In a speech in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”
The Corona virus has been a profound disappointment…
Plans have been shattered. Lives and businesses are in tatters. How do we preserve hope in hopeless times?
Returning to the basics has anchored many in hope for better days, simple things like gardens, baking, and long conversations with loved ones. Long neglected, many are returning to their spiritual core. I propose a COVID-19 spirituality, tailored-made for the times, to facilitate your return to your spiritual core.
We humans, moreover, are wired to experience joy and happiness. Even during difficult times, we yearn to stay mentally fit, optimistic and happy, ready to face what life may bring. A COVID-19 spirituality contributes to this disposition by recommending spiritual practices that aid our mental health and sense of well-being even during these times of disappointment. These practices are: contemplation, Lectio Divina, mindfulness, compassion, purposeful ritual, and simple abundance.
Like anything in a society, both religion and spirituality are influenced by what occurs in a given society. The socioeconomic events of a society have a profound impact on both the reality and practice of spirituality. For instance, monasteries proliferated during the demise of the western half of the Roman Empire (476 C.E.) as a response to the violence that occurred when civil authority accounted for nothing. The chaos and societal malaise impelled religious leaders like St. Benedict (480-543 C.E.) to seek peace and serenity in a structured way in community. He founded monasteries based on his rule that fostered community in a Roman world that was cracking up. These monasteries would subsequently be a factor in the cultural formation of European nations, contributing to a new reality after the fall of Rome. The monasteries found themselves in a fruitful, liminal period out of which they forged a new culture.
Medieval cathedrals, moreover, were the product of the new-found confidence that the West experienced in the 13th century through an increase in wealth and population. The corresponding spirituality that emerged was aesthetically informed. The Social Gospel of the late 19th century was the product of the modern world’s progressivism that humans can fix any social problem if they put their minds to it, especially the intractable problem of poverty. The spirituality that derived from that era was an active involvement in organizations like the Salvation Army that were committed to the reform of society.
Needless to say, COVID-19 is a profound social and economic crisis for us and the world. Never before has the world’s economy shut down for what is now just over two months.
Relative to America, this is having a devastating impact on every aspect of our culture, especially religion. Religion is changing right before eyes, as churches, synagogues and mosques have closed up. Inasmuch as people do not have access to their objective rites and traditions in community, how does this change spirituality, the experience of God? What do people need from God?
We can speak of a COVID-19 spirituality. What might a COVID-19 spirituality look like in the confines of your homes?
We are living in a liminal period, an in-between period that is readying us for something new. We have no idea what that new reality will be. Understandably, there is anxiety. We clamor for the life we knew before the Corona virus. We go through the stages of grief over the loss of our former lives characterized by freedom and prosperity. Our feelings run amok between denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We have to accept that we are in a liminal period, awaiting the new thing God is about to do, a period fraught with possibilities. A liminal period can be most fruitful if we, like St. Benedict, focus on opening ourselves up to God, finding strength, security and creativity in God.
The Corona virus, moreover, has alerted us to a truism that we have long ignored: We must live as though we do not know what is ahead. To live that way pushes us back onto the present moment to live in the here and now. To live in the here and now is to accept both love and fear, both light and darkness, both change and stasis, and both procession and recession in ourselves and in the society.
I believe the following is the key elements of a COVID-19 spirituality:
COVID-19 has isolated us from community. Many of us are alone. We are alone with our thoughts and feelings. A cauldron of emotions is boiling as we think about what lay ahead. We fret over whether we can retrieve our former lives. We need a place where we can process those emotions, so that we do not get stuck in any of them.
This aloneness we are experiencing is ideal for the promotion of the practice of contemplation. Contemplation is the first element of a COVID-19 spirituality. Contemplation lends itself well to processing emotions, as it invites us to fully experience feelings in the context of silence; it also invites us to let go of those feelings. Contemplation, then, creates space for processing negative thoughts as well as positive ones. As we rifle through a torrent of negative thoughts, we dare not fixate on them, because they can be most destructive.
Contemplation, moreover, invites you to be alone with the Alone. Contemplation is a not a form of prayer to aid in decision making. It is a prayer that gives room for reflection on someone greater than you, to enjoy God’s goodness, kindness, love and mercy. Can we sit with our inadequacies in the context of a breath-produced silence before the all-loving One, the all-merciful One, the Father of Jesus? Ten to twenty minutes of focused, measured breathing in the morning and in the evening can help you quell your emotions and get you out of your head and thereby ground you in reality, in the here and now.
Another form of prayer that would contribute to a COVID-19 spirituality is Lectio Divina. Earlier we spoke of St. Benedict and the rule he established that created monasteries that became foundational to the formation of Europe. Lectio Divina was his creation. It constitutes a deep reading of the scriptures in the context of prayer. St. Benedict’s liminal experience proved to be fruitful because he read scriptures with his whole being, not just the head. The practice of Lectio Divina will cause you to appreciate that scriptures are the living Word of God that still speaks, especially now in this moment of crisis.
Contemplation and Lectio Divina contribute to greater mindfulness. Mindfulness is the third element of a COVID-19 spirituality. Pain opens us to mindfulness. Pain stops us in our tracks and causes us to reflect deeply on our lives. Pain makes us conscious.
In our lives before the Corona virus crisis, we darted back and forth mindlessly from one experience to another. The social and personal ramifications of the Corona virus crisis have caused us to assess our lives in ways like never before. We have concluded that we have not been participants in our own lives. Mindfulness merely means paying attention to life. There is an objective world outside us that offers possibilities for joy if we would engage it by surrendering our overemphasis on subjectivity. As we do so, we find ourselves experiencing more joy and gratitude. Joy and gratitude contribute to happiness.
The fourth element of a COVID-19 spirituality is compassion. The virus reminds us that we live in an interdependent world. What we do in the West impacts the rest of the world. The modern world gave us the idea that the created order is merely a machine to be exploited. This worldview wreaked violence in the environment. We now see that the environment is not a machine; it is organic, a living thing. How we live in the environment creates the conditions that facilitate life. How we live impacts the environment and the environment in turn impacts us.
The modern world, moreover, used Genesis 1:28 as a warrant to exploit the earth. In that text, God told Adam and Eve to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. The Hebrew word there is kabash. We speak of putting the “kabash” on someone as squashing them from a position of strength. The charge of dominion (kabash) was given to Adam and Eve before the fall. Before the fall, their reigning over nature was like that of the philosopher-king/queen who rules with equanimity, justice and reason. After the fall, however, kabash became perverted by unbridled use of imperial power. The modern world pulled Genesis 1:28 out of context to justify its Social Darwinism. The modern world also pulled out of context the story of Noah’s cursing of his son Ham and made it the justification for enslaving people of African descent.
I said all that to say that we have to be sensitive to how we use scriptures. We cannot use our sacred texts as a way to exert power over people, to hurt and stifle their humanity. Compassion for people, animals, and the environment is the order of the day. Living in an interdependent world demands compassion of us, and it impels us to be cognizant of how we use our Bible. We cannot use it to conquer and divide people. The modern world was masterful at conquering and dividing people. Jesus demonstrates a new use of power: He shares power, so that in his spiritual kingdom power is about power with, not power over others.
The fifth element of a COVID-19 spirituality is returning to the importance of ritual as the integration of mind, body and soul. Ritual and sacred space give due attention to mind, body and soul. A spirituality based on thoughts and feelings is not strong enough to ground the heart in something substantial. Thoughts and feelings come and go. They certainly cannot make you happy. Experiences in your body make you happy. An embodied spirituality gives you fertile soil in which to grow. An embodied spirituality means taking seriously rituals. During this crisis, structure yourself, ritualize yourself. Do those things that give you joy and plan your day around them. Carve out time to do contemplation, Lectio Divina, and Bible study. Establish your spiritual infrastructure and stick to it, especially now that we are so prone to emotional flights of negativity.
Religion comes from the Latin word religare. It means to “bind,” “fasten.” To bind and fasten something is to apply a structure to it so that it becomes lasting in the creation of virtue. If you say you are “spiritual,” then I should see how you have structured your life in tangible ways that bespeak that you value spirituality. Spirituality cannot merely be a passing thought or fancy. We humans put a structure to what is important.
The sixth and final element of a COVID-19 spirituality is a return to simple abundance. Simple abundance is a commitment to consume less, to be mindful of how our economic actions impact the environment and the rest of the world. As a way to express simple abundance, some are growing gardens. What other lifestyle changes can we make to extend compassion to the rest of the world? As you engage God in this liminal period, other ideas will come to you. This liminal period demands that you be open to the new thing God will do through this crisis.
The apostles of Jesus found themselves in a liminal period between the Ascension of our Lord and the arrival of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, when God would do something radically new. As Jesus departed from them, the apostles fixed their gaze on the heavens to which he ascended. We humans are so prone to fixating on realities we consider safe havens amid the onslaughts of life. The angel reminded them that they would see Jesus again. Instead of fixating on the glories of the resurrection and the ascension, they had to wait in a liminal period until the coming of the Holy Spirit. What did the apostles do in that liminal period between the Ascension and Pentecost to be fruitful, to keep from gazing, fixating on one reality?
That is what we are invited to do in this present liminal reality precipitated by the Corona virus. Prayer opens us up to spiritually see what God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit is doing.
Let us develop a disciplined spirituality so that we can see. Let us develop a COVID-19 spirituality.