Viruses moved in here in a big way this week. An especially virulent chest cold and a quite spectacular stomach flu both arrived at the same time, and some of us got one and some the other, and a few lucky souls had both.
And nearly everybody has been involved. At one point the only non-sick member of the community was Bernard. This is quite unusual. We don't often get each other's ailments quite like this, and often we don't get them at all - whoever has a cold just usually goes his way with it and the rest of us don't get it. This week was a very noticeable exception to that rule.
And what with several members of the community away in places like Ottawa and New London for Lenten ministries and a number of the rest of us either in bed or laid low in various ways, that has left us scraping for people to do the work of the Guesthouse which has been exceptionally full. Well, every household experiences this sort of time, and it came to us this week.
It also brings up for me an issue that I mention every once in a while, and that is the business of praying while you're ill. As I've said before (and before that, too) I have this theory that prayer and meditation should sail right through a period like this. After all, there I am in bed. I don't have anything else to do. Lots of free time has just been handed to me. It's a great gift. So if I'm faithful, I'll meditate, chest cold or not, right?
Not that I haven't talked to people about this. And talked, and talked. The majority opinion has always been that a lot of your energy isn't available when you're sick, and prayer and meditation require a lot of energy. Just focusing itself uses quite a bit. Well, that is more or less obvious to me, and while this explanation offers a reason, it's not one that I find satisfying. Prayer keeps calling out to me. I'm just not responding, more often than not.
Is this just guilt? The unhealed remnants of out of control perfectionism? Should I just ignore it and wait until I feel better?
That doesn't do it.
Oh I admit to some of the guilt and perfectionism. But I know what they feel like, and I can face them pretty well at this point. But when that's done, that inner imperative, that 'call' to come closer is still there. I don't seem to have the energy to do anything about it, but it doesn't go away. Making the effort is beyond me. What to do?
However, not all is the same this time. This time around, I think there may have been a shift. I'm not just rehearsing that same old familiar arguments. This time I'm thinking that framing this dilemma in terms of energy and effort is probably making the problem worse rather than better. After all, I'm being called to open the door, to let God in. Does that always need to require a lot of work - a huge effort?
What this comes down to, of course, is how much of this process I think depends on me. I have to pray. I have to make the effort. I have to force my prayer into line. I, I, I. But if the experience of generations of monks and mystics and just plain ordinary people who pray is to be taken seriously, there is an aspect of prayer that isn't dealt with that way at all. Prayer is something that is always going on in your heart. The connection between you and God is always there, always live, always reaching out. You were born with it. You didn't put it there and can't start it. Or stop it either, for that matter. But you can tune in from time to time.
I think that maybe these frustrating periods when I'm sick are trying to teach me something that will be of tremendous value at all times, not just in illness. I need to make an effort to stop with all the effort. I have to cease trying to create prayer. I just have to turn to what is already there and let it reach out like it's trying to do.
After all, there were moments this week when my strength was at its lowest and effort was beyond me when a word or a phrase from one of the Offices reached out and grabbed me. Maybe it was just for a moment. Maybe I couldn't even make the effort to remember what it was 5 seconds later. But who says that I have to remember it? It's the opening, the contact that is the central point of prayer. It will do what it needs to do, and if that means remembering it, well, I probably will. But it clearly doesn't always mean that. It means something more like giving up all this effort to create some prayer and just relaxing into the arms of what (Who) is calling me.
I will have to admit that when I sat with my beads in the Church last night after Compline it felt like nothing much was going on. But I had the sense to promise myself that I wasn't going to try to make something happen. I was just going to be there with the beads and the Jesus Prayer and as much focused attention as I could manage. That part of it was pretty dry and distracted. But when I stopped - and just looked at that deep and silent place, it was so good to be there. And the silence was alive. And the depth was more than I could ever measure.
I think the dry and distracted time was needed. It kind of prepared me. It introduced me to what I was doing that wouldn't be of much use, which was more effort. When I quit that, what was there waiting for me was free to emerge - that deep and silent Presence that lives in our Church, and in my heart. And that was my lesson.
Funny how you have to learn some things over and over and over again. No doubt this will rear its head again.
Meanwhile, I'm still hacking and sneezing and coughing, and my strength isn't all back, so there's a good opportunity staring me in the face.
Less effort, more openness. That might just be a helpful prescription for relationships other than prayer, too.