As of March 28, there were more than 600,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus COVID-19 around the world, and yet the diabolic stealth of the virus’ contagion remains not fully understood. COVID-19 transmits through asymptomatic carriers, it lingers in aerosolized form in the air, and it stays viable on various surfaces, each to still vexing degrees.
After many centuries and millions of pages devoted to chronicling Christian prayer practice, we still don’t fully understand how the presence and power of God takes root in one’s soul. Even with wonderful spiritual guides, texts and practices surrounding us, there’s no guarantee that following any one path will replicate it within you.
Living in a monastery, such as Mepkin Abbey, doesn’t necessarily bring you privileged clues for discerning how this hidden process works, either for you or in observing others in their journey toward oneness with God. To be sure, a shared life and common prayer increase the likelihood of spiritual contagion, but how all the elements come together still remain a mystery of the Spirit’s elusive ways.
What is clear is that, at times, there are glimpses that something prayerfully viral is at work in the monastery. For example, as the coronavirus crisis began to take hold of the world’s consciousness, a similar spark in prayer was beginning to well up publicly in the Mepkin community. The prepared and spontaneous Prayers of the Faithful at the morning Mass began to reflect a deepening inner focus on the pandemic. So, too, with the priest-presider’s opening remarks at Mass, and especially in the homilies, perhaps as fruits of their spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) of the Scriptures in combination with wider awareness of the new state of the world and its consequences for all.
March 25 was the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the feast that marks the angel Gabriel’s heralding to Mary of the future conception and birth of the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:26-38).
For the monks of Mepkin, the feast’s first two prayer hours – Vigils and Lauds – were draped in the soupy wet blanket of Lowcountry South Carolina humidity and rain. The awareness of the coronavirus’ spread likely added another level of heaviness in the hearts of the monks at the start of the day. In fact, at 7am, right after Lauds, the community prayed an Our Father in solidarity with Pope Francis’ request for one by the worldwide Christian community at that hour for an end to the pandemic.
For the morning Mass homily, Fr. Columba featured, in double-barreled fashion, Mary’s reply to the angel, “How can this be?” On the one hand, he explained, “How can this be?” as we generally understand it in faith, celebrating the great, wondrous but difficult news for Mary of the approaching birth of the Savior. Her “yes” in faith set in motion events that would culminate in Jesus’ birth.
Fr. Columba then turned to “How can this be?” as an apt way to also react to the overwhelming reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. For a few sentences, he preached about the inspiring role of self-sacrificing healthcare workers and others in the crisis, and for that portion of his message, the sun broke through and flooded the upper levels of the church for the only time during the Mass. As he turned to speak of the hardships of the global elderly and homeless in the midst of the pandemic, the clouds once again darkened the church.
For those who missed the momentary light, the Mass ended in full sunshine, and it largely stayed that way the rest of the day.
“How can this be?” – indeed! Praise be the viral power of God working in dark times.