A Contemplative Confinement for the Layperson

A Contemplative Confinement for the Layperson

by Father Joseph Kerrigan, Mepkin Abbey

The coronavirus’ relentless global rampage intensifies daily.  Nations have been forced to seal borders. Within communities, many find their horizons likewise reduced to the confines of their living spaces.  And if residents can still venture forth, it’s often to limited destinations and perhaps under curfew.

Apart from these current dire circumstances, and for many centuries, in fact, there has always been a world – the monastic world – of those who have freely chosen such enclosure as integral to fostering a contemplative way of discipleship.  What can that world say now to those who have had confinement forced upon them in recent days? Can such confinement be somehow contemplative?

During the coronavirus lockdown, no doubt people of faith are continuing or even redoubling  efforts in prayer, devotion, charity and good works, especially with the disciplines already underway in  Lent.  So to speak of a contemplative confinement is not to add a more intense prayer experience on top of the economic, teleworking, public health and relational responsibilities of daily life, but rather to create a spacious ambient within those ongoing tasks that can be labeled as a sort of “God place” – a canopy under which all daily tasks flow, make sense and even synergize.

A few concrete steps could include:

  • Sharpen your awareness: Public health officials have prompted us to renewed vigilance over small frequent actions we normally take for granted, such as washing our hands and not touching our faces. Spiritually, we can be equally vigilant about, for example, noticing more acutely the season of spring still inching forward, the moods of those we live with, and even the revelation of silence that is available within us.  It’s no accident that the first sentence of the landmark Rule of St. Benedict is: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”   Listening with the “ear of your heart” is itself a contemplative practice.
  • Develop a daily rhythm: Since the time of the desert fathers and mothers, monks have refined a well-coordinated rhythm of prayer, work and community life that is mutually enriching, and perhaps also in sync with the daily cycle of nature. How shall we establish a new routine in our home confinement, a true rhythm, even if for just part of the day?
  • Envelop yourself in consistently helpful messages: Depending on the monastic community, frequent gatherings for public worship, perhaps up to seven times a day, are formative for the individual and the group in absorbing an intentional pattern of messaging — the Word of God and the prayer of the church. For many groups, the Psalter is the touchstone of that message, with its eloquent mix of lament, petition, thanks and praise.  Can we be more purposeful about what we are listening to and what we are saying during these enclosed times? At the very least, can we break a tempting cycle where we fretfully bounce from digesting a torrent of mortality statistics and doomsday forecasts to doses of distracting frivolity?
  • Establish a center of charity: To no surprise, Pope Francis continues to rouse the faithful, from the very midst of Italy’s and the world’s suffering, out of isolation and indifference. Can we look at our reduced social circle as nevertheless being that center of Christian charity that we have been called to now serve, whether in direct human needs or in encouraging wellness? And through the far-flung effects of intercessory prayer or the internet, can we continue to lift up or materially support those beyond our immediate reach? We might find that in the very midst of caring for others in this way, a mindfulness and poise may sprout within us that we previously associated only with times of solitude.

If for no other motivation than coping through this dangerous and anxious time, trying to overlay our new lives with a contemplative spirit is worth it.  However successful, we still take ultimate solace in knowing that “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus, we do not fear, though earth be shaken, and mountains quake to the depths of the sea” (Ps. 46:2-3).