This COVID-19 crisis has underlined how much we need social and spiritual communication. Many people love to talk and to relate to others. In fact, we are built for communicating; our speech, faces, gestures, hands and bodies are all means of relating to others – think of how a hand gesture or body movement can communicate much more effectively than words alone.
Even more basically, we are built for communication with God, our creator and origin. Relating to God should be easy as it is an essential part of who we are. However, it can get very complicated as we can feel God is too distant, or that we are not smart enough. We can even doubt that God would be interested in us. When we hit difficult moments such as the Coronavirus crisis, God seems to have abandoned us and prayer can seem impossible.
However, given that we are created in the image of God, it is possible to live our lives close to God in a personal and intimate way. ‘God is closer to us than we are to ourselves’ said St Augustine. This is a miracle. God is always with us, close and intimate, but often we are not with God. How could we miss out on something so immediate and essential? Why do people find it so hard, or feel that it is useless or give up on it entirely? People often end up concluding that there is no God, or if their God is distant and doesn’t care that God’s not there for them when they need help. We’ve often had experiences of being let down, feeling alone or really struggling in prayer, especilaly in times of crisis. Sometimes we can overcomplicate things, feeling we have to do a lot in prayer, that we need a lot of things (special place, books, knowledge), perhaps suspecting that God has a negative view of us and that we don’t measure up. To relate to God the way you would to a close friend seems to be taking liberties, a bit too simple or too close for comfort. Yet how are we to relate to God except in the ways in which we are designed to do: using words, gestures, symbols and our bodies? Think of how powerful it is to appeal to God in heartfelt words, kneeling or holding our hands open, and repeating the words of a prayer such as ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner’.
One of the great things about a ‘close’ God is that it doesn’t really matter how you pray as long as you find a way of communicating; God will meet us more than halfway. In any close, loving relationship, people find a way, despite difficulties, to relate through words, gestures, signs or symbols- even social media! Think of Mary at the foot of the Cross, just standing there wordless. Sometimes being there is enough. It is about finding some way that works; each of us is different and different things will work for us. As Pope Francis says, “each of us has our own path to God, given that we are uniquely made”(Gaudete et Exsultate 11). Some of us use sight, some actions, some words, some gestures to communicate our love for others. Our job is to try out different ways of praying and learn what works in terms of God becoming more and more the centre of our lives.
St Ignatius said that God deals directly with us and is always trying to reach us, so our job is to recognise where God is present in our everyday lives. Even in the mess of things, in the dirt and muck of things, the COVID-19 crisis, God is always there. That may be unexpected but it is liberating. Our job is to spot where God is calling and learn to respond, helping us to transform the situations we find ourselves in. There is no point in making the same old prayers in the same old way if God is waiting for a creative response and looking to make something new of us. This is an adventure into the unknown where we can take some pointers from wise people who have gone before us, but it is also one where we have to trust our instincts and believe that God is offering us new opportunities. Make your prayers real, heartfelt and based on your experience, and step out into the unknown. God is waiting.
Ways of Praying
While this is not a retreat about prayer methods, nor does it cover important areas such as liturgical prayer, devotional prayer, adoration etc., it does attempt to present a way of praying in particularly difficult situations like this: emergency prayer, if you like, that can be useful when other methods don’t work. It is based on the approach of St Ignatius and tested in the experience of the authors. Each of the main meditations that follows is divided into four sections:
1. PREPARATION PRAYER
The human experience while often one of joy or happiness can also involve suffering, abandonment or loneliness. These experiences are common to us all, but when you are in the middle of them, it feels like you are the only one. It can be easy to forget that others who have been through testing situations have prayed and survived, and that God is with us all in the middle of this. We have to bring all of this to prayer- emotions, feelings, fears, our whole body. This first step is acknowledging the reality of the situation such as the COVID-19 crisis, which can be overpowering and frightening sometimes, and accepting that God is with us even in this.
2. THE WAY OF PRAYING FOR THAT SITUATION
This means handing the situation over to God, acknowledging that it is often beyond us and that we need help. There is a real humility in this that acknowledges our own neediness and is a heartfelt appeal to the one who made us. This is where the communication happens and, as in most situations, it takes some adjustment and experimentation to find the best way of expressing oneself.
3. RELEVANT SCRIPTURE TEXTS
Scripture is made up of stories of biblical characters who found ways to relate to God and found rituals and words that made up their prayer. Even Moses, David and Job have ongoing conversations with God – things change and their prayer has to change to keep up with where God is leading them. It’s always challenging but ultimately worthwhile. Think about the journey the biblical characters have to go on to be open to God – as always, Mary is the best example. Obviously, Jesus himself as recorded in the Gospels has a special place in this prayer.
4. REFLECTION QUESTIONS
Each theme has a number of reflection questions to consider at the end of a time of prayer. These are designed to help you go deeper, to personalise the prayer, to reflect on what it means for your life. It may be an idea to keep a personal journal or notebook to record what happens in the prayer. This is another way of reflecting and helping you process what God is saying to you specifically.
In some ways this can be a journey into the unknown, trusting that the Spirit works within us and that we will be guided towards peace and healing. There are no shortcuts here, however, and this can be challenging and painful as we pass through the experience of the Cross. Being with Christ is an adventure in which we are sometimes not sure of the destination but we place our trust in our guide.