Learning from Lockdown

I’ve hesitated to publish this post although it has been among my drafts for some time. I’m not very happy about the parallels sometimes drawn between lockdown and enclosure (cloister), but I’m even less happy about the rush to return to ‘normal’ as though the pandemic were over and we can just forget everything that has happened. The number of infections across the globe is still increasing, and in the absence of an effective vaccine, it is likely that we shall be affected by lockdown measures again and again. May I share with you what I have learned thus far and invite you to share with me what you have learned?

I begin with a word of caution. The experience of lockdown has much to teach us, I believe, but it is a process, not something done-and-dusted. It needs more thought, more discussion, more prayer before we can fully assimilate what we have learned about ourselves and others, and before we can realistically assess the consequences. That over-worked word ‘discernment’ is part of the process, and I think we need to acknowledge that we are still too close to the experience, still too deeply affected by it, to achieve the clarity of focus we ideally need. What follows should be read with that in mind.

For some people, of course, it has been the merest blip in their existence. Lockdown does not seem to have affected them very much. In their eagerness to get back to ‘normal’, they barely register a passing regret for the time they have been able to spend in the garden or on the beach, ‘phones off, acquiring new skills perhaps, with an occasional foray into social media or Zoom to chart their progress in baking or learning a new language. I exaggerate, but there is truth in the exaggeration. For those with secure jobs, a decent amount of space to live in, and no particular worries about themselves or their families, it hasn’t been too terrible. They may even have been able to save money and get a trimmer waistline at the same time. It’s been inconvenient rather than anything more soul-searching.

Analogies between Lockdown and Cloister
For monks, but more especially nuns, there are some analogies between lockdown and the cloister. Restrictions on movement, reliance on the skill-pool within the community, and a routine which doesn’t vary much from day to day are some obvious points of similarity. But many of the experiences others take for granted don’t really affect us. We don’t have regular visits from our families. Attending concerts, plays or films or having meals out with friends isn’t part of our way of life. We haven’t felt the constraints some have because we don’t have, or don’t exercise, the freedoms they presuppose.

The more generous will wax lyrical about the greater silence they have experienced and how much they have valued not being called away from prayer or reading to attend to the needs of unexpected guests. A few will be honest enough to admit that this stripping away of what is ‘normal’ in their monastic lives has made them confront a more shadowy side of their being. They have realised, probably painfully, how dependent they are on others; how much of their selves they have invested in work or outreach; how much they need to be needed by their community or others. 

In short, I don’t think we can press the analogies too far. The differences are more telling. Monastic life is chosen; lockdown was, and is, imposed; the motive for each is different, and the kind of authority and obedience/compliance involved in each is different again.

Lockdown here in the monastery
I cannot truthfully say that our experience of lockdown here has been idyllic or anything like it. We have actually been shielding because of my illness and have had no difficulty identifying with those who have found the practical challenges of lockdown existence quite hard at times — getting up in the middle of the night to secure online food deliveries (we live in a very rural area), having to ‘bend the rules’ to obtain medical prescriptions, dealing with repairs to the house at one remove, so to say, and convincing those who do call that keeping a distance is wise: we don’t have immunity to disease just because we are nuns. Such things are minor in themselves but baulk larger when one has no choice but must add them to the daily round or try to explain without giving offence why we can’t do certain things.

I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, however. We enjoyed several weeks of greater physical silence from the A465, but I think it would be fair to say that we carry our silence inside and exterior noise doesn’t make as big an impact on us as one might think. It was certainly useful, while our floors were being repaired, to know that we could legitimately say to unexpected visitors that we were unable to receive them because we were shielding rather than have to go through the complications of welcoming them into a garden area and conversing at a distance. But as time has gone on, we have found more and more people looking to us for support in their loneliness and anxiety. Telephone calls and emails have multiplied. We have even introduced a dedicated ‘phone prayerline to help cope with the demand since our online forms are not enough and are not available to those without internet access.

For Catholics, of course, the sacraments are an essential part of our life in Christ. As a community, we have shared in the sense of abandonment and exclusion so many lay people have experienced. We are fortunate to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our chapel,* but we have not had Mass or any of the other sacraments. For reasons I need not go into here, live-streamed Masses are not for us; and in any case, rural broadband does not always allow easy access to what is available online. For us, the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) shapes our day and along with ‘private’ prayer, work and reading anchors us in reality. The whole house is dedicated to the search for God, and we feel that keenly. However, the absence of the sacraments from our lives must be taken seriously. In my own case, it has lasted much longer than lockdown has. It affects how I understand the Church and her mission and why I question some of the platitudes about pastoral care that are trotted out without, it seems to me, much thought or awareness of what it means for those who don’t feel anyone has much pastoral care or concern for them. This has implications for religious communities of women and for the Church as a whole.

Perhaps I could try to summarise my tentative conclusions as four short questions/lessons from lockdown. We cannot separate the human/social from the spiritual, the individual from the communal, but, as I said earlier, it is a process, work in progress, so not susceptible of clear or easy answers to each point.

The first question/lesson of lockdown
My first point would be that lockdown has highlighted the inequalities in society and in some religious communities. In the rush to take meetings and celebrations online, the poor, the technically disadvantaged, those living in the country, women, fall behind. I don’t know many single parents living in tower blocks but one recently expressed worry that their children’s education has been massively disrupted. There has been nothing to take the place of school that they could afford, and because the jobs they do are regarded as low-skilled, they know only too well that their employment is insecure. Their economic and social security is fragile at the best of times, and lockdown has not been for them the best of times. 

Older people, and sick people of all ages, have talked about their experience of isolation and their feeling of being pastorally abandoned because they can’t take part in their parish’s Zoom services (some of which are now ending, despite the less fit having to continue to stay away because they are shielding). There is often a sadness, an increasing reluctance to engage with others, that shows the distress within. We can only listen, and then just for such time as we can manage.

As a community of women, without a chaplain, we can identify with the pastoral concerns of the elderly and the sick but must admit that loneliness isn’t the same for us. We have chosen solitude, albeit lived with others. Although our lifestyle is frugal, we are not poor in the way many are poor. We have choices the truly poor do not. We have community, and although that is not always an easy blessing, it is a blessing. We have not had to face the difficulties of lockdown alone. We are privileged, and it is nonsense to suggest we are anything but privileged. How we use our privilege is another matter, requiring further reflection.

The second question/lesson of lockdown
The second lesson to be learned is more challenging for the Church as a whole. In fact, it is more of a question than a lesson. Lockdown has demonstrated that the familiar model of the parish as a territorial entity, run by the priest with the assistance of lay people in clearly-defined secondary roles, is in terminal decline. I have read the latest pastoral Instruction several times and am no more convinced than I was before that the Vatican really sees either the problem or the opportunities. If that is arrogant, I apologize: I write as a daughter of the Church, not as someone who has neither love nor respect for her.

The old ‘normal’ is never going to return, but there seems a reluctance to admit it. Why? Don’t we believe in the Holy Spirit any more? Has lockdown shown us the fragility of our faith and hope, made us more selfish perhaps? Have we become afraid of one another, as though everyone carries some deadly virus and the only safe option is to ignore, retreat, avoid? I may be overstating my case, but I have a hunch that the Church is going to haemorrhage members unless or until we can stop acting as though she were composed of various clubs, all rather suspicious of one another and convinced that they alone possess the truth. The Truth should possess us, but that can be scary. Better to keep God in a nicely gilded tabernacle than allow Him to change us.

I admit there is potential for disaster here, but isn’t there also potential for grace? Of course, it means throwing ourselves upon God in a way we may never have done in the past. In my own community I have seen an intensification of prayer that only a searing experience such as that of a pandemic could have brought about. What it may lead to, I don’t know. After World War II there was a huge increase in the number of vocations to monastic life. Many of those who had gone through the horrors of war were led to question the purpose of their existence and embraced monasticism with fervour. It could happen again, but if it does, it will not be in the same way. Society has changed enormously and with it the expectations of those who are drawn to the cloister.

What we must avoid at all costs is a kind of two-tier Church, in which some have access to the sacraments and others don’t; in which some are able to enjoy the fellowship of others in their worship but many can’t. To exclude from active, conscious participation the old, the sick and the poor would be contrary to the gospel, but I have been amazed at the coolness with which a few seem to contemplate that prospect.

The third question/lesson of lockdown
My third lockdown lesson is more personal, but I suspect others will nod in agreement. I have learned how impossible I am to live with. No one has complained; no one has been nasty; but for sheer cantankerousness, impatience and organized selfishness, I take the biscuit. When there are more demands than usual, especially from people, tempers can fray. Mine certainly has. When we have to rely on ourselves for fixing equipment we are not sure about or are thwarted in our desire to obtain necessary items for the community, anxiety levels shoot up. Mine have. I could go on, but you get my drift. Lockdown has revealed much I would have preferred to have kept hidden from myself.

Questions raised by an increase in self-knowledge are never comfortable, but they are necessary, however reluctant we may be to admit as much. I imagine that for most of us lockdown has been a mixture of the welcome and unwelcome. Some have learned they have strengths they never knew existed; others, like me, have discovered weaknesses they never dreamed they had. We have discovered who our friends are, and perhaps been disappointed in some we thought were our friends but who have proved otherwise. Many of our fixed ideas have been toppled, and we are still digesting the implications. At both the individual and the communal level, we have some hard thinking to do and some difficult choices to make.

The fourth question/lesson of lockdown
For some lockdown has been a time of loss and grief. Unlike many communities and families, we have been spared thus far the death of anyone in our immediate circle, thank God. We have not had to grieve without the customary rites of passing and death. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is how to die with dignity in a world of PPE and lockdown restrictions, where simple gestures such as holding the hand of a dying person can no longer to be taken for granted, where the Last Rites are not always possible, and funerals are bleak and lonely exercises that bring scant comfort to those who mourn. Recently, in conversation with someone whose husband had died of the virus and who was lonely and desolate, I was prompted to mention something I take for granted but she didn’t know about. At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, it is our custom to pray for the dead. She found comfort in that, in the knowledge that all over the world, monks and nuns would be praying day in, day out, for those who have died, including her husband. It reminded me that small things can make a difference.

There are times when it has seemed as though COVID-19 and lockdown were combining to rob us of our humanity, making us selfish and cruel. Heartening stories of the kindness of medical and nursing staff, the diligence of hospital chaplains and the like and the generosity of thousands of volunteers give the lie to that; but we all need to know that there is something we ourselves can contribute, something we can do, no matter how old, sick, poor or isolated we may be.

Lockdown, like most things in life, leaves me with more questions than answers. If we are to learn from our lockdown experience, we must reflect on it and be prepared to change. Perhaps in the end lockdown will lead to greater freedom, greater humanity and greater holiness. I hope so. The only thing I am really sure about is that it isn’t over yet.

*Thanks to Dom Andrew of Belmont, we have been able to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. We’re very grateful to him.


24 thoughts on “Learning from Lockdown”

  1. So many questions, so many tests of the human condition. Our imperfections confront us more than ever. But we are all God’s children, loved and accepted for what we are. He taught us to love our neighbours, all of them, in grace, peace and kindness. To do what we can to help others. He sent His Son, our dear Lord Jesus, to impress upon us for eternity that grace, love and peace are the way.
    God bless and keep you and your Sisters safe. Peace and love be with you all

      • Thank you for your blog Sister Catherine.

        I loved being in lockdown I thought of it as an example of being in a cell somewhere. I have thought for a long time that I would have liked to have been a Sister but time escaped me and I am now too old I imagine. It gave me time to read my Bible and other scripture books that I never had time to read. To sum up I rather enjoyed lockdown but thought that others wouldn’t. One thing I have missed though is going to church and missing mass and talking with our Priest. I still can’t do that as our church is still shut.

  2. Dear Sister Catherine
    Glad you shared your blog! First reaction, as usual you have pulled together a whole load of stuff that will in, my opinion, resonate with people and help us think further and deeper. Instant thought for me is that it helpfully confirms a few things I had worked out for myself, now to look again for the things that challenge me.
    Thank you for expending you’re energy on this, I wish you well

  3. Thank you for this blog post.
    The unknown and open-ended nature of this pandemic is a difficult aspect of this experience. I think if there were an end date that was realistic and probable it would be a bit easier to deal with things as they are now.
    I didn’t know about the practice of praying for the dead on such a regular basis in monasteries. Thank you for sharing that information. It adds to the sense of community among us all.

  4. Thank you your insightful words as usually. I realise how much emotional and spiritual effort/energy goes in such writings and thank you that you are prepared to make such efforts from what must be ever diminishing stocks of reserve. It is so appreciated and appreciated. It must also help you, I hope, that you still able to contribute to others lives

  5. Dear Sister Catherine. So many issues to consider here. For me, lockdown has been a sometimes tedious experience but it has brought home to me simply how fortunate I am. I always tell my daughters that counting one’s blessings is a salutary exercise but recent events have simply reinforced this. I have a home, a garden and no money worries. I struggle to put myself in the shoes of those without these advantages but I absolutely must. Hopes have been expressed of a different sort of life after the pandemic, a fairer more equal society. But I doubt this will happen. The Government seems to want to turn us into a nation of avid consumers again. And that makes me despair. So I need to do what I can to try and change things through political engagement and by other means. I hope that these past few months will lead to more of such engagement by people from all walks of life. I’m guilty of huge complacency and I’ve got to stop it.

    I can’t speak for the Catholic Church but our local parish church (CofE) has broadcast its services over the internet during this period. Clearly this causes problems for those that can’t access them, but another occurrence has been that far more people have been “tuning in” than usually turn up in person. So one issue is how to retain these remote participants and how to continue to engage and draw them in once “normal” services resume. Isolation is a huge issue: our local church has a telephone rota and people are given a list of those living alone or in difficult circumstances so that they can phone regularly and keep in touch. I hope that this will continue as the pandemic eases and not simply be cast aside as we get back to normal. I find it distressing to contemplate those people who have had to shield themselves for the last few months and have had virtually no human contact. Such loneliness is almost unimaginable but is a reality. Reaching out is absolutely necessary.

    Your point about realising how difficult you are to live with made me laugh. Luckily my husband and I have a big enough house to avoid each other from to time time. As a friend of mine commented when asked if she had ever contemplated divorce “Divorce never; murder frequently”. I know how she feels. And as I’m a bossy control freak I’m probably lucky that my husband hasn’t done me in (there’s still time). But that has a serious side too. How difficult it must be for people living in close proximity in cramped conditions. I suspect this has exposed some terminal fault lines in many relationships. And hidden abuse of children particularly.

    I’m sorry this is so long. But thank you for making me think about these things.

  6. Wonderful writing Sister – thank you. I shall read and re-read… and am posting a link to it on our parish WhatsApp Group ironically (no, hopefully) entitled “Keeping us connected” (you and I have already corresponded on the concern we both have about the digital divide adding to the fragmentation and “tribalism” being experienced by so many in our society). I am a great wobbler too but optimism usually prevails in my case – let us trust in The Lord. You and I may not be around to see what finally emerges from the current situation but I do believe you are right when you say it isn’t over yet. (There you are, you’ve gone and done it again with your “punchline” bless you ! )

  7. ‘Lockdown has demonstrated that the familiar model of the parish as a territorial entity, run by the priest with the assistance of lay people in clearly-defined secondary roles, is in terminal decline.’ I second that. What will replace it?
    I’m happy that it is forcing your community to be more self-reliant. Let monasteries lead the way to genuine, self-reliant ‘base communities’, with prayer at their heart, and remembering that ‘those who sing pray twice’!

    • Our community has always been self-reliant — which I appreciate you might not realise if not familiar with our history. (Your phrase ‘I’m happy that it is forcing your community to be more self-reliant’ reads a little oddly to me. But I may have misunderstood you.) The Holy Spirit knows what God desires for the Church even if we don’t.

      • Yes sister, I am used to Benedictines who ran schools that imparted very little about what I would call ‘self-reliance’ – personally I needed reeducating after the experience! But it’s a dodgy term, I agree, considering what dependent creatures we all are. Why did I make that comment? Perhaps I was thinking of ‘When we have to rely on ourselves for fixing equipment we are not sure about’…. Anytime anyone knocks the smallest hole in consumerism, uses their brains and talents instead of thinking the whole time in terms of fixing things with money, it makes me happy, for probably bizarre reasons! So where do I find out more about your community?

  8. Dear Sr Catherine,
    Thankyou for sharing your blog. I tried my vocation to Monastic life and it wasn’t meant to be, though I still miss it and especially on feasts like todays of st Martha (my religious name) the desire burns strongly. I am a secular Carmelite and still trying to live monasticism in everyday life. I haven’t stopped during lock down as I am a key worker, but what that has shown me is how in the midst of business it is as hard as ever to make time for prayer and listening to God.

    • It can be hard in a monastery, too — and I’m not only referring to all the ways we can try to escape prayer but also to the press of business and the demands made on us. I’ll keep you in my prayers. Bless you!

  9. Really helpful reflection, thank you.
    However, the second question/lesson resonated most of all, as it’s of particular interest. Not least, that a lot of what you wrote there seems to be affirmed by Katie van Schaijik of “The Personalist Project”. It seems there is so much which, as you imply, could be said here which highlights our own failure (let alone “clericalism” which can often be more symbiotic, or “bottom-up”, rather than “top-down”). That’s before the issues of blame and tribalism which have been filling comboxes over the internet.

    In a sense, much of what I’ve been observing seems to be an indictment of how much we’ve infantilised – or allowed to stay in an immature state – our fellow Catholics when it comes to “being church” without a priest to tell us what to do, and a two-tier system (as you call it) – although also on many levels, not least who’s “in”, and who’s “out” – is a worry.

    One thing which always heartens me is the way enclosed religious can often grasp the Zeitgeist and milieu better than those within it. Whether it’s the separation from it, or deep reflection on reality, is a moot point, but that they grasp the problems “students of culture” identify, does a lot to dismiss the myth that they’re “out of touch” but, more importantly, proves you don’t have to “experience” something to talk wisely about it.

    • Thank you for sharing that, Paul. I’ve been thinking about writing something more extended on my second question but keep putting it off because it requires more thought and prayer. One always hopes that being enclosed doesn’t necessarily imply a closed mind!

  10. I have been lucky in some ways, I have my own house & garden but whilst not rich I am not poor either. I have been in lockdown since March 23rd 2020 and apart from walking my dogs in the fresh air once per day in the beginning (I live in the cusp of civilisation). I have needed to rely on friends & neighbours more than I would choose too, I am fiercely independent, but accepted that I was vulnerable and needed such help. The food boxes From the government were gratefully received and shared amongst The neighbours so we all had something to eat and what was excess went to the food bank to help others less fortunate. It has taught me to be grateful for that show of community, the willingness to help one another, a smile, a word, all encouragement to continue on this unknown path. I am lucky in I like my solitude, a haven of peace & quiet, though it is hard to fall out with oneself I never found myself being harsh with others either and my German is coming on apace lol I hope this spirit Of harmony & community continues longer with us In the future

    • Thank you for sharing that. I’m really glad you’ve been able to get some help — we’ve had some horror stories from those who haven’t. I’m shielding myself so know how tricky it can be. Bless you!

  11. I read the whole piece with great interest and found myself identifying strongly with the third question/lesson of lockdown and did nod – a lot – in agreement. I learned how impossible I am to live with when I don’t have some time alone each day. I am fortunate in having a secure job – my husband has continued to go to work throughout (affording us valuable space from one another). However – being “home alone” all day with an anxious primary school child who has ADHD and autism was (and continues to be) challenging. There was nowhere to hide from her relentless chatter and behaviour – once a day exercise was never enough! As a long time solo pilgrim to the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham – I discovered a digital resource beyond price for me. 6pm Shrine Prayers every day allowed me “protected time” and a virtual “escape” to reflect and let life be filtered through a soothing meditation on the Rosary. This provided (and continues to provide) predictable certainty and respite from an uncertain world. It felt selfish at first to “steal” time from my needy child (who watches tv downstairs at 6pm while I’m online “live” – knowing she can disturb me if necessary has given her security not to …. after a few trial runs!) On difficult days this space to just “be” rather than “do” has saved my family from my sharp tongue and impatience especially on days when my anxiety has been intense. 6pm would come around – listening – learning – then joining in with this online community has been my greatest lesson and blessing of the pandemic (so far)

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