Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

To help with this, I’ve returned to one of my favorite books of all time, a personal “holy book” of sorts that helped form me as I read it as a young adult: “The Cloister Walk,” by Kathleen Norris. This book is based on a year the poet, Norris, spent at St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey located in the north woods of Minnesota. In the book, she chronicles monastic life as a married woman, and reflects on how this relates to her everyday struggles, hopes, and fears.

As I re-read portions of the book today, I can’t help but make connections with this time of shelter-in-place.

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Kathleen Norris

Norris begins her journey on the day in which the Abbey celebrates the life of Gregory the Great. Gregory reminds her, as he wrote during a time of plague, “of the greatness of souls, how their true strength can emerge in the worst of times, when the known world is collapsing.”

What would it mean for our true strength to emerge now, in these worst of times? Surely, if we have the opportunity to look back on this season in our lives decades from now, we will want to be able to point out how we kept people safe – particularly those most vulnerable to sickness and death. But, maybe we’ll hope for more active empathy and compassion as well.

One element of daily life monks are most known for are their routines. The monastic life in which Norris participated at the Abbey exemplified this, with regular times for prayer, with a particular emphasis on the Psalms. Many of us yearn for ritual and structure – and the predictability that comes with that – in our lives now. We can use this time as an opportunity to “start from scratch,” to create new habits that can nurture and sustain us and our loved ones, both now and in the future.

In this context, it is interesting how Norris reflects on Benedict’s Rule and how even simple tasks can be seen as a vital part of our identity and spirituality:

“Benedict knows that practicalities – the order and times for Psalms to be read, care of tools, the amount and type of food and drink and clothing – are also spiritual concerns… Over and over, the Rule calls us to be more mindful of the little things, even as it reminds us of the big picture.”

Norris continues by highlighting how a mindful spirituality may extend to our repetitive and potentially fraught interactions with those we share our lives with in closed quarters. I can’t help but try to soak in the wisdom and practicality of Norris’s reflection in this moment:

“In a marriage, in a small town, in a monastery, it is all too easy to let things slide, to allow tensions to build until the only way they can be relieved is in an explosion that does more harm than good. Benedict’s voice remains calm – persevere, bear one another’s burdens, be patient with one another’s infirmities of body or behavior. And when the ‘thorns of contention’ arise in daily life, daily forgive, and be willing to accept forgiveness.”

As our tasks diminish, as our interactions with others become fewer, as this season continues longer than any of us want, with no end in sight, we would do well to better appreciate the significance of the mundane. Every act of self-care, every interaction with someone in our physical presence, every Zoom session, the preparation of meals, the ordinary tasks of cleaning – these all can be seen as spiritual, acts of worship and love, if approached mindfully and reverently. This may be the core lesson we can learn from the monks.

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