An Unexpected Sabbath

Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?

For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.

At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

How often have you toyed with the idea of becoming a hermit for a few days or dwelt lovingly on the thought that if everybody would just go away for a while and leave you in peace, everything would be perfect? Anyone who has ever tried the experiment knows we carry our demons within, and whether the desert we escaped to was real or imaginary, the one person we cannot flee is ourself. But what if you are now faced with ‘self-isolating’ or being quarantined for a fortnight along with others? Not so much being alone with the Alone as alone with a crowd — especially if the crowd is your nearest and dearest, your family? How will you fare? How will you even survive without committing murder? Time to call in the experts! Nuns are uniquely experienced in this business of living in a small space with companions who sometimes get on our nerves as much as we do theirs. So, here is Digitalnun’s guide to self-isolating for dummies.

First, accept the inevitable. We are going to be cooped up together for a while and it isn’t going to be easy. It will help if we have made some preparations beforehand. These include, if possible,

· enough stores of food and household goods to last a fortnight (but don’t go overboard: we deprive others if we stockpile);

· a menu plan;

· a routine which includes times for work, relaxation, silence, conviviality and, if a Christian, prayer;

· enough books, music, videos or whatever you and your family need to ensure that you do not spend too much time bickering over trifles;

· an emergency plan for obtaining help if needed;

· an emergency plan for giving help if needed.

You probably think this is all very basic and obvious. Of course it is. Much of monastic life is basic and obvious. Benedict was well aware of the stresses and strains of community life and sketched out in his Rule ways of coping with them. He was realistic enough to know we can be tempted to murder one another, especially when we cannot get away from other people; he understood the importance of routine and settling questions of what we are to eat and when to avoid making them the focus of disputes when there is not enough to occupy us. He recognized that silence is necessary not only to our spiritual health but also to our general well-being and can prove a healing balm in difficult situations. He realised, too, that we must have work to do (even if it is just decluttering a cupboard). Above all, he placed great emphasis on putting the needs of others first, of apologizing when things have gone wrong and not allowing feuds to simmer or grumbles to destroy the peace of the group. 

I wonder if we can tease out that last point, about putting the needs of others first, a little more? Some people have expended a lot of effort and even anger in trying to play down the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In addition to pouring scorn on those who are anxious about themselves or their families, some have attacked policies designed to protect everyone from the virus. If one is in good health and certain of access to an ICU and ventilator should need arise, one could well argue that there is nothing to worry about — for oneself. But one’s neighbour with asthma or some other illness, the elderly person living alone down the road, or the citizen of a country with a practically non-existent healthcare system, what about them? And becoming indignant about the precautions we are asked to take in church for the sake of others, what does that say about us?

This is where I think the reason some of us become nuns and adopt a solitary life lived in community becomes highly relevant. We do so in order to become more filled with love of God and neighbour, more selfless, more Christ-like. We may not be very good at it, but everything in the monastery is designed to help us. Being forced into self-isolating or quarantine and all that goes with it may well be contrary to everything we desire or think right for us, but it is imposed on us for the good of others. We can learn from it. We can turn what at first sight seems a negative experience into a positive one. We can rediscover what it means to live simply; we can experience what it is like to live without access to the Sacraments or the social/work communities on which we rely for much of our daily interaction; we may even rediscover some of the joys of family life or, if we live alone, the joys of solitude. We can confront some of our inner demons and maybe conquer them. We can end up less of a dummy than we were before.

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