Prayer in the Time of COVID-19

This week’s blog post is offered by guest blogger The Rev. Stephen Wade. Steve is a retired Episcopal priest who has served a number of parishes including Trinity Copley Square in Boston and Immanuel on the Hill in Alexandria. Steve regularly attends Emmanuel Middleburg with his wife Molly, both of whom are valued participants in this parish and advisors to me. Steve’s meditation on prayer is most relevant in this time of pandemic, but is a powerful comment in prayer at any time in our lives. Thank you Steve for sharing this meditation with us.

Let’s face it. Prayer is tricky – when it is possible – in this time of COVID-19. My own spiritual direction practice has slowed because folks tell me that getting traction on the ways of God just now isn’t going so well. And operating by way of Zoom and Face Time leaves a lot to be desired too. I agree. It’s tricky, if possible. 

Looked at a photograph the other day that I made last December of the Statue of Liberty at dawn, taken from Eight Deck of Queen Mary 2 entering New York Harbor at Christmas time. The realization that I’ll probably never see that again pretty much flattened me. So does the anger that I carry for the leaders of the world; the one about cutting funding for pandemic research and preparedness in order to lower taxes for rich people usually does a pretty good job. It’s hard to pray through all that. St Paul’s counsel to the Romans that, strictly speaking, we don’t know how to pray, and that when prayer happens it’s because God’s Holy Spirit is praying in us, has never been truer. But then, where to encounter God’s Holy Spirit?

For no apparent reason, the beautiful late Sunday afternoon yesterday found me wondering what the monks were up to over at the Abbey of The Holy Cross in Berryville, Virginia. I like that place. I like it that when the monks worship, they don’t so much read the liturgy as, rather, they “construct sacred space” for all to enter. I like the beauty of the place too and have made a lot of photographs there. Most importantly, and maybe because I have a pretty high diagnosis as a Feeling Intuitive type on the Myers Briggs, I can literally feel the energy shift around the place, a shift that I attribute to the monks’ ongoing prayer. It’s different there, getting around it, the force field of life changes, and it draws me in. All of that was very much at work yesterday.

An altogether appropriate hand lettered sign at the head of the Abbey’s approach road announces that the place is closed to the public just now and asks for our cooperation in honoring that. Good idea. That community of monks looks to be well into the range of a vulnerable, at risk population for this virus and they don’t need any curiosity seekers from inside the beltway dropping off their microbes around the property on a day trip out of the city.

So I reversed course and aimed out-of rather than in-to the approach. I noticed what looked to be a freshly paved “lay by” near the gates where you could pull over. I’d never noticed it before and decided to pull in and turn off the engine. I had the soft top down on the car and with the engine switched off, a wave of silence overwhelmed almost immediately. But then, what were those other rustling waves I was hearing as I soaked up the silence and the monastic force field? Leaves – just emerging – at the top of some mountain trees catching early evening breeze gusts. And, geeze, look at that dappled sunlight wrapped around everything as the leaves waved overhead. I was captivated. All at once, the fortress of my disappointment, anger, grief had been invaded by something else. Was it God’s Holy Spirit? The prayer began to gush like water out of a fire hose.

After I don’t know how long, I had the good sense to shut up and just sit there. Then came a sense that to pray as Jesus suggests might be a good idea, and I did, chewing each word of The Lord’s Prayer like as though my life depended on it. Then the 23rd Psalm, letting the Psalmist walk me through “the valley of the shadow of death”. And finally stillness and immense gratitude. Continued all the way home. Still hanging around today.

Where to find prayer in the time of COVID-19? To quote a photographer friend, “keep your head up and your eyes, ears and heart open”. God’s inscrutable Spirit may be riding on the evening breeze in some mountain tree tops, may be hiding in plain sight in the dappled light of a day’s end, may be calling out from the force field of places where prayer has been authentic. We just don’t know, do we? And isn’t it strange that after all that we have done to destroy “this fragile earth our island home”, God still hovers over us with sad and wondering eyes, and, yes, with consoling love?

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