always, What do we pray for that won’t sound illegitimate? I do think there is such a thing as illegitimate prayer. Jesus thought so – the kind that says, Dear God thank you for letting me survive even while others did not, or, Thank you that I’m not like those others. The prayer I posted has some guiding convictions behind it. Simply standing in lament is not nothing. After all, we have a whole biblical book, the Book of Lamentations, that addresses this mood. It’s important to own that posture. And when the prayer addresses real human beings who were affected, I try to broaden it as much as possible. The quick-fix prayer never takes seriously what Jesus encouraged us to do: to pray for our enemies. . “A Prayer for Days of Terrorist Attacks, Mass Shootings, and Other Human-Made Catastrophes”

Eternal, All-Compassionate God:
You are our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.

We lift our hearts and voices in lament
to you this day as we grieve the violence,
the loss of life, and the destruction
in Brussels …

Have mercy, O God, have mercy.

We entrust to your infinite compassion
all those who have died.
May they rest in your eternal peace.
We pray for those who are fighting for their lives,
and for those who are maimed and injured
in body, mind, and soul.
Grant them easing of their pain and healing.
We pray for those tasked with
responding to this catastrophe.
Give them steadfastness and wisdom.
And, as you commanded us to do,
we pray for our enemies.
Let them not be lost in violence and hatred.

To all of us, grant deep compassion
for all that lives, and an abiding longing
for your peace.

Lord, send out your Spirit
And renew the face of
our marred and grieving world.