Americans are being asked to spend the next month in relative isolation. I’m not the first to point out that monasteries are a resource for how to deal with this separation from others. I have many thoughts on this, and I hope to share them over the coming days and weeks.
Saint Benedict teaches experienced monks to admonish newcomers that the way to God is “rugged and harsh [via dura et aspera].” We come to the monastery seeking God, and, human nature being what it is, it is tempting to imagine that entry into a monastery will be a crowning moment of arrival rather than the initiation of a trial. But entry into monastic life also requires renunciation of “the world.”
The difficulty in monastic renunciation comes precisely from renunciation. The novice monk or nun is called to go without the usual comforts that smooth over the inevitable rough spots of life. Today, we are all being called, temporarily, to make acts of renunciation of the usual supports that we have in life: meetings with friends, hugs, museums, church, dining out, checking the sports scores, full shelves in the grocery stores …we have all entered a time of deprivation. A monk chooses this; most of you have not sought this out in the same way. I say this up front because we need to be honest with ourselves about the challenges that deprivation and renunciation present.
They are not at all insurmountable challenges! If, however, we imagine that renunciation will be painless, well, this will only make the unavoidable pain confusing and anxiety-provoking. With God’s help, especially as we prepare to enter Holy Week, we can look upon this as a moment to take up our Cross alongside our Lord, confident in divine accompaniment.
Now let me say a bit more about the “rugged and harsh” way upon which we’ve set out together. There are four initial things that warrant attention: the pain of grief, the invasion of thoughts, the importance of agency, and a long-term goal that gives us hope. Let us follow the example of the philosophers and Fathers and start with the goal.
The monk gives up worldly comforts for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We leave aside lesser comforts so that we may depend entirely on God and thereby be found worthy of His friendship. So monks and nuns willingly allow for painful experiences in the short term, always with an eye to the good that we want in the long term. We also choose to reduce our dependence on worldly comforts so as to acclimate ourselves with the interior world of thoughts. Now: during this time of involuntary renunciation, be ready to do battle with invading thoughts! I will have more to say about this soon, but here let me remind you that you are not your thoughts, and that there are ways to choose our thoughts. Choose wisely! We should especially make sure not to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the news and the itch to become an expert on all angles of the situation.
Back to the goal: what good are we seeking together in this time of pestilence? What is our goal? We are looking to safeguard our own lives and health and those of our families and neighbors. We are hoping to do this without undue damage to the infrastructure of our economic life (which would provoke a second round of sufferings for the most vulnerable). The hope of achieving these critical goals can motivate us to take action–hence the “importance of agency,” with which I will deal in a separate post.
There is a subtler set of goals that deserves our focus. When this trial begins to subside, and I look back on my decisions, how will I have comported myself? Am I now striving to act with courage, justice, compassion, generosity, and holiness? We will look back at this time and celebrate the heroes. Without doubt, we will also be aware of failures of virtue. If I have not prepared myself to be courageous, compassionate, or holy, now might be the best time I’ve ever had to learn. Acquiring these virtues involves acting in ways that might feel inauthentic in the moment. But one small act of courage makes the next, greater act easier. We will learn much about ourselves in the coming weeks. In some cases, what we learn will be uncomfortable. That, too, is part of the pain of deprivation–hence the “pain of grief,”–another future post. In this post, I want to emphasize that we do have a choice about our personal behaviors, and this is an opportunity for us to become quite a lot stronger than we thought we could be. The reason to emphasize this is that isolation can make it feel like we are reduced to passivity, that we lack agency. Many critics of monastic life harshly accuse us of “doing nothing.” This accusation derives from a certain bias that equates action with external activism and technological manipulation. Amusing memes of couch potatoes as heroes aside, we Americans are not being called to do nothing, but to change our arena of action toward self-discipline in a way that could bring about a discovery of inner strength.
A last comparison for today with monastic life. The newcomer, one hopes, is greatly consoled by the presence of others around him or her, especially the older monks. These are persons who have come through the trial and become icons of hope for what monastic life can achieve. In our shared isolation, who are our icons of hope for what we might achieve by God’s grace in our engagement with the present crisis? We certainly can look to the saints, particularly martyrs and confessors, for demonstrations of patience and sanctity amidst trials. We also have with us many survivors of illness and survivors of social dislocation. Interestingly on this last point, the immigrants among us and our immigrant ancestors are examples of living with great uncertainty and dislocation (our dislocation being more metaphorical but nonetheless real). Who are the best examples we’ve known of strength amid these adversities, and how can we learn from their experiences?