Years ago, probably decades by now, I remember reading a story of how an old bottle was found, washed up on a beach somewhere, containing the proverbial message from “the other side.” It has happened all over the world. Someone sends a note, from a ship or another country, sometimes a love letter, sometimes as a prank. It may be months or years later that a man walking a dog, as in the case I vaguely recall, or a jogger discovers it. The internet and newspapers are full of such accounts, some of them heart-wrenching. I think they even made a movie about one. Or should have.
“The other side” could be Europe, Asia, Africa, or any other continent, depending upon which side of the ocean the author of the message launched it from. And there is no telling how long it may take to reach the finder. I think there is a record somewhere of an 80-year bottle journey, from start to recovery. Amazing how long some messages can take to be heard. God for one has been waiting centuries!

Yes, we have all had the experience of being in a conversation, or thinking we were in a conversation, and wondering whether anyone was even listening, let alone hearing and understanding. One may be looking another person in the eyes — the only part of a face that might be seen these days that is not behind a mask — but sense that the other’s mind and heart are somewhere else. To be honest, I have often done that myself. I do it all the time with God, for sure. Pretended to pray but ended up thinking of something else.

Any conversation takes more than mere physical presence to be a true dialogue, a meeting point where two persons actually connect on a deeper level than even eye contact offers. It takes a will to connect and often a patient effort to understand, sometimes cutting through a distinctive accent, which may or may not be of linguistic or even labial origins. We all speak with a certain twang, at a certain pace or rhythm, that may be colored by mood, state of health or comfort level.

The good news is that God is always present to us, 100 percent and all of the time, wherever we are and whenever we are. I raise the issue of “whenever” because, it is clear, that we are not always “all there” all the time. At least, I’m not, as some will remind me. Social distancing has certainly been a challenge but can we honestly say we have been present to one another and to the Lord, even before the masks came on?

When I was in seminary, at the North American College (Rome) in the early ’70s, it was a generation before personal computers and the internet. Telephone and what we now call snail mail were the only way to communicate — unless, of course, we wanted to send a glass bottle. A short call was possible, but costly, as much as nine or 10 dollars for three minutes. Each morning, we would go to our little pigeon-hole in the mail room to see if there was a letter for us. Some guys seemed to be getting one every day or so. Others wondered if there was a gremlin at the central post office who was personally eating our mail.

All kidding aside, social distancing is no excuse not to communicate and certainly not to pray, even if we need to be a little creative. Actually, nothing at all that we are experiencing can prevent us from having that heart to heart with the Lord. No Zoom needed. And, by the way, for all who may be getting a tad too used to those streaming Masses, stay safe at home, if you must, but remember that it still takes discipline and attention to make this really a prayer that God can meet us in. No one on the other side of the screen may see us in pajamas, munching that donut, but it is still the Gospel Proclamation or the Consecration that are happening, probably in real time. An appropriate respect is certainly warranted.

Prayer is a presence that no plague, no displacement, no disposition or distancing — physical, social or continental — can disrupt if we just take the time and form the will to do it. In fact, it is what God does all day long. When we pray, we get “caught up” in it, the eternal prayer of Jesus, to the heavenly Father, in the Holy Spirit. Of course, we can direct our prayer to any and all of the Divine Persons, in our Christian faith. It is always the same One God whom we are praying to.

Bringing this reflection more down to earth, however — and God is as present on earth as in heaven (as we pray in the “Our Father”) — the power of intercessory prayer is worth our full engagement. By that I mean our prayer has the power to bring us into God’s presence and the presence of others. When we pray for someone, our faith tells us, we not only make connection with God possible, but with the person prayed for. I am not talking about voodoo or some mystical séance. Just plain prayer.

It has often struck me how at Mass the Jesus who is really present to us is the same Jesus that the saints behold in the face. We are never more really connected with our deceased loved ones then when united with them around the altar. But we can take heart that the Mass IS (“Missa est,” in Latin). Somewhere in time and eternity, the Mass always goes on. When we pray, we are not only caught up in this heavenly liturgy (read the Book of Revelation again some time and notice that it turns into a mystical Mass — very impressive), but we can really connect with our loved ones, on earth and beyond. We can really be with them.

Our faith does not tell us how this happens. We do not seek “hidden messages” or signs that any of this is happening, putting God to the test, as it were. We know that Jesus himself prayed all the time and for specific intentions, specific people. You might say he was onto something that we all can profit from imitating more often.

I was astounded on a recent flight when an attendant noticed the neuropathy in my left hand. He had just been distributing sanitary wipes and, after offering another, gently took my hand and started invoking the name of Jesus for healing. Never saw anything quite like it and I thanked him for praying. It was clear to me that this man was comfortable with prayer in his life as an ordinary essential in it, even at work.

Remember, God does not social distance! Whatever life’s experiences might heap upon us, we need never lose that connection with the Lord or, for that matter, with one another. Yes, we may experience hunger, death, and even the sword, to use the occasionally dramatic language of Scripture, but nothing can separate us from the love of God (cf. Rm 8:38).