Before Irma, I had never heard of Barbuda. How could I have known it would alter the way I pray?
The hurricane had sent my wife and me scurrying to Google Maps for a crash course on Caribbean geography. For whatever reason, I had never got round to figuring out the names of all those islands and exactly where they were. I had heard of Antigua but never knew it was part of something called Antigua and Barbuda.
Like millions of others, I learned more about both islands, and their many neighbors, as Irma thrashed its way across them. I heard the reports of total devastation on Barbuda and other islands.
At one point, wearied by the wall-to-wall TV coverage, I switched from Google Maps to Google Earth and zeroed in on Barbuda. The view was not up to the minute, so no effects of the storm were visible. But it did show what had once existed and now, presumably, was devastated: low, flat buildings with metal roofs, dirt roads, churches with names like Living Faith, a marina, a small airport, acres of forest.
For a while I simply gazed at the view—clicking around to look at the island, take it all in, and absorb what it was.
Eventually it dawned on me that what I was doing was prayer.
One thing I learned in my training program to become a spiritual director: pretty much anything can be prayer. Asking God for help, giving thanks, liturgy, yes, but also sitting in silence, journaling, drawing—anything done while sitting in, and paying attention to, the presence of God.
That’s what this felt like. Me, sitting on my sofa, gazing at Barbuda before the storm, holding the island and its people in my heart, all while connected with the God who was there with me, closer than my own breath.
Some might call this a useless first-world response to a catastrophe. That criticism is worth pondering in many contexts, but I don’t think it applies here. Far from being “self-absorbed navel gazing,” my experience illustrates how many contemplatives approach the world.
Here’s what I mean. My experience of prayer that day connected me, in a deep part of myself, to a place I’d never heard of. That connection seems lasting: when the news cycle moved on to Cuba and Florida and then to the next hurricane, I could not get Barbuda out of my mind. Just now I returned to the view from Google Earth, expecting the same view of Barbuda, only to be sickened by new views of the decimated landscape.
Right now, as a result, I’m seeking out organizations through which I can support Barbuda recovery. My wife and I have talked about going there in a year or so; we are not first-responder or disaster-recovery material, but maybe our tourist dollars can help in some tiny way. (Apparently, this is a legitimate form of tourism if done ethically.)
So we take someone, something—like an island, or its people, or its natural resources—into our hearts, and that “taking in” fuels compassion. And action born of compassion. That’s one way contemplatives act in the world to make it better. And sometimes it starts with praying by looking at a map.