By Sarah Schilling

Pruning Spiritual Disciplines in a Pandemic

I haven’t felt like praying lately. Of all times you’d think I’d want to pray more, it’d be right now—alone in my one-bedroom apartment in a foreign country during a global pandemic.

I wish I could say that being on lockdown for so long has given me additional wisdom to impart, but what I share comes from having endured a previous faith crisis. My childhood as a Christian and involvement in InterVarsity throughout college gave me a tool belt full of spiritual disciplines. But my dark night of the soul stripped me down to one tool alone: praying Scripture. Sometimes it was easy; sometimes I forced myself to say words I barely believed.

That personal crisis only lasted for a season; I trust this global one will last only for a season too. It’s led me to again pare down my spiritual practices. No, it’s not a sign I’m heading toward another long dark night. It’s simply another pruning at the hand of the Master Gardener.

Community through Liturgy

My Christian community was the first and most noticeable thing to be cut off due to the pandemic, and rightly so, even as “essential” as it is to me. Living by myself working for InterVarsity Study Abroad in another country, my church is my family. Our livestreamed services and my Zoom small group barely scratch the community itch for me.

So now I find myself leaning into the historical, global body of Christ. Through the prayers of faith giants and lesser-known sages, I’m rooted in something that’s survived for millennia. Through modern liturgies, like 365 prières pour chaque jour and those from other European countries, I’m able to connect with something bigger than myself. And through the liturgies of oppressed, marginalized Christian communities, I can learn what it means to lament. They often press into praise, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. On my own, I hesitate to do either, especially while confined; it’s more comfortable to numb my emotions with Netflix or resist worship.

In engaging in these pre-written practices, I know someone else who loves Jesus is giving me a framework for worship and supplication in ways I wouldn’t know how or choose to do on my own. It’s helping me step out of my prayers’ spontaneity and individualism. It’s reminding me to command my soul to trust the Father with feelings I’d rather suppress and bless him at all times.

Intercession through Art

My attention span during this pandemic is like the golden retriever’s from Up. I catch myself drifting to anxious thoughts, not knowing if it was for seconds or minutes.

One way I’ve found to stay focused is to hand-letter the name of a person, place, or situation and then doodle and color on the page each time I pray for it. These visual prayers, not meant to be masterpieces by any means, seem to fit the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Some religious traditions use icons to help visually communicate complicated insights about God’s kingdom. When you look at an icon one time, the Spirit may show you one thing and something else another time.

Similarly, my doodles help me hold something before God and lead me to intercede in a specific way on some days. Other times, I just lift the page to him, with no words because it all feels too heavy. The drawings silently but colorfully reveal that I need the Spirit to intercede for me (Rom 8:26).

Submission through Embodiment

The most challenging discipline I’ve sensed the Lord inviting me to is breath prayer, essentially saying a name of God as you inhale and then exhaling a request or declaration of who he is. It’s short and repetitive, helping you surrender and free you from thought. And because it’s linked to the rhythm of your breathing, it embodies a spiritual reality: you can no more survive on one breath than you can on one dose of God.

During my allotted hour of outdoor time in my eerily quiet neighborhood, I silently repeat my prayer. Inhale: Yahweh. Exhale: Our refuge and strength. Over and over.

Sure, God wouldn’t mind if I rambled about needing him to show me he’s safe and strong, but I don’t need to. He knows my needs and can choose to respond whether I say a lot or nothing. Acknowledging this is simultaneously humbling and wonderfully powerful.

Waiting for Fruit

While stuck inside, I’ve been especially observant of creation. The trees have gone from barren to buds to bright green leaves faster than I imagined. My houseplants are sprouting right and left, blissfully unaware of the surrounding chaos.

Did they long to bloom all winter? Did they question why they spent months without stretching their limbs toward the sun? Or did they rest, content in dormancy? Did they innately know they’d get their chance to flourish?

I’d like to say I have mastered this plantlike serenity, but Matthew 6:25–34 has never been my favorite passage. I’d much rather “labor or spin” as God provides a steady flow of fabric. Each and every moment, we’re presented with the choice to “not worry,” a choice that will continue well beyond this current phenomenon.

Whether a loved one dies, or another dark night of the soul looms, I know I’ll need to prune my spiritual disciplines again at some point, discerning how God wants to meet me. I will have to trust he knows what kind of pruning is necessary and what fruit it will produce . . . sooner or later.

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Sarah is on staff with InterVarsity Study Abroad. Based in Paris since 2016, she enjoys connecting study abroaders to the IFES movements in their host countries, mentoring student interns, and collaborating with her teammates to create resources that help students thrive abroad.

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