Rites & prayers before the storm

Anyone who has lived in a hurricane zone knows the rites that fill the hours before a storm.

You wrestle with metal shutters. You fill bathtubs and rows of plastic bottles with water and make extra ice. You check radios, flashlights and battery expiration dates.

Floridians in Frances evacuation zones faced the sobering act of preparing a box or two of irreplaceable papers, pictures and memories. I saved stacks of class outlines and left textbooks. I saved icons from Greece and left diplomas from Texas. I saved my guitar and an oil painting of the great lion Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. Some things are easier to replace than others.

Then you are supposed to pray.

Even our civic officials and television anchors hinted at this. But for what, precisely, should we pray? This is a puzzle for learned theologians, as well as parents guiding children in bedtime prayers next to a hurricane lamp.

Should believers pull a Pat Robertson and try to steer the storm toward some other target more worthy of God's wrath? Is it realistic to pray that every storm will veer into the open Atlantic? Many simply pray for God's will to be done -- period.

Deep questions loom overhead: Does God "cause," "control" or merely "allow" hurricanes? Are they part of a fallen creation touched by sin, yet events that God can use? All of the above?

"I don't think you can hold that God never sends the storm -- the witness of scripture seems to forbid that," said Father Joseph Wilson of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Whitestone, N.Y., one of several experts I reached by email during the storm.

"The Fall had consequences and scripture hints at them. These consequences affected man's relationship with God, his relationship with woman and with nature. ... In classical Christian theology it is not necessarily the active will of God, which sends the storm, although it may be. But the permissive will of God is involved, since He is permitting it."

Roman Catholics have long wrestled with these issues in liturgies, he said. The altar missal includes a rich variety of "Masses for Various Needs," including prayers about the weather and harvests. The "Procession for Averting Tempest" begins with church bells, a litany of the saints and the following:

"Almighty and ever living God, spare us in our anxiety and take pity on us in our abasement, so that after the lightning in the skies and the force of the storm have calmed, even the very threat of tempest may be an occasion for us to offer You praise. Lord Jesus, Who uttered a word of command to the raging tempest of wind and sea and there came a great calm: hear the prayers of Your family."

Finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross and sprinkles the surroundings with holy water. At that point, quipped Wilson, "I guess everyone assumes the crash position."

Specific Protestant rites are harder to come by. But in one Evangelical Lutheran Church in America liturgy, the people pray "Lord, have mercy" after prayers such as: "In the face of mighty winds, thunderous sounds, strong rains, and surging waves, let us pray. ... In the face of complete uncertainty, as well as concern for our loved ones, here or elsewhere, let us pray. ... In the face of our own vulnerable mortality, let us pray to the Lord."

Eastern Orthodox tradition includes similar prayers, noted Father Patrick Henry Reardon of Chicago, the author of numerous meditations on the Book of Psalms. Hurricane Frances drew his immediate attention because his son's family, with five grandchildren, was in its path.

The key is that it is always appropriate to "pray simply for deliverance, for yourself and for others," he said. "During storms ... I am particularly drawn toward Psalms 18 and 29, because both of them describe the experience of a storm, with all the wind, thunder (the 'Voice of the Lord'), lightning and so forth."

These timeless and mysterious prayers range from stark fear to exuberant praise. In them, storms are common -- a normal challenge of life in biblical lands.

"It is legitimate to ask if a hurricane counts as a storm," said Reardon. "I don't know. However, I am disposed to think they will suffice."