Spring is here.
While the daytime high in Calgary this week may suggest differently, the calendar, at least, tells us that we’ve made the annual shift from the deadness of winter to the hope of spring. Of course, the usual optimism that comes at this time of the year is at best muted—and at worst missing—this year. Simply put, the current events of our day are narrating the reverse story. With COVID-19, health and life are being overtaken by sickness and death. The staggering loss experienced in places like China, Italy, New York City—and increasingly in our own city too—confirm that this story is not make believe.
While the personal impact in my life due to COVID-19 has been minimal by comparison, this is not to say that it has been non-existent. Major parts of my life today look vastly different than they did just two weeks ago. I no longer teach college courses on a college campus surrounded by college students. I now teach those courses in my basement surrounded by my children aged 7, 4, 3, and 1 and their toys. Whereas my days used to be punctuated by daily work commutes, school drop-offs, and dance class pick-ups, now because of on-again/off-again cold symptoms I’m confined to my home, not wanting to spread germs in this tenuous time. I can’t remember the last time I missed church three Sundays in a row.
One of the more hidden casualties of all of this is that the season of Lent has been relegated to the back burner of my life. Not totally forgotten, but hardly as prominent as I would have imagined just a few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. “From dust you were taken, and to dust you shall return.” These liturgical words that remind me of my own mortality suddenly seem a lot more real in the face of a growing pandemic.
So, if you, like me find yourself in a Lenten slump, how might we make a late comeback in these days leading up to Holy Week?
I’d simply point us back to the ancient wisdom of the Church, which has for centuries invited the broken faithful to embrace the season of Lent as a time of renewed commitment to the practice of prayer.
The Prayer of Jesus
At so many points in the Gospels, we find Jesus’s disciples saying the wrong thing. In Luke 11, at least, they get it right. “Lord,” they plead, “teach us to pray.” Jesus’s response, of course, results in the Lord’s Prayer. Recently, a friend of mine shared that reciting the Lord’s Prayer while washing our hands will ensure we are scrubbing for the needed length of time. What a wonderful spiritual practice during this time, when we are spending more time at the sink than perhaps ever before.
Beyond this, the Lord’s Prayer has so much practical wisdom for us at this unique juncture, where the seasons of Lent and COVID-19 collide. For example, if my family and I pray that God would give us our daily bread, we are no longer as likely to drive to Costco and stock our cart with more than we need for three months. We will buy what we need, and we will leave some for others too. This will mean that we must pray tomorrow too, trusting God that there will be something left on the shelf when we need it two weeks from now. These days this is harder than it sounds.
Furthermore, when we pray that God would “not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13), we will be less likely to deceive ourselves into thinking we are ultimately in control of our own life, health, and death. While our prime minister recently praised Canada’s children for “trusting in science” in the midst of COVID-19, the Lord’s Prayer invites us to put our deepest trust elsewhere. While I urge all of us to do the right thing and follow the guidelines of hygiene and physical distancing our political leaders and medical experts are mandating, the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that ultimately we need God to deliver us from the grasp of this pandemic. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
The Prayers of the Church
Over the centuries, faithful followers of Jesus have also passed down to us such a rich tradition of prayers that can give us the vocabulary we need to pray well in times like these when we are under threat. When I’m struggling for the right words, these prayers offer the words that I’d never find on my own. And when my prayers are focused on the wrong things entirely, they expand my horizon. Here a few examples:
When we are being told by infectious disease specialists that we are becoming increasingly surrounded by the coronavirus, this prayer of St. Patrick reminds us that we are also surrounded by something (Someone) much greater:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in ever ear that hears me.
When we are tempted to become overwhelmed by anxiety in this time of pandemic, this prayer of St. Francis compels us to be a source of peace for our neighbour:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
When we watch the news and hear unending stories of death and despair, these words from the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer give us the compassion and composure we lack:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary,
bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous;
and all for your love's sake. Amen.
When we as a church community can connect only virtually, we can pray the words of this Celtic blessing over one another until we meet again in person:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders he has shown you.
May he bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.
If you find these prayers helpful, I’d recommend Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (pocked edition) by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. All of the above prayers (and more) are found there. This resource also provides an easy format to pray the daily office, which is a collection of set prayers for morning, midday, evening, and compline (right before bed). In a time when many of us may be isolated at home and feeling a little lost without our regular schedules and routines, praying at regular intervals throughout the day can be a great way to root our days in God.
Perhaps, then, despite all the harm COVID-19 may inflict, perhaps this pandemic—together with Jesus and the Church—may also teach us to pray. May it be so as we move through the final stages of Lent and into Holy Week.