Fr. Michael Joncas, prominent and longtime American composer of liturgical music, said the idea for the hymn woke him up at 3 a.m. March 26.
“I awoke with the germ of an idea for a prayer-song to respond to what many are feeling in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Father Joncas, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The basic composition was finished by about 10 a.m.”
Father Joncas, well-known for the hymn "On Eagle's Wings,"said his new composition, “Shelter Me,” is a paraphrase of the well-known Psalm 23.
“These are difficult times for all of us, individually and globally,” said Father Joncas in his composer’s note. “The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as normal and called for acts of corporate and individual heroism in the face of present suffering and an uncertain future.
“People of faith may be struggling to articulate their belief in an all-good and all-powerful God in this new era,” he continued. “‘Shelter Me’ is my attempt as a church composer to find God’s presence even in these fraught times.”
The hymn’s first and third verses speak about past and future intimacy with God, while the second verse expresses the fear and anxiety that people are feeling as they experience danger, darkness, and lack of peace. The refrain, however, resounds with hope and trust that “all will be well” according to God’s loving mercy.
Here are the complete lyrics to “Shelter Me,” by Father Joncas:
Shepherd and sheep, my God and I/ to fresh green fields you led my steps in days gone by/ You gave me rest by quiet springs/ and filled my soul with peace your loving presence brings.
O shelter me, O shelter me/ The way ahead is dark and difficult to see/ O shelter me, O shelter me/ All will be well if only you will shelter me.
Yet now I tread a diff’rent way/ Death dogs my path with stealthy steps from day to day/ I cannot find your peaceful place/ But dwell in dreary darkness, longing for your face.
I will look back in days to come/ and realize your faithfulness has led me home/ Within your house I’ll find my peace/ trusting that in your mercy you have sheltered me.
(Copyright 2020. The Jan Michael Joncas Trust. All rights reserved.)
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic that's taken over our newsfeeds and our peace of mind, something even more discouraging has developed in its wake: fear. Father Roger Lopez, OFM, thinks of the disciples after the resurrection. They're isolated and afraid. But Jesus visits them in that room and says four words the disciples need to hear, "Peace be with you."
May this testimony from Father Roger bring you a measure of peace today.
Stress: Our Pathway to God
Panic over the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over our world and very possibly our peace of mind. The last thing you need is some chirpy voice from the remote land of spirituality suggesting that you pray. But maybe that’s exactly what’s needed.
We tend to avoid prayer when we desperately need it most. So what are the blessings in this darkly wrapped package? How can it become a pathway to prayer?
If we think of Jesus as floating amiably three feet above earth, never dirtying his hands or his garments, always surrounded by a golden aura and enjoying a perpetual serenity, the Gospels quickly correct that image. John 6, for instance, tells of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee followed by a large crowd. Tired and hungry, he sits down to rest with his friends. But guess what? A large, demanding, hungry crowd invades their privacy.
Some of us would run the other way. But Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread to feed them. That leads to the miraculous feeding of five thousand. Afterward, realizing the people want to make him king, Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain alone” (John 6:15). That alternation between action and prayer seems to be a constant rhythm in his life. He never says, “Today I fed five thousand and cured a leper. I don’t need to pray.” Or, “Those Pharisees are really stressing me out! No prayer today!”
He seems to draw the strength and energy for draining work from life-giving “times apart” with God. And if God needed such nourishment, how much more do we humans need?
During our “time apart,” we remember we’re not alone in the current dilemma. Nor have we been apart from God in any other crisis. We invoke God’s enormous power and creativity to help us squeak through another tight spot, as God has done before. Just as the tabernacle lamp draws attention to God’s presence, so prayer is our response: We stand before God in need—again.
We’ve all muttered tensely through gritted teeth, “If you want me to do this _____ (fill in the blank), God, I’ll need your help!” One benefit of prayerful journaling is the ability to read back over tense times in our past. We can see not only what troubled us, but also how remote it seems now. Not to discount issues that were once important, but most of us can’t even remember the problems we lost sleep over three years ago. In God’s grand, cosmic design, our little snits and tensions seem like small potatoes indeed.
When we don’t have the perspective of time, prayer gives us a similar distance. In even a few moments, we can slow down, breathe deeply and remember it’s all in God’s hands—whatever trouble “it” is now. During a crisis that makes us want to scream with frustration, the deep breath of prayer can remind us that this one will pass as others have. Some wonderful surprise could also emerge. As playwright James Goldman wrote in The Lion in Winter: “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”
Sometimes a difficult situation is beyond our control. If, for instance, our work involves tax preparation, we know that the weeks prior to April will be full. In such times, Piero Ferrucci, author of What We May Be, recommends an attitude of acceptance. We can ask in prayer not to descend into self-pity, but to choose freely what we can’t change. The same God who gives the pleasant Sunday picnic also sends the midnight deadline.
Can we learn from both, finding enrichment in radically different circumstances, trusting that God knows what we need? One unexpected blessing of the recession has been that, with so many people out of work, those who have jobs appreciate them more—even the stressful ones.
A Broader Notion of Prayer
If we think of prayer as long, uninterrupted stretches in a quiet church or retreat house, we might get more stressed out worrying that we’ll never achieve that. Instead, we might want to think of prayer in terms of the different voices heard in John 11:1-44. It’s definitely a stressful situation. Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary, has just died. Making matters worse, Jesus has delayed coming even though he knew Lazarus was ill.
His disciples are annoyed with him for returning to an area where the Jews are trying to stone him. Emotions must be running high, but various forms of prayer appear during the crisis. Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus all loved each other, so the sisters must be wondering why Jesus waited so long to come. We can only imagine their anxiety increasing as Lazarus grew worse and Jesus didn’t appear. Martha’s complaint, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” may sound like whining. On the other hand, it is an honest expression of her feelings—and her respect for Jesus.
Later, Mary weeps. Her friends join her, and Jesus also weeps. This could be our prayer when we have no words left, and silent tears are eloquent. Jesus is “greatly disturbed,” but begins his prayer by thanking God. Despite the annoying criticism of the crowd (“Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”), he can still be grateful. In that stance lies a message for us: No matter how stressed we are, we can still be deeply thankful.
Jesus speaks with great confidence to God: “I know that you always hear me.” Then from the depth of his inmost being he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” It is the call to life, a stirring invitation to renewed engagement with the family Lazarus loves.
None of this occurs in a silent chapel. Indeed, the background noise of the crowd must have been irritating. Prayer doesn’t always convey the polite emotions. Martha’s distress is as raw as the anger which rages through some of the Psalms (see Psalms 88, 120, 137). No one there consults a Bible or a book of prayer. All of it is spontaneous; some of it is wordless.
How does the Gospel scene translate to our prayer in stress? Sometimes when the gas gauge nears “empty” or the thermometer spikes over 102, we may use “arrow” prayers: brief, direct beams to God’s heart. They may be as simple as “Help!,” “Please!” or Thanks!” In short, they tell God we’re at the end of our rope. We’ve exhausted our limited resources. We don’t know what to do.
We desperately need God’s intervention, especially with that's going on in the world today. Sometimes our throats are tight and our minds are numb. We’re too tense to know what to say in prayer. Then we can turn to scriptural mantras. We repeat consoling words in calming rhythms. For instance, when time, money or resources seem scarce, Jesus recalls to us the abundance of the Kingdom. We repeat then the father’s assurance to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: “You are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
Or Jesus’ words at the Last Supper tell us of his abiding presence, no matter what we’re going through. “Do not let your hearts be troubled....I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:1,3).
Water often calms and refreshes. Jesus says, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink” (John 7:37).
The Benefits of Stress
Oddly enough, stress is a mixed blessing. Without it, we might not get much done. Indeed, some folks look forward all year to their two-week vacation. They dream of lounging around the pool doing nothing. Inevitably, the novelty wears off. In a few days, they’re organizing activities: a tennis match, a shopping trip, a hike. They’re consulting the movie schedules and piling the family in the car. It’s almost as if humans were made for action!
Some who retire to the tropics grow tired of the sameness: one sunny day after another. Nothing like a good blizzard to get the juices flowing and the snowblower humming! With the right amount of pressure—not too much or too little—we get organized, make efficient use of time and accomplish great things for God.
As long as we sail through life untroubled, we don’t feel much need for God. But when we start coming unglued, we know how precarious our hold on sanity really is. If stress brings us to prayer, it may not be so bad. No matter how tired, frustrated, or frazzled we are, we can end the day with compassion for ourselves.
I once gave a talk about prayer in a church basement. A plumber told of his experience. He’d met many people confronting the dire situation of sewage backup. But he commented wryly, “If they’d just say a prayer instead of cursing the flood, they’d be in much better shape when I arrive!” I smiled in response: “You may be the answer to their prayer.”
A Tripod for Support
Often under duress, people turn in desperation to the triad of caffeine, alcohol and sugar. A three-legged stool that’s far more stable is church, relationships and exercise. We may trudge to liturgy or another church gathering without much energy to contribute. That’s when the faith community steps in like the friends of the paralytic who lowered him through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). The shared belief, homily, song, social interaction and Scripture may relieve our anxiety and bring us to Jesus when we can’t quite get there on our own.
Some relationships may cause the stress, while others may relieve it. A friend or close relative can be the channel for grace if that person offers a place to vent, a sympathetic ear, a helping hand or a gentle touch on tight muscles. Many experts encourage exercise to release stress that accumulates in the body. Christians who see the body as God’s temple have even more reason to honor it and protect the flexibility of muscles and supple bend of spine.
Humans live incarnate, and the stress on our minds will inevitably transfer to our bodies. When we’re overly stressed, we pour toxins into our systems. Why are we then surprised by the resulting backache, indigestion or migraine? Deep breathing has been part of every major religious tradition. Many use it to replace the venomous retort, to gain a few minutes to think or to restore inner calm. In Genesis 1, God breathes life into humanity. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes courage and forgiveness into a confused and frightened group of friends.
Yet when we’re nervous, we often take short, shallow breaths, not the deep, relaxing ones that could bring peace. Breath is intrinsic to yoga, which can be moving meditation. It helps relieve chronic stress which, for most people, collects in the neck, back and shoulders.
If it’s any consolation, the saints didn’t coast blissfully through trouble-free days, popping their spiritual Zoloft. They sometimes dealt with worse pressures than we do, yet didn’t let that build an obstacle to prayer. St. Catherine of Siena, for instance, was the 24th child in her family. Picture that large, boisterous Italian crew, always eager for the drama of an argument, and it’s understandable why she retreated to the hermitage of her room for a long time.
According to legend, Jesus led her back—and into some of the worst warring factions of her day. She stood in the middle of local feuds and mediated the 14th-century dispute over whether the pope should live in Rome or Avignon. Unsurprisingly, she writes in her Dialogue, “My life has been spent wholly in darkness.” Yet she never deserted prayer, where she found the consolation of Christ: “Bath and medicine, food and clothing, and a bed in which we can rest.”
St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-390) lived long before computer meltdowns and traffic gridlock. Yet he could have been summarizing 21st-century stress when he said, “Alas, dear Christ, the Dragon is here again.” We can speculate what the Dragon meant to him—or fill in our own particular names for this unwelcome visitor.
Though it's not reported as widely, people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and survived. Good news abounds. People who have had near-death experiences consistently report a sense of joy, light, and peace. So death losing its sting puts all other stresses into perspective. St. Francis of Assisi was even able to call death “sister.”
After a recent workshop in another state, I drove for two hours on remote country roads to reach the airport. Fiddling with the radio, I heard the end of a Mass broadcast. The presider must have been Franciscan because he concluded with the blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he turn his face to you and have mercy on you. May he shine his countenance on you and give you peace.”
Across unfamiliar fields shone a beacon. Into a tense car came a peaceful prayer.
from Franciscan Media Kathy Coffey
More Music for Consolation
"Slow me down, Lord. Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time. Give me, amidst the confusion of my day, the calmness of the everlasting hills. Break the tension of my nerves and the my muscles with the soothing music of singing streams that live in my memories. Help me to know the magical, restorative power of Your touch. Team me the art of taking minute vacations, slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pet a dog. Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and tortoise, so that I may know that the race is not always to the swift. There is more to life than increasing its speed. Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak, and kno it grew great because it grew slowly and well. Slow me down, Lord. Inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life's enduring values."
A Conversation With God in the Midst of COVID-19
Me: Okay, God, heres the thing. I’m scared. I’m trying not to be, but I am.
God: I know. Want to talk about it?
Me: Do we need to? I mean you already know.
God: Let’s talk about it anyway…We’ve done this before.
Me: I know, I just feel like I should be bigger or stronger or something by now.
God: [waiting patiently, unhurried, undistracted, never annoyed.]
Me: Okay. So, I’m afraid I’ll do everything I can to protect my family and it won’t be enough. I’m afraid of someone I love dying. I’m afraid the world won’t go back to what it was before. I’m afraid my life is always going to feel a little bit unsettled.
God: Anything else?
Me: EVERYTHING ELSE.
God: Remember how your son woke up the other night and came running down the hall to your bedroom?
God: You were still awake, so when you heard him running, you started calling out to him before he even got to you … remember? Do you remember what you called out to him?
God: Why did you call to him? Why didn’t you just wait for him to get to your room?
Me: Because I wanted him to know that I was awake, and I heard him, and he didn’t have to be afraid until he reached the end of the dark hallway.
God: Exactly. I hear you, my child. I hear your thoughts racing like feet down the dark hallway. There’s an other side to all of this. I’m there already. I’ve seen the end of it. And I want you to know right here as you walk through it all, you’re okay. I haven’t gone to sleep, and I won’t.
Me: [crying] Can we sit together awhile? Can we just siter here a minute before I go back to facing it all?
The streets were empty, the shops closed, people couldn't go out. But spring did not know, and the flowers started to bloom, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the swallows were soon to arrive, the sky was blue, the morning was coming earlier.
It was in March 2020 ... Young people had to study online, and find occupations at
home, people could no longer shop or go to the hairdresser. Soon there would be no more room in hospitals, and people continued to get sick.
But spring did not know …
The time to go to the garden was coming, the grass was turning green. It was in March 2020 ... People were put in containment. to protect grandparents, families and children. No more meetings or meals, family celebrations. The fear became real and the days were alike.
But spring did not know …
Apple trees, cherry trees and others bloomed, the leaves grew. People started reading, playing with family, learning a language, singing on the balcony inviting neighbors to do the same, learning a new language, showing solidarity and focusing on other values. People realized the importance of health, suffering, of this world that had stopped, of the economy that had plummeted.
But spring did not know ...
The flowers have given way to the fruit, the birds have made their nest, the swallows have arrived. Then the day of liberation arrived, people learned about it on TV, the virus had lost, people took to the streets, sang, cried, kissed their neighbors, without masks or gloves.
And that's where summer came, because spring didn't know. It continued to be there despite everything, despite the virus, fear and death. Because spring did not know, he taught people the power of life.
Everything will be fine, stay at home, protect yourself, and you will enjoy life.
Click here to watch - Finding Meaning and Purpose at at Time of Pandemic - Fr. Jeff Scheeler, Rabbi Aaron Starr, and Rev. Chris Yaw.
Life is Changed, Not Ended
by Rev. Anthony L. Cecil, Jr.
Losing a loved one will never be an easy experience, no matter how “expected” the death is. Yet, as with everything, somehow God provides a way to reveal God’s presence in the simplest, most surprising of ways—even as an unassuming reminder buried in the bounteous options of liturgical texts.
Last Spring, I experienced several life-changing events at pretty much the exact same time. In May, I graduated from seminary, finishing eight long years of study and formation, and ending my twenty-one years as a student. Then came ordination, and the day after, presiding at Mass for the first time. We gathered at my home parish to celebrate the sixth Sunday of Easter. During this Mass, I also celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation for the first time, bringing my mother into full communion with the Catholic Church, and moments later, shared the Eucharist with her for the first time.
Just eight days later, my life changed again. I celebrated a funeral for the first time. It was my father’s. My dad was my strongest supporter, my fiercest critic, and my best friend. He’d been sick for a while, and while his death was expected, we didn’t expect it to come so soon.
Celebrating that funeral was a daunting task, and a heart-wrenching experience—that is, until the Preface. As I said, this was the first funeral I’d ever celebrated, so being the “newbie” that I was, I simply chose Preface I for the Dead, “The Hope of Resurrection in Christ.” The title sounded good, at least. It reads, in part:
In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come. Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
It was a single line—not even a full sentence—that hit me the most, Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended.
Of course, these words refer to the deceased; after all, it is a Preface “for the dead.” But in that moment, so many things clicked for me. In that moment, I understood what I’d heard so often, that the funeral rites are as necessary for the living as they are for the dead. As Catholic Christians we live with the hope of resurrection, the hope that bodily death is not the end of a person, but rather a change, a transition into eternal life.
In that moment, I understood the same was true for this seemingly modest sentiment, that, Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended. For my father, this was certainly true. Yet, this was also true for me—even with all these “firsts,” my life felt like it had ended. But the abiding truth is, neither my life, nor my father’s, had ended; they had simply changed. My relationship with my father had not ended, it had simply changed.
Recently, I was in a meeting and someone made a comment about the liturgy and its importance relative to other pressing issues in the Church. My response was a conviction that I’ve held for quite a while, “Well, the liturgy is everything!” What I meant by this was that I am convinced that what we celebrate liturgically speaks to our actual lived experience.
This conviction was deepened in that moment standing behind the altar of a small country church for my father’s funeral. I’d never experienced so fully: that every aspect of our lives, every human emotion and experience can find a home in the liturgy. Through the liturgical life of the Church, God’s mercy can echo, even in the deepest valleys and darkest chambers of our suffering.
The fact that the liturgy informs our lives outside the brick and mortar of a church building gives it an inherently pastoral nature. Devastation, turmoil, and distress comes into our lives and preaches the message that everything is over. We lose someone that we loved, and we can’t imagine a life without them. Even now, a global pandemic has caused us to change our routines and our way of life, and it seems like things may never be normal again. In that distress enters the danger of losing hope. It is a danger, because it is the antithesis of who we are as Christians, a people whose entire lives are hinged on the greatest hope of all: the resurrection of our Savior.
No matter the cause of our distress, while it may feel as if everything has been thrown into confusion and that our world has stopped turning, and unshakable truth is found in the liturgy. Eventually, tomorrow will come, the hope of new life—resurrection—will dawn, our minds will clear, and we will realize that life has not ended, it has simply changed.