Three handles for the path – How the COVID-19 crisis reveals contemplation’s greatest gifts

We find ourselves in an extraordinary time in world history. Millions around the world have fallen ill and so many are grieving the death of a loved one or neighbour. In Canada alone millions have lost jobs, some are vulnerable and feeling unsafe because of financial or compromised health concerns, other still risk their lives daily in the essential service sector. We all experience this crisis from different perspectives and circumstances.

We are also meditators, or at least are curious about this path of prayer that practises silence and stillness and that moves us towards being present in ourselves, in this world and in Christ.

What has this crisis revealed to you? How do you respond? How does meditation and prayer increase your resiliency in times of stress?

Contemplation offers many gifts, many fruits of following the path. I want to talk about three handles that describe the landscape of the contemplative life, especially in light of the global crisis we have all experienced in various ways over the past month and a half. 

Three Handles for the Contemplative Path – How the COVID-19 crisis reveals contemplation’s greatest gifts

Handles are what we hold on to as we make our way along the path: Connection; Embracing Loss; Renewing Life. Here are three handles that reveal contemplation’s greatest gifts to us. These handles open doors of awareness on the path of contemplation.

1.   Connection

As the national coordinator for the Canadian Christian Meditation Community, I look for the connections. I try to see the network of relationships that comprise the landscape of meditation groups, events and organization across the country. How Christian Meditators connect is a question that energizes my work for the community.

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis, as a shared human experience, first reveals to me how intrinsically connected we all are for better or for worse. The virus itself could not have travelled so quickly and so far without the advances of technology. Our contemporary fascination and obsession with travel can get us around the globe at speeds never before in history possible. Our hyper-active culture was the efficient delivery system for this virus.

There’s a socio-economic aspect that cannot be overlooked. The viral transmission was facilitated by those of us – predominantly the privileged, monied and ‘successful’ – who for either business or pleasure make it an important part of our lifestyle to jet-set. The economy of privilege and wealth made this virus so potent in its rapid spread across the globe. 

You might recall the segment of the population first targeted were those who had travelled and were returning home. They were the first to self-quarantine for 14 days beforelocal, community transmission became a concern. 

Our identity in the World Community for Christian Meditation has been for decades now animated by our ability to meet anywhere in the world. The pandemic has exposed our vulnerability in maintaining and growing those beloved connections, in person. The global crisis raises questions about our capacity for bringing people from around the world together under one roof in one place and time, for retreats and seminars.

How do we see ourselves as a community? Where do you locate yourself within the Christian Meditation community (group, region, national, world)? How will we sustain and build those relationships, moving forward?

These are some of the questions that first emerge for me during this time of seclusion, physical distancing and suffering for many. But there are deeper questions to ask.

I currently work in the large, urban setting of Ottawa. The city lies on the banks of the Ottawa river, which flows south and east towards Montreal, the St Lawrence River and finally spills into the Atlantic Ocean. From Ottawa, if you follow upriver north and west, you move into smaller, rural towns in the Upper Ottawa Valley.

Earlier in my life I served a parish in Pembroke about 150 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. When speaking to an old friend from Pembroke last week, I was again reminded of how this virus knows no boundaries. There have been, to date, more recorded infections of COVID-19 in the Upper Valley than in the small town in which I live, closer to the city limits. 

Normally, rural-living people don’t associate much with the ‘problems’ of the larger urban centres. They see themselves apart from, and take pride in, being disconnected, unburdened and somewhat free from the concerns of the large city ‘far away’. But my friend in Pembroke talked to me of how people in her parish were practising social distancing, disciplining themselves by limiting their worship recording session to five people standing at least two metres apart. 

Regardless of where you live, rural or urban, you cannot isolate yourself from the danger. Deep in this crisis now we cannot deny the truth that it is our collective problem, and not just someone else’s living on the other side of the globe or only in the big cities. 

All of us participate both in the transmission of the problem and in its resolution. We are asymptomatic transmitters of the disease, or symptomatic sufferers, or symptomatic transmitters, or one of the growing number of recovered and hopefully immune, or as the fortunately unaffected and un-infected. Each of us is a participant in the crisis.

Of course, we didn’t need COVID-19 to introduce us to the idea of our common humanity. Especially as Christians we have always affirmed our inherent connection, our ‘unity in Christ’. Whether we say we participate in the invisible, spiritual unity, or hopefully sometimes even participate in some wonderful visibleexpressions of unity, we are united.

Christian Meditation brings together people from various religious or non-religious backgrounds. We are united in the silence, the stillness in the presence of Christ regardless of creed or doctrinal affiliation. We don’t speak words out loud in our prayer. Language, after all, tends to divide and differentiate, which is not a bad thing. As Father Laurence Freeman expressed in his Holy Saturday talk from Bonnevaux this year, we need language.[1]

But underneath the language is the silent breath of God that flows through and holds us all in love. In Christian Meditation we affirm our ‘boundary-less’ solidarity in the love of Christ. We affirm our common humanity. We can be present to and share in the living consciousness of Jesus, whoever we are and wherever we live, all the time, in the prayer of the heart.

How we ‘see’ this is vital. If it is raining outside, we have a choice. We can see the rain and conclude that our lives are a waste and a wreck, and wallow in self-despair. Another way of seeing has us simply accept the rain. “Yup, it’s raining.” 

Here we may want to recall the apophatic roots of the mystical prayer tradition: Seeing is not thinking. The sight, here, is not physical. It is neither tied to our thinking process nor our capacities for doing, imagining, or saying anything. In truth, as 19thcentury American essayist Henry David Thoreau noted, “I begin to see an object when I cease to understand it.”[2]

Here is an inner vision that sees the self and the world within the web of human inter-connectedness. It is a web that is given not constructed. It is an inter-connectedness that we affirm despite all that separates us. We experience loving union, despite ourselves. We simply step into it, are present to it, whenever we meditate.

God dwells in all our hearts. God chooses to make home within us all. This is the promise of scripture. This is the reality of God with us.

Given the traditional ways we have self-identified (language, urban/rural, elderly/youth, binary/non-binary, financially independent/poor, upper class/middle class/lower class, Catholic/Protestant/a-religionist, etc.) how has the COVID-19 crisis affected your vision of our unity—our connection as human beings? Do you ‘see’ a change within you, if any? How so?

2.   Embracing loss

As many people enter a seventh week of self-isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic is unifying us in our anxiety.

In a recent poll, half of respondents said their mental health has worsened, including 10 per cent who said it has worsened “a lot.” “Worried” and “anxious” were the top two answers, emotional states that experts don’t expect to dissipate any time soon.[3]

The global pandemic placed unprecedented restrictions on us. Not only has time slowed down. But in that slowing-down we have noticed the smaller things around us and in us, the ‘smaller’ things that normally have gone unnoticed, unrecognized: underlying beliefs, attitudes, dispositions. If ever we had been borderline depressive, or borderline obsessive compulsive, or borderline anything, the COVID crisis may have just tipped us over the edge.

Physical distancing, for example, has exposed our attachments and severed the links. “What do you mean I can’t visit my loved one?” Anxiety, understandably, follows. The irony is that we come to affirm our healthy, life-giving connections during this crisis only by coming to terms with our losses. Losing something or someone is letting go. Letting go is about acceptance.

Perhaps the most emotionally difficult aspect of this whole experience has been losing our freedom to touch, to hold, to comfort and be physically present with those we love – whether in the ICU units, gravesides or around dining room tables. We have experienced a collective loss – a way of being community, of gathering in public places shoulder to shoulder. I wonder how long it will be, if ever, before we experience some of those things again.

As is natural for us human beings under stress and anxiety, we have formulated coping strategies in the grief process: denial and anger to begin with. Anger comes probably in the guise of blame – blaming the government or some nation; blaming local authorities for mis-managing, mis-communicating, mis-analyzing. 

Of course we know that blame is a poisonous, destructive way of processing our grief because we do so by hurting others when really anger is the invitation to do some much-needed inner work. The blame game, we know, says more about the person playing it, than it does about the object of the blame.

Along with our social attachments, we have lost a sense of safety, security, certainty and control. This has been a season of loss, if anything. And we’ve devised many ways of managing and coping with these losses. Addictive behaviour keeps us from fully feeling, embracing and accepting the limits of our very humanity in this present moment.

For me, it is thinking compulsively about ‘what’s next’ that keeps me locked in my head – everything from the next item on the agenda or schedule of my work day to how I approach my hobbies and past times, to pondering what I need to get done tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. I fixate on those things. Thinking, again, keeps me from my heart, and from experiencing, accepting and being loved in the present moment.

If you do have time and willingness to read some books during this stay-at-home time, let me recommend four: First, Jim Green’s “Giving Up Without Giving Up: Meditation and Depressions”; Beldon C. Lane’s “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes; Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality”; Gregory Mayers’ “Listen to the Desert; Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers”; and Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.”

When we have the courage to look into our hearts, perhaps more than anything we are afraid at what we may find there. So, we avoid this more courageous path of going there by getting trapped in our heads. We will more easily find blame or worry about some abstract future scenario. We will more easily distract ourselves into addictive, compulsive behaviour. 

Yet, what the present crisis is offering us is an opportunity to confront the fearful side of ourselves with love and forgiveness. So desperately needed, now.

The practice of Christian meditation allows us to traverse the inner terrain, this landscape of desert, aridity and loss. The unproductive and detached manner of Christian Meditation leads us there, and probes into that silence underneath the cacophony of emotions, compulsions and images that collide and broil to the surface of our consciousness. 

“The only way we can contemplate is recognizing and relativizing our own compulsive mental grids—our practiced ways of judging, critiquing, blocking, and computing everything.”[4]

It is to let it be. When we return to the mantra during our meditation we don’t do violence against the woundedness of our soul. We don’t avoid, deny and repress the thoughts, the turmoil of emotions and darkness of our depths. In truth, we do the opposite. We let them rise to the surface of our awareness. We let them be. And when they pique, we look elsewhere. We shift our gaze, our attention, to the word. 

In praying, then, we participate in the widening of spaciousness both in time and consciousness. It is aerating the lawn of our minds and hearts. We venture into an expanding divine space, the in between space where God’s grace and love exist. It is by probing this awareness within us that eventually those thoughts, emotions and images let go of us. 

Meditation is the ability to tolerate and then to be in relationship with what is.[5]The mantra, then, is the word in whose interior rhythm we experience a deeper listening, in love, to our true self in God.

Richard Rohr writes, “Contemplative prayer always requires hospitality to your deep self, to the deep parts of yourself. It demands the openness to receive whatever might arise in you and then gently release it into God’s hands … You do so in a relationship that provides a safety and support in holding whatever emerges. Whatever emerges in silence and stillness before God emerges in the place within you in which you are held within God.”[6]

What do we learn in this space?

First, in the practice of prayer we discover that our discipline does not constrict the time of our day. It’s not that we don’t have time to meditate. Paradoxically those who meditate twice daily experience a broadening of time so that they, in fact, have more time to do what they need to do. More time than they ever had, COVID notwithstanding.

Second, when we remain in the space of our limitations, even for a short time, we begin to learn what it feels like to ‘die before you die’: when the bottom falls out of all our spent resources. Dying before dying is embracing the consequences of our resistance to being un-attached, un-productive, and un-successful. The effect of our ego-impulse to be attached, to be busy and find self-worth in comparing and competing can harm others and ourselves. Recognizing and confessing this in brutal honesty, hurts.

So, we must “trust the down”, in Richard Rohr’s words. Trust the down and God will take care of the “up”. Trust the falling, the letting go, the releasing of control. Trust that our limits, our failure, our suffering, our imperfection is integral to the journey, the pilgrimage towards transformation. Trust the down, the out-breath. Because the “unloading of the unconscious … [contemplation] is the visible face of the invisible process of reworking your unconscious, a process that is going on as you sit in stillness before God and yourself.” 

Trust the down, the outbreath. We can’t hold our breath forever. We’ll die if we don’t let go. So, exhaling is an act of great trust. At that moment in breathing when you finish exhaling, there is a space, the moment of ‘death’. That’s when grace happens. Trust the down, and God will breathe life into you. Again.

During this time of expanded time that feels both slow and goes by so quickly, the discipline of prayer allows “the deep hidden work of healing and transformation that God is doing in your soul” in the midst of all our losses.

What within you resists the present moment which this crisis has open for you? What keeps you stuck in the cycles of denial or blame?

How will you allow the fear, the self-incriminations, the anger and guilt to co-exist in your life and within your practice of prayer?

3. Renewing Life

Spring is in the air! In more ways than one, we are beginning again. In our collective consciousness, our hearts and minds are turning towards a new beginning: With hope and anticipation we look forward to the time we can meet in person together, and when we can experience the freedom to eat-out and meet in public spaces again. 

The posture in our hearts of ‘starting over’ is an Easter hope. New beginnings. New life. Like the proverbial phoenix rising again out of dust. Jesus’ resurrection announces this truth. And if it’s true with Christ, it is true everywhere and for all.

We are all beginners, rookies on the field of life. We say this about our prayer practice. In a sense, no matter how experienced we are. Whether we have been meditating all our lives or just a few days, each time we sit down in silence and stillness, we begin again. When we see ourselves perpetually as beginners on the journey, we become ready for anything, and are open to all possibilities.

How do we start over? Remember the basic pattern of liturgy: Someone must start it all. Someone initiates the conversation and says, for example, “The Lord be with you”. Those of us practiced in this way of worship will know that the conversation may start there but doesn’t end there. We need to respond, “And also with you.”

There is this back-and-forth flow dynamic between God’s word, God speaking and how we hear that and what we do with that. There is this back-and-forth flow between what God says to us and our response to God’s life and love in all and for all.

How do we begin again? How do we begin each time to strengthen this relationship? We can consider Jesus’ words: “I have come to give you life and life abundantly”; that is, we nurture our own lives as a responsiveness to God’s own life. Our lives thus share in the abundant vitality of God.

If anything, we may have been shocked by the COVID-19 crisis to consider how to live well. What we’ve had to stop, what we’ve had to pause, what we’ve had to close – and not just for a week or two as I suspect many of us initially expected, but for months. All these restrictions are causing us to reflect on the meaning of our lives and what might emerge from it.

I also suspect more and more of us are coming around to accepting that what does emerge will not be “back to normal” to the way it was right before we had to lock things down. What does emerge will likely, over time, be some kind of integration, blending, hybrid of what we have been doing in the last several weeks in physical distancing with social gathering.

The words of Jesus about abundant life come to us in this season of Easter – the season of resurrection and new life. These new words are a language of recovery, where we tell stories about the way we were and what it used to be like living; and how we are living now. I said earlier when reflecting on the handle of loss, that we have a choice: Self-love, forgiveness, embracing the imperfection within us. This was the first choice. But not the last one.

The liturgy calls forth our response. The Lord be with you. And also with you. The second choice is to live out from that pivot, that handle, of loss. To truly live, to be awake and alive to this gift of the present moment, we live out of the forgiveness and self-love, confident in our connection with all of creation. We live out of this awareness towards the transformation of the world. Meditation leads us from the center point within, to embrace a divine vision for all. 

Being in liminal space leads us to the new thing. Remember the visions we have seen over the past month: the foxes trapesing across the Golden Gate bridge, the clear, smog-free blue skies over Los Angeles and Himalayan peaks never before seen!, the new species being discovered because of human economic restraint, the clearer waters in Venice. 

We’ve also witnessed a dramatic and unified political will – a clear choice we have – to give financial aid to the most vulnerable in the economic crisis and recently increase the hourly wage by $4/hour to essential health care providers.[7]

If we can do it now, why can’t we do it again, in some way? When the devastating effects of the pandemic continue to wreak havoc in vulnerable places of the world. Famines will expose unjust systems of wealth and food distribution. When the effects of the economic slow-down continue to devastate families in poverty, the homeless, the poor, Indigenous peoples, vulnerable communities. In the aftermath, why can’t we continue to enact the vision and exercise willingness to make things better for all people?

Eco-theologian Thomas Berry expresses this notion in writing that we need, in our age, is to dream the new world into existence. We must dream the way forward. “We must summon, from the unconscious, ways of seeing that we know nothing of yet, visions that emerge from deeper within us than our conscious rational minds.”[8]

The new life post-COVID is not “now all my problems are solved”. This new life is not “going back to the way things were.” The new life is not problem free nor tripping into some sentimental, perfect past. 

It is a new thing. It is a new way of seeing the world as it is, whatever it is. The Prophet Isaiah captured this divine work in Hebrew poetry: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”[9]

Christian Meditation anchors us in a daily practice that expands our consciousness to transcend who we are and include what we have seen. Christian Meditation anchors us in a daily practice of connecting ourselves to the source of love and life in all and with all. 

God has chosen to dwell among us. God has made us the temple of God’s presence. Christ lives in us as we live in Christ. And so, we are confident in who we are, beloved of God in whom we live, breathe and have our being.

What new practice, discipline, routine, habit, project have you tried during seclusion that has given you hope? What will you continue to do and what new thing will you bring to your life post-COVID? Who has accompanied you on this journey of discovery and growth?


[1]www.acontemplativepath-wccm.org

[2]Cited in Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), p.69

[3]Jonathan Forani, “Half of Canadians report worsening mental health, experts say woes just beginning” (www.CTVNews.ca April 27, 2020) 

[4]Richard Rohr, “Liminality” (Daily Meditation, 16 February 2020, www.cac.org

[5]Jim Green, “Giving Up Without Giving Up” (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), p.100

[6]Rohr, ibid.

[7] in Ontario

[8]Richard Rohr, “Liminal Space” (Daily Meditation, 30 April 2020, www.cac.org

[9]Isaiah 43:18-19

Social distancing and religious gathering

Every Friday night I walk through the core of the small town close to where I live. And, every Friday night these restaurants—a popular Indian restaurant, a British-style pub and pizza parlor—are jammed full. Week after week, it never fails. It impresses upon me the common, human need for social interaction.

Here, far off the beaten track, the COVID-19 threat in early March is still far from reality. At the time of this writing there is not (yet) one confirmed case in the Ottawa area. And yet, last week when I walked my route by these restaurant windows and looked in, they were nearly empty. 

Clearly for my community the anticipation and fear of the pandemic has taken hold in our imagination. These fears are fueled by images in the media of empty planes and check-in lines at airports. St Mark’s Square in Venice, normally crowded with tourists, is empty. Classrooms in big name educational institutions are empty.

“Social distancing” is the catch-phrase. As a human community we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other in the public sphere. But sports stadiums and convention venues are not the only places considered verboten during a pandemic. Places for religious gatherings are suffering the same scrutiny. Though, perhaps, religious people are used to seeing empty pews for some time now. 

In our social distancing during the COVID19 pandemic we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized especially for the most vulnerable to this disease.

People who like to meditate are generally drawn to spaces and places with others that embody some ‘distance’ and detachment. We close our eyes. We refrain from touching each other. We repeat the mantra not as a voiced, liturgical, chant but interiorly, individually. We who meditate and pray in silence and stillness are practiced somewhat in the art of non-interaction in contrast to the dominant extroversion of our culture. We say little and keep our distance as we sit in silence and stillness together.

Even in our solitude, however, we are reminded in the tradition of John Main not to neglect the coming together in faith even as we pray in silence. Yes, the twice daily meditation times to which we aspire belong normally to our private, individual work. Yet, the importance of the regular meditation group builds the community of love. 

We are not meant to be alone on this journey. In meeting with others we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in ‘God with us’ and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: ‘Do not be afraid’. We are called, on the contemplative path, to reassure others in the same promise. (See pastoral letter from bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, link below)

During this time of social distancing we pray with all who are affected by this disease. God be with those who grieve, are ill, isolated and afraid, and the many people involved in medical and emergency care.

This may also be a good time to try an online meditation group. On the front page of the wccm.org website click on ‘Online Meditation’ to find a group suited for you. The first time I participated with an online group it felt strange to see on my computer screen the faces of several meditators praying in silence with me. It took some time and patience for me to adjust.

On the one hand, I was physically by myself. But I was not alone. I was still virtually connected with others far away from me. Talk about social distance. Yet, accountability and responsibility to each other are still felt values in the online meditation experience. There may times in our lives when a virtual group is the best option for remaining connected.

In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities.

The Peace of Christ be with you all,

Martin

canadacoordinator@wccm.org