Centering Prayer As A Way Of Coping With Trauma In This Era Of Covid19 Pandemic
Lecture delivered via Facebook Live and Zoom
By: THE REV. DR. FRED VERGARA
Good evening America and Good morning Asia to those of you listening from Zoom or Facebook Live. We begin tonight’s prayer session by listening to “Comfort ye, my people.” This aria from Handel’s Messiah is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 40 which reads in part, “Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her warfare has been ended; her iniquity has been pardoned. For she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.”
When I started this virtual prayer meeting last March 17, 2020, to devote a weekly prayer in these times of COVID19 pandemic, I got the cue from 2nd Chronicles 7:14 which says, “If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I shall hear from heaven and will forgive their sins, and heal their land.” That’s why it’s held at 7:14 PM and not 7:15 or 7:30.
I felt that if this is part of divine judgment and if judgment begins in the house of God (1 Peter 4:17), then the people of God must listen to how the original God’s people (Israel) humbled themselves, prayed and repented until God heard their cries and saw their tears and forgave and healed their land.
At that time when we started prayer against the Corona Virus pandemic, there was a prediction from health experts that without mitigation (that is without social distancing), there would be 81% of the population of the United States who will be infected by the virus and some 2.2 million deaths. Later that was adjusted to between 100,000 to 250,000 deaths. Here in New York, we were prepared for the worst as we see the problem hitting almost every family, almost every church and community. Four persons I know personally, have died of COVID19 and I have done several virtual memorial services. By the way, the memorial service for Inez Saley, the former treasurer of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council, who died from COVID19, will be held this coming Friday at 8:00 PM Eastern (4/17/2020).
Seemingly there is a sign of hope that the worst did not come or will not come. It is still bad, that as of this day, some 25,000 people in the US who have already died and some are still dying, but it is not as gargantuan a number as predicted. At that time, when we started this virtual “714 Corona Prayer Room,” there was a big fear that all the hospitals, especially in New York City would be overrun but it really did not happen. This morning, I was listening to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo making an update on the Corona pandemic and he asked, “What did we do?” Why only 25,000 instead of 2.2 million people died, knock on wood? Of course, the answer is that people generally observed social distancing and to a large extent, we owe it to the heroic deeds of the doctors, nurses and health care providers who fight this battle on our behalf.
But the other reason, I believe is that people, religious people have turned to prayer and worship in their homes and via social media and technology. Practically all the churches, synagogues and temples have tried to be creative in doing virtual services beyond the confines of their parishes and missions. Our Presiding Bishop. The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, noted earlier that the months of April and May are holy months of the world’s major religions: Passover for the Jews, Ramadan for the Muslims, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost for Christians. You may add Vesak Day also for Buddhists and Hindus, May being the birth month of Gautama Buddha.
So I believe prayer changes things because God changes things.
But as the politicians are now debating when and how to return to a semblance of normalcy, we also see the other underlying issues many of us are facing. All problems are interrelated: people lost and are losing their jobs, people are just beginning to mourn the loss of their loved ones, people are still trying to cope with the uncertainty of the times. And so we will be seeing and hearing of people going into depression. Already there are reports of some people committing suicides and a marked increase in domestic violence.
While this is an “equal opportunity” pandemic, the worst hit is the people of color. Most of the deaths in New York are African Americans and Latino/Hispanic Americans; most of the deaths in California are Latino and Asian Americans. There is a fear that an outbreak would happen in the Indian reservations, it would decimate the population because there are no resources for sophisticated hospitals as there are in urban and suburban areas. There has always been racism in our social structure but this pandemic sharpened the racial and economic inequality in this country. And the main reason why there are more deaths on people of color is that they compose the majority of people serving in essential services and therefore more exposed to the virus which like the devil, “it prowls around seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
From the Asian American perspective, there are many Asian doctors and nurses and health care professionals in the front lines of battle but when they go home, they are also fighting racial discrimination and even racist acts from those who call COVID19 the “Chinese virus” or “kungfu.”
So we may expect that the effects of this pandemic would not end with an abrupt bang but will have reverberations or side effects in the emotional, spiritual and psychological well being of the people.
COMMUNITY COVID19 TRAUMA
Yesterday, I posted an article sent to me by Canon Patricia Michelle of our Diocese of Long Island with the title, “Why am I tired?” This seems to be the refrain of so many of us who are self-distancing. Some sample complaints say: “I just stay at home, doing nothing and yet why am I so tired and without energy?” “I have so much free time but why am I so exhausted?”
The writer of the article is a psychologist, Jennifer Geryol who attempted to answer by saying that the current pandemic, and the resulting quarantine we find ourselves under, “is a unique situation that most of us have never faced before in our lifetime and that this situation is a form of community trauma.”
Yes, wittingly or unwittingly, we are all experiencing a collective trauma. Let me quote some of Geryol’s explanations:
“Deep in the temporal lobe of our brains, just above the brain stem, is a small structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is known as the fear center of our brain. This is the part of our brain that is continually scanning our surroundings and environment for signs of danger and then kicks off the sympathetic nervous system in response to any perceived threats. The sympathetic nervous system directs our body’s response to a threat by preparing our body systems to protect us. Our heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, and glucose is dumped into the bloodstream in order to prepare us to stand and fight the threat or to turn and run to escape from it.
This is the response that is commonly known as “fight or flight.”The important thing to know about the amygdala is that it cannot tell the difference between a real or perceived threat. This sympathetic response is automatic, and outside of our voluntary control. This is all well and good when we need quick, temporary protection from a threat, are able to respond, and then are able to engage the parasympathetic nervous system in order to regulate our body systems and regain a sense of calm and safety. When we are living in a state of on-going perceived threat, especially that which is traumatic in nature, our brains have difficulty engaging the parasympathetic response and returning to calm.”
“Think about it this way: the amygdala is like the smoke alarm of your brain.
It senses danger and alerts your body to protect itself from danger. Now, imagine someone has pulled your smoke detector, and it’s gotten stuck in the on position. The alarm tone is blaring, the lights are flashing, and no matter what you try to do to put out the fire, there’s no shutting the thing off. This is your brain under traumatic stress. No wonder you are exhausted; your body has been functioning all day long in fire-fighting, fight or flight mode, and nothing you can do can change this for any significant length of time.”
“What’s worse is, each time your brain is again assaulted by news of the contagiousness of the virus or the rising number of people sick or dying, each time we enter a grocery store and see bare shelves triggering thoughts of scarcity, or hear that there may not be enough masks or ventilators to save lives, our brains are again kicked into high alert. This is the definition of a chronic state of community trauma.”
I said earlier that the initial purpose of this virtual Prayer Room is to engage in intercession and pleading for God to intervene in putting an end to this epidemic, using the methods of Confession and prayers of spiritual warfare. But as more people join in Zoom and especially Facebook, they wanted to know more about prayer as a relationship with God and with each other and how prayer can help us in coping with depression and community trauma.
And so we went into teaching about the four parts of prayer or four kinds of prayer through the acronym ACTS, meaning prayer as “Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.” Then last Tuesday, we introduced a different kind of prayer which is “Centering Prayer” or “Contemplative Prayer.” From the verbal tone of ACTS into a transition to silence and mulling over a sacred word and allowing it to go into our interior life.
If some of you remember, Centering prayer or contemplative prayer is simply “opening our hearts and our minds to the will of God that is beyond words, beyond thoughts, and beyond emotions.” It is not to replace the ACTS prayer of words; it is not to replace prayer in tongues. It is simply resting in the presence of God, accepting the initiative of God, allowing “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” trusting that God’s will is always for our good.
So tonight, taking the cue from Isaiah 40, I would like to press on by asking how we can make Centering Prayer a comforting prayer. The word comfort comes from two words “com” and “fort” which means to make strong, like a fortress.
How can Centering Prayer help us in coping with depression, emotional assaults, and community trauma? Yesterday, I went to our grocery here in Queens and when I arrived. there was almost a quarter of a mile long of people. Only ten people were allowed inside the grocery, so waiting for our turn required a lot of patience and tolerance. Since we were separated at least six feet apart and from time to time some were misbehaving, and because we could not engage in conversation, I decided to do centering prayer.
I used the word of “Christ” as my sacred word. So in my spirit, I say “Christ, Christ, Christ. Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ above me, Christ on my left, Christ on my right, Christ surround me,” using pretty much the prayer of St. Patrick’s of Ireland. That kind of silent praying, which was internal and not external or verbal, pretty much kept my sanity.
At some point, I saw someone trying to overtake me. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t let someone do that and I would insist on my right of way, but I thought there might be an extra reason why this person was trying to go ahead. So I exchanged place with him and contemplated on the word “grace.” Grace, grace, grace…grace before me, grace behind me, grace above me, grace beneath me, grace within me.
Now that was a centering prayer put into practice. Jennifer Geryol said that we are generally in the state of survival so we have to manage our emotions away from societal expectations for success and productivity. She added, “the essential core of coping and self-care during this time is simply remembering to focus on grace and self-compassion as you navigate this unprecedented time.”
If you can, and if it is allowed within the “stay in place” order, take a walk. My friend, Peter Ng, who I used to travel within China, Philippines, other parts of Asia as well as in the entire United States, recently told me he registered for a “free tour.” I asked where and he said, “a tour inside my apartment, walking to every room, the hallway, the kitchen, several times a day.”
“So take a tour of your house, take a bath, take a nap, take deep breaths, ask for help, help where you can, and know that whatever you are feeling is completely normal, and whatever you need to do to love on and care for you during this time is okay. No guilt, only grace, as we walk this uncharted territory together.” Geryol is right.
So let me go back to Centering Prayer. Last week I shared that one of the things you can do in this self-quarantine era is to develop your sacred space: a prayer room, space or corner or a secluded place. If you don’t have a room, try to find a quiet space. As I told you last time, here in what used to be a very busy Queens, New York the only place I can find quietness is the Queens Cemetery. And I used to go there often to walk and pray. It’s a very quiet neighborhood, everybody is dead!
Joking aside, the Desert Fathers and Mothers had this to say, “Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The cell is the place where one learns to pray, or rather, where one becomes an apprentice of the Spirit who prays through us.
Romans 8:26-27, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought but that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart knows what is the mind of Christ because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).
The location of that cell, that prayer room, does not matter. It is the doorway to the spiritual cell you carry in the little space of your own heart.
ORDERS OF CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER-WARRIORS
There are three types of contemplatives: the monastic, the mendicants and the oblates.
The first order of monks traditionally discouraged members to actively engage in the affairs of the world and so they become hermits. A few years ago, we went to Greece and visited the monasteries on Mount Kalambaka. The guide told us a story of how a student hermit learns. The Abbot would place him in a hole by the side of the mountain where he would learn silence. The Abbot would visit him once a year by peeping into the hole. So the first year, the Abbot came down by the side of the mountain suspended by a rope and he peeped into the hole of the young hermit. “How are you, my son?” Now the young disciple must only speak two words, so he replied “hungry thirsty.” The Abbot climbed up the rope. Next year came and the Abbot came down again and asked, “How are you, my son?” The young hermit replied, “hungry lonely.” The Abbot climbed up the rope. The third year, the Abbot came down again and said, “How are you, my son?” The young hermit replied, “I Quit!” The Abbot replied, “Son, I know you’re going to say that, because all these years, you did nothing but complain!”
So it’s not easy to be a monk especially a hermit.
The second order of monks is called “Mendicants.” They are better known as friars, rather than monks because monks implied being stationary or confined to their cells to devote their times in prayer. The mendicant friars (who do not own personal property) could travel around and are peripatetic. They are free to move about and outside their cloister to evangelize, teach or work in their apostolate areas. Mendicant friars such as the Franciscans and Carmelites have sought to synthesize contemplation and action in their community life.
St. Francis of Assisi, a beloved contemplative said, “The world is my cloister, my body is my cell, and my soul is the hermit within.”
The third order of contemplatives is the oblates. Pope Pius XI called the oblates as “the specialists of the most difficult missions” as they are to celebrate the sacraments among the poor, the destitute, the elderly, the orphans, the lepers, and those in the margins of society. Mother Teresa was an oblate sister who devoted her ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. This blessed St. Maria Teresa Casini founded the “Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” in Italy in 1894 and currently has about 300 oblate sisters working in Italy, US, Brazil, Africa, India, Peru, and other countries, and most likely they are in the front lines in this battle against COVID 19 ministering among the poor and needy.
So these contemplative oblate sisters (lay people) are also teachers of centering prayers and meditations and at the same time actively involved in the social problems of society, a kind of spirituality of engagement or spirituality of combat.
Again the goal of Centering Prayer is union with Christ and even as you find God in the whirlwind of your ministerial life, you can best find God in the still small voice. Instead of complaining, use these days of isolation time to seek God in the still small voice.
So in these times of pandemic, there is collective trauma or community trauma that pervades the atmosphere, and we all must learn to adapt. It is unfortunate that instead of calling for patience, our US President is giving a spoiler prodding to those people who are protesting the lockdown and social distancing restrictions. These are social distancing guidelines were given to average citizens who are not doing essential services or health care duties, in order to save lives, their own and others. To resist this ordinance is foolhardy.
We can certainly understand “cabin fever” and claustrophobic syndromes when people are locked up indefinitely but the response should not be an irresponsible exposure to the viruses that endanger public health. At this point, we can accept the fear of the virus as normal but to react out of fear in an irresponsible, irrational and erratic way would be counterproductive and deadly.
The proper response is to find ways and means that we can weather this temporary isolation and social distancing so that when we are able to finally starve and kill the Corona Virus and discover effective vaccines or antibodies, we can break out and experience true liberation. And for the meantime, one of the many adaptive tools we can use is “Centering Prayer” and learning how to say like Jesus “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” believing that God’s will is always for our good.
And now may God bless you and keep you and be gracious unto you and give you peace, healing. protection and grace. Amen.
*The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred (Fred) Vergara is Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries of the Episcopal Church based in New York. He is also a part-time priest at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Long Island.