A rabbi in New Rochelle, New York, while quarantined and being treated for coronavirus, said, “We sometimes find ourselves victims of life’s fragility and tentativeness. This is one of those times. It can help us to reorient our ultimate goals in life. Contemplation is good for the soul.”
These are frightening times, in which the threats of illness and loss loom large. Fear is driving us, quite literally, apart. For our health and safety, we must put barriers and distance between us. We must keep to ourselves, for the time being. Christian people are preparing for Easter without the welcoming embrace of Sunday services and while witnessing immense collective suffering without familiar community to lean upon for answers and support. Under the conditions of isolation and from within emotional overwhelm, our faith may suffer, but it is essential we nurture our relationship with God in the midst of a global pandemic. The Christian contemplative tradition, a rich but sometimes neglected part of religious life, offers healing balm for this moment.
Thomas Merton writes, “Contemplation is the highest expression of a man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, for being.” We can refine our awareness and steady our faith in a brutal world through three accessible modes of contemplative practice: silence (Centering Prayer), sacred reading (Lectio Divina) and embodied prayer (Julian of Norwich’s Body Prayer).
Through contemplation, we can take comfort in daily practices, well-worn by the hands, hearts, and minds of Christians – who endured personal suffering, illness, wars, and pandemics—for centuries. Contemplation serves not only our highest good but also the common good. Clear awareness creates within us wells of compassion; our faith leads us to the work of justice and mercy, from contemplation to action.
Centering Prayer, commonly known as the Christian form of meditation, is a process of developing inner silence through the context of sustained outer silence. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, states, “Centering Prayer addresses the human condition exactly where it is. This prayer heals the emotional wounds of a lifetime. It opens up the possibility of experiencing in this world the transformation into Christ to which the gospel invites us.” By quieting the mind, we slowly become more aware of God’s abiding presence and open ourselves to receive divine wisdom.
Centering Prayer follows this progression: a short chant, a short verbal prayer, at least 20 minutes of silence, another spoken prayer. (Like a true millennial, I practice Centering Prayer with the help of an app.) A “sacred word” (a word or two like “love,” “trust,” “peace,” or “be still”) is central to the practice of Centering Prayer. When thoughts intrude, repeat your chosen word and return to inner silence.
Keating continues, “The divine presence has always been with us, but we think it is absent. That thought is the monumental illusion of the human condition. The spiritual journey is designed to heal it.” Sitting in Centering Prayer turns down the volume on egoic thinking and instead leaves a deep peace: the knowledge that all of life is wrapped in a meshwork of God’s love. I cannot think my way to that kind of peace; I instead practice softening into it.
Lectio Divina, translated as “divine reading,” is a contemplative practice rooted in scripture and divided into four progressive stages: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (contemplation). A common analogy employed to describe the stages of the practice is: eating, chewing, swallowing, digesting. Reading in the context of Lectio Divina allows you to perceive God’s particular guidance for your life, without worrying about the “correct” meaning.
According to Michael Casey, the author of Sacred Reading, this is the perfect time of year to practice Lectio Divina, “The longest section dealing with lectio divina in the Rule of Benedict occurs in the context of Lent. For Benedict, this is a season of personal and community renewal during which we water down our vices and try to become more attentive to the summons of grace.” We search for and discover the presence of grace in reading.
Casey writes, “Water can wear away rock, but it needs time as its ally. God’s word will certainly refashion our lives but not overnight. The process begins from the center and works outward.” Like most things worth having in life, contemplation, in every form, requires patience and dedication.
When life seems particularly bleak, I turn to the wisdom of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century English anchoress and mystic, who survived an illness that took her to the brink of death, witnessed the Hundred Years’ War, and saw her community ravaged by the Black Death.
Julian of Norwich’s “Body Prayer” reminds me that God meets me in bodily suffering and human vulnerability – both urgently underscored by the threat of the coronavirus. Julian, as many contemplatives did in the Middle Ages, prayed for suffering, in her case, three fundamental “wounds”: to experience “the compassion Mary Magdalene and the others would have felt at the cross,” “a mortal illness,” and “contrition, compassion and longing for God.” Julian viewed suffering as a generative precedent to compassion and to a deep, life-giving connection to God.
Throughout her writing, Julian emphasized the importance of praying with the whole self, including the body. This idea has since been translated onto a series of four virtues with four corresponding movements: await, allow, accept, attend. When performed with sacred intention, you can pray with your body.
Close your eyes and breathe.
Hold hands cupped in front of you, waiting to receive.
Sweep your hands up above your head, beginning to feel for God’s presence without agenda.
Bring your hands inward, placing them over your heart, bow your head, showing humility.
Reach your hands outward, a sign of opening your life to God.
Repeat several times.
Further, Julian’s renowned refrain, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well,” can provide calm. Julian, a sage in her own right, can offer us the clear-eyed perspective that God is present with us in our suffering and that God’s love for us is unfathomably great, encircling us always.
Under the current quarantine conditions, the perimeters of our lives have narrowed. This is painful, but not reason alone to despair. We can adapt our daily practices to support our spiritual growth, the cultivation of interior peace, and the healing of ourselves and the world. As we practice contemplation, we can think of Christians who walked before us, who reached their hearts toward God in troubling times. Although we are afraid, although we may be desperate for understanding or connection, wisdom is within our reach. We simply need a few minutes a day to be quiet and receive.
Contemplation is indeed good for the soul.
Sarah E. James is a graduate of Middlebury College and Yale Divinity School. She lives in Los Angeles.