If you blinked, you probably missed it. Near the end of his inaugural address, President Joe Biden asked the assembled for a moment of silent prayer in memory of the more than 400,000 Americans felled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a sea of small U.S. flags flapped across the National Mall, each a stand-in for a living, breathing person, the camera panned to a squad of National Guard soldiers.

Several bowed their heads. Then, as the president said “Amen,” one made the sign of the cross.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen a soldier bless himself. I remember one Maine guardsman in Iraq, and later in Afghanistan, who never began a meal in the chow hall without momentarily bowing his head. Then, while all around him wolfed down their food, he’d quietly cross himself “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Prayer, meditation, yearning – call it what you might. It was there on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as surely as, just two weeks before, the violence of a mob tore through the same building and shook our very national identity to its core.

Now, with Donald Trump finally dispatched to his Mar-a-Lago bubble and the Biden administration shifting into high gear with the urgency of a ladder truck leaving the fire station, each of us asks ourselves, “What’s next? Do we dare look forward to better days? Does America still have a prayer?”

Last spring, as the pandemic took root around the country, the Pew Research Center reported an uptick in prayer – and not just among those who already began or ended their days with a heavenly invocation.

Among respondents who said they never or seldom pray, Pew reported, 15 percent said they were now doing so. Similarly, 24 percent of those who said they do not belong to any religion now found themselves regularly in moments of spiritual petition.

My relationship with prayer has varied over the years.

As a kid growing up Roman Catholic, it was a numbers game – five Hail Mary’s, two Lord’s Prayers and an Act of Contrition, and I was good to go until my next bimonthly confession.

As a young adult, I saved my prayers for when all hell broke loose. Then, beset by a death in the family, a financial crunch, an injured child, I’d pray for strength, or more money, or quick healing – but when those things came, I’d rarely look back, lower my head and say “Thanks.”

These days, I see praying as less transactional. It feels tied not so much to my wants but to my hopes.

I hope Jan. 20, 2021, will be remembered not as a magic wand that made all the bad stuff go away, but as a turning point. A moment in time when the pendulum reached the end of its trajectory toward hate and division, and began its long-awaited return toward equilibrium, maybe even reconciliation.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden told the small, socially distanced crowd outside the Capitol. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes. As my mom would say, ‘Just for a moment, stand in their shoes.’ ”

It made me think of those who call COVID-19 a hoax, those who still insist that Trump won the election, the state legislator in Virginia who screamed “You’re fake news!” and then hung up on my retired sister last week after she called him and asked for evidence to back up his claim that far-left Antifa agitators were behind the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

How, pray tell, do we stand in their shoes?

How do we engage in dialogue when, at the first sign of potential disagreement, the phone goes dead?

How, as the nation finally pivots away from four years of utter turmoil, do we invite the dissenters among us to come along?

“To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear us out as we move forward,” Biden said. “Take a measure of me and my heart.”

By any fair measure, Biden is a reasonable man. And yes, as only the second Roman Catholic to occupy the Oval Office, he is also a spiritual man.

He prayed during a pre-inaugural Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle before taking his oath of office on a Bible that’s been in his family since 1893. He quoted St. Augustine, who “wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

“Defined by the common objects of their love,” Biden repeated for emphasis. “What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and, yes, the truth.”

Is that still true? If we pray for nothing else, should we at least pray that it’s still true?

Time will tell. But as I look back on this inauguration, this turning of the page, I’ll long remember that single soldier, surrounded by flags, silently making the sign of the cross.

I’ll wonder what exactly he was praying for – the pandemic victims? The country? Or was it something more intimate, something closer to his soul, some problem unsolved or need unfilled?

We’ll never know. But tonight, as I recite the same prayer that my parents once said over me and get to the “God blesses” at the end, I’ll pray for that soldier.

I doubt it will change the world. And I know there are some who will say prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking, a feel-good indulgence that’s no match for getting out there and doing the heavy lifting that now needs to be done.

To those skeptics, I will concede that you’re partially right.

As St. Augustine once said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”


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