“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”—James Foley, “Phone call home,” Marquette Magazine, fall 2011
My sated and somnolent infant daughter dozed on my chest while I massaged my bleary senses with my social media account’s “news feed,” scanning a post my old journalism teacher had made:
“one of James Foley’s favorite books is ‘pale fire.’
have you read it? it’s a magnificent piece of literature.
thinking of you, jim-jammer.
I wondered what Pale Fire was and whether I would like it, then who James Foley was that my teacher knew his catchy nickname and favorite book. And what did #freefoley mean?
My daughter continued to snooze. My eyes continued to scroll. The day moved slowly on.
Later that day, August 19, 2014, I saw the news that ISIS had beheaded the American journalist James Foley. I didn’t initially realize it was the same James Foley my teacher had tagged in his post earlier that day—before the news reports had first surfaced.
My teacher made a new post, and his connection with Foley became clearer:
“looking through my last gchats with jim from syria, and earlier ones from libya. physically ill. i’m sure at some point — well, i *hope at some point — i will find comfort in these. right now, not so much.
my heart goes out to him, and to his family.
thank you to all who have reached out to me. it helps.
i can only imagine what his dear mother and father and siblings are dealing with.”
Foley, like me, had once been a master’s student in journalism at Northwestern University. We’d had the same teacher. More: They’d been friends.
This knowledge—and these thin threads that connected us—unnerved me.
Driven by those threads of connection to understand more about Foley and what drove him to Syria, I learned that he was seven years older than me and that in the six years since he had graduated from Northwestern he had reported from the front lines of some of the world’s worst war zones. That he’d been kidnapped once before in Libya and still had chosen to return to the front lines in Syria to show and tell what was happening there—a decision that led to his second capture then murder. I learned from a Facebook post my teacher shared and on which he commented that Foley was am alum of Marquette University and—my teacher wrote—a social justice Catholic in the vein of Paul.
In a letter titled “Phone call home” that Foley wrote and that was published in Marquette Magazine in fall 2011 after he was freed from Libya, he reported on the critical role prayer played during his captivity. Taking a cue from his mother and grandmother, he wrote, he prayed the rosary, counting Hail Marys on his knuckles. He prayed with his fellow prisoner and colleague, each of them voicing to the other their “weaknesses and hopes.” When he finally was granted a phone call home, he wrote that he said a prayer before dialing the number. And when his mom answered, he told her he’d been praying that she’d know he was OK.
“Haven’t you felt my prayers?” he asked her.
His mom, in turn, rattled off names of all of the people praying for him and asked if he felt their prayers.
“I do, Mom, I feel them,” he said.
Foley’s letter concluded that he believed prayer freed him: first giving him “an inner freedom”; then from his actual captors, who eventually released him despite having no reason or incentive to do so.
I couldn’t sleep that night, haunted by grim imaginings of his death; trying not to think about the details; and imagining how he felt in and faced his final living moments. I reflected on his reliance on prayer and on his faith. As the night grew later, not knowing where else to turn, I too turned to prayer, hoping it would eventually save my restless mind and deliver me into sleep before my newborn or toddler woke. Eventually it did.
Prayer also influenced my decision the next day to share via social media the link to Foley’s letter to Marquette from 2011, as well as a personal comment about his prose in which I admired his faith and offered my prayer for his family and friends: that they might find something to hold onto in the aftermath of the violence that befell their son, brother and friend; and that they might not lose faith.
My old teacher read my comment and the linked letter, messaging me moments after I posted them. He wrote, in part, that in the very early-morning hours of August 19, 2014—before reports of Foley’s death emerged—he’d been suddenly “awash with thoughts of jim.” He made his initial post about Foley and Pale Fire thereafter, while he was “thinking and praying and worrying” about his friend. Twelve hours later he learned of Foley’s murder. Then he saw my post, linking to Foley’s letter about prayer. My teacher wrote:
“one of the things about this — through the whole 21 months — was the feeling of helplessness i’ve had. all i could do was think, pray, have faith.
i don’t want to make too much of my moment early tuesday morning, but after seeing your post of this letter, i think i felt his prayer.”
I wrote my teacher back that I believed Foley had felt his prayer, too.
The Sunday before Foley’s murder, my pastor had asked: “What does your heart ache for?” He urged us to strengthen our faith and pray.
My heart aches to believe that the thin threads that connect us might always hold stronger than the inhumanity that rends us. It aches to believe that James Foley’s faith granted him the power to move beyond what held him, mind and body, captive. That on his knees in the desert when he had nowhere else to turn, he prayed. He found strength. And he was freed.