Hail Mary and the ‘Times Tables’ in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 25, 2005).
The siren behind me causes me to look into the rearview mirror, and I am instantly transported back to my youth.
Sitting near the back of the classroom, I remember our second grade class racing through the multiplication tables with unwavering speed. Mrs. McVeigh guided us through the numerical litany, and we chimed in, trying to keep pace.
“Four times four is sixteen.”
“Four times five is twenty.”
“Four times six is twenty-four.”
And so on down the numerical line. Sometime during that drill an ambulance raced down the street outside our window, sirens wailing. Some two-dozen little heads looked toward the street, eager to get a glance at the excitement.
Mrs. McVeigh could have easily continued on with the next lesson.
“Five times one is five.”
“Five times two is ten.”
But she didn’t. Instead, looking out the window herself, she asked us all to say a “Hail Mary” for those in the ambulance, and for those they were racing to reach. She didn’t make a big scene of it. Rather, she merely had us recite the simple prayer and then continued on with the times tables. I don’t recall it happening again that year.
Little did Mrs. McVeigh realize what an impact that one little lesson would have on me. Twenty-some years have passed, with countless sirens in the mix, and to this day I still take the 15 seconds or so needed to recite a Hail Mary whenever I hear the siren of a fire engine, ambulance or police car in the distance.
Sure, it may not be much, but it is something. Whether or not my prayers have any effect on the urgent situation I do not know. I like to think they do. And if there are other classmates out there who took from that math class the same lesson I did, perhaps our collective prayers make a difference.
I’ll never know the outcome of my Hail Mary’s for all those faceless individuals behind the sirens, but I know for certain that the practice benefits myself, for behind every siren and Hail Mary are countless life lessons.
The ritual reminds me that there’s always someone out there who is worse off than myself, and that there is always something I can do to help – even if that means simply taking 15 seconds for a silent prayer. It reinforces gratitude for what one has – family, friends and home – and it teaches concern for others.
The ritual helps me reflect on my priorities in life. How can I be annoyed that a passing ambulance caused me to miss that last green light when someone out there desperately needs its help? I can afford a few more minutes tacked on to my commute; the ambulance cannot.
It teaches me that life is short and you know not the hour, so seize the day. The anonymous victim on the other end of the siren is just that – anonymous – causing me to create a face for the person in need. Did a 40-year-old father of three just have a heart attack? Was a young woman in a car accident?
It reminds me that prayer should not be relegated to the pew or the bedside. Like all of us, I am called to live a life of prayer, and the very act itself helps me grow in that prayerful vocation. The adage “you are what you eat” has today morphed into “you are what you watch.” I much prefer it become “you are what you pray.” Say a prayer of love, you become love.
The ritual reminds me that life is about love. Love of neighbor; love of enemy. How can I stay angry with a loved one when I’m willing to say a prayer of love for a complete stranger?
Finally, it helps me open up my heart to those in need. Once the ritual is started, it becomes impossible to ignore the sound of a siren, no matter how distant it may be. The siren doesn’t care where I am, but it is a constant reminder that I should most certainly care where it is. Sitting at a restaurant or flipping burgers on the grill, jogging down the street or stuck in a sea of brake lights – the sirens sound.
And thanks to Mrs. McVeigh, I respond. The multiplication tables can wait.