If you can’t congregate . . . contemplate
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By Duke Stewart
Christianity has faced many challenges over its two-thousand-year history and COVID-19 is no exception. The call to batten down our hatches, to not answer the door, to have our delivered packages go untouched for the requisite hours, to not assemble in groups more than ten, feels like an intrusion; and for those of us raised on Wednesday night dinners, Sunday morning worship, hymn singing, Bible studies, prayer and youth groups: it assaults our sense of worship.
One critic suggested that Christians don’t have it so bad—technically for worship Christians only need two believers. “Where two or more are gathered in my name,” Jesus promises to be there; that’s five times easier than Judaism which requires a minyan (orthodox--ten men, reform-ten men and/or women) for a prayer service.
Growing up in a southern church, I found Christians to be gregarious; solitude was rarely if at all mentioned. I didn’t learn about the way of desert spirituality until I took a class in seminary which emphasized that no matter where one might be -- solitary confinement, an ICU or even a gilded penthouse on Fifth Avenue -- God promises to be there. One in need can draw on the gift of the desert solitary, whispering her prayers to God, from anywhere.
Most of us can name at least four of the twelve disciples, the Old Testament patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), a major and minor prophet (think Jeremiah and Amos), the figures in Genesis, but how many of us can name a desert mother or father or modern day contemplative? (What the heck is a contemplative--we get to that later, I promise). Simon Stylites, Theodora of Alexander, and Thomas Merton along with a host of other ascetics have served as beacons of light to help the disconsolate and worried get through many a dark night by teaching contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is to pray with “deep, reflective thought.” It is to enter a silence that opens unto God. It is supported by many scriptures. For example: “Be still and know that I am God,'' writes the Psalmist, and “My soul finds rest in God alone; my hope comes from Him.” Jesus too went to the desert to pray -- alone.
To pray contemplatively is not easy, particularly for those of us whose minds run from one catastrophic thought to another, spinning out of control only to subside if we are lucky enough to sleep and avoid getting smacked by a nightmare. Contemplative prayer slows thoughts by focusing, gradually quieting and then moving into stillness. There are many ways to do this, some more common to Christians than others. A good place to begin is with the breath. When faced with a coronavirus, we are quickly learning not to take our breaths for granted. We can’t live without breathing – at least not for long. The ancient Hebrews used the same word for breath as for the Spirit of God. In other words, one can’t really live without God’s Spirit either -- at least not for long. The standard protocol for praying contemplatively is to find a quiet place -- no cell phone, no tv, no major disruptions -- and get comfortable but not so comfortable as to become sleepy.
Then, one follows the breath counting each inhalation and exhalation as one unit going all the way to ten and then starting over again. Believe it or not this is incredibly difficult to do without a thought promptly hijacking our concentration, followed by one after another until one remembers, I’m supposed to be counting breaths. Strange too how when one tries to do this the body starts to itch, the back aches and the little drip in the bathroom sounds like Niagra. These are all common trials of the rookie contemplative.
To settle the mind like this for five minutes a day is a major achievement and the mind will thank you for it becoming a little less stressed. Longer periods too eventually become easier as the “muscle memory” of counting the breaths grows. But if counting breaths is just too hard, uncomfortable, or downright unsavory, never fear, there are alternatives. One of my favorites is praying the name of Jesus. We are blessed with a savior whose first name has two syllables. Instead of counting breaths one can intone Jesus’s name. When exhaling one softly prays JE , the first syllable and when inhaling one says SUS , the second. It’s a simple yet powerful prayer that has been used throughout history by believers in all sorts of predicaments.
While working in a hospital as a chaplain, I found this prayer to be comforting for many patients in life-threatening situations. For me, I like to pray this way when stuck at the railroad crossing, particularly on those days when the train slows to a stop, only to switch tracks and back up again. Think of the possibilities: panicked when you wake up and feel a tad warm on the forehead (I confess I take my temperature five times a day -- so far so cool) breathe the name of JE/SUS . Trapped at home with an oppositional sixteen year old who is less mature than your toddler -- whisper His name; checkout lines, internet outages, being placed on hold by your medical provider, waiting for a test result, isolated in a hospital bed--contemplate JE/SUS ; and watch your thoughts slow down, your anxiety lessen and a peace rise in your midst.