Arts and Culture

Prayer and Pandemic

“Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken,” (1758–59) oil on canvas by Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. (Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

If there was ever a situation in life that seems to call for prayer it is a pandemic. My guess is that many may find new ways of praying during a pandemic. Others might rely on favorite prayers. I rediscovered the value, beauty, and power of a prayer I have been saying daily for close to forty years. Praying it during a pandemic offered opportunities for me to become more aware of God’s presence in my life and also, I believe, offered opportunities for me to understand myself better. I did not engage in the prayer so that I could comprehend Robert Lauder better but that seems to have happened through the prayer.

I was introduced to centering prayer by my spiritual director. He had just returned from a retreat on which he had been introduced to it. Even now, all these years later, I can recall his enthusiasm as he explained the prayer to me. At his suggestion, I started praying it daily. My experience of the pandemic was shaped and directed by my daily recitation of
the centering prayer. There are many books that explain how to do the centering prayer. What follows is my description of how I understand centering prayer and how I engage in it.

First, you choose some time of the day in which you can be quiet and alone. No special room is required. I sometimes use a chapel but most often I use my study. Some people do centering prayer twice a day, each time perhaps for fifteen or twenty minutes: I do it once a day for twenty minutes.

At the start, you try to remove from your mind what has preoccupied you before you began to prepare for the prayer. I find this part of the process a little difficult. It is not easy for me to slow down and for twenty minutes let go of the projects that have been on my mind. I am often in high gear and I do not switch gears from high to low easily. I hope to work on this in the future.

After slowing down and getting ready to begin the prayer, you choose some word or some series of words that have special meaning for you. In the past, I often used the word “Gratitude” or the word ‘’Eucharist’. For the last several months I have been using the words ”My Lord and my God.”

The word or words chosen should be meaningful to you and help you be receptive to the presence of God in the center of your being. You slowly recite the word to the rhythm of your breathing. I inhale and then as I exhale I say “My Lord and my God.” The words are prayed silently and slowly. This is not a prayer of petition and it is not an examination of conscience.

It is a prayer to help the person become more aware of God’s living presence in the center of the person. I know that I am easily distracted as I try to do centering prayer. If this should happen the person doing centering prayer should not be discouraged. Once I become aware that I am daydreaming or being distracted in some other way, I try to calmly get back to what I am trying to focus on during centering prayer, namely the presence of God.

A friend once told me that centering prayer did not work for him. I think that is impossible. He may have meant that he was often distracted. I think it is impossible that setting time aside to be with God will turn out to be wasted time. How could that be?

As the time set aside for the prayer winds down, I try to pray slowly and devoutly an Our Father. Just as I have trouble calming down before starting centering prayer, I have difficulty not rushing through the Our Father so I can get back to what was preoccupying me before I started the centering prayer. I am hoping that making this confession in this column will help
me to slow down both at the start and at the conclusion of centering prayer.

Praying the centering prayer during the pandemic, I think has increased my awareness of my own finitude and vulnerability but also increased my awareness of God’s powerful loving presence in my life not only when I am doing centering prayer but at every moment of my life. Though centering prayer is centered on God, my experience of the prayer during the pandemic seems to have led me to understand myself better. Perhaps that is because the more we appreciate who God is, the more we will appreciate what God has done and is doing for us.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.