Updated: Apr 30
On one of the last “normal,” pre-COVID days in San Francisco, I attended a yoga class at Grace Cathedral where nearly 500 people gathered on a Tuesday night. We sat inches apart, mat to mat, clad in our yoga clothes, most of us strangers to each other. The pews had been removed that day due to a film event, so it was a rare evening, the dean told us. I’d been hearing about this yoga class for years so everything about it seemed special.
An old friend had invited me, and we were excited to see each other and catch up. After yoga, we planned to grab a bite down the block where we’d have our choice of restaurants, all busy, all open, ready to serve us. Like old times.
We’d gather and connect, go home, go to work, then do it again. Gathering was our ritual and our instinct.
That was our daily life. We knew no other.
Before driving into the city, I’d been on a work call with a colleague. I told him I had a hard stop because I needed to get to Grace Cathedral. He was planning on attending the yoga class too. I was stunned. We discussed financing, technology, not matters of the spirit, but I was oddly delighted to share this with him and my friend. It felt safe to show up and practice together.
See New Possibilities
We had just begun 2020, excited to usher in a new decade. My greatest hope was to grow through great love and great joy, my code words for ‘thrive.’ Attending this yoga class, in Grace Cathedral, sounded like a great kickoff. The last decade had given me plenty of growth through great pain and loss: divorce, deaths, colossal career change, my code words for ‘survive.’
Like everyone else, I embraced 2020 for the shiny object it was: an opportunity to create something grand — for me, the chance to experience grace, because I was anything but graceful in dealing with much of life prior to these traumatic events. I now learned to pay attention to my thoughts. I used to race to yoga classes just to arrive on time, hurling f-bombs at every driver that cut me off or slowed me down, missing the blatant hypocrisy.
That night, however, I gave myself extra time to find parking — directly across from Grace Cathedral. When I opened my car door, I laughed. On the ground was a penny. Right beneath my foot. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. And no, I didn’t think about washing my hands. All I thought was that finding this penny and free, easy parking in Nob Hill was a very good sign.
Cultivate Spiritual Courage
When I stepped inside the cathedral, I was struck by its transformation; hundreds of people sat on the floor where there would have normally been wooden pews. In the center of the labyrinth, was a glossy, black grand piano. Live music. At yoga. In a church. Was this really happening? And why had I waited so long to attend this well-known Tuesday night class?
I was busy being busy and anything but graceful. I chose to stand inside a building that harbored grace. I needed to feel it, and I wanted to embody it.
I wandered down the center of the cathedral to a place that felt good to put my mat. When I unrolled it, I realized my colleague was beside me. What were the chances that I would find him with such ease in this sea of bodies? We laughed — and hugged unmasked— and waited for my friend to arrive, while hundreds more people filled the space.
I had no expectations. I had no idea who the teacher was or what kind of yoga we’d be doing. Just being there with all those people, inside such a spectacular place was enough. In the past, I’d judge a yoga class on how much the instructor made me sweat. I laugh writing that because it couldn’t be further from the point of the practice. I sure wasn’t going to sweat in Grace Cathedral in February. It was cold. Most of us were wearing a puffy jacket.
The power in this class would not be measured by our collective sweat, but in two words uttered by the dean. He invited us to use the evening’s practice to cultivate “spiritual courage.”
What did he just say? I leaned in and got quiet.
Spiritual courage. Hearing those two words sent chills down my legs.
Spiritual courage, he explained was the ability to be a warrior in dark times. Cultivating spiritual courage is what would enable us to be light bearers. Why was he saying this? Why now? Of all the ways I could usher in 2020, developing spiritual courage would soon supplant all my other intentions. Three weeks later, the world as we knew it would shut down, and gathering in a cathedral or any other building with 500 or more people would remain the fondest memory and greatest privilege of being human.
That evening plays over and over as I shelter in place with my young daughter, home school her while I run a startup from a tiny in-law-unit, and where at 8 o’clock every night, we join our zany neighbors and step outside to howl like coyotes. It’s our new normal. Everything has changed in so many ways, and yet the things that matter most have remained. We’ve been forced to slow down. Because we actually can’t plan for much of the future, an unavoidable presence has opened us to the moment. We’re paying better attention to each other. To ourselves. To the planet.
While the outside world feels like it is coming undone faster than we can fathom, the inside world we inhabit as spirits offers a sanctuary where all can be right — despite our pain, confusion or terror. I am reminded of the responsibility of being a light bearer. My daughter is watching my every move and despite my uncertainties and questions about the future, I know spiritual courage (and maybe a few boozy Zoom calls) will get us through this trauma, and hopefully, with grace.
Choose Growth & Grace
Is COVID-19 inviting us to cultivate our spiritual courage? How can we look at this for what it is, to accept and grieve the loss and devastation, but also stay healthy in our minds so that we can handle the fallout? What if COVID-19 was the most powerful change agent in our lifetime that forced us to slow down, take stock, reexamine our relationships and all our priorities?
When my daughter was three, her father and I were going through a divorce. I remember waking up with difficulty breathing, the terror of the unknown like a vice around my neck. But I got up. I dressed. I’d grip the countertop and tell myself, “You are strong.” On the worst days, when I felt like that was total bullshit, I told myself, “You must be strong.” A lesson I learned after a drunk driver ran me over and left me unable to walk for nearly a year.
I hope I can bring everything I’ve learned with me over the years into handling a global pandemic, because this time I am not alone in my trauma. I share it with a few billion other people. I share it with you. And in our collective fear and grief, we are finding a way to get through this.
I want to reach back in my memory and gather with hundreds of people in a cathedral. I want to hug my friends without fear of infecting them or being infected with something that might kill us. I want to know what it feels like to breathe together again, to breathe when we do not turn our backs. If all I have is this memory, then I will meet you there, in that space, where we are asked to choose spiritual courage. The point? Trauma does not need to be a curse. We can use this pain to seed profound growth and with it, the gift of a grace we have yet to know but can hope is coming.
Holly Lynn Payne, founder of Booxby.ai and contributor to MOCA+.