My brain has been busy trying to normalize all of this not-normalcy. I find myself grabbing my mask without thinking before I hop out of the car to go to the store. I forget I have it on and wear it long after I have left. I forget that my partner ever used to not work at home. I stop at a farther distance than before from the bank counter without any extra mental effort.
My brain has been re-sorting its “things to do” and “things to not do” lists. It has been re-categorizing. Someone wearing a mask while waiting behind me at the ATM? Great! Standing close enough to see the photo a friend wants to show you? A little bit scary!
It is exhausting to stay in a state of elevated anxiety with no break and no end in sight so our brains are trying to calm us down. These days, I don’t have so many late nights of pondering about vaccines or my exact risk tolerance or mathematical models that look like Mt. Everest. My brain has started putting those questions in a bucket somewhere labeled, “unanswerable” and leaving it at that.
But then there are some moments where the strangeness of all of this hits me and I look around with eyes open at this world we are living in and I think, this is all wrong!
I imagine that for those of us involved in making decisions around the start of school or whose lives have been upended one way or another, this awareness has been a lot harder to ignore. For me, it bubbles up when my daughter asks if she can wear her mask on our evening walk just because it makes her feel a bit safer. Or when one of my housemates recently asked to go on a short trip to visit family and someone made a joke that when she gets back we will lock her in her room for two weeks. Or when I found myself considering that idea as a legitimate possibility.
Freedom from worry, at least for the most part, was supposed to be the gift of modern medicine, right? Taking us out of the dark ages to a time when we didn’t have to think about scary infectious diseases. Taking us to a time when we could imagine that we were more powerful than invisible particles floating in the air. We were supposed to be living in an age of comfort. We were supposed to have triumphed.
In the pre-pandemic era, we still had anxiety and we still had vulnerability. We have always been vulnerable. But we used to be able to push that away, to hide it. We could disguise ourselves, our fears, and our fragility underneath cloaks of plans and to-do lists and accomplishments to strive towards, underneath a veneer of belief that we had it all figured out.
And now I find myself trying to do that again just in this new version of life, this more exposed version. I keep wanting to mold some shape of certainty out of the formless ambiguity. But maybe what we need to do instead is to stop trying to get back to a place where we feel comfortable. Maybe what we need to do instead is step into all these new moments we have now where our fragility is so obvious. Maybe what we need to do instead is claim it and say, this is who we really are. We really are imperfect, incredibly fragile human beings.
We now know that there is so much we can’t know and can’t prepare for. And while that is scary, it is also freeing. Before all of this happened, that facade of certainty was limiting us. We never had to really be our full-selves because we could just always move on to the next item on our to-do list. Who we were wasn’t who we are. We were just becoming who we planned to be, who we pretended to be, instead.
Then who are we? Are we transforming into something different on the journey through this dark valley? Who will we be when this is all over? Who will we become?
One way to walk into that emptiness and have a look around is through prayer. Prayer allows us to sit with questions that we are too busy or too scared to ask. Through prayer we can let go of the disguises that we wore and are trying to put on again.
When we pray, God says, I see who you are and I have always loved you. I love you now. I will always love you. That acceptance and love is transformational. We realize that we can be the flawed humans that we really are and it’s okay. In fact, somehow in spite of our flaws we are loved by God.
We have talked about how prayer allows us to feel our hard emotions more fully. To accept them and ask for help. Prayer also allows us to be more fully grateful. To be more fully joyful. To be more fully everything. To be more fully in the present. To be more fully in God’s presence. To be more fully whole.
Prayer reveals the wholeness that was there all along but was hidden underneath the layers of protection that we wore: busyness, worry, the need for control. As Thomas Merton writes in his poem, Hagia Sophia,
There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed
light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness....This
is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator's
Thought and Art within me...
Our hidden wholeness, like the butterfly that waits somewhere inside a caterpillar, is both our true selves and God’s presence inside and all around us. Just as Merton equates it with a dimmed light and a meek namelessness, it is so easy to miss. It is so easy to hide it and hide from it and look instead at the shinier, more tempting objects that surround us.
I am reminded of another part of a nature show that we have watched many times. In it, cave divers are exploring caves that have never been mapped before. They have to wear scuba gear to dive through areas filled with water. But because of the risk of getting lost, they tie themselves to a rope so that as they swim, the rope trails behind them, connected to something at the surface. In this way they can always find their way back by following the rope.
These people are obviously crazy. Who would do that? I also see myself doing that every day, except often with no rope.
When we are swimming through the depths, prayer is a rope that connects us back to the surface, to the amazing fullness and beauty of life. To who we really are. To the love that surrounds us always if we stop to look for it. Prayer allows us to be in the dark spaces without getting lost.
Through prayer we can find our way back to what is real in us and all around us. And we can see in the daylight, as we come up from the darkness of the cave, the truths about ourselves that we might otherwise miss. We can see everything around us as it really is and everyone as they are. We can see that we are all just human beings spinning around on this tiny planet together. We can be whole and we can see that wholeness with its imperfections but know that it is us. And it is filled with beauty and love.
Through prayer we can be fully seen and fully known. And if we can dive into the cracks in our facade instead of trying to cover them up, then maybe we will emerge from this time as something new. Something that is different than before. Maybe we will become ourselves.
by Dianne Garcia, Pastor of Family Ministry