If we make the most of the coronavirus lockdown, we will take time to assess our whole lives. The crisis could awaken all of us and be the tipping point for a major reversal in the world’s moral and spiritual decadence.
I was first introduced to the riches of Benedictine spirituality when a kind Catholic woman befriended me in college. June Reynolds was a retired botany professor from Georgetown and an oblate of St Anselm’s Abbey in Washington DC. I met her when I happened to do some Saturday afternoon yard work for her.
June lived a quiet life with her bookish husband in a small cabin in the woods. On the other side of the border wall was the Poor Clare convent where her only daughter Sister Mary Lucy was the mother superior.
After I moved to Oxford to study theology in preparation for ministry in the Church of England, June corresponded and eventually suggested I might like to visit a Benedictine monastery.
She didn’t realize how deeply my fundamentalist anti-Catholic prejudice ran. I was, by this time, much more open minded to the historic church, but monks and nuns! To our basic Bible religion monks and nuns were the deep dark secret of the Catholic Church. They wore long robes with chains at the waist, lived in big gothic buildings that looked like something out of the Addams family, and horror tales like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk still infested the atmosphere of our religious sect like a dark, miasmal mist.
Nevertheless, fortified by F.D. Maurice’s aphorism that “a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies” I decided to take her advice. I wrote to the guest master of the nearest Benedictine monastery—Douai Abbey—near Reading in Berkshire, England. I was invited to pay a visit and made my way there by train, alighting at Woohampton Station, where I spotted a crooked little sign directing me “to the monastery.” It was a damp and cold afternoon in March as I trudged up the hill and found my way to the front door.
Suffice it to say that I was instantly intrigued and enchanted by the promise and allure of the monastic life. There was a beautiful chapel, pregnant with silence and poignant in its austere beauty. I visited the library with its musty fragrance of old books and the solid wooden furniture glowing with the patina of age. The gothic refectory too was a simple joy as I joined the monks, wondering at the paradox of eating such simple fare in such sumptuous surroundings. That they ate in silence while someone read a book out loud evoked a surge of wry surprise.
I continued to visit Douai, made friends with a few of the monks and made it a lifelong vocation to study the rule of St Benedict and visit other monasteries. Eventually I was admitted as an oblate. My commitment to the Rule of St Benedict has not been a roaring success. I stumble and fall in my attempts to pray and the Benedictine balance of work, prayer, and study is too often thrown out of balance by my own tendency to over work, fall asleep during prayer, and (when it comes to books) skim rather than study.
Now that the Bishop has closed down the sacraments due to the coronavirus crisis, one is forced to take the Lockdown Option which compels me to re-examine the way of St Benedict—which has been a way of solitude and isolation from the first. The word “monk” is from the Greek monos—“alone” and the Lockdown Option means many families are facing isolation and many individuals are having solitude imposed on them for their own sake. The monks and nuns have been living the “lockdown option” for centuries. Therefore what might we learn from their perennial wisdom to enrich our own period of enforced solitude?
First is the realization that God does not hurry. God’s time is the time of nature and nature’s beauty unfolds slowly. God plays a long game. Our lockdown experience should force us to slow down and reduce the frenetic pace of our over busy lives. We may come out of this dark doldrum with a renewed sense of stability of place and time. We don’t have to rush about so much. I suspect one of the spin offs will be a reduction, for a time at least, in the leisure travel industry. Do we really need all those cruises? Do we really need to jet ourselves all over the world just for fun?
We could stay home. This is the Benedictine wisdom in the vow of stability. The monk vows stability to one monastery at one place for life. That is why when you meet a monk he may say, “I am a monk of Belmont” or “I am a monk of Clear Creek or Norcia or Downside.” Benedict’s monks are to stay put, and the strap line for the vow of stability is “God is not elsewhere.”
The second Benedictine vow is that of obedience. Our enforced lockdown requires not only obedience to the law of the land, or the decree of the bishop, but also an obedience to the greater good. The root of the word “obedience” is the Latin obedire—to listen. Perhaps in lockdown mode we can all take more time to listen attentively not to another podcast, audio book, or whatever is streaming on our screen gadgets, but learn to listen to the voice of the Lord. Just as God moves slowly, so he speaks quietly. The prophet hears the Lord not in the earthquake, wind, and fire but in the still, small voice of calm.
With the virtue of obedience we might also develop a fresh understanding of life’s true priorities. Instead of the constant push to acquire more material possessions, or the ambition to achieve worldly success we might submit our pride and lust for pleasure and power to the greater good of a quiet life in the pursuit of all that is beautiful, good, and true. We might submit our own pleasures and power grabs to the greater good in the love of God and our neighbor.
The third and final vow of the disciple of Benedict is conversion of life. This is not simply the call to religious conversion. It is a call for the conversion of one’s whole life. If we make the most of the coronavirus lockdown, we will take time to assess our whole lives and effect a turnaround for the better. The coronavirus crisis could awaken all of us and be the tipping point for a major reversal in the world’s moral and spiritual decadence.
Whether this is the result or not will be dependent on how many people use the crisis for an essential, foundation level conversion of life. If we can do this, a great new light may dawn in our own lives and in society. If we do not, we are in danger of tumbling from one crisis into others that are greater and far more dangerous.
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The featured image is “At the Window” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.