What is Expected of a Monastery in Time of Pandemic?

It has been heartening to see that many communities which once looked a little askance at our attempts to harness the possibilities of the internet and the web to create and sustain online community are now doing everything we once did, only better. It is particularly encouraging that many women’s communities have embraced video and live-streaming and are using social media to reach people who might otherwise not know of their existence. A recent telephone call, however, has made me think more deeply about what we are not doing, and the reasons for that. What is expected of a monastery in time of pandemic? Comfort? Challenge? Community? Yes, all these things, but something more, surely. Oughtn’t a monastery to be a place of encounter with God, whether that encounter be in a physical space or online? And isn’t that especially true in time of pandemic, when many certainties and expectations no longer hold good?

For us, the web is an extension of our monastery, more specifically our parlour: the place where we interact with visitors. For a long time we thought of it as an extension of our cloister, our online scriptorium, the way in which we could share some of the riches of the monastic tradition. But that put the emphasis on what we were giving rather than what we were receiving, and it didn’t do much to communicate what is, after all, the essential feature of monastic life, the seeking of God. For some time I have been wondering how a monastery conveys the sense of being on holy ground, of being in the presence of God. That question seems to me to have become even more urgent as we experience the restrictions of lockdown and quarantine and are finding more and more people are distanced from the sacramental life of the Church. 

For some, I know, the answer is to be found in live-streamed worship or imaginative attempts to create an online church or sacred space. For monasteries of monks and for larger communities of nuns, for anyone, in fact, with the human, technical and financial resources, that seems to me a more than adequate answer. But for small communities like ours, it is really a non-starter. We don’t have Mass here, and live-streaming our choir would be an exercise in bathos! That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, however. The question is, what? Is there anything we can do, consistent with our monastic vocation, that would be of help to others, that would allow that sense of God to permeate more fully the little bit of the web that we occupy?

I know better than to ask the question generally because I know we would be inundated with well-meant suggestions, often wholly impossible to achieve or reflecting an idea of monasticism we do not share. I do, however, ask your prayers that we be open to the Holy Spirit and make wise decisions. Ultimately, our goal is that of RB 72. 12, that Christ may bring us all alike to life everlasting. Amen.

Audio version


14 thoughts on “What is Expected of a Monastery in Time of Pandemic?”

  1. Dear Sister Catherine, what you currently do for the outside world – prayers for those in need and despair, online reflective blogs and helping to bring us sinners nearer to love for our Lord and our neighbours – is one of the greatest of gifts to others.
    I know that you are not wanting suggestions and l know that my request would appear selfish. You often provide an audio version of your blog pieces. Would it be too much to ask that you recorded one or two of your sung offices, perhaps Vespers and Compline, as one off pieces to be available to listen to at any time. It would be a beautiful experience for us outsiders to be able to hear you and the other Sisters sing praises to our Lord. I know that you all may think this an unwelcome intrusion into your devotions and would understand completely if this is a non starter.
    God bless you all, peace and love be with you now and always.

    • Thank you, Tim. Our singing isn’t strong enough, especially as my breathlessness makes it difficult for me to sustain the singing of a whole Office and I wouldn’t want to do anything ‘clever’ with the sound processing to make it seem as though we had more people.

      • Understand completely. I hadn’t realised the extent of your diminished ability to undertake normal activities. I apologize for my selfishness. God bless and give you respite from distress and pain. Peace and love be with you now and always.

  2. The monastries are the centre of the church. Your prayer sustains is all. You are like the stars, we can’t always see you but know you are there.

  3. One of the reasons a number of followers of an American Benedictine list founded MonasticLife was that we wanted to ask questions about Benedictine life down to books used for monastic offices, details of monastic habits which are not necessarily black or white, and a place where we could talk about our own monastic journeys. The original list basically wanted no interactions at all. The founders invited me to join MonasticLife and we wanted it to be like the calefactory where monks and nuns would gather for recreation. In the early years it was very busy and some of us got to know each other very well. I met a number of them face to face at St Mary’s Monastery at Petersham in the States and here in London and Ampleforth. At least two became monks and nuns and others hermits. Today the List is very quiet probably since the newer members don’t ask the questions we did.

    When I have visited monasteries it is very difficult to get into conversation other than on a very superficial level, but one huge advantage you have are your blogs which address issues that affect us all, but with a very Benedictine slant often with a dash of humour. Tweets and Facebook interactions sometimes get very close to those early years on MonasticLife but we never managed to incorporate posts and comments from dogs which, for me are a real highlight often reflecting problems we 2legs are experiencing with our own frailties of memory loss and ageing .
    So please go on doing what you do as long as you can.

    • Our Monastic Life list was, and continues to be something of an experiment. Those early years were often a hoot, a place where we discovered there were others on the face of the earth who actually WERE interested in the distribution of the psalms at various monasteries and abbeys (among other things.) And it did create some sense of community, and definitely friendships. We also had some challenging times – trying to assist some members at learning what a “boundary” was. We also learned that there were some topics that were too hot to handle – American politics and Brexit to name just two. But all in all, it has brought me some dear friendships, many laughs as well as awakening within myself a call to become a Camaldolese oblate. As the current list owner (aka as ‘the cyberabbot’) I am dismayed that our newer members join but never post, let alone share anything of themselves with the list. At times I think we should become Carthusian Life or something. It’s very possible we are at the end, or more than the end of this particular experiment in “monastic” sharing. In the end, we ARE in God’s hands.

  4. What is expected of a monastery in time of pandemic? Some outreach in the form of real expression of care and what nourishment it is able – or rather willing – to give. Especially to its lay members….
    You give much Sister and I am grateful. As I am too for the nourishment received through non-monastic retreats, talks, streamlined Masses and apps (Hallow.com)

  5. That is an interesting question sister.

    I have become aware of you and the work that you do online recently but to my mind it is very much holy ground. I expect to meet God in what you offer and I am not disappointed.

    What I am missing is being able to physically talk about things of God with others and I have to accept that is not likely to happen for a while.

    Thank you so much for the beacon of light that you are.

  6. Dear Sister Catherine
    At the moment I cannot get to Mass in my own parish but there are hundreds of online Masses to choose from. I do not need more of those. As for the Office, there are several possible offerings available on YouTube, so don’t feel you have to pitch in with those either. Throughout the pandemic I have received so much spiritual nourishment from the tweets you make and links to those of other monastics. I can honestly say that the nuns of Twitter have given me more spiritual food than any priest at this time. Maybe I don’t follow the right priests, but there is something very encouraging about the conversations that flow to and fro between you and the other communities (you know who they are). I think it is the regular daily input, your faithfulness to your Twitter audience, your honesty in the face of frustrations (yes, I too have found online shopping challenging at times), the simple human aspects of your life, these are the things that I need. Thanks to you I know I am not alone; there are sisters who are praying every day, without fail, for the needs of the world and for my needs.
    Thank you.

    • Nicola,

      I couldn’t have said it better. Dear Big Sis has led us to Jesus in these very difficult times all the while accompanying us in our day to day lives.

      For all of which my husband and I are truly grateful.

  7. Many thanks for your comments, and my apologies for not responding to each one. It has been ‘one of those days’ when we seem to have had to cram in much more than usual. I’m sure you’ll understand.

  8. What gives your comments and thoughts an extra relevance are the references to the domestic disasters, like the boiler giving up, the gravel coming too early etc, situations which are like everyday events for all of us not in the monastery. You react as we do, nothing holy Joe about it, but still manage to retain your foothold on the holy ground you inhabit. For me, that intersection is the benchmark of authenticity, why I take what you say to heart as Truth. Keep going!

  9. Dear sister Catherine
    Was it you that said everyone is a vocation? You are living your vocation?

    “Oughtn’t a monastery to be a place of encounter with God, whether that encounter be in a physical space or online? “

    “…‘it didn’t do much to communicate what is, after all, the essential feature of monastic life, the seeking of God. For some time I have been wondering how a monastery conveys the sense of being on holy ground, of being in the presence of God ?…”

    Do you hold the world in your prayers any less in non pandemic times ? Can not your vocation provide stability in what ever form chaos takes? Perhaps your community is doing what is needed? Perhaps you just need to persevere in the best way you can? I second what Diana says. Do you not receive, by living your
    vocation ? Perhaps you may never see what you receive? You may never know the opportunity you give to “ come and see” by your on line presence? Just carry on. My prayers are with you
    Ps these are not intended to be suggestions , just wonderings.
    I wish you well

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