When you’re self-quarantining, you have more time to think about stuff.
Deep stuff, like the meaning of life.
But since the non-monks among us have trouble summoning sessions of silent thought for more than 30 seconds, we need help. So, I ask Alexa (my daily companion in these strange times), “Alexa, what is the meaning of life?”
“The meaning of life depends on the life in question,” she says. “Forty-two is a good approximation.”
Forty-two? Does she think I’m asking about the prime of life? If so, and 42 is it, I’m already 20 years past my “best by” date. Depressing. I try again.
“Alexa, what is the meaning of life?”
Her response: “Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.’”
Thanks, Eleanor and Alexa. But it’s hard to taste experience to the utmost when you can’t leave the house. While I’m reaching out eagerly to taste the last Little Debbie Swiss Roll in the cupboard, I consider other alternatives for guidance.
For instance, does Superman think about the meaning of life when he’s in his Fortress of Solitude? Doubtful. Too many distractions, including an alien zoo, a lab, a supercomputer, his robot duplicates – even an apartment for Supergirl. Get real, Superman. That’s not what I call solitude.
Real solitude is the absence of human interaction and the removal of all distractions. People who experience it unwillingly for extended periods – such as prisoners held in solitary confinement – describe it as worse than physical abuse.
“A life devoted to silence, prayer and service is about as alien to our modern ways as anything one can imagine.”
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” wrote the late Sen. John McCain, who spent more than two years in isolation during his five-plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He also endured terrible physical torture, but solitary “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
The late American journalist Terry Anderson was kidnapped by Hezbollah and held hostage in Lebanon from March 1985 to December 1991, much of it in solitary. He struggled with depression, despair and what he called “disintegration” as he slipped toward insanity. “I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all,” he wrote.
No wonder American advocates for prison inmates are working to have long solitary confinement declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. We are social creatures, made for each other. Most of us cannot live with any semblance of happiness unless we have some contact with others.
And yet certain brave souls willingly seek out long periods, even lifetimes, of solitude. Some are anti-social or disillusioned with society. Some long to commune with nature and live in its vast, quiet spaces.
Others seek solitude for spiritual reasons – monks, nuns, mystics, hermits. I have long admired them and been fascinated by their call to holy silence, contemplation and prayer. But there’s a difference between admiring and doing.
The modern mind, inundated daily with more images and data than earlier brains encountered in a decade, struggles to quiet itself. I have attempted, off and on, to practice silence and contemplative prayer for more than 20 years. I have yet to experience real silence for more than the briefest periods. My brain simply will not turn off long enough to allow interior silence – and God’s deeper, quieter voice within that silence – to blossom.
The spiritual masters who try to simplify such prayer for amateurs like me counsel repeating a “sacred word” or phrase, perhaps from Scripture, to focus the mind and heart. When random thoughts, anxieties and to-do lists intrude, as they inevitably will, the masters recommend letting them float by like debris on a river. Then, gently return to the sacred word and silence.
Too often, I find myself washed down the river with the debris. Or I go to sleep. I can imagine Jesus asking, “Could you not tarry with me for five minutes?”
But the masters also caution against guilt and impatience, which war against silence as surely as distractions do. The God of eternity is patient. There is always tomorrow to try again.
In “We’re All Monks Now,” a recent article for America Magazine, theology professor Gregory Hillis writes that because of COVID-19, “many of us are living, in a way, like monks, enclosed and isolated in our homes. But unlike the monks, we did not ask for or want this situation, nor is it one for which many of us were spiritually prepared. It is, however, a situation from which we can perhaps learn something by turning to monks for guidance.”
Hillis consulted three American Trappists, also known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Strict observance, that is, of the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, still the most influential rule among Western Christian monastics. As practiced today, it’s actually not as strict as it used to be; but it’s still pretty hardcore.
The Trappists pray and work, mostly in silence. They gather together to pray and sing the Psalms up to eight times daily (the divine “liturgy of the hours”), beginning at 2 or 3 a.m. And they welcome and feed visitors, an ancient part of their tradition of hospitality to travelers, pilgrims and refugees. Like many others, I first became aware of the Trappists through the books of the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the great Christian writers and mystics of the 20th century. Eventually I read the Rule of St. Benedict for myself.
“The modern mind, inundated daily with more images and data than earlier brains encountered in a decade, struggles to quiet itself.”
Much later I attended two silent retreats at Holy Cross Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia. I even rose, once, for Matins (or Vigil), the 3 a.m. community prayer. Scared me half to death. Like I said, there’s a difference between admiring and doing. A life devoted, utterly devoted, to silence, prayer and service is an awesome thing – and about as alien to our modern ways as anything one can imagine. It made me tremble.
But even we common pilgrims can learn something from the monastics and apply it to our busy lives – especially in these times of isolation amid a global pandemic. Hillis talked to two Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (where Merton lived) and another at a monastery in the Midwest. They said that silence and stillness help us not only listen to God more intently, but to listen to one another more fully and lovingly. Monasteries, after all, are also communities where the individual must submit to the needs of the whole.
“All life is lived in the shadow of death, and we forget that,” Brother Paul Quenon of Gethsemani said. “Awareness of how we are one, especially in our fragility, is the ground from which we build community” in an individualistic culture.
Hillis adds, “If we can imitate monastic life by being present and attentive to one another in our temporary cloisters during quarantine, we can emerge from this time more attentive to the needs of those in our society.”
Do you feel alone and anxious – perhaps even as if you are being held in solitary confinement – during this time of pandemic? It will not end soon enough, but as devastating as it is for all of us, it will end. Until then, perhaps you have been given a rare opportunity to quiet your heart and mind for a greater purpose.
Listen. You may discover something new about the meaning of your life. In the silence of the heart, God speaks.
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