Few of us will look back at 2020 with fondness. The COVID-19 disease which had appeared in late 2019 was by March of the following year officially declared a pandemic. In Canada, shutdowns were put in effect, which included places of worship. Accordingly, churches within the Anglican communion were closed. The months that followed were a hardship for most. Parishioners, so used to seeing one another on a regular basis at religious services and special events, now found themselves confined to their homes and missing one another. The isolation was particularly hard as there was seemingly no end in sight, and the spiritual comfort of worshipping as a community was put on hold indefinitely.
Travis O’Brian, the rector of St Barnabas, Victoria, responded by composing daily prayers, which he subsequently published as a collection entitled A Word Shared Between Us: Praying in a Time of Exile (Resource Publications, 2022). Initially, these were his own private meditations and conversations with God. But realizing that they might also be a source of comfort to his parishioners, O’Brian began circulating them by email. His series of prayers, beginning in the spring of 2020, received very positive feedback, with many recipients saying that his writings gave them great solace. They understood what their parish priest was experiencing — sadness, confusion, loneliness, anger and even the occasional unexpected sensations of joy — as they were feeling the same way.
O’Brian’s opening reflection, dated March 18, addresses his worries during the start of the shutdowns. COVID-19 was continuing its deadly onslaught, creating much alarm. “Father of all,” O’Brian begins praying, “we are in need of your comfort. At this strange time, when many of us are sick or afraid of becoming sick; when many of us are cut off from family, friends, colleagues… when we are prevented from gathering as your church to worship you… bless us with the comfort of your Holy Spirit.”
O’Brian is obviously a man of faith, but his prayers also reveal his very human fears and doubts to which we all fall into in times of trouble. He laments how his parish is now an “empty church… the doors are locked, the hymn books and the prayer books are stacked in cupboards; the vestments removed and put into storage… the pews are like a wheat field after the harvest, waiting — for what?” Is it for “a resurrection and new life”? O’Brian wonders.
Despite the need for patience, the pandemic admittedly takes its toll upon O’Brian. As his ongoing prayers reveal, he cannot help but feel frustrated and forsaken. At times, he even questions his trust in God. “My faith leaks away,” O’Brian confesses, and he is even reminded of an earlier time in his life when he rejected the very notion of the divine. Thankfully, he is able to lift himself out of his despondency. “But all the while it was you, Lord,” he writes, “leading me through whatever barren places through which I needed to travel in order, finally to turn and face you.”
Along with his personal prayers, O’Brian shares recollections of his family life — both its joys and its challenges. He writes of a memorable outing one May when he and his wife and their four children went boating and fishing on the Cowichan River. It was the kind of day, O’Brian recalls, that he loved best when “there seemed space enough for each of us to be happy in his or her own way.” Still, there were times when the pandemic took its toll upon them, O’Brian admits. Tempers were short and angry words exchanged. Thankfully, such occasions were few and far between, and O’Brian, recognizing his own shortcomings, sought forgiveness and understanding through prayer.
In the last entry of his book, O’Brian writes of word being received that churches were allowed to be opened soon for in-person worship. While this was welcome news, there was also trepidation. After a long stretch of “growing familiarity with plexiglass and face masks,” were people ready to come out of isolation and interact with one another again in “a world scarred by the acne of fear”? O’Brian questions. Again, he turns to prayer in hopes of healing for his parishioners:
“Father, bless us, your people, your children now as we are steered toward another way of striving to be your church. Help us to meet every new day with praise and thanksgiving and to find pathways to serve you in each other. Condition our bodies and our minds in love’s moment. Teach us in everything that we think and do what it means to pray. Amen.”
Since his book was published in early 2022, St Barnabas has fully reopened and services resumed. While not all of its parishioners have felt comfortable enough to attend worship as they used to, the church has welcomed back many familiar faces.
A Word Shared Between Us was put together as a response to the pandemic, but O’Brian’s collection of prayers can be read and appreciated beyond it. Well written, heartfelt and sincere, they are invaluable to those needing comfort and reassurance whatever the circumstances.
For more information about A Word Shared Between Us: Praying in a Time of Exile, visit: https://wipfandstock.com/9781666730463/a-word-shared-between-us/