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

‘The world needs more Canada’

A national coordinator’s first impression of a John Main Seminar

Bono, U2’s lead man, has said in the press, international conferences and at the United Nations in recent years that “the world needs more Canada”. Former US president Barack Obama addressed the Canadian Parliament on his visit to Ottawa in 2016 with the words, ‘The world needs more Canada’. The mantra was reinforced this past Spring when Nick Nurse, head coach of the National Basketball Association champion team, Toronto Raptors, yelled out to the two million who lined the streets and filled downtown squares to celebrate a Canadian sports victory: “The world needs more Canada … and they got it!”

The crowd cheered, and so emphatically punctuated a sentiment that is shared not only by most Canadians but by people around the world.

This past summer that phrase stuck in my mind. I was attending my first John Main Seminar, where Christian Meditators from around the world gathered in picturesque Squamish, British Columbia. And my first impression was a beautiful vision of a truly global movement. Christians normally separated by history, geography, national boundaries, religious affiliation, language and culture find profound and lasting union in the simple, prayer of the heart.

Sarah Bachelard in her thoughtful, challenging and inspiring keynote said that a contemplative church is fundamentally ecumenical. Neither denominationally defined nor culturally specific, Christian Meditation affirms people from all walks of life.

Of course, diversity has for a long time characterized what is Canada. People from around the world have made Canada home. While immigration has also created significant problems in our relationships with Indigenous communities, Canada has become the world’s home. How we have learned to co-exist in peace with those who represent different religions, traditions and culture is truly a gift, albeit imperfect, we give to the world.

I would add, then, that the world needs Christian Meditation even more. Given the rabid pace of life in our run-away/throw-away culture, there is no other time as desperate for peace, stillness and silence than this. The world needs more Christian Meditation.

I appreciate more and more that the gift we have is meant to be shared. Shared with the world. We do not ‘own’, as Canadians and as individuals, the Christian Meditation tradition. We do not hoard it for ourselves as if it is a secret or treasure no one else should know about or partake in. The resources, capacity and gifts we are given in Christian Meditation are meant for the world’s benefit. The world has also become Canada’s home. It is truly an expansive vision that John Main first articulated so well in describing this gift we share.

The Christian Meditation movement continues to evolve outwards. As younger people explore the gift of Christian Meditation, we will move out of the church basements into the public arenas—the boardrooms, the hospitals, and the schools. We will meet people where they are at, not where we are at. We will meet them where they experience their greatest need, where life explodes in speed and stress.

At the annual meeting of the Canadian Community for Christian Meditation held at the John Main Seminar, I asked the assembly to recommit to their twice-daily discipline of meditation. What the world needs is not an elite, few saints in their ivory towers doing meditation perfectly. What the world needs is millions of people meditating imperfectly. In the beautiful diversity of prayerful experience, we encounter the Christ who loves us unconditionally and who is alone perfectly faithful to us on our journey.

The Rev. Martin Malina