Since I started spiritual direction a couple of years ago, I’ve emailed my spiritual director ahead of our monthly sessions … summing up what I’ve been journaling about since our last meeting and, more to the point, getting a little focus on themes I’ve been working on and, more to the point, new directions that might (or might not) be worthwhile. This month is a little unusual, since: (1) we haven’t met since February; and (2) the COVID-19 pandemic has raised urgent questions that weren’t part of the original plan! Lightly edited for coherence and grammar.

Hi Sister ________ —

Debi says her telephone session with you went really well, so let’s plan on doing ours by phone, too. If it’s convenient for you, I can be waiting by the phone at 2:30 p.m. Monday. We still use a landline, so it’s the same phone number as Debi’s, ___-____. I’ve missed our spiritual direction sessions since the COVID-19 epidemic hit town, and I look forward to hearing from you.

(Or, if it’s more convenient, I could call you. But I suspect my schedule is a lot less busy than yours these days.)

I think it would be fair to say I’ve been off my spiritual formation game in the past two months.

I’ve kind of alternated between getting really, really frightened by the seriousness of the pandemic, binge-watching comedies on Netflix (including a very funny, but also very irreverent, show called “Derry Girls” set in a Catholic girls’ school in Northern Ireland), and slowly getting used to the idea that this is going to be the new normal (I hate that phrase!) and we all may as well get used to it.

So I haven’t been journaling as much, and my journals have tended to reflect the stress of living through the pandemic.

For someone who’s had a hard time making his peace with organized religion, I’ve been surprised how much I miss my parish church. And how much of my spiritual practice centered on church. Go to church, sing in the choir, recite the prayer for the day (or say “Lord, hear our prayer” after the lector recited the prayers), take communion, head out for coffee in the narthex and go on to Sunday school. (We were about halfway through the PBS video series “God in America” when the pandemic hit.)  At home we have almost none of that structure, although Debi and I do keep in touch with our church community at Peace Lutheran by ZOOM, FaceTime and social media.

Even so, let’s say we’ve had to reinvent some wheels. 

I’m just going to link you to two of the journals I’ve posted to my blog. I believe you’ve already seen the one I wrote for Easter and Holy Week, riffing off of our Easter service and Sister Marilyn Jean’s homily at the Dominican motherhouse for Palm Sunday. But these are new:

1. — headline: “‘The UK Blessing’ — in a time of fear and political rancor, a virtual choir calls, gathers, enlightens and makes us holy” (May 4) — about an online project that pieced together video clips of musicians from 65 churches and religious groups in the United Kingdom to sing a blessing (a Contemporary Worship Music praise song) when churches in the UK were under lockdown. It’s worth a listen — and that’s coming from someone who tried to sing CWM with a praise team and found he didn’t much like it — but I also want to follow up on something I wrote about it, and about life in quarantine:

<blockquote>… with that anniversary of mine [when I got home from St. John’s and we went into quarantine] coming up over the weekend, I’d been thinking over our two months of quarantine, anyway, taking stock a little. So here’s an incomplete list of life lessons I’ve learned, or had confirmed, while quarantining in this time of pandemic, plus a couple from watching the UK Blessing video:

  • Each new day is a blessing. I know, I’ve said that before. But it’s worth repeating. Every day.
  • Tomorrow is problematical, though. “We know not the hour …” Especially if we watch too much cable TV news, as I do, and especially now. But today, we’ve got it. We’re OK.
  • When the old-timers around the tables in 12-step recovery groups said to take life one day at a time, they knew what they were talking about.
  • Church isn’t a building, and you don’t have to physically gather in a brick-and-mortar sanctuary to be in communion with people.
  • Contemporary worship music isn’t always annoying. The UK Blessing certainly wasn’t.</blockquote>

That language in the headline, BTW, is from Luther’s Small Catechism, which I’ve been going back to in quarantine. Luther says it’s the church that gathers us, enlightens us and makes us holy.

2. — “Throwing an inkpot at the virus? Some wisdom for a brutal time from a 14th-century mystic, Luther’s catechism and a Buddhist meditation” (May 12). The bit about the inkpot refers to a legend that Luther once threw an inkwell at the devil.

If the story has a foundation in fact, I think it just means he wrote theology. But it’s a nice legend. 

My journal brings together a prayer by Julian of Norwich with one of Luther’s an a Buddhist meditation, which I’ve tried to meld together into a morning meditation of my own. Something I especially need now because: (1) I’m still scared half to death by the pandemic; and (2) I’m all the more scared because I sense the common purpose we felt a month or two ago is unraveling as some of our leaders politicize it.  

Anyway, the prayer (slightly rewritten by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which shared it to the official ELCA page on Facebook) is the one that goes like this: “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.” Luther’s is the morning prayer in the Small Catechism asking for protection from “sin and the evil one.” And the Buddhist meditation, which I think is more like a prayer than a meditation by the time I get done with it, is one of Theravada master Jack Kornfield’s that goes like this:

<blockquote>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.

From there, it broadens out to asking lovingkindness for our family and friends, then random acquaintances, difficult people, then for everyone — including enemies — and finally to all sentient beings. 

I’m certainly not sitting zazen meditation when I do this. (Besides, Kornfield isn’t in the Zen tradition anyway.) Sometimes I’ll combine his prayer and Luther’s into a general prayer for protection and lovingkindness for myself, family, friends, the downstate Republican legislators who are working my nerves lately, all humankind and all sentient beings, working it in as a quick prayer. But I think it centers me, gets me in a better mood to face the day and try to make the most of it. It’s not at all a formal prayer — I wrote:

<blockquote>Kornfield’s version [of the meditation] 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 … 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.</blockquote>

Well, I’ve been rambling here. But something here ought to give us something to talk about — and get me back on track, Unless I hear different from you, I’ll be waiting by the phone around 2:30 Monday afternoon.

— Pete

A footnote (kinda): I didn’t include this in the email, but it jumped off the page at me when I was going back to Jack Kornfield’s meditation for the hypertext link. I think it’s important, and it kinda validates the way I do things:

Lovingkindness can be practiced anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses, and on airplanes. As you silently practice this meditation among people, you will come to feel a wonderful connection with them – the power of lovingkindness. It will calm your mind and keep you connected to your heart.

I’ll have to try this! With the pandemic, I don’t expect to be in many traffic jams, buses and airplanes, but it sounds like a good alternative to arguing about politics with strangers on social media when I’ve got half a dozen windows open on my computer and one of them is blaring a commercial at me.

One thought on “Spiritual direction — seeking a ‘new normal’ during a global pandemic

  1. I appreciating reading a spiritual reflection on these times. Plough(the Bruderhof community’s magazine) and Comment(magazine new to me) hosted a 90 minute session talking with Stanley Hauerwas and Edwidge Danticant. He especially interested me as he said Christians live with patience and hope, but that Christianity was never a safe religion. It is now on YouTube. I loved the reference to The Blessing and have shared it widely.


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