Panic over the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over our world and very possibly our peace of mind. The last thing you need is some chirpy voice from the remote land of spirituality suggesting that you pray. But maybe that’s exactly what’s needed.
We tend to avoid prayer when we desperately need it most. So what are the blessings in this darkly wrapped package? How can it become a pathway to prayer?
If we think of Jesus as floating amiably three feet above earth, never dirtying his hands or his garments, always surrounded by a golden aura and enjoying a perpetual serenity, the Gospels quickly correct that image. John 6, for instance, tells of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee followed by a large crowd. Tired and hungry, he sits down to rest with his friends. But guess what? A large, demanding, hungry crowd invades their privacy.
Some of us would run the other way. But Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread to feed them. That leads to the miraculous feeding of five thousand. Afterward, realizing the people want to make him king, Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain alone” (John 6:15). That alternation between action and prayer seems to be a constant rhythm in his life. He never says, “Today I fed five thousand and cured a leper. I don’t need to pray.” Or, “Those Pharisees are really stressing me out! No prayer today!”
He seems to draw the strength and energy for draining work from life-giving “times apart” with God. And if God needed such nourishment, how much more do we humans need?
During our “time apart,” we remember we’re not alone in the current dilemma. Nor have we been apart from God in any other crisis. We invoke God’s enormous power and creativity to help us squeak through another tight spot, as God has done before. Just as the tabernacle lamp draws attention to God’s presence, so prayer is our response: We stand before God in need—again.
We’ve all muttered tensely through gritted teeth, “If you want me to do this _____ (fill in the blank), God, I’ll need your help!” One benefit of prayerful journaling is the ability to read back over tense times in our past. We can see not only what troubled us, but also how remote it seems now. Not to discount issues that were once important, but most of us can’t even remember the problems we lost sleep over three years ago. In God’s grand, cosmic design, our little snits and tensions seem like small potatoes indeed.
When we don’t have the perspective of time, prayer gives us a similar distance. In even a few moments, we can slow down, breathe deeply and remember it’s all in God’s hands—whatever trouble “it” is now. During a crisis that makes us want to scream with frustration, the deep breath of prayer can remind us that this one will pass as others have. Some wonderful surprise could also emerge. As playwright James Goldman wrote in The Lion in Winter: “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”
Sometimes a difficult situation is beyond our control. If, for instance, our work involves tax preparation, we know that the weeks prior to April will be full. In such times, Piero Ferrucci, author of What We May Be, recommends an attitude of acceptance. We can ask in prayer not to descend into self-pity, but to choose freely what we can’t change. The same God who gives the pleasant Sunday picnic also sends the midnight deadline.
Can we learn from both, finding enrichment in radically different circumstances, trusting that God knows what we need? One unexpected blessing of the recession has been that, with so many people out of work, those who have jobs appreciate them more—even the stressful ones.
A Broader Notion of Prayer
If we think of prayer as long, uninterrupted stretches in a quiet church or retreat house, we might get more stressed out worrying that we’ll never achieve that. Instead, we might want to think of prayer in terms of the different voices heard in John 11:1-44. It’s definitely a stressful situation. Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary, has just died. Making matters worse, Jesus has delayed coming even though he knew Lazarus was ill.
His disciples are annoyed with him for returning to an area where the Jews are trying to stone him. Emotions must be running high, but various forms of prayer appear during the crisis. Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus all loved each other, so the sisters must be wondering why Jesus waited so long to come. We can only imagine their anxiety increasing as Lazarus grew worse and Jesus didn’t appear. Martha’s complaint, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” may sound like whining. On the other hand, it is an honest expression of her feelings—and her respect for Jesus.
Later, Mary weeps. Her friends join her, and Jesus also weeps. This could be our prayer when we have no words left, and silent tears are eloquent. Jesus is “greatly disturbed,” but begins his prayer by thanking God. Despite the annoying criticism of the crowd (“Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”), he can still be grateful. In that stance lies a message for us: No matter how stressed we are, we can still be deeply thankful.
Jesus speaks with great confidence to God: “I know that you always hear me.” Then from the depth of his inmost being he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” It is the call to life, a stirring invitation to renewed engagement with the family Lazarus loves.
None of this occurs in a silent chapel. Indeed, the background noise of the crowd must have been irritating. Prayer doesn’t always convey the polite emotions. Martha’s distress is as raw as the anger which rages through some of the Psalms (see Psalms 88, 120, 137). No one there consults a Bible or a book of prayer. All of it is spontaneous; some of it is wordless.
How does the Gospel scene translate to our prayer in stress? Sometimes when the gas gauge nears “empty” or the thermometer spikes over 102, we may use “arrow” prayers: brief, direct beams to God’s heart. They may be as simple as “Help!,” “Please!” or Thanks!” In short, they tell God we’re at the end of our rope. We’ve exhausted our limited resources. We don’t know what to do.
We desperately need God’s intervention, especially with that's going on in the world today. Sometimes our throats are tight and our minds are numb. We’re too tense to know what to say in prayer. Then we can turn to scriptural mantras. We repeat consoling words in calming rhythms. For instance, when time, money or resources seem scarce, Jesus recalls to us the abundance of the Kingdom. We repeat then the father’s assurance to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: “You are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
Or Jesus’ words at the Last Supper tell us of his abiding presence, no matter what we’re going through. “Do not let your hearts be troubled....I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:1,3).
Water often calms and refreshes. Jesus says, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink” (John 7:37).
The Benefits of Stress
Oddly enough, stress is a mixed blessing. Without it, we might not get much done. Indeed, some folks look forward all year to their two-week vacation. They dream of lounging around the pool doing nothing. Inevitably, the novelty wears off. In a few days, they’re organizing activities: a tennis match, a shopping trip, a hike. They’re consulting the movie schedules and piling the family in the car. It’s almost as if humans were made for action!
Some who retire to the tropics grow tired of the sameness: one sunny day after another. Nothing like a good blizzard to get the juices flowing and the snowblower humming! With the right amount of pressure—not too much or too little—we get organized, make efficient use of time and accomplish great things for God.
As long as we sail through life untroubled, we don’t feel much need for God. But when we start coming unglued, we know how precarious our hold on sanity really is. If stress brings us to prayer, it may not be so bad. No matter how tired, frustrated, or frazzled we are, we can end the day with compassion for ourselves.
I once gave a talk about prayer in a church basement. A plumber told of his experience. He’d met many people confronting the dire situation of sewage backup. But he commented wryly, “If they’d just say a prayer instead of cursing the flood, they’d be in much better shape when I arrive!” I smiled in response: “You may be the answer to their prayer.”
A Tripod for Support
Often under duress, people turn in desperation to the triad of caffeine, alcohol and sugar. A three-legged stool that’s far more stable is church, relationships and exercise. We may trudge to liturgy or another church gathering without much energy to contribute. That’s when the faith community steps in like the friends of the paralytic who lowered him through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). The shared belief, homily, song, social interaction and Scripture may relieve our anxiety and bring us to Jesus when we can’t quite get there on our own.
Some relationships may cause the stress, while others may relieve it. A friend or close relative can be the channel for grace if that person offers a place to vent, a sympathetic ear, a helping hand or a gentle touch on tight muscles. Many experts encourage exercise to release stress that accumulates in the body. Christians who see the body as God’s temple have even more reason to honor it and protect the flexibility of muscles and supple bend of spine.
Humans live incarnate, and the stress on our minds will inevitably transfer to our bodies. When we’re overly stressed, we pour toxins into our systems. Why are we then surprised by the resulting backache, indigestion or migraine? Deep breathing has been part of every major religious tradition. Many use it to replace the venomous retort, to gain a few minutes to think or to restore inner calm. In Genesis 1, God breathes life into humanity. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes courage and forgiveness into a confused and frightened group of friends.
Yet when we’re nervous, we often take short, shallow breaths, not the deep, relaxing ones that could bring peace. Breath is intrinsic to yoga, which can be moving meditation. It helps relieve chronic stress which, for most people, collects in the neck, back and shoulders.
If it’s any consolation, the saints didn’t coast blissfully through trouble-free days, popping their spiritual Zoloft. They sometimes dealt with worse pressures than we do, yet didn’t let that build an obstacle to prayer. St. Catherine of Siena, for instance, was the 24th child in her family. Picture that large, boisterous Italian crew, always eager for the drama of an argument, and it’s understandable why she retreated to the hermitage of her room for a long time.
According to legend, Jesus led her back—and into some of the worst warring factions of her day. She stood in the middle of local feuds and mediated the 14th-century dispute over whether the pope should live in Rome or Avignon. Unsurprisingly, she writes in her Dialogue, “My life has been spent wholly in darkness.” Yet she never deserted prayer, where she found the consolation of Christ: “Bath and medicine, food and clothing, and a bed in which we can rest.”
St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-390) lived long before computer meltdowns and traffic gridlock. Yet he could have been summarizing 21st-century stress when he said, “Alas, dear Christ, the Dragon is here again.” We can speculate what the Dragon meant to him—or fill in our own particular names for this unwelcome visitor.
Though it's not reported as widely, people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and survived. Good news abounds. People who have had near-death experiences consistently report a sense of joy, light, and peace. So death losing its sting puts all other stresses into perspective. St. Francis of Assisi was even able to call death “sister.”
After a recent workshop in another state, I drove for two hours on remote country roads to reach the airport. Fiddling with the radio, I heard the end of a Mass broadcast. The presider must have been Franciscan because he concluded with the blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he turn his face to you and have mercy on you. May he shine his countenance on you and give you peace.”
Across unfamiliar fields shone a beacon. Into a tense car came a peaceful prayer.