Editor’s note. This post I wrote at the end of last week, when it first became apparent the new coronavirus outbreak was about to blossom into a worldwide pandemic. Then, Saturday night, when I was putting the finishing touches on it, I got sick and was admitted to St. John’s Hospital in Springfield with what turned out to be a lower respiratory virus that mimicked pneumonia. My presenting symptoms were so much like the COVID-19 that was in the news — high fever, cough, shortness of breath — I was actually happy with the preliminary diagnosis. (Think to yourself: When have you ever been happy to be told you have pneumonia?) It’s not what I would write if I were beginning it now, with the further knowledge we have today, but it has some valuable links at the end.
First of all, I wish to state for the record I’m not freaking out about the spread of the new coronavirus. Well, OK, maybe a limited, modified freakout. Sometimes freaking out — call it an “OMG moment” — can be a good thing in small doses. But more about that later.
Anyway, when the cats woke me up today in the middle of the night and I couldn’t get back to sleep for all the yowling, thumping and pitter-patter of little cat feet (Sandburg was wrong about that, by the way, little cat feet aren’t always silent), I couldn’t help worrying about it. In addition, of course, to all the other possible future events I usually worry about at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Life has been pretty good lately, and I’ve learned to be thankful for each new day as it comes. But I’m never quite as sure about tomorrow. Let alone the day after tomorrow. Especially when all the scientific evidence points to a pandemic headed our way.
So I did what I always do at 3 a.m.
I got up and got on the Google. I halfway remembered some prayers in times of trouble when I was growing up in the Episcopal Church, and I thought they might quiet my mind.
So I went online and found a copy of the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal service book I grew up with. And sure enough, some of the prayers I remembered were there.
And yes, they did quiet my mind.
Wisdom from the 1928 Episcopal prayer book
One was a prayer “In Time of Calamity” in a selection of Prayers and Thanksgivings, “[t]o be used before the Prayer for all Conditions of Men” during Morning Prayer, according to the rubric, during the Sunday morning service I remember best:
O God, merciful and compassionate, who art ever ready to hear the prayers of those who put their trust in thee; Graciously hearken to us who call upon thee, and grant us thy help in this our need; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It was followed by a prayer “In Time of Great Sickness and Mortality”:
O Most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As much as I love the sonorous language of the 1928 prayer book, some of it struck me, especially when I read it over later in the day, as being maybe a little bit on the dramatic side. Not that the prospect of a pandemic isn’t a reminder of how frail and uncertain our life is. (I’m saving the prayer for future reference, in fact. Some of the public health scenarios are more than a little concerning.)
But it turns out the prayers I remember best are in a section on Family Prayer, anyway.
And they’re not prayers for the sick.
They’re both prayers for private devotions, in the morning when you’re up and getting ready to go about the business of your day. The first is an “Acknowledgment of God’s Mercy and Preservation, especially through the Night past,” to be offered during morning devotions:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being; We, thy needy creatures, render thee our humble praises, for thy preservation of us from the beginning of our lives to this day, and especially for having delivered us from the dangers of the past night. For these thy mercies, we bless and magnify thy glorious Name; humbly beseeching thee to accept this our morning sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; for his sake who lay down in the grave, and rose again for us, thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
And the other, which follows right after it, is a “Dedication of Soul and Body to God’s Service,
with a Resolution to be growing daily in Goodness”:
AND since it is of thy mercy, O gracious Father, that another day is added to our lives; We here dedicate both our souls and our bodies to thee and thy service, in a sober, righteous, and godly life: in which resolution, do thou, O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’ve been in spiritual direction for a couple of years now, and one of the things I’ve come to believe is something that Father James Martin, the Jesuit author, advises. First, you pray and meditate. Then, you take action: “What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act.” Dedicate us to thee and thy service, that as we grow in age, we may grow in grace. Finally, you act.
One of the issues I’ve struggled with in spiritual direction is praying to a personal God. (Starting in an earlier iteration of this blog, HERE and continuing HERE.) Last year about this time we had back-to-back crises when our Maine coon cat was diagnosed with diabetes (he’s responding, so far, to medication) and a week later Debi was rushed to the Emergency Room with an internal hemorrhage and spent several days in the ICU at St. John’s (she’s recovered, too). Instead of struggling with whether or how to do it, I was praying! It was like a graduate seminar in day-to-day prayer. Or maybe more like an internship
Tzvi Gluckin, a Jewish Orthodox rabbi and musician whom I was reading at the time, put it in terms I could relate to: “In a [emergency] situation like that you don’t think. You don’t rationalize. You don’t remember your philosophy lecture from college. You don’t wonder about the existence of God or the effectiveness of prayer. You pray. And you beg God to save you.”
(Gluckin’s book is worth reading, by the way. It’s titled Knee Deep in the Funk: Understanding the Connection Between Spirituality and Music, and it draws on his experience as a punk rock, jazz, metal and blues musician before he studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.)
Well, I wasn’t involved in an emergency. At least not directly involved in an immediate one — the cats were obviously enjoying themselves, thumping and chirruping up and down the hallway, and I was in no danger. Maybe that’s why I didn’t fully respond to the Anglican prayer In Time of Great Sickness and Mortality, even though the day’s news reported that public health authorities in California were investigating the first case of community transmission of COVID-19.
‘Finally, you act.’ Advice from virologists down under
That case in California, possibly a prelude to a wider epidemic in the United States, was what crisis communications experts Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman, writing a couple of days earlier, would call an “Oh My God (OMG) moment.”
In a guest post to Australian virologist Ian M. Mackay’s Virology Down Under blog, Landard and Sandman said “everyone needs to have [one], and needs to get through [it], preferably without being accused of hysteria.” It’s that moment when you realize things are very likely to get pretty bad, and you’d better get ready:
This OMG realization that we have termed the “adjustment reaction” (see http://www.psandman.com/col/teachable.htm) is a step that is hard to skip on the way to the new normal. Going through it before a crisis is full-blown is more conducive to resilience, coping, and rational response than going through it mid-crisis. Officials make a mistake when they sugarcoat alarming information, postponing the public’s adjustment reaction in the vain hope that they can avoid it altogether.
Reading that, I’m trying not to think of President Trump’s self-congratulatory news conference the night before. I’m a lifelong political junkie, but for the moment I think it’s probably best to tune out all the politicians.
Mackay and Katherine Arden, another Australian virologist, have another piece on Virology Down Under that makes a lot of sense to me. “Planning now and doing something means we can control how well we cope with some of what may be coming,” they say. That’s what I meant when I was talking about a sense of agency. Mackay and Arden add:
We do have some experience of a pandemic and it wasn’t panic-worthy. The pandemic of H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009 had some unhappy consequences, but it was by no means a zombie apocalypse.
China has bought us time to prepare. Let’s not waste any more of it. Instead, let’s get our planning hats on and all work the problem together. This is one of those rare times when we’re unarguably all in this together.
SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t care about our beliefs, our sex or gender, our colour or our clothes – it just wants to make a home in our human cells.
It’s perfectly okay to be anxious about this.
But work the problem.
Detailed advice is linked below on topics from what to stock your home with for a period of self-isolation to “[r]ight now, today, start practicing not touching your face when you are out and about!” It’s harder than I ever would have imagined.
Ian M. Mackay and Katherine E. Arden, “So you think you’re about to be in a pandemic?” Virology Down Under, Feb. 25, 2020 https://virologydownunder.com/so-you-think-youve-about-to-be-in-a-pandemic/
Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman, “Past Time to Tell the Public: ‘It Will Probably Go Pandemic, and We Should All Prepare Now’,” Virology Down Under, Feb. 23, 2020 https://virologydownunder.com/past-time-to-tell-the-public-it-will-probably-go-pandemic-and-we-should-all-prepare-now/
Zeynep Tufekci, “Preparing for Coronavirus to Strike the U.S.,” Scientific American, Blogs, Opinions, Feb. 27, 2020 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/preparing-for-coronavirus-to-strike-the-u-s/?fbclid=IwAR0IyoD-9fVntRaCnZOWnLtjKfupV39xgIggIBdng5FpQhpatalIWIkhabw