We’re all monks now

Kirkstall Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery located near the city of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. (Photo by James Genchi on Unsplash)

The Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky chant Psalm 91 every evening at Compline, a psalm that contains the following lines:

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You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the plague that prowls in the darkness,
nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.

Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., a monk at Gethsemani, has been praying this psalm nightly for decades, but only in the last month have the words hit home: “I never thought the threat of plague would pertain to us or specifically to me.”

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

The Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists, is a contemplative religious order. Cistercian monastic life is characterized by work, silence and prayer in obedience to an exacting interpretation (hence the “Strict Observance”) of the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict for monasteries.

It is a life lived in community behind the enclosure of monastic walls, separated from the world.

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Because of Covid-19, many of us are living, in a way, like monks, enclosed and isolated in our homes. But unlike the monks, we did not ask for or want this situation, nor it is one for which many of us were spiritually prepared.

Covid-19 cannot but remind us of our mortality and fragility, and so it can help us to rethink our priorities. “All life is lived in the shadow of death,” said Brother Quenon, “and we forget that.”

It is, however, a situation from which we can perhaps learn something by turning to monks for guidance, so I corresponded with three Cistercians, two from Gethsemani as well as the abbot of a Trappist monastery in the Midwest, to ask them about what the monastic life could teach us as individuals and families during this unique time in quarantine.

Without diminishing the catastrophic loss of life and jobs caused by the pandemic, Michael Casagram, O.C.S.O., at Gethsemani said that perhaps Covid-19 is “a divinely disguised moment for human breakthrough.” Our society revolves around the notion that power and wealth give meaning to existence, that they allow us to take control of our lives. But, Father Casagram continued, “power and wealth create an illusion of meaning and purpose while undermining our spiritual destiny.” We think they give us some measure of control, but in reality they “close the door to grace.”

When we are busy with our daily routines and tasks—and most of us would admit that we are too busy—it is easy to feel as if we are in control and that the life we are pursuing bestows ultimate meaning. Yet our pursuit of meaning through power and wealth leaves us spiritually impoverished as we scurry about, consumed by the busyness of life.

Covid-19 cannot but remind us of our mortality and fragility, and so it can help us to rethink our priorities. “All life is lived in the shadow of death,” said Brother Quenon, “and we forget that.”

In a talk he gave to novices at Gethsemani in 1965, the Trappist writer Thomas Merton said that life in this world is designed to distract us from thinking about questions of ultimate importance and particularly from thinking about our mortality. Forced isolation, on the other hand, “is making us face our own thoughts, deal with our own feelings,” said Father Casagram. “We can run from these or we can learn from what they are telling us, both good and bad.”

Brother Quenon described quarantine as “a chance to get over the fear of solitude and find the actual comfort in being with something that transcends a life scurrying from this to that.”

Quarantine can thus lead us inward if we allow it. Brother Quenon described quarantine as “a chance to get over the fear of solitude and find the actual comfort in being with something that transcends a life scurrying from this to that. You must return to yourself to find that which transcends yourself, however you name it.”

Father Casagram suggested that the spiritual discipline of lectio divina is worth cultivating during this time of quarantine. Lectio divina is a form of contemplative reading mandated in the Rule of St. Benedict that involves spending time in silence, away from all distractions, meditatively reading a short passage from Scripture or a classic of Christian spirituality. Finding the time for such discipline is difficult when we are preoccupied with our regular duties, and although we are not moving about physically as much during quarantine, we still find ourselves distracted in seemingly innumerable ways.

“So much depends on persons simply taking the time to read,” said Father Casagram. “I feel God is speaking to us through all kinds of circumstances if we are present, attentive with our heart to his loving presence.” And it is through being present to our thoughts and feelings as well as to God’s loving presence that we can become more fully present to those with whom we are living in isolation.

We can take this opportunity to recognize that “our happiness depends largely on living in communion with those our lives are naturally intertwined.”

Those of us spending our quarantine with other people are especially aware of the complexities involved in being in the same space with the same people for weeks on end. These complexities revolve in no small part around our individualistic propensity to elevate ourselves above others. We are, according to Father Casagram, “alienated from ourselves in the world of today because of the pursuit of self-interests, caring only for what pleases me instead of being open and responsive to the needs of others.”

It is for this reason that the longest chapter in St. Benedict’s Rule is the seventh chapter on humility and, indeed, the whole Rule revolves around the necessity of developing humility in community. To be humble is not to put one’s self down for the sake of another but rather, according to Father Casagram, to “make room for one another” to create a “climate of love and caring.” This climate is fostered and maintained by “attentiveness to one another and a readiness to make space for intimate listening” in such a way that each person feels accepted and loved despite their weaknesses and faults.

But such attentiveness to another requires us to be present to our own thoughts and feelings—and to the ways in which we are so often focused on ourselves to the exclusion of others. Father Casagram pointed out that, in a society dominated by individualism and distraction, “isolation and enclosure can sharper our awareness of how relational, how interdependent our lives really are.” We can take this opportunity to recognize that “our happiness depends largely on living in communion with those our lives are naturally intertwined.”

“Awareness of how we are one, especially one in our fragility,” said Brother Quenon, “is the ground from which we build community.”

Moreover, growth in this conception of community and the common good in our families can lead to a deeper understanding of the common good more generally. “In the Catholic mind and certainly in the monastic mind, the community—the common good—takes precedence over the individual,” said Father Mark, the abbot of a Midwestern Cistercian monastery, who preferred to give only his first name. The coronavirus cannot but remind us of our common fragility as human beings and therefore our common humanity.

“Awareness of how we are one, especially one in our fragility,” said Brother Quenon, “is the ground from which we build community.” If we can imitate monastic life by being present and attentive to one another in our temporary cloisters during quarantine, we can emerge from this time more attentive to the needs of those in our society.

The monks have a great deal to teach us about living in community in our temporary enclosures, but it is admittedly difficult to focus on the spiritual life in the midst of the anxiety so many of us feel right now. The monks I spoke with acknowledged this, but at the same time they suggested that we can use this moment to live into and be freed by the realization that there is much we cannot control. So much of our anxiety revolves around wanting to control the uncontrollable, and the pandemic can teach us the futility of this.

According to Father Mark, we need to be attentive to the present moment and so focus on that which we can control: “If I can concentrate on being in control of that very small circle of reality that is entrusted to me and in some sense depends on me—how I use my time, how I take care of myself, how I care for my family and friends, how I daily and hourly turn my concerns over to God—then my anxiety diminishes.”

This is “a great opportunity to yield control of our lives, to let ourselves truly trust in the goodness and providence of God amidst all that is happening,” said Father Casagram. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are “living in the presence of a living, caring and loving God,” and we can use this time of quarantine to develop, alone or with those with whom we live, a sense of this divine presence.

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