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

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