What happens when the churches close their doors? Virtual cloisters and monastic outreach

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Author: Richard Irvine, Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, and Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Religious Studies, Open University. You can contact him at rdgi@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Fieldsite: While I am on lockdown in Scotland, I took the opportunity to connect online and on the phone with my friends in Downside Abbey, a community of Catholic monks in South West England currently expanding their outreach via social media.

On 20th March, the Catholic church in England and Wales suspended all public church services as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While it was hoped at first that churches might remain open for private prayer, by the following week this too was deemed impossible in the wake of the UK lockdown measures.

For the monks of Downside Abbey, an English Benedictine community where I carried out my PhD research, these announcements were uncharted territory. The sense of “weirdness” has been a constant refrain in the monks’ attempts to articulate life since they were required to shut their doors; an “odd feeling” emanating from the intense consciousness of absence due to the emptiness of the church and of the monastery’s guest wing. (Given that Chapter 53 of Rule of St Benedict, which the monks live by, states that a monastery is “never without guests”, and indeed that guests are to be welcomed “as Christ”, such emptiness is indeed a gap in the organisation of Benedictine monastic life.) One of the monks described the new meaning which a particular element within the Liturgy had taken on: most services in the Liturgy of the Hours – the occasions of prayer that structure the monastic day – end with the prayer and response “May God’s help be with us always”; “And with our absent brethren. Amen.” Usually, this is understood as a reference to other monks in the community who are elsewhere for whatever reason; but in the context of lockdown, the reference to ‘absent brethren’ calls to mind all the people who cannot be there, or indeed in any church, and instead must stay at home.

A monk celebrates mass facing an empty nave. Photo credit Downside Abbey.

There was also concern for how troubling the closure of the churches must be to Catholic laypeople, and in particular, those in the parishes the monks serve and those who come to the Abbey Church. Given the centrality of weekly Communion in Catholic Life, the inability to attend Mass on Sunday is accompanied by a sense of loss; for this reason, the most immediate public response from the monks to the circumstances aimed to reassure Catholics that they would not be incurring sin through their inability to attend Mass at this time. In addition, the monks provided advice (including links to web resources) on how to keep active in prayer, how to follow the readings of the services, and to participate remotely, for example by watching Mass live-streamed from churches – although the monastery did not itself have the capacity to live stream services itself due to a lack of wifi in the Abbey Church.

Crucially, there was recognition of the painfulness of isolation. Given the role of the church as a point of social connection to others, the loss of this opportunity for people to come together could be a source of loneliness, and indeed a danger to mental health. Indeed, a central lesson that the monks took from their own life as Benedictines was that separation from the world without the structure of community life and social contact was dangerous. For this reason, as one of the monks explained in a youtube video, it is “important first of all to think of social distancing as physical distancing”. Now, more than ever, we shouldn’t be distancing ourselves socially, but finding ways to connect. This is because “we are social creatures” – it’s just that that sociality now needs “a different format”.

Generating presence

The monastery has had a social media presence since 2015, when they joined Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, primarily using these platforms to share a weekly link to the homily from Sunday Mass, as well as occasional news. However, the instruction to close the churches, and the UK-wide lockdown, led to a conscious decision by the community to step up their social media activity and to increase the quantity and range of the material available.

Firstly, daily recordings of the Mass have been made available on Soundcloud and linked from the various social media accounts, along with more occasional recordings of other services in the monks’ Liturgy of the Hours. The decision to upload only some of the Liturgy of the Hours was made partly for the reason that there is a lot of repetition between services, but also so as not to overimpose the need for technological engagement on the community, and so the monk deploying the Tascam Recorder, editing the recordings on Audacity, etc., didn’t have too much to do in addition to his other jobs and duties. “In the end, it is a judgement call: what can we reasonably do? What will people want to hear?”

Some of the posts linking to these services highlight the benefits of the monks’ chanting for wellbeing (“Feeling a little bit stressed and suffering from cabin fever? Listen to the plainchant from today’s Mass”), and indeed I was told that one listener had thanked the monks and informed them he had made their recording of Compline (the final service of the time) his bedtime listening. Other posts from the monks acknowledge the reality that sometimes the chanting can go a bit awry (“The monks sound a bit ropey in this at times – such is life!”). What’s worth noting here is the way the community offers an opportunity to join with their prayer as though you were there in the Abbey Church – even if that means listening to mistakes occasionally. In this, there’s a sense of being part of the everyday routine of the community, “warts and all”, that accentuates the human connection. And sometimes, of course, the technology fails, as on Easter Morning: “The battery died during the Our Father and, unlike the Lord, would not resurrect, so the recording stops there.”

Tweet from the Downside Abbey account. Source: https://twitter.com/downsideabbey/status/1249297121288900608?s=20

A key goal of the social media presence has been to find new ways of keeping in touch, giving parishioners and other people who might in different circumstances have come to the monastery a line of communication with the monks. In this, the monks have shifted between different media to find the approach that works; for example, an attempt to live stream a Q&A session failed to broadcast on Facebook, only for the monks to successfully switch it over to Instagram. Subsequently, a live Bible Study and a Healing Service were simultaneously broadcast on Youtube and Instagram (again, technical difficulties with the wifi led to them having to find a desktop computer with connectivity; you can hear the sound of the fan from the computer in the background – a humming, though not a particularly distracting one – suggesting it hasn’t been used in a little while).

The community have also used these platforms to put up resources for virtual visitors; especially ‘thoughts for the day’, explanations of the liturgy, and other videos. In many of these videos, the physical environment of the monastery is deliberately employed (for example using particular artwork from around the Abbey church; or setting up the video in the choir stalls, the sacristy, or the room where the Novices and Junior monks receive their lessons). These uses of the monastery environment serve not only as illustration for the videos, but also perform an important purpose in creating a sense of ‘being there’: involving people in place precisely at the time when they are excluded from it.

A central initiative here has been the idea of a ‘virtual retreat’. The monks usually host a large number of people for a retreat in the days leading up to Easter – the absence of these guests during this time of the liturgical year was particularly keenly felt. Yet the inability of people to travel to the monastery due to lockdown didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t go on retreat. Indeed, the monks pointed out that they themselves make their annual retreat at home, which is precisely what everybody having to stay at home now has the opportunity to do. “If we can do it, so can you.” This virtual retreat consisted of a number of live streamed and recorded talks, recordings of chant and readings from the services, and an encouragement to share in prayer, treating the time we are forced to be at home as an opportunity to ‘be on retreat’ together.

Creating a connection through prayer

The monks’ key response to isolation has been in creating opportunities to help people pray together. For example, one initiative has been “Stay at Home Lectio”; lectio divina is the slow, prayerful reading of scripture, a form of contemplative practice which is part of the monks’ daily timetable, and “Stay at Home Lectio” encourages people to read the same biblical texts in this way together, potentially joining a Google Meet channel.

However, the primary means by which the community tries to create this sense of connection in prayer has been through the sharing of the liturgy. “It will be a different experience for all of us, but we hope we can feel united in prayer even at a distance.” Since the lockdown began, recordings of Mass from the Abbey Church have been uploaded onto Soundcloud every day. In addition, sharing (even partially) in the prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, which forms the basis of the monks’ daily timetable, is encouraged as something which gives structure to time – “a way of dividing and consecrating the day” – while also “giving us a real sense of being connected with others because everyone is praying the same thing”.

Monk using audacity to edit the recording for upload. Photo credit: Downside Abbey

Praying with and for one another is “the reminder that we’re not alone”. In particular, during this time of lockdown, the homilies and bidding prayers repeatedly stressed that we’re not alone even in times of suffering – even, poignantly, remembering in prayer those who may be dying on their own as a way of being alongside them. A central theme in the material shared via social media is the acknowledgement of physical absence, while at the same time recognising that this sense of separation is misleading as long as we remember that we’re united in prayer. This was clearly expressed in the Good Friday homily uploaded onto Soundcloud: “True, our churches are empty, but the Church, the people of God, are with us… They are with us in spirit, and in the bond of prayer, and within the communion of the whole Church.”

Yet, while such resources can help people to have a sense of this connection, it is important to note that they are not accessible to all. One of the monks explained to me that some of his most elderly parishioners do not have social media accounts or in some cases, the technical means to access them, and have difficulties with the interfaces for live streams. Given that these elderly parishioners can be among the most isolated and most reliant on the church for their sense of community, there is a danger not only that they have lost a focal point of real-life interaction, but may also now be feeling left out of the new means of communication; as a result, the monk who highlighted this problem to me is now spending more time than ever on the phone.

Experts in self-isolation?

Of course, the community are aware of the potential of social media to bring the materials they produce to whole new audiences. As one monk remarked, “the world is now our congregation… a somewhat terrifying thought”. In the current circumstances, it might be argued that monks have something particular to offer that a wider public could find valuable. Everyone has had to adapt to lockdown – but for monks, there is a sense that they have the benefit of having been trained for these kinds of circumstances; that they have a certain expertise in ‘social distancing’.

One of the goals of the monastery’s output has been to share some elements of this insight. “When people are at home and unable to leave when they like or to meet people, they start asking themselves, what do you do with all that time?” It is precisely here that the monks argue that the Rule of St Benedict has valuable lessons to teach. “It might be tempting to stay in bed all morning if you have nothing particular to get up for, or so it seems. But actually in the long run you’ll probably find that you feel much worse.” The pattern of monastic living is one of structured time, a structure which emphasises “the right amount of sleep, food, prayer, work” and moderation in all things – “try not to be obsessive, but do a bit of everything that is important”, and have regularity in doing it. (Significantly, one of the ‘thought for the day’ videos stresses the indispensable nature of recreation as part of this routine.)

Instagram post of some of the monks participating in the simultaneity of the nation, watching the Queen’s broadcast on 5 April

Yet a key part of the Rule is its emphasis on community; as was explained to me, Benedictines “have a special charism of community living and tending to others”. This is crucial now: some families have to get used to being in close quarters all day when they are not used to it, “wives driven mad by having to be at home with their husbands”. In these contexts, the advice of the Rule in learning to have patience with the rest of your household may have value for all families. Meanwhile, the lockdown leaves many others on their own, and it is more important than ever to emphasise the need to structure our lives in ways that allow for social contact in spite of separation: “now these are times when we can do great things for others: a smile, a telephone call, a message”; keeping to the routine of meeting up for others for a coffee and a chat, even if it’s over zoom. Through this kind of advice, the monks attempt to draw from their own life and Rule lessons in the importance of community for self-isolators.

One talk uploaded onto Youtube, aiming to set out the relevance of the Rule of St Benedict in our current circumstances, highlights the word with which the Rule starts: “Listen.” As the monk recording the video explains, “as we live through these difficult days, we’re all being asked to listen with our hearts and show compassion towards our brothers and sisters in our home, and our neighbour.” As a response to isolation, listening is here presented as an active means of connection; listening to God; listening to those around us even if we are physically distanced from them, and even (as a different video suggests) listening to “the birds that maybe you couldn’t hear before because of all the traffic”.