A Morning Prayer in a Little Church

Listen: Listen to Helen Hayes

This essay aired circa 1952.

Actress Helen Hayes
Courtesy of The Helen Hayes Awards

Known as the First Lady of American Theater, Helen Hayes was a star of Broadway, movies and television. She received three Tony Awards in her 60 years on stage. Her movies ranged from The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) to Airport (1970), both of which garnered her Academy Awards.

Once, years ago, I got into a dogfight. I was wheeling a baby carriage, my pet cocker spaniel trotting beside me. Without warning, three dogs — an Afghan, a St. Bernard and a Dalmatian — pounced on the cocker and started tearing him to pieces. I shrieked for help. Two men in a car stopped, looked, and drove on.

When I saw that I was so infuriated that I waded in and stopped the fight myself. My theatrical training never stood me in better stead. My shouts were so authoritative, my gestures so arresting, I commanded the situation like a lion-tamer and the dogs finally slunk away.

Looking back, I think I acted less in anger than from a realization that I was on my own, that if anybody was going to help me at that moment, it had to be myself.

Life seems to be a series of crises that have to be faced. In summoning strength to face them, though, I once fooled myself into an exaggerated regard of my own importance. I felt very independent. I was only distantly aware of other people. I worked hard and was "successful." In the theater, I was brought up in the tradition of service. The audience pays its money and you are expected to give your best performance — both on and off the stage. So I served on committees, and made speeches, and backed causes. But somehow the meaning of things escaped me.

When my daughter died of polio, everybody stretched out a hand to help me, but at first I couldn't seem to bear the touch of anything, even the love of friends; no support seemed strong enough.

While Mary was still sick, I used to go early in the morning to a little church near the hospital to pray. There the working people came quietly to worship. I had been careless with my religion. I had rather cut God out of my life, and I didn't have the nerve at the time to ask Him to make my daughter well — I only asked Him to help me understand, to let me come in and reach Him. I prayed there every morning and I kept looking for a revelation, but nothing happened.

And then, much later, I discovered that it had happened, right there in the church. I could recall, vividly, one by one, the people I had seen there — the solemn laborers with tired looks, the old women with gnarled hands. Life had knocked them around, but for a brief moment they were being refreshed by an ennobling experience. It seemed as they prayed their worn faces lighted up and they became the very vessels of God. Here was my revelation. Suddenly I realized I was one of them. In my need I gained strength from the knowledge that they too had needs, and I felt an interdependence with them. I experienced a flood of compassion for people. I was learning the meaning of "love thy neighbor."

Truths as old and simple as this began to light up for me like the faces of the men and women in the little church. When I read the Bible now, as I do frequently, I take the teachings of men like Jesus and David and St. Paul as the helpful advice of trusted friends about how to live. They understand that life is full of complications and often heavy blows and they are showing me the wisest way through it. I must help myself, yes, but I am not such a self-contained unit that I can live aloof, unto myself. This was the meaning that had been missing before: the realization that I was a living part of God's world of people.

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