To my six-year-old eyes, she seemed ancient, with her withered, white face and wisps of gray hair escaping her tightly tied babushka. I think her eyes were dark, but I never looked at them. I was too busy making fun of her with the rest of my classmates. I don’t know if I ever knew her name. If I’d heard it, I don’t remember. But in my mind’s eye, I can still see her, even after more than half a century.
Growing up in the Mon Valley, I went to a Catholic grade school and attendance at Mass was the mandatory start of each school day. The students sat up front in the yellow brick church, the lower grades in the pews closest to the altar. Being in first grade, I got a front row seat when she’d rush up to the altar during the service. At Catholic Mass, understand, there are no altar calls. We went to the altar to pray our penance after confession and to receive Holy Communion. Definitely not in the middle of Mass.
So her appearance gave us cause for giggles and relief from boredom. Dressed in black from her babushka to her button-up, high-top shoes, she’d rush to the altar from the back of the church, beating her breast, wailing, and muttering in Slovak. A black wool coat during winter and a sweater during warmer months covered her sparse, birdlike frame. She couldn’t have been over five feet tall. Her black cotton skirt and petticoat swished as she’d bob up and down in her “praying fit,” dark rosary beads dangling from her shriveled hands.
Most ignored her emotional explosions. I wondered what she was so worked up over. Was she asking for forgiveness? Was she still grieving the loss of her husband? Had she lost a son in the war? Was she expressing her love for God? Praying for a pressing need? For loved ones? I never knew.
But now, a lifetime later, and after reading through the Bible, I liken her to Hannah, the barren woman in the Old Testament who poured her heart out to God in the Temple. She was so into her prayer that the priest accused her of being drunk.
“Not so, my lord,” Hannah answered. “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I was pouring my soul out to the LORD. I have been praying here out of my great grief and anguish” (1 Samuel 1:15, 16).
God answered Hannah’s prayer.
I think of that old woman in my church and am ashamed for laughing at her. Have I ever prayed so intensely? So deeply? With so much meaning? Have I ever truly poured my heart out to God?
The old woman in black has passed on to the other side by now, where I’m sure she is still lost in an ecstasy of prayer—caught up in her relationship with her God—only now her wailings have been replaced by joyful songs of praise.
Your Word, O God, says that earnest, heartfelt prayer releases dynamic power (James 5:16). May I pray with fervency and devotion! Amen.
Special-Tea: Read 1 Samuel 1:1–20