The Coronavirus pandemic has forced us to limit contact with the world beyond our homes, and for those who can afford it, to quarantine themselves completely. As of now, this change of routine has no foreseeable end. The uncertainty has thrown some into panic and paranoia. Others seek to distract themselves from the chaos, venturing into the less gloomy, more easily controllable virtual world of video games and social media.
Still others are facing these times as an opportunity for discovery and personal growth. There’s extra time to pick up hobbies and learn about new topics. This can also be a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, and meditation. Several writers have gone as far as comparing the time in quarantine to involuntary monasticism.
To get some insight into how lay people can use this time to experiment with monastic practices, I decided to ask Fr. Albert Holtz OSB of Newark Abbey a few questions.
SA: Give us a snapshot of the daily life of a monk. Has the daily schedule changed much because of the restrictions of quarantine?
AH: Our daily schedule hasn’t changed at all. In fact, I think that having a fixed routine provides a comforting predictability for anyone these days. The most noticeable difference is that in church and in the refectory we’ve modified our seating so as to keep as much distance as possible between us. But our weekday schedule is the same: Morning Prayer at 6:00, Breakfast at 6:50, Midday Prayer at 11:50 followed by lunch, 4:00 quiet reading, 5:00 mass, 6:00 supper, 6:45 Vespers, 7:15 recreation, 8:00 most of us are in our rooms.
Since things like food shopping were never part of our life anyway, the restrictions aren’t as noticeable for us as they are for everyone else.
SA: Many of us are struggling either with getting caught up in following the media coverage of the pandemic, or with distracting ourselves through entertainment and social media. It can be easy to get trapped into one of these loops, thus further distracting ourselves from the others in our homes, from our tasks, or from our own spiritual lives. Are there some principles of monastic spirituality that might help us to profit from these strange circumstances?
AH: Right now I’m responsible for educating our two novices (new members of the community) in the spirituality and customs of the monastery, so I have plenty of opportunity to reflect on the central elements of monastic life, so I can suggest a few that come to mind right away, attitudes or practices that might make it easier to get along with others in tight quarters or might help a person to grow spiritually from the present challenges.
The first is “restraint of speech.” While it’s important to communicate with one another (you must never use silence as a weapon), there are times, St. Benedict says, when even good words are better left unsaid out of respect for silence. We might try to become more aware of our speech — how much, what kind, and so on.
Another help is the virtue of humility, the honest, down-to-earth admission of the truth about myself, both the good and the bad. There’s this wise saying making the rounds these days that says “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” Benedict is big on putting your own wants second to the wants and needs of others. A group of people who think this way will find it much easier to build community
Another practice that Benedict encourages is “mutual obedience.” He says that obedience is a blessing that we monks owe to each other and not just to the superior. It’s putting aside what I want for what the other person needs.
A final trait of Benedict’s that people might do well to imitate is his wise assessment of the frailty and limitations of human nature. Life in community becomes much easier once I admit that I’m not perfect and neither are any of my brothers or my superiors (or my students or anyone else). So, when someone gets on my nerves, it’s helpful for me to remember that in a community love is often about putting up cheerfully with one another’s shortcoming and weaknesses and trying to be of help to them.
If you notice, all of these ideas are applications of basic Gospel teachings. Monks simply try to live the gospel in a more obvious and emphatic way. The Coronavirus pandemic is offering everyone else the challenge and the opportunity to do the same: To live the Gospel in a more intense, emphatic way.
SA: While some are able to work remotely from home, others are required to risk their safety and leave home everyday to go to work, and some even have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Considering that your charism is based on the symbiotic balance of prayer and work (ora et labora), how do you recommend that we start to make sense of the disruption to our normal workflow?
AH: Benedict tells us that God is everywhere (e.g. the workshop, and the refectory, as well as the chapel), and that Christ is present in every person (especially the poor, the very young, and the sick). So, no matter where the pandemic forces us to go, and no matter who it may force us to encounter, we can comfort ourselves in knowing that God in Christ is there to be discovered and served. No crisis, no pandemic is bigger than the Universal Christ whom we meet in every fellow human being.
SA: Can you leave us with a particular prayer or saying of St. Benedict that might help us maintain our trust in God during these difficult times, and not to fall into despair?
AH: One short saying that is a favorite of mine comes at the end of Chapter Four of the Holy Rule, “On the Tools of Good Works.” It says simply,
“And, finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy.”
Albert Holtz, OSB is a Benedictine monk of Newark Abbey, Newark, NJ. He teaches New Testament in the monastery’s inner-city prep school. He has served as master of novices, retreat master for Benedictine communities around the US & is currently Oblate Director. He is the author of Downtown Monks, Street Wisdom, Pilgrim Road, From Holidays to Holy Days & Walking in Valleys of Darkness: A Benedictine Journey through Troubled Times. He blogs at Downtown Monks on Blogger.
Photos courtesy of Newark Abbey webpage and Benedict News Online.