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Isolation in Community

Isolation in Community May 4, 2020

We made it through the initial shock when we were all confused and panic buying toilet paper.

Many of us then settled into working in our pajamas and not driving in traffic. Isolation seemed almost like a vacation. Watching movies with our families was a new adventure.

Now some of us are feeling more anxious. There are a few signs of hope. Some states are “reopening.” We want to go to the beach and back to work.

it is almost as if we feel more lonely as we face the prospect of returning to our old lives.

We see the curve flattening on the charts and assume we have met the challenge and solved the problem. It is as if our efforts have begun to succeed and we believe it it time for them to be rewarded.

Image by Gilbert-Noël Sfeir Mont-Liban

Many of us see ourselves on the downhill side of COVID19. We have followed the rules and done what we needed to do. Now we are emotionally ready to go back out into the world.

Some of us talk about never wanting to experience this kind of isolation and separation again. We look forward to reconnecting, to being social and spending time with people.

It is a challenge for most of us to experience the isolation of solitude. Many of us have never spent this much time alone before. We try to surround ourselves with people and technology which attract our attention. Some of us spend our time and effort working or learning or training.

Why do monks live in this kind of solitude and isolation? What do they find attractive about being by themselves, listening to sacred stillness?

Do they ever feel they have met the challenge and are ready to return to the world?

Monastic Isolation

I am a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The monks who live at New Camaldoli are hermits who experience isolation in community.

It can be difficult for us to imagine how isolation in community works for them. The last month or so has given many of us a glimpse into what it feels like to separate ourselves. We can begin to feel what it is like to be on our own for a few weeks.

Those of us are more extroverted wonder why anyone would ever choose to live in isolation. What benefits could they hope to gain by separating themselves, particularly for such a long time?

The monks I know choose to live separately for the rest of their lives. They are not waiting for beaches or stores to open, for things to go back to normal.

Members of monastic communities are not isolating themselves to avoid being infected by a virus. Their vows are not about keeping themselves pure or untainted by the world around them.

Monastic isolation is not based in seeing spiritual life as contagious. Monks do not wear masks to avoid getting sick, or spreading sickness to the people around them.

Becoming a monk is about investing the time and effort it takes to remove the masks we wear. It is about setting aside the distractions which stand in the way of facing our true selves.

Isolation in community can be, in some ways for me, similar to a meeting via Zoom. I know the community is with me even when I am not physically present at the hermitage in Big Sur.

Each of us faces our own personal challenges no matter where we are. We share in our common life even when we are apart.

Isolation and Solitude

Many of us are threatened by the thought of isolation. We feel vulnerable and alone, afraid of what might happen to us.

We live in a world which distrusts solitude and people who seek it.

Isolation affects us in profound ways. Many of us who have been through a period of isolation value our experience and what it has taught us. We often have a clearer idea of our own personal values and are more committed to putting them into practice. Taking time to sit and reflect allows us to sort out what is important to us.

Many of us decide we want to repeat the experience and seek more opportunities for solitude.

We do not choose to seek solitude because we think we are better or more spiritual than other people. Many of us need to take time regularly to clear away what distracts us. Some of us need to find one person with whom we can honestly talk about spiritual life.

Solitude is not about us trying to avoid contagion. It just takes us some time and effort to remember.

We need to listen to sacred stillness and hear what we can.

Leaving Isolation

Many of us are eager to leave isolation as soon as we can. We feel like we have been stuck here and endured this wasted time away from our real lives.

The last month or so has been a gift to us, whether we choose to open it or not.

We have been given the gift of isolation in community.

Some of us have put the gift to use. We have gotten to know the people closest to us in new ways. Some of us have spent time reflecting and questioning which has led us into clearer understanding.

Each of us will look back and remember this time. How will we remember it?

Will this be a time of great inconvenience and frustration? Is it a time of new depth and clarity? Are we spending time strengthening our relationships, including to ourselves?

Will this time change spiritual life for us as profoundly as it changes physical life?

We determine what we do as we leave isolation, and after, while we are isolated. How will we find the potential of this opportunity?

When will we find isolation in community today?

How will we take time to listen in isolation this week?

About Greg Richardson
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He has served as an assistant district attorney, an associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com. You can read more about the author here.

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