June 17, 2008

They Pray Without Ceasing

They pray without ceasing

by: MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
6/17/2008 12:00 AM

His father used to go to the nursing home every day, even on the days when he didn't feel like it, the days when he didn't really have time.

Anthony DeGance's father went anyway.

He went "because he was devoted to my grandmother," DeGance says. "He never said 'Look, son, I'm setting a good example for you.' But he was showing me what a man does when he loves someone."

DeGance now gets out of bed at 1:30 in the morning, even if he doesn't feel like it.

He drives to St. John Medical Center in the middle of the night, even when he could really use the sleep.

The harsh fluorescent lighting makes the hallway just as bright at 2 a.m. as it is at 2 p.m. The nursing staff seems just as busy. And the waiting area still looks full.

Halfway between the emergency room and the information desk, DeGance reaches a nondescript door, easily mistaken for just another office or a broom closet if not for a small sign that declares it to be the Chapel of Peace.

Inside, the altar holds a single wafer of communion bread flanked by two flickering candles. Kneeling in the front row, a man turns around and says, "Hello."

"Good morning, Patrick," DeGance responds, settling into a chair on the back row.

Finishing his prayer, Patrick Lynch soon gets up to leave DeGance alone in the dim light, the only noise coming from the air-conditioning vent.

"See you next time," DeGance tells him.

Every minute of every day for the last 25 years, somebody has been praying in this chapel.

DeGance won't leave until somebody comes to take his place an hour from now. That person won't leave until somebody else arrives.

Hour after hour, day after day, year after year — more than 230 people take turns during the week in a carefully organized schedule, making sure the prayer goes on perpetually.

DeGance has been part of it for the last 16 years.

"At first, I did it because somebody asked me to and I made a commitment," he says.

The prayers did not come naturally. The silence seemed suffocating, and the hours felt like a burden.

"But, as time went on, Jesus became more and more present to me," he says. "I realized that prayer is a conversation, and that listening in the silence is just as important as talking."

DeGance takes off his shoes and makes himself comfortable on the carpeted floor, sprawled between two rows of seats with a Bible in one hand and a rosary in the other.

"You think the people who do this are holy people, but it's not like that," he says. "Crap happens in life, and we do this because we need to — we need to come dump our burdens."

At first, the prayers continued for only a few hours a day. But by mid-fall of that year, enough volunteers had signed up to keep the prayers going around the clock, making it officially a "chapel of perpetual adoration."

Catholic sources list fewer than 2,000 chapels like it in the world, and it is even more unusual for one to be kept going entirely by laypeople.

As a Catholic, DeGance believes that Christ is truly, literally present in the consecrated bread on the altar in an elaborate golden frame, called a monstrance.

But people need not be Catholic to volunteer. And they can pray anything they choose, especially keeping in mind those who are suffering in this hospital.

The only definite rule is to show up on time and stay until someone else comes. Never break the chain. Never leave the chapel empty.

"At first, you do it because it's a commitment," DeGance says. "It's an obligation or duty."

Over time, it becomes a habit, a comfortable routine, even if your turn comes in the middle of the night.

"But eventually it turns into something else," De- Gance says. "You want to be there, because that's what you do when you love someone — you spend time with him."

Two minutes past 3 o'clock, the chapel door opens and someone else walks in to kneel and pray.

Putting his shoes on, DeGance steps back into the bright hallway, nurses rushing past, a janitor sweeping up. Looking back over his shoulder, he tells his replacement, "Good night."

"See you next time."

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