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For hostages, the heart cries for new light

Originally published in the Christian Science Sentinel

The heart cries out to know how to respond to executions of hostages, particularly in the Middle East.

To anyone who feels that prayer must be a part of the answer, a simple place to start is with gratitude to God for any sign of good news. Sprinkled amid the traumas of recent Iraqi tragedies, there has been a counter-flow of encouraging moments. These include:

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• The prayers for, and daring escape of, US truck driver Thomas Hamill.

• The mediated release of Turkish driver Bulent Yanik and Egyptian driver Victor Tufiq Girgis.

• A recent coalition rescue of European hostages.

I'm grateful for each of those instances of good having the upper hand.

My prayers these days also are informed by the experience of British journalist John McCarthy, a survivor of the Lebanese hostage crisis of the late 1980s. He recently took a film crew on his first return trip to Beirut, to visit the community where he was held. In his television documentary film "Out of the Shadows" (OR TV, 2004), McCarthy - who claims no particular faith - is seen worshiping in a mosque. Some of the people there could have been his former captors. He says he is impressed by their sense of connection with one another and to the Prophet Muhammad and to God. Their "feeling of belonging, of love," he says, "moves me."

Later, squatting in a room much like the squalid, isolated quarters in which he'd been held, McCarthy vividly summarizes his five-year-long ordeal. He describes the first weeks as "a terrible, terrible time" that took him to the threshold of complete despair. But he also pinpoints the remarkable spiritual experience that followed swiftly on the heels of realizing that he himself lacked the emotional and intellectual wherewithal and strength to cope with further captivity.

"So I did what one does," he says in the documentary, "and I fell to my knees saying, 'God, help me!' And a second or two after that ... I was suddenly aware that I was standing up again in this tiny, filthy, little room that I was held in, and I seemed to be bathed in a gentle light ... feeling absolutely euphoric, happy, confident."

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That single moment got McCarthy through the solitary isolation that followed, and helped him survive five more years of captivity.

His story made me wonder. How many people around the world were consciously experiencing the very essence of being, and glimpsing its promise, at that same moment? A few? In a strange way, John McCarthy was freer at that moment than were most of us who were freely going about our usual daily business.

In my prayer I'm acknowledging that freedom is always present, even in captivity, and through this awakening perhaps I can help amplify the spiritual light that's coming to captives, wherever they may be. This light can reach the captors also and free them.

McCarthy's experience shines like a beacon: If bleak captivity is our temporary lot, freedom is already there to be found. If we're being held hostage to materialism in any form - sickness, fear, the self-defeating pursuit of self-centered happiness - there's a liberating spiritual clarity waiting to be seen and felt. As we find our own freedom, though, let's not forget those who are in actual chains around the world, to hope and pray for their speedy release.

Thou art my hiding place;
thou shalt preserve me
from trouble;
thou shalt compass me about
with songs of deliverance.

Psalms 32:7