Monks, COVID-19, and You
So by this point we're all going a little stir-crazy, I imagine...and it's only been a week. Clearly there is only one solution: We need to talk about monks.
Just to get definitions straight, I'm talking about western monks here. Another article might deal with eastern monasticism's contributions to this subject (if you're curious about eastern thought, look here). For now, though, we're going to limit the focus to COVID-19 and western monasticism. Sue me.
...please don't sue me.
Right now, most of us are adapting to the CDC's instructions regarding the spread of COVID-19, the newest and most alarming strain of coronavirus. If you're anything like me, the toughest piece of advice to follow isn't wiping down surfaces or not shaking hands (I wipe down my countertop with an almost psychopathic frequency, anyway). No, these are easy fixes. Much harder (but just as necessary) is "social distancing."
By now, we've all discovered that Netflix and paperback novels are only fun if we have someone who'll share them with us. Unfortunately, that kind of defeats the whole point of social distancing.
So, over the next few weeks, I've decided to take a cue from some of our medieval counterparts and view social distancing not as merely a necessary precaution; but as a new way of living. If you're not quite sure what I mean by that, see my piece on three months of waking up every day at 4 A.M. here. The COVID-19 epidemic has millions of Americans working from home. We can treat this as a necessary evil (which, to be clear, it certainly is), but we can also treat it, in part, as an opportunity unparalleled in modernity. For the first time since the industrial revolution, our commute to work is no longer the foundational structure of life. We are faced, for the next few months at least, with the responsibility of defining our own schedules in a way that is meaningful.
For one medieval monk named Benedict, this meant living by a set of rules.
Benedict lived in a small community with other monks, all of them men dedicated to a spiritual life of prayer and good works. For these men to get the most out of their lives, Benedict reasoned, they needed to submit themselves to a structure.
Why? Because without a structure, there's no way to determine if we are living in a way that brings us closer to our goals.
For Benedict and his fellow monks, the goal of heightened spiritual sensitivity and devotion could only be attained through the disciplines of prayer, humility, and silence. The rules Benedict devised observed these three principles closely, even requiring that monks rise in the middle of the night to say special prayers!
For most of us, I doubt that waking up in the small hours of the morning will do much to keep us sane amidst the chaos of coronavirus panic. Having a stricter set of rules and routines, though, might not be a bad idea. As social creatures, after all, we rely heavily on others to cue us in on whether or not we're headed in the right direction.
When a mother says, "stop that!" to a child, the little one knows he's headed in the wrong direction.
When a friend suggests it may be time to head home from the bar, it's a fair chance that we are yet again headed in the wrong direction if we order another drink.
Without a stream of feedback from others, though, regarding our Netflix binge-ing habits or working practices, we can feel uncertain about where we're headed.
The key in resisting this aimlessness seems to be cultivating a sense of healthy habits that realign us with our goals (though, as the philosopher says, it's "gonna take some time to realign").
Are there simply too many distractions at home for you to work effectively? Consider using an app like Headspace or Calm to meditate upon waking, having lunch, and finishing work around dinnertime.
Struggling to stay active without attending a germ-filled gym? Try utilizing a daily calisthenic routine based on the US Army's recommendations or a fitness guru like Athlean-X.
Or, if you're looking to stay spiritually-focused, why not try following the Episcopal or Roman Catholic "Daily Office" of prayers? These structured prayers are said at certain times during the day, and can help keep time from slipping by while you're tapping away at a computer screen.
Whatever the case, don't be afraid to take some inspiration from the past on how to address the crisis of the present.
Monks, COVID-19, and you. More in common than one might think.