Mostly I do church online these days, like most of my relationships in self-quarantine, and last week Peace Lutheran shared a passage on Facebook from the 14th-century mystical writer Julian of Norwich. I was feeling down — frightened might be a more accurate word — after two and a half months of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when the spirit of community that marked the early days is breaking down into partisan political squabbling. A little bit of spirituality handed down through the ages was exactly what I needed.

Dame Julian, as she is also known, was an anchorite, or hermit, attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich during the late 1300s and early 1400s. Friday (May 8) was her festival day; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published the meme embedded at the top of this post on its official FB page, and Peace Lutheran shared it. What I needed was this prayer:

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving. You are our mother, brother, and savior. In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvelous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.

I was already familiar with the quote at the end, because it’s central to one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which I loved when I read Eliot in grad school — and still love years later, even now that some of his more famous stuff leaves me wondering what I ever saw in it. (Someday I want to come back to the Quartets, since they mirror my own faith journey. But not today. That’s for later.) Anyway, Dame Julian’s prayer was exactly what I needed to hear — all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I want to come back to Dame Julian, too. There’s a lot in her prayer for me to wrap my head around. But not today. For the moment, it was all I needed.

All will be well, all manner of things will be well, and that’s enough for today. In fact today’s all we’ve got. It’s been a bad couple of months, even though I’ve also had plenty of occasion to be thankful I can ride out the quarantine with a wife who shares my interests — she even has a spiritual formation (and recipe) blog, Seriously Seeking Answers, which I highly recommend — a couple of cats, and a little menagerie of birds, squirrels and rabbits in the back yard that we keep in the clover. Quite literally in the clover, since we overseed our lawn with it.

But Friday I needed a lift, and there it was on Facebook.

About the same time (on Sunday) Pastor Nadia, an occasionally foul-mouthed but theologically impeccable author also known as the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, posted a video titled “Optimism Won’t Save Me … but Neither will Worrying about Shit” to her Facebook page (along with a linked transcript). She cited Admiral James Stockdale, who is mostly remembered now for a less-than-stellar performance in 1992 as Ross Perot’s running mate, but who had a distinguished Navy career and spent seven years in a VIetnamese POW camp.

Pastor Nadia said Stockdale got through it by being hopeful and realistic at the same time (the kind of paradox that often appeals to Lutherans). And she suggested the “Stockdale Paradox” can see us through the pandemic. And help us “get back to trusting what Jesus said,” to boot. She summed it up like this:

You must have faith that you will prevail in the end

And at the same time you must confront the brutal facts of your current reality.

When I stop and check in with myself I must say – I believe we will prevail. As shitty as this all is, I have faith in the power of human love and creativity and resilience and kindness and humor. And I believe God to be the source of our love and creativity and resilience and kindness and humor, which means there is an eternal supply on which to draw when we just don’t have what it takes. 

Also, I have faith that God is already present in the future we keep pinning our hopes and fears to so maybe it’s safe to let them go. 

Again, what I needed to hear going into my second month of self-quarantine.

Like I said, it’s been especially tough lately.

Back in March, there was a real we’re-all-in-this-together feeling everywhere. People sewing face masks, checking in with elderly neighbors, volunteering at food pantries, cheering medical workers and first responders, staying at home and in general cooperating to slow down the spread of the virus.

But it’s been politicized alarmingly in the last couple of weeks, not only by President Trump but also in Illinois by publicity-seeking downstate lawyers and Republican state legislators, and it threatens to undo that spirit of community just when we thought we were beginning to get the virus under control, both in Illinois and nationally.

So it’s all profoundly dispiriting.

But — another paradox — the whole thing has invigorated my prayer life.

I’ve never claimed to have much of a prayer life. Praying was something you did in church, and growing up in the Episcopal Church, I had a feeling that if you didn’t echo the 16th-century language of the Book of Common Prayer, well, it just wasn’t quite a real prayer. But bit by bit — and crisis by crisis — I’ve been improvising one. I’ve had to.

Where have I turned instead of church? For one thing, I’ve turned to the morning devotions suggested in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Last month I journaled about it and quoted Luther’s morning prayer.

I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Luther isn’t a bad guy to turn to, either. Especially in times like these. As Martin Marty of the University of Chicago suggests, “the wicked foe” and the forces of evil and danger were a very real presence to him, and not just because according to legend he once threw an inkpot at the devil in Wartburg Castle.

In a Germany surrounded by “witches and poltergeists … threatening supernatural beings and natural hazards,” Luther and his contemporaries took refuge from the devil. But also from terrors more reminiscent of our own day. “Tales of the Black Death, which had killed perhaps one-third of Europe’s people, kept later generations aware of the precariousness of living and terrified when plaguelike diseases struck,” says Marty. Born only 136 years after the bubonic plague of 1347, Luther had a precarious existence. Everyone did.

In fact, when the plague returned in 1527, as it did from time to time until a vaccine was developed in the 1890s, Luther wrote a pamphlet, Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague, urging his readers to care for the sick, practice social distancing and look out for each other — saying, “we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”

(Something the state reps who refuse to wear a mask might wish to keep in mind.)

So when Luther prays for protection in the Small Catechism, and thanks God for protecting him “through the night from all harm and danger,” he does so so with full knowledge of the precariousness of life.

And today, with a fresh sense of that precariousness, it feels only natural for me to turn to Luther’s prayer for protection.

But there’s more to it than that. Ironically, it involves the very people who discourage me so much by seeking to politicize the epidemic. Did I mention that Lutherans are drawn to paradox?

It’s kind of a combination of Lutheran theology and western Buddhist practice. Jack Kornfield, who is credited with introducing the vipassana mindfulness tradition to the United States, has a meditation that’s designed to “to evoke a lovingkindness and friendliness toward oneself and others.” Parts of it are also useful, I’m finding, to help me center in the middle of a global pandemic. As Kornfield explains it, you start by repeating to yourself:

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.

To do it right, says Kornfield, you repeat this over several days. (I tend to do it on the fly, working it in with Luther’s morning prayer, asking God to protect me from sin and the evil one, and to fill my heart with lovingkindness.) The next step is to open the circle, moving outward from myself to my circle of family, friends and benefactors — and, eventually, to enemies. (That’s where the state reps who threaten to trigger a surge in COVID-19 cases come in.) Kornfield explains:

When lovingkindness for your benefactor has developed, you can gradually begin to include other people in your meditation. Picturing each beloved person, recite inwardly the same phrases, evoking a sense of lovingkindness for each person in turn.

After this you can include others: Spend some time wishing well to a wider circle of friends. Then gradually extend your meditation to picture and include community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, all beings, the whole earth.

Finally, include the difficult people in your life, even your enemies, wishing that they too may be filled with lovingkindness and peace. This will take practice. But as your heart opens, first to loved ones and friends, you will find that in the end you won’t want to close it anymore.

Kornfield’s version is quite elaborate. And, of course, it doesn’t involve Luther’s catechism. Someday I’d like to come back to it. But not today.

For now, I just take the basic idea and improvise the words on the fly.

As I’m improvising, I’ll usually work in language from 12-step recovery, praying only for “knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out,” and a childhood Episcopal table grace that ends, “… and make us every mindful of the needs of others.” It’s kind of a mishmash, but it gets me through the day.

Do I really feel like all will be well and all manner of things will be well? No, my thoughts are closer to Admiral Stockdale’s. Yes, I think we will prevail in the end, but, no, I can’t get out present reality out of my mind. And, yes, our current reality is in fact brutal.

But the act of praying, even an odd mashup of a prayer from Luther’s catechism and a Theravada Buddhist meditation offered up before I’ve had my coffee in the morning, is centering. And it reminds me of what Dame Julian says, that in God, however we may choose to define God, we find our preservation and our bliss.

And what Pastor Nadia says, that God is the source of our love and creativity and resilience and kindness and humor. And that God is already present in the future, so maybe we can let go of our hopes, fears, and most of all to let go of “worrying about shit” to make the most of the present.

Revised, May 19, 2020.

Works Cited

Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Optimism won’t save me … but neither will worrying about shit,” The Corners, May 10, 2020 https://nadiabolzweber.substack.com/p/optimism-wont-save-mebut-neither?fbclid=IwAR0klQZOP_HtO3rviWSZNt7hk-N6E8e5VT7DLT6evjggrv0T085zGW7dSlI.

Jack Kornfield. “Meditation On Lovingkindness,” Jack https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/.

Erin M. Hawley. “The plague, coronavirus and Martin Luther — why they all matter now,” The Hill, March 30, 2020 https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/488675-the-plague-coronavirus-and-martin-luther-why-they-all-matter-now.

Martin Marty. Martin Luther: A Penguin Life (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004), 1-2.

“Wartburg Castle – the most visited Reformation site,” Reformation Anniversary 2017, Deutsche Welle https://www.dw.com/en/wartburg-castle-the-most-visited-reformation-site/a-36162981.

One thought on “Throwing an inkpot at the virus? Some wisdom for a brutal time from a 14th-century mystic, Luther’s catechism and a Buddhist meditation

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