A long loving look: Advice for praying about the pandemic, and why you should
Even darkness to you is not dark, and night is as clear as the day.
As I age, I have learned the need to be patient: to be patient with both myself and others, as well as with situations that disturb. I have learned not to flee from or judge these situations harshly but, rather, give them time and try to learn from them. People who at first rubbed me the wrong way have with time come to be good friends. In fact, someone who at first drove me crazy with his perfectionism eventually became my best friend. What I finally learned after more than one rough moment in our work relationship was that his perfectionism complemented my lack of concern for details.
So in human relations and in many other areas of life I have come to connect that experience with Jesuit Father and renowned preacher Walter Burghardt’s concise definition of prayer as “a long, loving look at the real.” Clearly, he was referring not so much to the prayer of petition, which is perhaps the most practiced form of prayer, but rather to mental prayer. This is the prayer in which we pay closer attention, exercise our imagination and observe silence in order to truly listen to God instead of talk to him.
Father Burghardt’s definition always appealed to me because it correlates well with the Ignatian goal of “encountering God in all things.” This approach to encountering God does not support a harmful dichotomy between what is spiritual and what is earthly, nor does it propose other dualistic or binary forms of speaking or thinking. His description of prayer overcomes the dualism that disincarnates God, removing divinity from the realities which the all-powerful God created; realities with which he has identified himself once and for all, when he sent his son; a son who was submerged in the messiness of human life in order to be like us in everything but sin.
Walter Burghardt’s concise definition of prayer was “a long, loving look at the real.”
These thoughts occur to me especially in the context of the pandemic through which we have been living for more than a year, and which the world will be experiencing, in one way or another, until humanity reaches the longed-for herd immunity. The pandemic itself deserves its own “loving look.”
Prayer always begins and ends with a recognition of God’s presence, and it disposes us toward receptivity. For me, receptivity is the essence of the prayerful relationship with God. God never stops being providential, for us—primereándonos, “firsting us” as Pope Francis’s Spanish neologism tries to capture. And God never stops loving his creatures and his creation despite their sins and the evils they have caused. God has a way of transforming everything into grace. That is why our prayer in its deepest forms can be loving and not fearful. It is not for nothing that Jesus repeatedly exhorts us in the Gospel: “Fear not!”
Prayer allows us to draw close to and receive reality, the facts, always in the presence of a providential God. We can do so with confidence, in order to discover whatever those facts mean in relation to God’s mysterious designs. Faith tells us those designs are ultimately benevolent. To draw the full benefit of praying this way, it is necessary to undertake it with courage. This requires not fleeing from negative and uncomfortable emotions such as fear, horror, anger, jealousy or vengeance; rather, we should draw close to them in order to discover the underlying message and meaning they may have for us. This is about finding God in what is pleasant and unpleasant, in what we find attractive as well as repugnant—that is, in all things!
God has a way of transforming everything into grace.
This aligns with a school of spirituality called bio-spirituality, founded by priests (and former Jesuits), Peter Campbell and Edward McMahon. It proposes that we make friends of our negative and painful emotions, that we embrace them and learn to calmly sit next to them in order to hear them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has left 3.7 million dead in the world and counting. We have lost fathers, mothers, spouses, brothers, sisters, companions and colleagues at work, as well as youth, young adults and children. Economies have been devastated, the education of our youth interrupted, delayed or simply eliminated. Millions more have suffered the physical and psychological effects of this merciless plague. Our ordinary routines have been sidelined. The cracks and imperfections of our marriages, friendships, communities and institutions, so often hidden or overlooked in normal times, have been exposed to the full light of day. They are often revealed for what they really are.
While the pandemic has abated in the United States thanks to the vaccines, with social distancing and quarantine, humanity has buried itself in a grave of isolation and loneliness. Every day, moreover, we hear about new threats and other painful events, such as increased political and economic instability among nations and the ongoing detection of serious, lasting side effects from the Covid infection. How long will this evil last? Nevertheless, a loving look at this frightful ugliness does not get stuck on what is ugly, bad or frightful. Rather, it looks for the light in the darkness.
The simple truth is that, in conjunction with the disaster of Covid-19, there have been many benefits. One of them is a more generalized awareness of our human dependence, interconnectedness and fragility. Modern culture, with its impatience and desire to gain everything with just a “click” of a button, has had to slow down its mad rush and massively rediscover the virtue of hope. The fact that the pandemic will not be fully conquered until the human race reaches herd immunity, which may be quite some time away, points us to the need for solidarity: a concept so often forgotten or ignored in a consumerist world filled with “disposable people.”
A loving look at this frightful ugliness looks for the light in the darkness.
Science and technology have demonstrated their limitations, but their potential as well. The experience of isolation during the pandemic and the abandonment of face-to-face classes and encounters have led us to the discovery of virtual communications by means of Skype, Zoom and other virtual platforms. Now we can be in contact with people literally all over the world. We can use technologies which just one year ago we knew little about or hardly used. Now we use them to great advantage for more and better communication and for all kinds of educational purposes.
Sitting in my armchair contemplating the pandemic in the loving presence of God confronts me with reality. Above all else, I identify the grace thatwhich is glimpsed within and underneath today’s ongoing tragedy. I discover that now I appreciate humility, the recognition of the truth about who God is and who we human beings are. I discovered that the way leading to God goes through exactly what we are experiencing. This road is not some fantasy tour of my romantic imagination. I contemplate it and discover what it might mean for me and for our fragile humanity. I remain in the grip of God’s providential presence, even in that of Diosito—the loving, humble “little God” of my grandmother’s Mexican Catholicism. I experience consolation.
Maybe humility will be more highly valued and given more respect in the future. I realize now that Walter Burghardt’s definition of prayer as a “loving look at the real” is closely correlated to that of humility. Both prayer and the Christian virtue of humility demand that we opt to plant our feet firmly on the ground, for that is what God did when the Word became flesh and shared human reality.