As the adage goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.

The old saying came to mind last week when I came across a report that Google searches for the word “prayer” have spiked as the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its hold on the entire planet.

Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and executive director of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, revealed the trend in her recent draft of a research paper titled “In Crisis We Pray: Religiosity and the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

“The increases in prayer intensity documented here are the largest the world has experienced since 2004, the earliest date for which the Google Trends data is available,” Bentzen wrote, referring to the website that scrutinizes Google search queries across various languages and countries throughout the world.

The paper has touched off some debate over what the data means: Does it reflect more people gravitating toward prayer for the first time? Or is in an uptick in people who, deprived of their normal religious routines due to widespread closings of places of worship, are now turning to the internet in search of alternatives?

Either way, it got me thinking about prayer in times of crisis and, in particular, one night in my not-too-distant past when I prayed like never before.

I was at Maine Medical Center following major abdominal surgery to remove a malignant tumor in my stomach and, just when I thought I was about to go home, things suddenly went south.

Wracked with pain, surrounded by a platoon of doctors, nurses and medical technicians, I tried not to panic as they discussed the various possibilities – some of them decidedly not good. For the first time in my life, I actually thought I was about to die.

I turned to my distraught wife and, out of nowhere, said, “I think you should call the priest.” Moments later, in walked the Rev. Robert Vaillancourt, or “Father Bob,” as he’d introduced himself a few days earlier on his rounds as hospital chaplain.

Father Bob asked my wife and me if we wanted to pray. We nodded yes. Then, amid the commotion still going on around us, the three of us held hands, bowed our heads and recited “The Lord’s Prayer.”

I remember tears pouring down my cheeks as I uttered the words I’d known since early childhood but, truth be told, had spoken less and less in later years. Halfway through, I remember my sadness and fear giving way to something deeper, a sense of acceptance that bordered on surrender.

It was, to this day, the most profoundly spiritual moment of my life.

My physical distress turned out to be a buildup of bile in my stomach, which had yet to restart even days after the surgery. I suddenly threw up violently, and when I looked up from the gloved hands holding the vomit bag, there was Father Bob.

“I didn’t know this was in your job description,” I muttered to him between gasps.

Laughing, he replied, “You’d be surprised at some of the things I do around here.”

I reconnected on Friday with Father Bob, who now serves as pastor of six Roman Catholic churches in the Rockland area and as chaplain at the Maine State Prison in Warren. With the churches now closed and the prison not allowing in volunteers, he’s spent much of his time in recent days on the phone with folks he already knows – and some he’s never met.

“I’m amazed at how many people have called and even met with me because they have a need to look at their lives spiritually, their life with God, who is becoming a bit more real right now,” he said.

One such call came from a man who, while baptized Roman Catholic, hadn’t been to Mass or confession in 54 years. Yet here he was on his cellphone, imploring Father Bob to squeeze him into the priest’s already busy day.

“He needed to meet with me,” Father Bob recalled. “Not only to talk about God, but he wanted to go to confession and he wanted so desperately to receive communion.”

Bentzen’s Google Trends research suggests that many people, shaken by the persistent uncertainty over how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last and how many lives it will ultimately claim, are turning to prayer – or perhaps trying to figure out exactly how to pray because they’ve never before done it.

Father Bob turns that telescope around. The urge to pray, he firmly believes, originates not within the individual person, but with inspiration from on high.

“There’s a void and they’re finally looking at the right place. They’re beginning to realize, ‘Maybe there is a God here. Because right now I need him,’” he said. “There’s something going on and I really believe God initiates that.”

It’s a longing that crosses not only international borders, but also denominations. Bentzen noted in her research that the rising interest in prayer has occurred in predominantly Muslim countries as well as those more rooted in Christianity, which is one week away from Easter Sunday, or Judaism, which this week will celebrate Passover.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote eloquently on Friday that “there is nothing sadder than a sparse Seder table” as Jewish families scale down their plans for the sacred feast that marks the Jews’ escape from Egyptian slavery 3,000 years ago.

Marcus wrote: “The Seder ends with the invocation ‘L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim.’ Next year in Jerusalem. It is a statement not simply of geography but of yearning for a better world. This year, that yearning is made manifest. L’Shana Haba’ah. Next year may we be together. Next year may we be healthy. Next year, God willing, back to normal.”

I also spoke Friday with the Very Rev. Dr. Benjamin Shambaugh, dean of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine’s Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.

Like Father Bob, Shambaugh has seen many a new face as he shepherds his congregation from the cathedral to an array of online Zoom meetings. But beyond those who gravitate toward his church, I asked him, what about people with no religious background whatsoever who now, for reasons they may not fully understand, feel an urge to pray? Where does one start?

Shambaugh recalled that before Maine went into full shutdown last week, he went to Pine Point Beach in Scarborough – his “go-to place” – a couple of weekends ago and found the beach so crowded it was hard at times to maintain proper physical distancing.

“They’re not just going there because it’s pretty,” Shambaugh said. “They’re going because something like that feeds your soul. And they want to connect.”

Beyond the beaches, as Maine’s stay-at-home edict leaves many people with an abundance of spare time on their hands, Shambaugh senses a need to do something, anything, that feels productive and constructive. Thus, in addition to maintaining a list of people asking for prayer, his church has a growing roster of people offering to pray for others.

His advice to the prayer novice?

“You don’t need to be in a church and you don’t need to be saying the ‘Our Father’ on your knees,” Shambaugh said.

We simply need to have faith, hunkered down in our foxholes, that this too shall pass.


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