I met a woman once, many years ago, who taught writing in a prison. She had the inmates read The Rule of Saint Benedict. She encouraged them to use the spirituality and culture of Benedictine monasticism as a way to reflect on their experience of incarceration.
She certainly wasn’t the first — or the last — person to see a correlation between the cloister and correctional facilities. In her fascinating book Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, author Jane Brox tells the story of a penitentiary in Philadelphia that was designed with monastic practices in mind.
I am writing these words just days after the World Health Organization declared the spread of the infectious virus COVID-19 a global pandemic. Many schools and businesses are closing; many restaurants are only preparing food for takeout or delivery, and many grocery stores are running out of staple items like bread and canned goods, as members of the public prepare for a period of voluntary self-isolation and social distancing. No one wants to get sick, and a disease with a mortality rate higher than influenza and no vaccine currently available has gotten the attention of many people — not just those who are particularly vulnerable because of age or underlying health issues. Even a robust person who would likely survive a bout of the coronavirus doesn’t want to pass it on to others, particularly those who might not fare so well.
Stay indoors. Limit errands to those that are truly necessary, like quick visits to the grocery store or pharmacy. Use your smartphone or laptop to take classes, participate in public worship, or stay in touch with loved ones. We are all familiar with the technological tools available — at least to those who enjoy a certain level of economic affluence. In other words, we know what to do to remain connected with the world at large, even in the privacy of our own homes.
But whether we are rich or poor, whether we are active users of the internet or those who rarely get online, we all have one thing in common: we are not used to the idea of being confined to our living space, even if voluntarily.
We are not convicted criminals, sentenced to an institution where our freedom is stripped away. We are in home-based quarantines or domestic isolation by our own choice — as conscientious citizens.
But that won’t make it any easier. There’s a reason why terms like “stir-crazy” or “cabin fever” exist. Even if the confinement is of our own choosing, we naturally rebel against any infringement on our movements.
Which is why The Rule of Saint Benedict might be the perfect book to read during a pandemic.
Embracing Your Personal Monastery (or Hermitage)
Many people live alone, which means that their apartments or homes are suddenly becoming “hermitages” — even when they live in the midst of a large city. Others, who share their living space with family or friends, are suddenly in a living situation not unlike that of a small monastery or convent.
Granted, most people do not want to be monks or nuns. But I believe most people want to be happy. And nuns and monks have shown that even a cloistered life can be a happy life.
So if you are feeling just a bit hemmed in by the restrictions you’ve taken on in response to the pandemic, perhaps a bit of advice from St. Benedict will help see you through.
Frankly, even if you are reading this at some point in the future when no one is worried about a pandemic, I believe the wisdom of St. Benedict can still help anyone who, for any reason, is living a confined or stationary life. It’s wisdom that can help us to be at peace with the circumstances of our lives, and to transcend whatever limitations our lives impose upon us, to find a great freedom — within.
Of course, St. Benedict assumes that everyone who comes to live in a monastery or convent is there for spiritual reasons. They want to give their lives to God. Obviously, not everyone who is isolated in today’s world has such spiritual motivation in their heart.
So first, I would like to suggest that it helps to have a spiritual orientation to life.
I know not everyone is a Christian, or even a believer in God. But for the sake of this blog post, I’m going to set those conditions aside. After all, many people who reject a religious belief-system (like Christianity, or theism in general) still adhere to a spiritual approach to life, affirming that life is good, meaningful, and that love and kindness and compassion lead to a happier and healthier life.
So, no matter what belief-system you do (or don’t) accept, the first key to finding happiness even in an enclosed, cloistered situation, is a commitment to a spiritual orientation to life.
St. Benedict makes it clear that he finds spiritual growth and meaning in relationships — in other people, but also in the cultivation of interior virtues and values such as humility, kindness, generosity, meditation, a strong work ethic, and choosing to see even the most ordinary elements of life as sacred.
In other words, even in the most constricted of life situations, any human being can still devote time and energy and effort to interior growth and development.
The old proverb applies here: bloom where you are planted. A plant has to be healthy and at some level of maturity before it blossoms. So finding happiness and meaning even in the most confined situations means taking responsibility for both growth and health.
I may not be able to choose to go wherever I please, but I can choose to eat a healthy diet, to get enough sleep (or at least rest), and to orient my awareness toward positive thoughts and affirming beliefs and ideas. No one forces us to be cynical — or optimistic. No matter how bad our circumstances or debilitating our life challenges might be, we always have the possibility of making choices that can make things better, even if just one step at a time.
Much of The Rule of Saint Benedict is devoted to prayer — which, once again, may not appeal to those who don’t believe in God. If you not a theist, then think in terms of meditation as an alternative to prayer. If you are a theist, I invite you to have an expansive understanding of prayer that includes meditation.
Benedict makes it clear: daily prayer is as important to spiritual well-being as daily hygiene is to physical health. The take-away is clear: no matter how constrained your life might be, you can find a way to orient yourself toward prayer and/or meditation, even if only for small moments in the day (spoiler alert: I believe people who sincerely pray or meditate every day, even if just for a few minutes at a time, find themselves naturally gravitating toward a more intentional — and lengthy — practice of daily meditation. It will grow naturally, because you will naturally want it to grow).
Prayer and meditation, by themselves, do not guarantee happiness or inner peace. Some people can even find deep interior work to be particularly challenging because it can involve facing our inner wounds and shadows. But if we anchor our prayer and/or meditation in an overall commitment to positive-self care and to life-positive spiritual values, then a daily practice of interior exploration can be profoundly rewarding — and suddenly, the “prison” (or “quarantine”) of our lives simply becomes much less of a problem — or even no problem at all. For when we enter into the spaciousness of prayer or meditation, we are free — even if our physical body is anything but free.
Even in a long blog post like this, I cannot fully exhaust how the kind-hearted and hope-filled spirituality of Saint Benedict can offer an optimistic sense of freedom that stands as a dramatic alternative to the cynicism and anxiety that characterizes so much of life today. If you want to learn more, go to the original source — or even better yet, read a good commentary on the Rule, such as Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister or How to Live by Judith Valente.
A Final Word
I’ve aimed this blog post at someone who may be coming to the wisdom of St. Benedict for the very first time. But I want to finish by saying a word to readers who are familiar with my work, and who share my interest in Christian contemplation and mystical wisdom. I think it’s important to remember that so many of the greatest contemplatives and mystics in the Christian tradition were cloistered nuns or monks. They embraced the highest transformations of consciousness while leaving in the most confined of earthly ways. If it worked for them, it can work for us as well. If your life is shaped by some sort of external limitation — particularly something you cannot change — the path of contemplation and mystical spirituality reminds you that you can still love well, and happily, and perhaps even joyfully. Your external limitations do not need to constrict your inner freedom. You can always find the vastness of divine freedom within — and it can lead you to limitless joy.
And if you have external limitations that can and should be changed — for example, systems of injustice or oppression that harm you — doing this work will not make you passive, but if anything, it will energize your efforts to create a better life circumstance. Set your heart free, and your mind — and body — will follow.
Featured image: empty shelves at the Kroger Supermarket in Decatur, GA, March 16, 2020, as the public prepares for an indefinite period of voluntary isolation and social distancing. Photo by Carl McColman.