Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:8-9).
Although invisible and not quite classifiable as a living thing, the coronavirus took control of our lives. People take ill in geometrically increasing numbers. People die in frightening numbers. Health care workers put their lives on the line, and too many lose them.
Unlike the flu virus, we lack any history of managing this strange, new pseudo-beast. So under the guidance of Dr. Fauci, we stay home, which means many lose their incomes and jobs, and many businesses hang on for dear life. Some adjust to an abrupt slowing of their days, while others working from home reorganize their jobs without blueprints.
So what does spirituality have to do with it? As attention turns more to more basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — food, shelter, hygiene, maintaining a modicum of human contact — does that rule out time to ponder our purpose, to rest in the present moment, to wonder and pray?
If the point of spirituality is to calm and center, then, yes, spirituality matters right now. Spiritual practice helps the practitioner cope. But if spirituality means no more than that, then we must consider it nonessential.
On the other hand, the point of spirituality is much greater. To live the questions life asks of us. To commit our lives passionately to a purpose beyond us. And in the strictest and most profound sense, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. Such spirituality constitutes the most important dimension of our lives during the coronavirus crisis.
The coronavirus throws us into liminal space, a region of our life journeys with no maps. We do not know quite where we are going. We question whether we followed the right road until now as we thought we did. The present, the landscape around us, suddenly seems a wasteland. From such places, spirituality emerges.
Consider these markers of spirituality emerging in Christian history:
- Scribes compiled the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament in Christian terms, in response to exile. God’s promise to protect the line of David and Solomon’s temple needed portability. Spirituality required a law written upon the heart (Jeremiah 31:33), not just kept in a temple vault. From this literature, we have psalms and prophecies, exemplars and examples of the steadfast love of God.
- Christ comes in a period of Roman occupation, the Pax Romana, Roman peace kept by force and economic oppression. From this emerges Gospels, “good news,” and letters of love and encouragement to communities under siege. Moreover, the Son of God came as a human and suffered humiliation and death with us and for us on the way to glory. (See Philippians 2:5-11 for the spiritual heart of the New Testament).
- Decades later, Christianity transforms from the most persecuted to the most established religion of the Roman Empire. Then as the empire’s foundations crack and collapse, Bishop Augustine of Hippo shepherds church and society through this upheaval. He writes his long, autobiographical prayer, The Confessions, the first paragraph of which includes, “We were made for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Integrating prayer with philosophy, rhetoric, and unparalleled theological insight, he provided enduring bearings for Christian practice and perspective.
- During the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt, the 14th century English anchorite, Julian of Norwich, faced squarely the problem of what suffering means in the reign of a loving God. In her Showings, she shares graphic visions of Christ’s passion. They broke her heart not to despair, but to a deep sense of God’s radical mercy and lovingkindness. She delivered God’s promise, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” (as translated by T.S. Eliot).
- Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross were the great 16th century Spanish mystics. They provided classical writings on prayer and spiritual guidance during the Spanish Inquisition, and all of them suffered for it. Ignatius provided enduring guidance on discernment of God’s loving will. In her classic, Interior Castle, Teresa depicted contemplative prayer as a bridal journey inward to union with God. Similarly, John offered the poetic image of the “Dark Night of the Soul” as a passage through liminal space to God.
- In the 20th century, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote spiritual classics like The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together as the Third Reich cast its shadow over his native Germany and the world. Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. drawing from Christ and the prophets and from the Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, offered by speech and deed a spirituality of nonviolent love of enemies. Mother Teresa of Calcutta offered a spirituality of service among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.
These few examples suffice to show that God offers much to draw us near, to love us and make us more loving in liminal spaces. Speaking for myself, the tiny magnitude of my life in the history of Christian spirituality barely appears next to these giants. But large outlines help us better perceive patterns through the microscope. We see God’s creative love work in and through our spirits during hard times by observing how their lives bore witness to God amid similar historic trials.
With such examples and outlines in mind, let me offer some ways that the coronavirus crisis invites us to deeper spiritual practice:
- The coronavirus crisis presents a choice between compassion and self-absorption. Especially if it portends loss of health or financial security, one must focus to a large degree on preventing or recovering from personal threat. Yet, love, not survival, drives the soul’s movement toward God. Compassion and intercessory prayer for others under threat shifts the soul to a God’s-eye-view. God’s project is peace. We join that project not when fear and competition drive us, but when we recognize our shared vulnerability and common plight.
- Some struggle with the sudden derailing of the fast train of work. Slowing down can set us into adrenaline withdrawal. It can also leave us alone with our thoughts that we often escape through activity. Thus, it may seem emotionally perilous to turn inward. Nevertheless, the inward way, in which we face ourselves with compassion but also with the courage of confession, takes us on the contemplative way beyond ourselves to God. Open your heart to God’s love, knowing that God never denies it to those who seek it, no matter how they fall short. Do not deride yourself for failing to meet an ideal, for that is pride, not love. Rather, allow yourself to be the small mortal you are before the immortal God. Let yourself marvel that God cherishes you. Be still in that awareness.
- Others struggle with having to work harder to keep things going from home, at an office with a skeleton staff, or in an overburdened medical service. Suddenly climbing multiple learning curves with no time to spare and facing too many situations they did not teach about in school, one feels awash in chaos. These need moments to breathe and accept with trust whatever they feel without shame. Prayers, however brief, even if just, “Help!” or “Thanks!” or “Wow!” addressed from the heart to God keep the lights on in their inner sanctuaries. Prioritize rest when that time comes, trusting God to take care of tomorrow and letting today’s worries be enough (Matthew 6:25-34).
- Self-isolating and quarantining point to a paradox of spirituality: The Spirit leads us to community and to solitude. We need both, and God meets us in both places. Some enter social distancing and isolating from already lonely lives. Others thrive on constant connection and feel this cuts off their air supply. But at either extreme and in-between, we need to make peace with solitude both to reap its spiritual benefits and to introduce the authentic self to others when we re-enter the social milieu. Augustine was right: We are made for God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Whether solitude brings pain or relief, develop a discipline of prayer in it. As you get to know yourself better, you better see beyond yourself to God.
For some, the coronavirus pandemic and similar catastrophes lead to despair of God. For others, they lead closer to God. Whether one knows God as crucified, as fellow sufferer who walks through darkness with us to morning, makes the difference. God gives us the opportunity to relax our anxious dependence on human leaders and the market economy, be still, and know Who is God (Psalm 46). Beg God to get us through it soon. But in the meantime, take this opportunity to let God draw you nearer.
Liminal Space: Grace Where Things Fall Apart
Confessions of Augustine: A Gift From a Friend
Julian’s Joyful Insight Into Sin
Ignatius Dreams: A Young Man Learns Discernment and Teaches the World
Encouraging Paradoxes of the Dark Night
Dr. King’s Medicine: Love Your Enemies