“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7
Take a breath.
Amid widespread respiratory disease and suffocating racism, a Spokane church is asking the community to take a breath together in prayer – prayer for justice, healing and change.
“Prayer invites change. It is a surrender, admitting we can’t do or solve everything on our own,” said the Rev. Tom Lamanna, the Jesuit pastor of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church. “When we open our hearts to interior change, we agree to act on that in good faith, in hope, in compassion and justice.”
Beginning Saturday, St. Aloysius Church will offer a 10-minute online prayer service. Parish priests and laypeople will introduce a daily topic for nine days, a novena, asking for God’s help through the intercession of parish namesake St. Aloysius, a Jesuit who died helping plague victims.
Topics include justice, trust, community and hope. Michele Lassiter worked on the parish planning team to narrow the idea list to nine.
“We started with about 20 ideas, so we tried to synthesize ideas into one word each day,” she said. “Our speakers will be unpacking what these words mean.”
The presentations and prayers are short, intended to give listeners a starting point for individual personal reflection. Presenter Erik Mertens hopes the novena is catalytic, leading to meaningful conversation and action.
“This is an invitation to dialogue,” Mertens said. “Listen to what the priests and laypeople have to say, but then respond in charity with your best self, so that we may listen to you.”
The proposal for a novena began as a response to COVID-19, novel coronavirus.
Before the need to prevent coronavirus through social distancing, the twin-spired church on East Boone Avenue would fill with 1,000 people a weekend to attend Mass, the essential communal prayer form for Catholics. Now church members access liturgy via Facebook and YouTube. Parish staff meet on Zoom and Teams. Priests offer Mass in an empty church, facing a video camera.
“We gather as a ‘virtual’ community in prayer until we can be together again in person. God’s love remains constant and accessible no matter where we are standing,” Lamanna said.
“We pray for an end to the COVID pandemic,” said the pastor, “and for patience and diligence in our actions to be safe and healthy.”
With the death of George Floyd, the desire for a novena expanded to include praying for racial justice. Focused group prayer can create solidarity of purpose, becoming another kind of peaceful demonstration in a community.
“We pray for an end to racism,” he said, “that our country and our communities, our world and our cultures continue to work to root out racism systemically entrenched in law, in economics, in social structures, in culture, and in individual hearts.”
Take a breath.
A simple phrase for the simplest act of human life and spirit. In fact, “spirit” comes directly from the Latin word spiritus, that means “breathing,” and is related to spirare, “to breathe.”
Another priest in the parish is familiar to many as a physician. The Rev. Stan Malnar, M.D., now retired from medical practice, frequently offers Mass at St. Aloysius.
“If there is a theme that is found in the liturgy, it is the theme of breathing,” Malnar said.
“As a physician who delivered babies, I have held my breath as I waited for a child to take its first breath,” he said. “And I have watched patients that I have cared for, and my own parents, take their last breath. Mary stood at the foot of the cross, watching Jesus take his last breath.”
The physician-priest noted the COVID virus has infected nearly 7 million people worldwide, and close to 2 million in the United States.
“The most common symptom is shortness of breath – patients can’t breathe,” he said.
“Today, it is also about the death of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody pinned down with a knee on his neck, repeatedly saying, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’”
Malnar said Floyd’s death revealed the racism that is found in our society. He noted the peaceful demonstrations are used by a few for looting and violence.
“And as we see that happen, we can’t breathe. The life spirit seems to disappear from us. Is there any cure for that?”
He said the COVID-19 virus will be much more easily controlled, and a vaccine will be developed that will immunize us against it.
“The other pandemics of violence, hard-heartedness and racism are much more difficult to control,” Malnar said. “There is no vaccine against them. It requires a change of heart. It requires each of us to embrace one another in mercy, and in compassion and in tenderness.”
Parishioner Noreen Duffy agrees. The Gonzaga University graduate student will talk about justice on one of the novena days.
“I think the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death are a manifestation of what it really means to be Christian,” Duffy said. “Our faith calls us to side with the marginalized and uplift their voices, to walk with them and accompany them in their sorrow so that we can all one day share in the joy of God’s kingdom.”
Another novena presenter, Christine Cronin, similarly hears a call to act for social justice.
“We are all called to reach deep into that inner self that still believes in dreams,” she said. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to his dream, and it’s time for us to follow through.”
Take a breath.
The load of need is so heavy. Add to global disease and systemic injustice the myriad challenges of personal daily life, among them job loss, anxiety in isolation, food insecurity, domestic discord.
What and where are the answers?
Marvin and Sandy King plan to participate in the online novena. The couple are not presenters or parish staff. They just want to engage in the prayer for direct and personal communication with God.
“As an adult convert to Catholicism, I will confess that there were a number of practices I met with some skepticism,” Sandy King said. “The notion of ‘novena’ was certainly one of them. I still don’t consider novenas magical guarantees, but I do not doubt the power of prayer.”
King recalled an especially difficult time when prayer helped her family.
“When my husband was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, we were both tangibly aware of – and humbly reliant on – the strength, support, and peace that came to us through the prayers of others,” she said.
“In this time of instability and uncertainty,” she continued, “plugging into some purposeful prayer seems like a worthwhile spiritual investment to gain that kind of peace.”
King acknowledged that praying is one thing, and the answers to prayer are another. She said it is natural for her to visualize what she thinks is the best answer to the request she brings to God.
“What I am finding is that sometimes the answer I get looks very different from what I had in mind,” she said. “Looking backwards I so often realize that the ‘God answer’ was better than my original script, even though it sometimes takes me some spiritual wrestling to acknowledge that.”
“When I pray, I just have to take a deep breath.”
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