What is your spiritual foundation? What keeps you centered and hopeful during difficult times? We are emerging from a life-changing pandemic that has left many of us experiencing immeasurable losses and a keen sense of isolation.  Globally, we are discovering the smallness of our planet as we join our hearts with the people of Ukraine, who seek to survive an unprovoked war that has brought death and destruction. What capacity do we have to respond? How are we to maintain our individual sense of spiritual balance during such times as these?

I am honored to serve as lead chaplain for Volunteers of America Northern New England, a faith community without walls, serving locations in Belfast and beyond. Each year I have the gift of continuing education at both Princeton Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, where we learn of the current trends in spiritual expression. While at Princeton three years ago, I learned of a simple empirical research fact: Those who have a spiritual practice of some type tend to be happier people. It was a simple statistic, yet I found it profound.

While many of us find strength and spiritual support within faith communities, many do not. In fact, research indicates that attendance at church has dropped measurably over the past few decades. Yet, here in the state of Maine the numbers of citizens who are “spiritual but not religious” has grown significantly. In such cases the question comes: What sustains us spiritually during hard times? While the gathered community holds much enduring strength for those who join together in congregation, what keeps us, as individuals, spiritually, both inside and outside of the faith community? I have a suggestion to ponder.

While a young seminary student at Harvard Divinity School, I read the works of theologian Rudolph Otto and his idea of the holy which he called “Mysterium Trememdum” The Rev. Dr. Al Boyce is lead chaplain for Volunteers of America Northern New England. that feeling within that comes when we experience the grandeur of nature, hold a newborn baby, witness the miracle of seasons; the joy that comes with friends gathered by a campfire; that inexplicable, mysterious something that brings peace and a “sense of awe.” It’s a reminder of something greater than ourselves and an indescribable something within that almost takes our breath away.

I invite us to call to memory events of our lives where we have experienced awe or an indescribable peace that got us through a hard spot. I believe that recalling such experiences offers us strength in the moment. I share one of my own as an example for your reflection. In doing so, may it invite you to roll back the curtain of your own memory and rediscover hidden strength and a sustaining peace for today and the days ahead.

It was June 22, 1982, around 6:30 p.m., a sunny and hot summer evening in Boston. I was mugged and stabbed outside the door of my South End home. As I lay on the newly laid brick now stained with my own blood, a thought quickly came to my mind. “O God — am I dying? Will I go to heaven? Hell?” Within an instant three things came to my mind:  I have never intentionally hurt another human being. I have lived as honestly with my self as I could. I have helped others to the best of my ability. I will never forget the deep peace that filled my heart and mind in that moment — that “mysterium tremendum.”

All these years later, that “sense of awe” experience sustains me. There are other experiences that have come along since. They have all combined to create a realization that there is a sustaining Divine presence available to each of us, in an instant when needed. We must simply pause and be available for those moments of awe.

The Rev. Dr. Al Boyce is lead chaplain for Volunteers of America Northern New England.

GBAM, an interfaith group, envisions a world in which faith unites, rather than divides people. It gathers monthly to support one another and our community. The group can be reached at 338-4482 or on its Facebook page, GBAM – Greater Bay Area Ministerium.