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.