The Prayer Wheel
Suzanne was an unlikely provocateur of religious passions. Born a cradle Catholic, she had followed the nuns’ early lessons to a fault. Taught that November 2nd is All Soul’s Day – a day when prayer yields indulgences for the dead – a young Suzanne would wake at midnight and spend the next twenty- four hours reciting the Rosary. Her faith gradually dissolved with age. Yet she remained vaguely comforted by the clearly laid out paths to salvation.
Over time, the rules of accounting substituted for the rules for redemption. Suzanne was drawn to the order of accounting, the balancing of good and evil, credits and debits. While not all accounting rules are black and white, they offered Suzanne guidelines for organizing decisions and categorizing pieces of other people’s lives. She worked at a large accounting firm for ten years in their Denver Colorado office, advising medium-sized companies on their tax obligations. At the same time, she married a fellow accountant. Their marriage was as orderly, as unemotional, as unambiguous as their jobs. After they divorced, Suzanne moved into a one-bedroom Boulder apartment in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She wanted to work for herself, specializing in accounting services for small companies. Suzanne took a cut in pay, but hoped the entrepreneurial excitement would rub off. It did not. Instead, Suzanne spent most of her time digging through crumpled, coffee- stained receipts tossed into boxes by the owners of dry cleaners, beauty salons, and dental offices. Her clients shut her out from any strategic business decisions, although she often wondered if they ever consciously made any.
Her constant companion was Harvey, a fawn-coloured greyhound adopted from an organization that rehabilitated former racers. Harvey was a striking dog, tall and muscular. His namesake was the mischievous but wise pooka – a man-sized mythological rabbit – in the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey. The rescue people suspected that Harvey had been illegally live-lure trained during his racing days and he was highly reactive to small animals. Suzanne walked regularly in the neighbourhood with Harvey, holding him tight on a short lead. They were careful to avoid the dogs, cats, prairie dogs, and other small creatures that lived there. In a make-shift home office squeezed into the bedroom, Suzanne would work while Harvey curled up on the bed, looking out the large window or running in dream-state sleep. Boulder’s intense sunshine created a warm but lonely existence for these two.
That January, Suzanne saw a Tibetan prayer wheel for the first time when attending a seminar at a local Buddhist college. A monk explained its significance, and Suzanne immediately drew a parallel to the rosaries she had recited as a child to help secure places in heaven for her deceased relatives. If only she could have written the Rosary on a wheel and used it to increase her prayer output! She chuckled at the thought of prayer efficiency while looking at her mobile phone. What about an application for mobile phones, tablets, and laptops that is essentially a prayer wheel? Users of all religions could choose their prayers, track the wheel rotations, engage multiple wheels, even create a community of prayer “wheelers.”
In many Buddhist traditions, spinning a wheel with the text of a prayer is equivalent to its oral recitation. Suzanne’s idea was to create a prayer wheel mobile app that all faiths could use. She briefly considered whether there would be opposition from believers, but convinced herself that the faithful would embrace this new form of prayer. They should agree that any prayer is an act of grace, a mitzvah. She also believed that her modernization could make religion more accessible to the mobile-phone obsessed. With little knowledge of other religions, Suzanne decided to begin with the Catholic Rosary. She felt an energy and focus she had not welcomed in years when she started programming a relatively simple English-language version of her mobile app: Prayer Wheel for Catholics.
Central to the app was the three-dimensional image of a rigid wooden wheel that, as it turned, unravelled into a fluid string of amber beads. The user could choose hyper-realistic images of speakers from different cultures to recite the prayers, presented in spoken and written English. Visually the app was hypnotic. Although the actual functionality was pretty simple, Suzanne could not help anticipating future extensions and enhancements. In daydreams, she saw her app spreading religious literacy around the globe, across cultures, languages, and of course faiths.
During the springtime, Suzanne concentrated on developing the app.
Occasionally she would venture out to Sunday mass at the local Catholic church. The middle-aged parish priest, Father James, was energetic and dynamic. His sermons were sometimes personal, reflecting on his own circumstances or on the struggles of his parishioners. He loved to pose logical puzzles to his parishioners. Also Father James was progressive. At one baptismal ceremony, he welcomed a transgender woman converting to Catholicism – contrary to the Vatican’s stance. This parish seemed a good testing ground for a prototype.
The graphics and voice work were complete by early summer. Suzanne decided to approach a few parishioners after mass. During earlier visits, she sat in the back of the church, often near the same two young women and an elderly man. Suzanne introduced herself and the app to them. The man politely excused himself, mumbling that he did not even have a mobile phone. The two women were intrigued. Shawna and Lisa seemed perfect test subjects for Prayer Wheel for Catholics.
Shawna studied full-time at the local state university, concentrating in business and accounting. Lisa had entered the same university on an athletic scholarship in track and field, but had not chosen a field of study. Academic demands proved too much for Lisa, and she left university. When Suzanne met her, Lisa was working at a sports equipment store, fitting people for athletic equipment. Shawna and Lisa were close friends. Together they volunteered at the Boulder animal shelter, jogged the mountain trails, and attended mass regularly.
As Suzanne’s friendship with the young women developed, they frequently sat in her cramped apartment sipping tea and eating homemade pastries. Topics of conversation were unpredictable, often digressive, and occasionally silly. When talk turned to accounting, the naturally extroverted Lisa would sit quietly, looking out the window and stroking Harvey’s velveteen fur. It was not unusual for her to sneak Harvey bits of his favourite treat, cheese scones. Shawna and Suzanne seemed to have a natural connection, with Suzanne playing advice-giver and Shawna advise-getter. Shawna wanted to follow in Suzanne’s earlier footsteps by working at a large accounting firm. Harvey loved everyone, but was especially excited whenever Lisa walked through the door. If the topic of faith came up, Suzanne steered the talk back to her app.
Suzanne considered whether one or both of them should become her business partners. She adopted many of their ideas and their discussions were invaluable. Suzanne also thought the young women would be assets from inside the Catholic community. How could a non-believer promote a new form of religious observance among the faithful? Lisa was a natural for connecting with people and an effective salesperson. Shawna could organize the business’s finances and begin to write a business plan. When Suzanne raised the possibility, both young women were overjoyed. They listed the company under the name Harvey’s Angels.
Soon afterward, this team of three arranged to meet with parishioners at a nearby coffeehouse. Lisa prepared a presentation, and Shawna printed business cards with a link to the app. About a dozen parishioners attended; many were friends of Lisa and Shawna. Most expressed curiosity and wanted to download the app. Father James stopped in but said nothing. One woman with a six-year old girl in tow did not introduce herself, but called her little girl Maya. Maya sat quietly during their brief time at the meeting, hugging a well- loved stuffed animal that looked like a Tasmanian devil with black fur and a white stripe across its chest. When someone asked her her name, Maya shyly squeezed the stuffed animal. It let loose a scream that sounded like an enraged wild boar attacking a terrified human baby. The group could not contain its laughter, and Maya joined in. As Suzanne started to describe the app, the mother took her daughter’s hand and left.
The app went public after the meeting. Reactions were generally positive. Commenting on the website, people enjoyed running the app during tedious business meetings, long jogs, or mindless car rides. One person equated it to Catholic meditation. Perhaps the most important feedback, however, was delivered to Father James in person. A faction of conservative parishioners had circulated a petition demanding they withdraw the app. The petition described it as sacrilegious and disrespectful, and was signed by more than half of the active parishioners.
How could Suzanne and her team have misjudged the reactions so badly? One mistake was that they had talked primarily to Lisa and Shawna’s friends. Age and mobile-device familiarity probably also mattered. Lisa tried to talk to some of the petitioners after next Sunday’s mass, but she received only cold shoulders and patronizing glances. While Maya clutched her stuffed animal, her mother stopped briefly enough to suggest that Lisa find a better use of her free time. Father James invited Lisa to meet in his office after the disapproving parishioners scattered.
Lisa felt like a schoolgirl called before the school principal, unsure if she was about to receive praise or punishment. Father James just laughed and quoted from Laurel and Hardy “here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Lisa showed restraint by not asking who Laurel and Hardy were.
Changing to a serious tone, Father James lowered his voice almost to a whisper: “How you decide to respond to this is your decision. It is not my place to try to tell you what to do.” He mentioned that he had made similar comments when concerned members of his parish had approached him with complaints. They prayed together and Father James wished Lisa well.
Before next Sunday’s mass, protestors circulated flyers condemning the app. The team also noticed a reshuffling of people. The elderly man from the back of the church moved up several pews. Maya and her mother sat next to him. Several of Shawna and Lisa’s friends moved toward the back. Noticeable lines were being drawn, with the pro-app faction at the back and the traditionalists in the front. The following Sunday, a few picketers appeared outside the church, with signs like “Say prayers, don’t ‘run’ them”, “God does not listen to computers,” and “Incense, not iPhones.” Suzanne, Lisa, and Shawna were forced to walk through the picket line to enter the church.
The university newspaper picked up the story, trumpeting religious freedom in support of the app. This fuelled the protestors’ opposition. They found Suzanne’s apartment, and started picketing in the large grassy area outside. They wore rosaries around their necks and recited the Rosary. Then they learned that Shawna had registered the app on several on-line app stores. More protestors joined with the goal of having at least twelve. The number twelve signified the twelve prayers of the Rosary – one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and one Glory Be. The protestors held hands, symbolizing the links between beads. They had constructed a human rosary.
Suzanne didn’t understand how things had devolved so quickly. After all, the Pope had an Instagram account. A French-Tunisian street artist incorporated Arabic calligraphy and text from the Qur’an into graffiti, and he was loved for his art. Suzanne didn’t know what to do, but she was not going to pull the app. Instead Suzanne, Shawna, and Lisa started to bake. They made coconut buns, cinnamon rolls, peanut butter cookies, and experimented with more exotic treats like Chinese pork bao and South American empanadas.
After each batch was ready, they would leave it on a table in the middle of the human rosary and invite everyone to enjoy. At first, a few did, and suffered disapproving looks from the others. Only Maya, who lit up at the sight of the treats, was allowed to savour without repercussions. Eventually the two sides settled into a rhythm where Suzanne would place the baked goods on the table, she would offer one to Maya, and a protestor would deliver the rest to a homeless shelter.
This became part of a broader neighbourhood routine after the university started up in the fall. Every morning, students rushed to classes, joggers and bicyclists jetted to workouts, commuters hurried with their travel mugs balanced on their laps, and the protestors set up to pray. With the exception of an hour or two spent baking, Suzanne, Shawna, and Lisa went about each day as before, including walking Harvey every morning. When Boulder experienced its first snowfall in mid-November, the protestors were unfazed. They simply added ponchos, boots, and warm outerwear to their clothing and continued to pray. Yet the snow created a sense of anticipation. Surely, the protests could not continue through the cold and wet winter of the foothills.
A major storm was anticipated in a few days. Suzanne was concerned for the protestors, especially Maya. Her mother had piled several layers of wool, down, and fleece over Maya’s usual clothing, topped with a set of earmuffs made of black rabbit fur. Maya’s earmuffs were adult-sized, and slipped down and twisted around her head. Maya was transformed into a kind of lopsided Minnie Mouse. The weather reports were dire, so Suzanne, Shawna, and Lisa bought blankets and space heaters just in case. No one was going to be hurt over this foolishness, regardless of how stubborn either side was.
A wave of cold air poured into town one morning while the protestors were setting up. The snow descended soon afterward, accompanied by howling winds. Visibility was poor. Early on, Suzanne, Shawna, and Lisa checked on the protestors and walked around with hot drinks, baked goods, and blankets. As always, the protestors refused. Suzanne and her team felt helpless from inside the apartment. Later Lisa decided to take Harvey for his usual walk so she could check on the protestors. With a warm biscuit in hand, Lisa approached Maya before embarking on the walk.
With Harvey on the short lead, Lisa bent down to offer Maya the biscuit.
A switch went off in Harvey’s head. He lunged for the earmuffs and Lisa dropped his lead. Memories of those poor rabbits sacrificed during his earlier training were reawakened. The lunge was completely silent and matter-of-fact. There was no growling, barking, or teeth baring – just a quick turn of his head and a grab as he leaped over Maya into the middle of the circle. At the same time, Maya dropped her stuffed animal and shouted “devil.” She bent down to pick it up, it let out its horrible shriek, and Maya slipped in the snow. She lay prone, face down, stretched out with her stuffed animal in her hand. Harvey
stood in the middle of the human rosary with his prize in his mouth: Maya’s earmuffs.
Unsure of what happened, Maya’s mother picked her up and shouted at Harvey. Other protestors join in to warn him away, and a few hit at Harvey with their protest signs. Harvey leapt again, this time outside of the human rosary, and bolted toward the foothills still holding onto the earmuffs. Suzanne watched all this from inside and rushed outside without a coat. She shouted that Harvey was not aggressive and would not hurt Maya. Maya was silent in her mother’s arms. She clutched her stuffed animal and the soggy biscuit that had fallen in the snow. Her mother checked her over and pronounced Maya free of injuries. When asked if Harvey had hurt her, Maya paused, then whispered “He took my earmuffs.”
Most protestors had no idea what had just taken place. Lisa did not stop to process what she saw; instinctively she charged after Harvey. Suzanne shook from the cold and anger. She too chased after Harvey, but turned back after a block. She returned to the apartment and put on her coat and boots.
Suzanne and Shawna climbed into the car and drove off. As she passed the protestors, Suzanne yelled out the window that her apartment was unlocked and they could go inside if they wanted to warm up. The elderly man was the only one who responded by saying “just go.”
Suzanne and Shawna drove around for hours, stopping every fifteen minutes to clear accumulating ice off the car windows. Their voices were their only means of search. But even these were dampened by the snow and diluted by the wind. There was no response from Lisa or Harvey. The few people they encountered were of no help. Suzanne and Shawna imagined the worst.
Harvey would be lost forever. Lisa would be hurt or killed during the pursuit. They had no idea where either would head and there was no trail to follow. It was very possible that Lisa was headed in a completely different direction than Harvey was. To make matters worse, Lisa did not have a mobile phone.
As Suzanne and Shawna circled back to the apartment, they saw no protestors outside. Inside the apartment, it was empty with an unsigned note on the table: “We’re sorry. Your dog did not try to hurt Maya.” Suzanne was disappointed. Sarcastically, she asked if the protestors were sorry that Harvey did not try to hurt Maya. Her bitterness did little to soothe the wounds. She had hoped the protestors would apologize for trying to hurt Harvey, for disrupting their lives, for being so pig-headed. A mixture of anger, fear, and frustration washed over Suzanne. Shawna just looked scared.
Meanwhile, Lisa ran in the direction she thought Harvey would run: the route they usually walked every morning. About two blocks in, she found the earmuffs but no other sign of him. As she ran, her face became wind burned, her voice hoarse, and her eyelashes frozen. This did not deter her. She twice covered their usual trails, and then returned to the apartment. She found the same note that Suzanne and Shawna did, along with one from them instructing her to take her mobile phone and dog treats if she went out again. After warming up for a few minutes, Lisa was back outside. On phones, the three women coordinated their canvasing. Lisa explored areas accessible only on foot, while Suzanne and Shawna drove back and forth along the passable roads. Shawna plotted their courses and navigated the GPS map.
It was getting near dusk when Lisa spied something that could be promising. In a lightly wooded area, what looked like a small deer or a large greyhound was standing still. Lisa had never before considered how much Harvey looked like a deer. The animal was drinking from a stream. If it was Harvey, how could she catch him? He would be panicked and could easily outrun her. Instead, she gently threw some pieces of cheese scone halfway between her and the stream. Lisa then turned her back toward him, turned off her phone, and waited. After about ten minutes, she heard the animal eating. Sneaking a glance, she saw that it was indeed Harvey. She tossed more bits of scone near where she had waited and moved away an equal distance. This back-and-forth continued for about an hour. Then Lisa starting toward home just like any other day’s walk. Harvey followed. In a few paces, he caught up with her and walked alongside her. She reached down and grabbed his lead. Harvey was safe.
While Lisa waited for Suzanne and Shawna to appear, she inspected Harvey for injuries. The pads of his paws had sustained some cuts, and there was blood behind one ear. Nothing looked serious, but he needed to be examined by a veterinarian. The only vet open was the emergency clinic, and they sped off. The ride was eerily quiet, with only the sound of Harvey panting from excitement. Upon arrival at the clinic, the technician took Harvey back to exam while the women waited without speaking.
Suzanne broke the silence by thanking Lisa for bringing Harvey home safe. Lisa just shrugged and deflected any thanks. Then Suzanne announced her decision: the app was not worth what it cost them. Harvey and Lisa could have been killed. Suzanne had no vested interest in influencing the future of Catholicism or any other religion for that matter. The idea for the app had come to her as a fluke and she pursued it for selfish reasons. Boredom.
Loneliness. Aimlessness. The result was only misery. Shawna and Lisa were quiet. Then Shawna nodded and agreed: “I’m out too.” Lisa said nothing, but it was understood that their partnership was over. The storm had proved to be a turning point, but not the one they expected. Shawna arranged to delist the app, and Lisa sent emails to users warning that it would stop working in a week. That evening when Suzanne lay in bed holding onto Harvey, she decided that they would leave Boulder.
Six months later Suzanne, Lisa, and Harvey moved to Belize. They chose Belize because it was English-speaking, they could travel by car with Harvey, and they had a local sponsor. One of Lisa’s co-volunteers from the animal shelter had lent a hand building houses in Belize, and a Belizean evangelical minister he knew agreed to sponsor them in his village. Suzanne’s vision was to create something that would increase rural literacy by recycling parts of the Prayer Wheel app. The new literacy app would use text appropriate to a user’s age and skill-level and be visually oriented. The hyper-realistic images from the previous app could help with pronunciation and make the app engaging. The rosary text was a good start for what she envisioned to be a library of secular and religious texts that motivate people to read.
Before Suzanne, Lisa, and Harvey left Boulder, the elderly man from the Catholic parish left a note at Suzanne’s apartment asking her to contact him. They met, and Arthur introduced himself over tea and of course scones. He did not want to rehash what had happened. Instead, he explained that he was a retired computer company executive and had heard about Suzanne’s plans.
Arthur proposed that he could help them in Belize by asking his former company to donate laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The equipment arrived in the village a couple of weeks after Suzanne, Lisa, and Harvey did.
Courtesy of the Belizean minister, they lived rent-free and as part of the village. Suzanne and Lisa shared a rundown two-bedroom house with a creaky wooden fence across from the village market. Often people stopped to chat on their way to and from shopping. Every Sunday Suzanne and Lisa enjoyed meals with the locals either at their house or the minister’s. Sunday mornings Lisa would disappear to attend a Catholic mass about ten miles away, and return afterward to help with food preparation. While they cooked, Suzanne and Lisa told their stories and listened to the villagers’ stories about their families, their histories, and their dreams. In addition to their newly adopted human community, they adopted new members into their fur-family. Harvey shared the house and backyard with several stray cats and four adopted dogs. Lisa’s strong bond with Harvey allowed her to rid him of his reactivity to small animals. With this menagerie of people and animals coming and going from her life, Suzanne discovered a certain order and peace in the chaos around her.
Shawna decided to stay in Colorado, finish her degree, and work for a large accounting firm in Denver. Every Sunday, she would make the hour drive to Boulder to attend mass at Father James’s parish. She soon lost contact with Suzanne and Lisa. Her professional life erased any traces of her time as one of Harvey’s Angels. Arthur, however, kept in touch with Suzanne and Lisa through weekly emails. The women were particularly curious about what had happened in the parish after they left.
Arthur was not inclined to reflection or introspection, but there were clues in his emails. He. talked about another reshuffling of where people sat in the church, with himself making an effort to sit in a different section every mass. Maya and her mother now stationed themselves at the back, and Shawna sat next to them. But perhaps the best clue came from a sermon that Father James gave soon after they left Boulder. Arthur described this in an email.
Father James began the sermon by describing the many gospels of the early Christians and how these gospels were later excluded from the Catholic canon. He stressed that what constitutes scripture is influenced by the power and politics of believers and statesmen. Father James then focused on the controversial Gospel of Thomas and how instead of telling the story of Jesus, it offered prescriptions for living one’s life. He read several of these, but focused on number 70. Arthur looked it up to get the exact quote: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” From this, Father James started one of his logical excursions. What if you have hatred or violence inside of you – are you obligated to bring this forth? Would this not destroy you? What does bringing something forth mean? Do you have to act upon it or can you face it in some other way? Does this saying imply something about what is not inside of you? If you do not have faith, should you act in a faithful way? How do we know what is truly inside of us? He also proposed a hypothetical example of someone without faith who used faith to reach out to
others. Father James stressed that, while this person may not have faith, there might be other inner elements that he or she could bring out, like kindness, generosity, and sacrifice. Arthur saw parallels to Suzanne’s story, but left this unstated in the email.
He closed by observing that, at the end of Father James’s sermon, Maya’s mother reached over to squeeze Shawna’s hand and a tear ran down each of their cheeks. Arthur also asked whether, when the Colorado winter returned, could he join them for a bit of hard work in Belize. As Suzanne read this email to Lisa, Harvey lay next to her. He smiled as dogs do by wagging their tails, and looked out his new window onto the village market. A mischievous and wise pooka, Harvey was pleased with the result. It was time for his nap and dreams of what what tomorrow would bring.
By Elaine Mosakowski from Australia