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My virtual hearth

Why I still take part in an online "lectio divina" group.

There was no possibility of meeting in person that day. The pandemic had brought with it risks so new, and an uncertainty so deep, that gathering the lectio divina group in the same room was now out of the question.

A few minutes before 8:30 a.m., I settled my infant daughter and her toddler brother with their father in the next room. My daughter was often fussy when separated from me, and I hoped I’d have enough quiet to focus.

I was extremely grateful for the privilege of a parental leave that allowed me to be home with my kids. But the harried isolation of caring for them in a pandemic had added anxious and weary edges to my life.

I had missed digging into meaningful questions with other adults. It was challenging to find reliable blocks of time for reading and writing – literary activities that typically nourished me. It was difficult to see what was possible with so much energy going into remembering what wasn’t.

The situation reminded me of the matter-of-fact first line of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

I resonated with the general loneliness of this famous heroine too. Jane’s struggles were far more dramatic than mine – the story follows her as she is orphaned at a young age, physically mistreated and utterly betrayed by her beloved.

Still, as I prepared to meet that Saturday – my laptop propped up on a nursing pillow – I felt that I was in a sort of “wandering the moors” moment, simultaneously shut in and also cast out of familiar places where I was known.

Communal meditation

A hitch of nervousness hit me as I watched mostly unfamiliar faces come up on the screen; when COVID-19 hit, I was still relatively new to the church, and my social skills felt stale.

The group still held the name Bibles and Bagels, since it began as women meeting at the church for food and discussion. The leader – a role that alternated from week to week – introduced everyone, then explained that we would read three times the passage appointed in the lectionary as part of the “divine reading” process. After each reading, we would silently reflect with a fixed intention before sharing. Our passage was Mark 1:29-39 – “Jesus Heals Many” and “Jesus Prays in a Solitary Place.”

First, we focused on a phrase or word that caught our attention and “sparkled.”

Not surprisingly, words such as “fever,” “sick,” “diseases,” “healed” and “solitary” stood out to me. I had been worrying over the health of my loved ones and steering through the fog of a multilayered identity (mother, wife, writer, Christian) in an isolated time.

I love our slow, communal way of meditating on short bites of Scripture that hold new mysteries.

Then we placed ourselves in the story.

First, I tried to imagine myself as Simon’s miraculously healed mother-in-law. But I got stuck on her jumping up from bed to prepare a meal, thinking about the pandemic burdens placed on caregivers. Others, too, wondered whether she offered the meal happily or felt obligated. Ultimately, I found myself aligned with the people in the Gospel story who witnessed the events at a distance: those standing in the doorway and the perplexed disciples searching for Jesus.

Finally, we asked ourselves how God might be guiding us in the coming week and beyond.

I held on to the image of seeking a solitary place to pray, and not just in the physical sense. Recently, my prayers had been half-formed thoughts drifting from a crowded mind in random slips of time before I was distracted again. God must cherish these messy, on-the-go prayers too, I thought. But I resolved to carve out more intentional time to listen to God, even if fears were all that surfaced.

We closed in a time of personal prayer. I was thankful for the ability to mute myself as my daughter’s high cry floated through the door. We were reminded that everything said was confidential in this safe space.

After we all logged off, I opened the door feeling a mixture of fatigue and refreshment. Socializing online took a lot of energy, yet I was buoyed by moments of mutual care and the opportunity to reflect candidly on a God who heals, prays and perplexes.

Inclined to the Spirit’s voice

Now, years later, I continue to be spiritually nourished by this group.

Despite the possibility of gathering in person, we have continued to meet online. It’s convenient, but it’s more than just convenience that makes this a nourishing group for me – even without sharing rings of yeasty dough.

I love our slow, communal way of meditating on short bites of Scripture that hold new mysteries. I love that our group dynamic changes every week as our attendance varies. I even love how our faces are lit in different ways as we ponder ancient wisdom from our modern rooms.

Together with others, while inclined to the Spirit’s voice, I can navigate heavy questions – such as those related to relationships, vocation, spiritual growth, injustice – with camaraderie, empathy, honesty and warmth.

This group has even changed the way I understand Jane Eyre.

When I was younger, I was swept up in the (in hindsight, rather troubling) central romance of the novel. I didn’t focus on the support that Jane receives from women – moments that sparkle for me now.

For example, when an ill and wandering Jane finds respite at the home of the Rivers family, she unexpectedly bonds with Mary and Diana Rivers through reading and conversation. Despite her vulnerable state, she meets Diana’s compassionate face with trust and says, “I know that you would not turn me from your hearth to-night: as it is, I really have no fear.”

A hearth: restorative, safe, warm and welcoming. I hope this group – my virtual hearth, online and on screen – will continue to reorient me to God’s instructive Spirit, alongside fellow wanderers committed to seeking him, in all seasons of possibility.

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