When I was a minister in Darlington, Co. Durham, the local Roman Catholic parish church was the chapel of a Carmelite Convent and when we had ecumenical services at the church we were joined by the nuns of the order. I say joined as we never saw them, being an enclosed order they were in a transept separated from the rest of the church by an ornate screen. Only the Abbess came to say goodbye with the parish priest at the end of the service. I suspect for those nuns the lockdown we are living through will have had little impact on their daily routine. In Christian monasteries, silent mindfulness became part of the everyday routine in the sixth century after the appearance of a book of monastic principles and guidelines called The Rule of Saint Benedict.
The author of The Rule, Benedict of Nursia, lived during the chaotic last years of ancient Rome, a period of plagues, intolerance, and, for some early Christians, self-isolation. (Sounds familiar!)
Rather than retreat to the desert attempting to imitate Christ in acts of extreme asceticism, Benedict wanted a monastic life that combined ora et labora — work and prayer. It should impose, he thought, “nothing harsh or rigorous.”
The monastic lifestyle may seem stark for modern times, but Benedict’s take on religious contemplation was moderate compared to the experiments of his era. His guidance for monks — which begins with an invitation to listen with “the ear of the heart”, quickly became central to monastic life.
Some 1,400 years after Benedict’s Rules, Thomas Merton’s writings about his experience as an American Trappist monk influenced generations of Christians seeking spiritual healing.
For Merton, like Benedict, being alone in silence was not about withdrawal from the world . Rather, solitude, as the foundation for heightened self-awareness, led to greater compassion for others. Merton expressed this realization, which sustained his lifelong activism in peace and social justice causes, in No Man Is an Island, published in 1955 and now a classic in Christian spirituality.
“We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others,” he wrote, “yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves.”
Solitude is not an easy practice, but following the way of solitude is not about being perfect. A modern practitioner of monastic solitude Fr. Antony de Mello says “keep it simple and keep it moving”. De Mello focused on reflective silence as a way of detaching from the words, concepts and emotions that can cause trouble. His 1978 bestseller, Sadhana — A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form, offers practical advice with an encouraging “Well, that’s a good start” message.
When every day conspires against inner peace, moments of solitude are all the more worthwhile. So don’t see the current enforced solitude as a problem but seek it’s blessings.
God bless and stay safe,