Chaplains' Corner

Solitude, not isolation - Cistercians share their ancient tradition amid coronavirus

Cistercians choose a monastic way of life characterised by quiet solitude.
September 25, 2020

The arrival of coronavirus has changed everything. We have to practise social distancing and with restrictions on movement and public gatherings, our streets and communities have fallen silent. And while it is intended to limit the spread of the virus, 'self-isolation' also has negative effects on mental health. Cistercians choose a monastic way of life characterised by quiet solitude. The order's Portglenone community shares what we might learn from their experience.

IN the midst of tight regulations governing social distancing and self-isolation as society struggles to work through the Covid-19 crisis, Cistercian monks and nuns in Ireland, and the world over, are seeking to deepen their own vocational call to solitude and community.

"Like other communities and families we are seeking to come to terms with social isolation in these days, but we do have the great comfort and support of the community in which we, as monks, already live," said Fr Aelred Magee, vocations promoter for his Cistercian community at Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey at Portglenone in Co Antrim.

"It's not unknown for a monk to experience real isolation even when living within his community - to feel, at times, cut off from his brothers even when very much living physically with them," he explained.

"This may be an experience common to many now who are confined to home because of government restrictions.

Fr Aelred said that the life of a religious community "has a rhythm and structure of its own".

This can help "carry someone in this situation, and draw them back into life with the others".

This might be especially relevant for families at home together in this period of 'lockdown'.

"Perhaps for many families today that is precisely what they are called to do - reclaim their lives together as a family, in terms of shared meals and prayer, what they can undertake together, how to give one another space when it so easy to live on top of each other," said Fr Aelred.

Sitting at home, reclaiming prayer and silence, may be just the time and space to allow God's Word to sink deep into our consciousness

THE RHYTHM OF LIFE

CISTERCIAN life is carefully and thoughtfully structured.

The regular round of prayer in common, beginning with the night office of Vigils, and punctuating the day at regular intervals through until Night Prayer; work, both alone and with others in the monastic community, in service of the community members; and time for personal reading and prayer - all this tries to ensure that Cistercian monastics can enjoy community life and their own solitude while in community - that experience of being by oneself but never alone.

In a world which craves instant distraction and constant diversion, the monastic person tries to avoid distractions which lead away from love of God and love of neighbour.

"We are very aware that in these days so many people, wisely staying at home, are nevertheless feeling an isolation which they never experienced before, a sense of being cut off, even if there are other family members in the house," said Fr Aelred.

"We try our best, in our monastic rhythm of prayer and work, daily to reach out to them and be present to them, calling them to mind, remembering their sufferings and losses, and that so many people are giving their all to beat this pandemic.

"This is a time which can be distinguished by a return to prayer, silence and stillness, if we allow it."

The lack of traffic, both on the roads and in the skies, was contributing to the sense of stillness.

"There is a renewed sense that we can live quieter lives, with less noise demanding our attention," said Fr Aelred.

"And that sense of quiet can lead to a real sense of inner stillness, a reduction in the interior noises which so often fuel our worries and anxieties."

This time when isolation can become solitude might even reveal true monastic vocations for many

SOLITUDE NOT ISOLATION

THE period of enforced 'self-isolation' that many are experiencing because of the coronavirus outbreak may prove enormously difficult - socially, mentally, physically and spiritually.

For Cistercians there are important differences between isolation and solitude that may prove useful to help us cope.

"Isolation can be a devastating experience, so often because we don't freely choose it, and we certainly don't usually desire it," explained Fr Aelred.

"It's the feeling of literally becoming an 'island', cut off from the 'mainland' of our usual nourishing and supportive relationships and groups, communities which help us be the person we know we are, which give us a sense of belonging and common sharing, a sense of identity.

"When we become isolated from others, these life-giving human supports can seem to vanish or at best not function for us."

This experience can have hugely negative effects, leading "to dejection and depression and even to thoughts of suicide".

"That may even be happening with some people today, people whom we know, in the midst of this coronavirus crisis - without the usual people to lean on, isolation can lead to despair," said Fr Aelred.

"This is when a community needs to embrace the one who is drifting away and draw them back to its heart."

In a world which craves instant distraction and constant diversion, the monastic person tries to avoid distractions which lead away from love of God and love of neighbour

Solitude, however, is "a very different experience", emphasised Fr Aelred.

"It's about being able to be alone, content in one's own presence and also, at the same time and importantly for Christians, placing oneself in God's presence - a presence which may be only felt or held in our mind and heart, but very real nonetheless," he said.

"And in that solitude I can also be aware of those not physically present with me but very much present when I call them to mind, or pray for them.

"That is a real expression of a meaningful solitude."

Telephone, text messaging, FaceTime and the multitude of other digital means of communication that are so widely available now offer ways of maintaining essential contact.

"For Cistercians, living in a community with others means we can still claim a real solitude, when I am alone but not cut off," said Fr Aelred.

"These are vital messages for people today, confined to their own home spaces, and for others who are working hard to support them, reach out to them, affirm them - others continue to draw you into their communities and want you to know that you still belong and are not by yourself entirely."

A VIRTUAL COMTEMPLATIVE COMMUNITY

THE monks in Portglenone have recently launched a new extension to their settled monastic community - an e-community formed through social media and inviting participation in prayer, reflection and reading.

Through this they have established the Bethlehem Abbey Cistercian Family.

"We want, initially, to allow people to participate in elements of our Cistercian life," said Fr Aelred.

"Praying with Sacred Scripture - what we know as lectio divina - learning about and drawing upon our tried and tested monastic spiritual tools and wisdom, and getting a taste for contemplative prayer, even in the midst of their busy lives.

"In lectio divina we enter into a special prayer space - reading and listening to the word of God we open ourselves to Christ himself speaking to us, the Holy Spirit moving our hearts to receive the word which he addresses to us."

There is a renewed sense that we can live quieter lives, with less noise demanding our attention. That sense of quiet can lead to a real sense of inner stillness, a reduction in the interior noises which so often fuel our worries and anxieties

The community is engaged in a "continuous prayerful reading of St Mark's Gospel" at present.

"We are conscious that what we read and how we pray it can be woven into our own lives," said Fr Aelred.

"Sitting at home, reclaiming prayer and silence, may be just the time and space to allow God's Word to sink deep into our consciousness."

Prayer can be particularly powerful in this context.

"The desire to have prayer 'happening in our hearts' has led many of us to take up again the repetition of the 'Jesus Prayer': 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'," said Fr Aelred.

"This powerful prayer, centred on the Holy Name, is a means to praying ceaselessly as we repeat it - quietly, slowly, rhythmically - until it takes on its own dynamic in our innermost self."

The 'virtual contemplative community' is an opportunity to find out more about the Cistercians' "ancient and well-established monastic practices".

Questions addressed on the posts include: what is silence, and why is it important; how can solitude be a positive means to coming to know myself and God; what is fasting, and why should we undertake it from time to time?

"Questions like these, and other practices which we explain, can become habits for good living and a gateway back to the spiritual life," said Fr Aelred.

"And we are currently laying out short teachings on the so-called afflictive thoughts, identified by monastic writers as far back as the fifth century, and certainly very relevant to our lives today - thoughts which form around food, sex and things, anger and dejection, spiritual sloth, vainglory and pride - all these thoughts have the potential to attack us in our bodies, minds and souls, and drag us down.

"Monastic practice over the centuries has tried to neutralise them and replace them with prayer, the service of others and reading."

Not being able to go the church, whether to pray alone or to meet with others, is a particularly painful aspect of the coronavirus restrictions. Yet it also offers opportunities to develop faith in other directions.

"We hope that, especially in these tough days when people cannot get out to Mass or even visit a local church, they might reclaim their own prayer at home by joining in the prayer and readings and reflections which we offer on our sites," said Fr Aelred.

"And of course we hope and pray that someone who finds us in this way may even discover that they have a call to join us in the life in the monastery - this time when isolation can become solitude might even reveal true monastic vocations for many, a religious life that they've been searching for but haven't been able to pin down or properly identify."

The Bethlehem Abbey Cistercian Family can be found at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

To discuss a possible call to live the Cistercian monastic life you can contact Fr Aelred Magee OCSO at frmagee@yahoo.co.uk or through the community's social media platforms.

Solitude, not isolation - Cistercians share their ancient tradition amid coronavirus
Fr Aelred Magee OSCO

Fr Aelred Magee is a cistercian monk at Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone.

He previously taught in St Malachy's College, Belfast andlater served as Chaplain to Queen's University.

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