BROOKLINE — They sat in silence in the old stone church, deep in thought, the turbulence and traffic of the world outside reduced to shadows and light at play on the walls.
They prayed for the nation. They murmured a beloved psalm: I lift up my eyes to the hills/From where is my help to come? And they listened to a French Jesuit priest’s poem that ends this way: “Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
The service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was part of an extraordinary 48-hour election prayer vigil called by Episcopal bishops in an effort to kindle a spirit of reconciliation at the end of an election year marked by fear and division. From noon Sunday to noon Tuesday, churches across the state decided to open their doors for parts of the days for prayer services, interfaith gatherings, and moments of quiet meditation.
“We must pray for a peaceful transition, no matter the outcome of our elections,” the Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts said in a statement announcing the vigils. “We must pray that the demonization of one another’s opponents which has characterized this election not be further stoked by its outcome. We must pray that all those elected on that day be moved, strengthened, and guided by the Spirit, to lead us through fractious and dangerous times.”
Jeannie Baca, a social worker from Roslindale and a member of St. Paul’s, said she felt a bit better when the 15-minute noonday prayer ended.
“It’s a much more productive thing than I would otherwise be doing, which is refreshing FiveThirtyEight,” she said with a wry smile, referring to the website of data analyst Nate Silver that is an online destination for the politically obsessed. “It feels centering to be here. This is a place that was here before the election and will be here after the election.”
Election Day seems to bring out more formal religious observance with every passing election. Four years ago, about 30 churches of various denominations around Massachusetts, including many Episcopal congregations, participated in a national effort called Election Day Communion, which asked churches to hold a service on election night to emphasize themes of unity and common spiritual bonds.
Praying for the country and its leaders is a longstanding tradition in the Episcopal church, noted Bishop Alan M. Gates of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. The church’s Book of Common Prayer includes a whole section of prayers for the government — for courts, for sound government, for elections, for leaders.
But the divisiveness of this campaign — especially the presidential contest involving Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump — seemed to call for a remarkable religious response, said Bishop Douglas J. Fisher of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.
“This particular election cycle was so divisive, and people were so bitterly opposed — and quite frankly, the language used in the debates was so hate-filled and demeaning, we felt we needed to increase our efforts,” he said. “Much more so than in 2012, there’s tremendous anxiety out there.”
Gates said: “It may be that we are rediscovering and offering those prayers with a particular intensity at this time in our national life.”
The prayer vigils are taking different forms. About two dozen people, including Fisher, gathered on the steps of Worcester City Hall for a vigil Sunday night. In Lynn, congregants of St. Stephen’s Memorial Episcopal Church are expected to take turns leading prayers in the chapel on Election Day, as well as helping to remind people to vote and offering rides to the polls, an extension of the congregation’s work on social issues.
Attendance was quite small at the first two of six services planned for before and after Election Day at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Westborough — sometimes just a couple of people. The Rev. Jesse Abell said he thought it was still worthwhile.
“Prayer can never hurt,” he said. “Even if one person is praying, at least they are praying for all of us.”
The Rev. Amy McCreath of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Watertown coordinated a multifaith service. It made sense, she said, given her city’s rich history of welcoming immigrants and the fear-inducing rhetoric in this year’s election.
At the service, she said in an interview before the event Monday night, an Iranian Muslim was expected to read a poem by Rumi; a Jewish woman would blow the shofar; Unitarians would share a reading about voting as a spiritual practice; representatives of the Brahma Kumaris Learning Center for Peace would lead a circle of light meditation. She said the congregation would also sing a few chants from an ecumenical Christian community in Scotland. For everyone who attended, there was the prayer of a stranger, written on a card, to take home and recite on Election Day.
“This is a great chance to build community,” McCreath said. “If you’re praying someone else’s prayer, that’s a great way to do it.”
This year, in Concord, N.H., about a dozen houses of worship — including a mosque and a synagogue — are scheduled to open for prayer from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday so that voters can pray before or after casting their ballots. A pre-election prayer vigil was scheduled to be held Monday evening at the city’s Temple Beth Jacob; a post-election unity breakfast planned for Wednesday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord will include the singing of “God Bless America.”
The Rev. Jeffrey Mello, rector of St. Paul’s in Brookline, said he hopes the services reassure and strengthen both his parish and the wider community who sees his flock at prayer.
“For me, there is something about gathering in an extraordinary time with ancient words to remind us that we are not the first to go through times such as these,” he said. “It’s how we live in these times that has the potential to bring out who it is God needs us to be.”
And as for those who can’t stop checking the FiveThirty-Eight website but who don’t pray or cannot?
Mello suggests they find “whatever it is in their life that connects them on some deep level with the goodness and peace in the world,” he said.
“It’s about remembering who we are at our best,” he said, “so we can be that person when we are stressed or under pressure.”