All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone. - Blaise Pascal
The picture you see here was taken on March 13th, 2020, a mere nine days from the time of this writing. I'm with friends in a ski-hut in Austria for lunch. Viewed from the perspective of today, much about it is shocking:
how close together we’re sitting
how happy we are
how open the restaurant is
how clueless we are that a fearful new world was about to unfold
I returned that afternoon to a staff meeting at the conference center where I’d been speaking all week, and learned that the resort in Schladming, with a full month of ski season to go and an equal number of fully booked ski conferences remaining, would be closing for the season on March 15th. My friend needed to tell the winter staff their jobs would ending early. Within 24 hours, trains from Austria to Switzerland were cancelled, leaving me potentially stranded in Europe as my newly booked flight, through London, was out of Zurich.
I’m home now - and so, likely, are you. So’s the whole world, essentially. We’re calling it ”social distancing”, or “shelter in place” if it’s more than voluntary. These are strategies to stem the exponential growth of the virus. Go home. Stay home. Don’t visit anyone. Don’t eat out. It’s a strategy that appears to be working, but it’s also profoundly disorienting.
It’s as if suddenly, for reasons on the surface unrelated to God, the whole world is being told to become a monastery - by which I mean a place of solitude and silence. Not really, of course, because we have the internet, and Netflix, and FaceTime and God only knows what else, to keep us occupied. Also unlike the monastery, we didn’t ask for this. It came down from on high as a global response to stem the Corona tide.
Still, I’d like to suggest that we’re face to face with an opportunity for a season of transformation because of what’s been foisted upon us, an opportunity most in history have never had. We’re being forced to spend time alone, or in small cloisters of family/extended family units - without 24/7 sports, concerts, and myriad of other events that are, in reality, sometimes beautiful and meaningful, and other times nothing more than a circus, anesthesia to avoid the pain of looking inward or upward to God. Now it’s just you - your family - and, if you’re courageous enough to turn off the social media, and newsfeed - the silence of your world, a world into which God longs to speak hope and healing. (with the caveat, of course, that there are many health care workers, first responders, and store employees who are keeping the world afloat - thank you!)
So I’m calling this, the season of the global monastery (by which mean a place of enforced solitude, and hopefully, a little silence), and here’s why:
Pascal wisely said, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”. He’d seen how difficult it is to shut out all the things that distract us from actually hearing God voice. We’re terrified, it seems, of the silence. That’s why one person in my twitter feed said, “if the government really wants to us to be isolated and prevent civil unrest it, should make weed legal and send us all a Nintendo switch” - his way of agreeing with Pascal.
Instead of weed and Nintendo, I’d like to make a modest proposal that we view ourselves as called to Corona Monasticism for a season, and opportunity to develop habits of listening to God that will serve us well the rest of our days, even after our time apart. Here are truths that can frame our time:
1. Monasteries can be places where our truest self is discovered and awakened.
I think of great wisdom offered by Celtic saints, and St. Benedict, and the Desert Fathers. All of them did the work, and found the joy. Heaven opened up for them, along with revelation, and intimacy, and healing, and a capacity to impart hope to others. These fruits were the result of time honored ‘ancient paths’ practices of silence and solitude - paths I’ll be writing more about in the week ahead. Was it challenging for them? Frustrating at times? Punctuated with moments of failure and doubt? Yes to all these! Still, they pressed forward, and were transformed, slowly yet inexorably, moving into a spaciousness, peace, grace, and wisdom that is available to us all.
2. Not all who pursue the monastic experience succeed
For example, I think the the text from the great Cantata “Carmina Burana”. The words come from poems written by medieval monks. They were found found in a cave and eventually set to music. But instead of ecstatic praise to God, the poems are about illicit sex, and excess drinking, and despair. For these monks, and many like them, simply withdrawing didn’t do anything, other than inflame the longings of the flesh.
So, it appears that all of us have three options in the days ahead. First, we can hold our breath and wait for this to pass. We can lock on to our phones and Netflix binge watching, lacing it all perhaps, with a bit too much alcohol, and just wait for social isolation to pass so that we can get back to ’business as usual’. I for one, am not in that camp. I don’t want to return to a mind on overdrive, a mindless participation in the global economy that is destroying the earth, and lifestyles that, in spite of all our wealth, have been creating continually climbing rates of anxiety and loneliness.
The second option: we give some spiritual disciplines “a try”, like the monks whose poetry in the cave became a great musical about lust. I’d warn against this too! It’s no good trying to tack a few spiritual practices onto our same old mindset, all the while never really being sure of the why that’s motivating us, or the what of the specific practices that transform. You don’t ‘try on‘ building a house, or writing a book, or running a marathon. You know your ”why” and you develop your “what” - the practices you’ll incorporate with the goal of intimacy and transformation. We can do that here, now, when many (not all) of us are given this time.
The third option, of course, is to welcome this time, in spite of economic and health concerns, in spite of, or perhaps even because of, your belief that all our futures, both individually and collectively, will be different when this is over. We want to be like Noah, want to be one who has turned his life into an ark, a place of safety, so that those who are willing, can find the reality of the sheltering Christ through your life and work.
If you’re in that third category, I encourage you to join me on the journey. I’ll be writing about why of a monastic journey - the how of developing habits - and the what, of specifically what kinds of practices can contribute to us developing intimacy with God, an assurance of our identity in Christ, and a restful capacity to grow into the future that God has for us, both individually and as a species.
Some what I’ll offer this week:
1. Dealing with doubt - by seeing it as a gift...
2. Learning to listen in the silence
3. Learning to make friends with solitude
4. What habits matter most - and what they look like
All of a sudden, the world has stopped. Threatening? Unnerving? Anxiety inducing? Yes to all this, and more. But don’t miss it because it’s also true: An Epic Opportunity. I’d like to help you reap the rewards that are waiting to those who enter the Corona Monastery hungry for transformation.
O God of disorder and re-order
The bottom’s dropped of all we’ve known God
Our expectations of what tomorrow will be
Our financial security
Our confidence, misplaced though it was
We come to you with fear and doubt
But also, with hope and longing
Our desire is to see the world healed,
and yes, we ourselves healed too -
from greed, arrogance, pretension, anxiety, overconsumption
We’d love the idea of resting in the arms of a loving God
to be more than a platitude
We'd love for intimacy with our creator to be real
And so here we are
Asking that in our disorder, you’d lead us...
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