The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how Italian Christians pray and live their faith, amid a nation reeling from more than 10,000 deaths—the highest tally in the world—among 92,400 confirmed cases, second only to the United States [as of March 28].
During lockdown, we can no longer gather on Sundays or in home groups. Social gatherings, travel, and weddings are suspended, as are most businesses. If someone is caught outside their home without a valid reason, there can be a heavy fine.
But this season of exile has helped us discover three facets of prayer we often neglect in times of abundance.
1) Prayers of Lament
Psalms of lament often felt hyperbolic a month ago. For example, Asaph’s complaint that God has made his people “drink tears by the bowlful” could seem overdramatic; David’s cry to God of “How long will you hide your face from me?” was a distant feeling.
But as humanity struggles to contain a fear- and anxiety-provoking pandemic, lament feels newly relevant to all of us. In March 2020, Psalm 44 sounds pitch perfect:
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.
Few Western Christians have experienced poverty, injustice, or persecution. Consequently, our worship usually reflects the moods of resourceful individuals in times of prosperity and peace: composed and mainstream. We do suffer individually; however, seldom is our corporate worship fueled by protest and mourning before God.
Lament is suffering turned into prayer. It’s the worship of people who feel out of balance and out of place. Historically, it has been the prayer of minorities, the poor, and the persecuted—of Chinese pastors in prison cells and of black slaves singing of justice and Christ’s coming.
If lament felt foreign to most Italians a month ago, pastors have found eerie echoes of biblical stories in what is currently taking place in the country. “To see wives who can’t perform rites or bid farewell to their dying husbands reminds me of how Jesus was hastily buried and women returned to the tomb to anoint his body,” Gaetano di Francia, director of the Union of Christian Biblical Churches in Italy, told me. “Their lack of closure will produce a deeper grief.”
The language of lament may prove to be one of the bittersweet lessons Christians learn from this crisis. It can help believers unlearn a spirituality of the center and learn a spirituality of the margins (as pastor Abraham Cho reminds us).
2) Prayers of Intercession
Never have I spent so much of my time in prayer interceding for others. I’m ashamed to confess that, in the past, I’ve often told people, “I’ll pray for you,” but then forgot to do it.
But now that the virus ravages Italy, I have been moved by images of overworked doctors and people lying in makeshift hospitals. A member of our church fell gravely sick, but the emergency room turned him away because it is fielding so many cases of the new coronavirus.
I can’t meet or lay hands on him due to the current national lockdown, but I have been praying for his recovery. As a church, we have prayed for doctors, created a common fund to help those in economic need, and fasted for our country.
The coronavirus crisis has united Italian evangelicals, who observed a National Day of Prayer this past Sunday [March 22]. “Pentecostals, Reformed, Wesleyans, Baptists, Congregationalists, and others met at the feet of the Lord, united by the Holy Spirit,” Giacomo Ciccone, president of the Italian Evangelical Alliance, told me.
“It is as if God prepared leaders and denominations around the country to come together in prayer for the nation and for the church,” Leonardo de Chirico, the alliance’s vice president, told me. “It was the easiest event to organize. Nobody needed convincing; all were already on fire for it.”
Mila Palozzi, a pastor at my congregation, Hopera Church in Rome, agrees that evangelicals desire to come together.
“In the Promised Land, Israel understood itself as a collection of tribes but in exile as one nation,” she told me. “So does Italy: this crisis is bringing churches and tribes together to pray as one body for our country.”
It’s a foretaste of the spirit of unity and intercession spreading around the world. For example, this coming Sunday [March 29] the World Evangelical Alliance will convene a Global Day of Fasting and Prayer.
3) Prayers of Silence
However, the news is so bleak and the suffering so global these days that we can feel overwhelmed in prayer. How can my prayers possibly meet this moment? Our honest response may be, “Lord, I’m dumbfounded. I don’t know what to say.”
When I watched army trucks driving corpses to be cremated because there is no longer space in cemeteries in parts of Italy, I was speechless.
But to wait upon the Lord is valid. To put our wordless trust in him is a legitimate prayer. When Paul writes about our present weakness and suffering, he adds:
“We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Rom. 8:26-27, NIV)
When words fail us, we can be still and know that God is God.
“As a family, we have chosen to fill our silences full of doubts with the secure promises of God,” Stefano Picciani, a preacher at Stadera Church in Milan, told me. “Asaph’s statement of trust in Psalm 73—‘Yet I am always with you’—provides words for our prayers.”
We rightly long to return to normalcy and corporate worship. Imagine the victory parties, and the joining of hands!
When this pandemic will be defeated, many will resonance with the sense of relief of Psalm 126 (“Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.”) and the joy of Psalm 150 (“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”).
But alongside celebrations, we will be wise to remember the prayers we uttered in this time of sickness. May this pandemic humble our hearts and teach us the prayers of the weak, the concerned, and the speechless.
René Breuel is founding pastor of Hopera, a church in Rome, Italy, and author of The Paradox of Happiness.