When Covid-19 became a worldwide pandemic and nations closed their borders, businesses, schools, many of us had to learn to deal with a new way of working, learning, and living. There was always a tinge of hope that the pandemic would dissipate soon, and we’d be able to live and breathe ‘normally’ again. When September began, and it seemed like this pandemic wasn’t going away soon, I realised my grace to sit in the discomfort of the unknown was slipping away. I wanted to get back to action… even the memory of airplane food began to evoke unmet longings! I wanted to move on.
Genesis16:1 – 14 tells a heart-wrenching story of an Egyptian woman, who through no fault of her own, got mistreated by her mistress and was driven out into the wilderness with a baby growing in her womb. I cannot imagine her pain as she found herself move from favour in her master’s household to an utter state of disenfranchisement. Yet, in the depth of that pain, with the walls of her world colliding inwards upon her and her unborn baby… God came and saw her. I don’t know how this scene actually would’ve played out, but the best I could imagine would be through the lenses Jesus gave us about the invisible God. The Jesus who sat and ate with the sinners and tax collectors gave us a prism through which we can see the myriads of the colours of God’s empowering grace. I imagine when Hagar saw the angel of the Lord, he wasn’t standing afar; he was near. I imagine that his eyes looked into hers with profound intimacy that led Hagar to declare: “He sees me.” I imagine God came and sat with this woman in the depths of her pain and gave Hagar the grace to arise because it seems, for the first time in her life, she now knew the eyes of the Almighty are always on her. “El Lahai Roi!” (The living One that sees me!)
At the dawn of September, when my restless heart began to grow depressed with the never-ending ordeal of Covid-19, I took an afternoon off to be silent before the Lord. In that space, I brought all I was feeling before the face of the One who intimately sees. And, a faint, familiar… and yet distinct… invitation was extended by God to “sit a little longer” with Him. This was the same invitation I stepped into over a year ago. Once again, my response was to yield my ‘flight-from-pain’ tendencies in order to go to deeper depths with Him.
The Liturgy of pain
A liturgy is a participatory, repetitive, prayer practice of the Church (some dating all the way back to the 1st century) that draws the worshipper into a re-enactment of the story of God and His redemptive acts. Liturgy involves repeated rituals of confession, bodily postures, hymns, and communion. Through habitual practice, the hope is that believers remember they belong in the story of God and are inspired to live out the embodiment of God’s redemption on this earth.
In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith tells us all humans live unintentional liturgies. Anything we do repeatedly and bodily, from scrolling social media, to shopping at malls, to singing our national anthems, shapes our being in a way that informs our doing. He says, “…liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.” (You always return to what you truly love. This could be prayerful walks on the beach, but it’s also typing Facebook rants.) He also added, “Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies.”
In other words, the rhythmic practices and habits of our lives, can rewire our brain neurologically and re-orientate our internal perception of God and the world around us in a way that can either look frighteningly distorted or beautifully redemptive.
Every January, one of the largest Hindu festivals in the world called the Kumbh Mela takes place in North India. This festival is not for the faint of heart. One of the most fascinating and disturbing sights is the march of the Naga Sadhus (Naked Hindu Priests). Amongst other things, the Sadhus run needles and knives through their tongues, skin, and body parts in hopes of transcending their physical reality to a spiritual encounter. Be assured this is not what I mean when I propose pain as a liturgical practice! But, it is worth noting that for these naked Sadhus, there is a recognition that pain-induced upon their bodies in habitual fashion produces a nervous disequilibrium which has a way of awakening an awareness of a reality beyond the physical. Even within Christian traditions, some have resorted to self-induced pain to gain spiritual clarity. For example, the desert fathers and mothers took pilgrimages into the deserted wilderness to disentangle from numbed tranquillity and awaken disequilibrium in order to hear the voice of God more clearly.
I am not proposing that we self-inflict pain so we can have a heightened spiritual experience. But do we need a counter liturgy to the constant draw of the liturgical practices of our culture that reinforce hiding and escaping from pain? Could a counter liturgy cause us to be awakened to the Voice that calls us deep unto deep? We don’t have to self-inflict pain because it’s in us and all around us. Like a liturgical rhythm, pain is ebbing and flowing, affecting us all in varying degrees of sensorial impact. Perhaps it’s that painful memory you’ve tried to shut out? The loss you are so longing to move-on from? Or, the angst you so desperately want to drown out with a flurry of activities? These can be a medium the Holy Spirit wants to use to meet you… as it was for Hagar.
The practise of sitting with God
At the beginning of my sabbatical journey, I chose a painting that captured my attention at the time my mother died. My practice was to engage my sight and vision to prayerfully reflect upon the renowned Rublev Icon painted by Andrei Rublev. (For some of you, using an icon as a prayer tool may be something you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. Rest assured, the original purpose of icons was to point us toward a God too great to be fully captured by human language. Icons were meant to inspire worship, not to be worshipped.) The Rublev Icon captures the imagery of the three angels that visited Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18, but it has a deeper subtext.
The angels represent the Father, Son, and Spirit who had come to sit with Abraham. One of the prominent features of this Iconic painting is its vanishing point: When you look at the painting, you are included within the story. The observer, in a sense, takes the fourth seat at the table. It’s a powerful picture that captures the wonders of our inclusion into the fellowship of God.
My practice was to sit for a minimum of one hour, every day, gazing upon this icon that visually drew me into the reality of my presence to God and God to me. I practised this liturgy for four months while considering the pain pieces of my life, habitually reminded of the God who sits with me in that space. And, my awareness of being known by God deepened like never before. To be known is an intimate experience. To be known deeply is to be embraced by grace unreservedly. Grace can simply be the awareness that El Lahai Roi (the living One that sees me) is with you. He is looking compassionately into your eyes and sees all of you. It was this growing awareness that gave me the empowering grace to breach the painful subject of my birth father with my dad for the first time in my life. It was this awareness that empowered me to meet my birth father for the first time in my life, at 39 years old.
Ponder with me
Perhaps you are in emotional pain. Perhaps you have been living with a chronic illness. Perhaps there is a growing awareness of an agitated discomfort you feel as the issue of Covid-19 continues on. Would you consider this with me further:
- In what ways might God be drawing you to sit with him in those places of pain, angst or discomfort?
- Are there practices you can begin cultivating as a lifestyle liturgy that can slow you down to really feel your pain and experience the gaze of the Lord in that space? I would suggest a visio-divina (divine seeing) where you allow God to encounter you through a contemplative practice of looking into an icon or painting, like I did. (This blog has several you could use.)
I want to leave you with an excerpt from a poem I love by David Tensen:
A blessing for the heart Journey
An Invitation to Visio Divina https://www.chausa.org/docs/default-source/mission/visio-divina.pdf?sfvrsn=2