So here we are, mostly inside, self-isolated to help stop the Covid-19 pandemic, cloistered as it were. Even libertarians and other individualists realize they are social creatures. Catholics miss all the more the materiality — the smell of incense, the touch when passing the peace, the taste of bread and wine — that makes them a sacramental people. My low-church Pentecostal neighbor could watch a live-streamed service from a mega-church anywhere in the world but puts out a call to gather on Sunday in a vacant lot (six feet apart of course) for a psalm, a prayer, and a simple song. We are all monks now, in a way.
If we have to live this way for awhile, we had best heed the words that open the most formative document in Western monasticism, the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB):
“Listen, my child.”
In other words, pay attention and learn. Be mindful, as Buddhism has taught us to say. The time-honored disciplines that Benedict laid out all aim to clear away distractions and focus that attention. Pandemic protections are removing distractions, but with long unstructured days we still need focus. And if weekly mass with a priest presiding has been the focus of Christian life, ordinary lay people may now feel adrift.
But, there is a churchwide opportunity here for serious lay formation. In mid-March, as Catholic bishops around the world were beginning to cancel public masses, and tech-savvy parishes were beginning to offer live-streamed alternatives, theologian and Vatican historian Massimo Faggioli voiced his hope that Catholics would recognize the solid but oft-neglected alternatives already in their tradition. “Watching Mass online is really no substitute for physically participating in the celebration of the Eucharist,” he wrote. If anything, he argued, the effort to move Mass online betrays a continuing dependency on clericalism, and a long-standing neglect of spiritual practices that lay people can initiate on their own. “The hierarchy (Pope Francis included) should be encouraging Catholics to explore the Liturgy of the Hours, ‘lectio divina’ and family celebrations of the Word,” none of which requires the presence of a priest.
Already in the process of restructuring my daily routines, I perked up at Faggioli’s observations. As a Benedictine oblate — a lay person who affiliates with a monastery and commits to adapting the Rule of Saint Benedict to his or her station in life — these are practices I know, even if I don’t practice them as regularly as I would like. Many mental health experts are already recommending to the general public that we live very deliberate, regularized lives in these circumstances. So for me as a Catholic Benedictine Christian, pandemic-required self-isolation is an opportunity.
At such a moment, adopting even one or two monastic practices may be helpful. They were never meant for exceptionally holy Christians, after all, but for “beginners” (RB 73). True, monasticism became clericalized over the centuries, and the vows that monks take draw distinct lines between them and other Christians. But monasticism was originally a lay movement. The practices that are distinctly monastic do not require priests and clerics to preside. Even Saint Benedict was not himself a priest and his Rule takes care to guard against priestly dominance. (RB 60-62).
Saint Benedict called his monastery a “school” and a “workshop” — a place to get started.
Without monastic bells to regularize my day, my own practices are imperfect, but that is fine. Saint Benedict called his monastery a “school” and a “workshop” — a place to get started for those of us who are “so slothful, so unobservant, so negligent” (RB prologue; 4; 73). But that is the point, to begin where we are, so long as we do so mindfully, listening, paying attention. Here’s what I’m working on:
1. Liturgy of the hours. The biggest impediment to prayer is not prayer itself — that is, the need to learn to do it well. God will meet us where we are, however faltering and inelegant our prayers. No, “eighty percent of life is showing up,” as the saying goes. Our biggest challenge is the “hours” — the regularity, showing up. So start by setting aside a regular time or two each day simply to sit, say a prayer you know like the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer, and sit a few minutes more. Later you may want to subscribe to a daily guide to prayer like Give Us This Day, Magnificat, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (all available as smartphone apps) — or even learn to pray the full canonical Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. But what matters most is regularity. After all, the Rule of Saint Benedict not only lays out daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms for prayer (RB 8-20, 47-49); it also does so for meals (RB 41) and work (RB 48). Unless our states and locales say otherwise, we should add to those rhythms of prayer our daily runs, walks, and bike rides.
2. Honor your pots and pans. This may seem a strange spiritual focus, but in this time of physical distancing, we can be attentive to our physical world in other ways. A Zen Buddhist teacher once summarized Zen practice this way: “When you wash your underwear, wash your underwear.” It’s a recommendation, again, to mindfulness, paying attention. One of my favorite sentences in the Rule of Saint Benedict is the instruction it gives about the “cellarer” or pantry manager, but it can apply to everyone: A well-chosen cellarer “will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected” (RB 31). Especially here, my wife would remind me that my practice is far from perfect and ask why I left dirty dishes in the sink again. But if I am missing the touch and taste of the Eucharist, I can start by treating our food and utensils like the sacramentals that Saint Benedict suggested they are.
Marking the weekends, or at least one day, for different activities will be all the more important in this time.
3. Keep the Sabbath, anyway. The fortunate among us are able to continue working from home, and our work teams may continue to require distinct work days. But for many of us (even the employed but especially the newly unemployed) one unstructured day could easily blur into another, and extra childcare responsibilities for some could add as much a sense of chaos as rhythm. Marking the weekends, or at least one day, for different activities — family worship, games, a trip to a sparsely occupied park, a special movie together (not the television droning on in the background) — will be all the more important in this time.
4. Read more, and prayerfully. Local bookstores offering curbside pick-up are one business that may be doing better in this time of pandemic precaution. The Rule of Saint Benedict is with us here, encouraging reading year-round but especially during Lent (RB 48-10-22). Selecting an especially appropriate book for reading during Lent is a common monastic practice. The beginning of pandemic precautions has not only coincided with Lent in 2020, but is likely to continue into what feels like an extended Lent. We may find ourselves reading more books than we were. We should choose what we read thoughtfully and prayerfully.
5. Lectio divina. And while we are marking our hours and reading more, we have an opportunity to learn or deepen our practices of lectio divina — divine, holy, prayerful reading especially of the Bible. Inspired by that phrase in the Rule of Saint Benedict (4.55; 48.1), monastics through the centuries have developed a meditative practice of, not so much studying the Bible, as praying it. Many guides are available online (e.g. here and here) but the basic idea is to read a passage slowly, then read again while choosing a few words to “chew” on, then turn those words into prayers for oneself and others, and into personal commitments to ourselves become the answer to those prayers to the extent possible.
Stopping to reach out can be a spiritual discipline in itself.
6. Hospitality. Yes, even now. Saint Benedict’s famous instruction to welcome guests as though they were Christ himself (RB 53.1, cf. Matt. 25:35) has paradoxically made hospitality a hallmark of the Benedictine tradition — paradoxical because the monastic life requires at least some measure of seclusion. Now we must find other ways to practice heart-felt hospitality in paradoxical combination with self-isolation. If we are keeping in touch with family and friends through FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or simple phone calls, let us think of others in our neighborhoods, parishes, or long-distance social networks we might reach out to right now. Whose day might we brighten with an unexpected card? Who needs someone to drop groceries off at their front door? Stopping to think of these people and reaching out one way or another can be a spiritual discipline in itself.
7. Charity. Love for God, neighbor, Christ, and even enemies are primary tools or “instruments of good works”in the Rule (RB 4) and of course mean much more than philanthropic “charity.” Still, at a time when needs approach crisis proportions, but “social distancing” makes it hard to know how to volunteer our time and hands, it will be all the more important for those of us with financial resources to give freely. If we grimace when we look at our 401ks, imagine those who have little, or no, savings at all looking at a pink slip or an empty refrigerator. With that sense of perspective, let us give to organizations who are better positioned than we to set up safe systems of outreach to the needy both in our neighborhoods and in dangerous places like refugee camps in various places around the world. And then, if we get federal relief checks, let those of us who can give even more.
8. Think on death. And now the bracing one: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (RB 4.47). Memento mori is the ancient phrase for this remembering. We are suddenly more aware of our basic creaturely vulnerability. At some level, we are all afraid. Would we not do well to look that fear in the eye, attend to it too, and learn its lessons? The call is not for some unhealthy, obsessive fascination with death. The call is to recognize our rock-bottom need for God and one another, and then live accordingly—generously and mindfully, now and no less when the pandemic eventually passes.
9. “Listen” some more. All of what I have written has been about listening, being mindful, embracing the loss of distractions, paying attention. But I’m not asking you to suddenly take up all of these practices. My Myers-Briggs personality type admittedly makes isolation easier and allows me to welcome regularity (INFJ, if you must know). Others will struggle more.
Each person will need to discern the best ways that she or he can pay attention. My suggestion is to simply take up one or two of these practices. Listen. Which one excites a beat of joy in the rhythm of your heart? That might just be God speaking.