Monastic perspectives on isolation, despondency, and distraction

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Monastic perspectives on isolation, despondency, and distraction

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 Benedictine monks in South West England currently expanding their outreach via social media.

A tweet from the Downside Abbey account. Source: https://twitter.com/downsideabbey/status/1267044745232166912?s=20

During the homily on the feast of Pentecost – uploaded onto SoundCloud and linked from the monastery’s social media – one of the monks described his view from the choir stalls. Through a grille opposite, he can see the silhouette of a life-size statue of Jesus and His Sacred Heart. In a church without a congregation and emptied of guests since the lockdown, the sudden sense of a person looking in at you is uncanny. It appears as though someone is “standing, staring through the window”. For the monk, this statue had become somewhat symbolic of the feeling of social distance due to the measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. His faith that he is not alone, that Christ is present, and that the congregation at home are nevertheless with them in prayer, does not override the pain of separation at this time. “The statue, from a distance, looks a bit despondent, lonely, and isolated.”

A key theme in the monks’ social media outreach has been reflecting on this condition of isolation and its dangers. The sense of being cut off from everyday contact and feeling that you’re missing out on life is understood as a danger to people’s health. As expressed in a healing service live-streamed on Instagram and Youtube, our relationships are an important part of us, and “the lost art of relationship” is a source of “inner wounds”. Lockdown exacerbates this problem, leaving us to our own devices in a way that can foment a dangerous individualism.

In the absence of a connection, there a risk of self-absorption, the monks warn: we can become wrapped up in ourselves and our own emotions. Our confinement can also leave us turning over painful memories and past wrongs, “hearts torn by past events that the evil one freshens in our mind from time to time”. Hence, in much of the content they upload, the monks draw on their Benedictine history and experience of cenobitic life – that is living, eating, and praying together – to emphasise the importance of finding ways to keep the social impulse alive, maintaining regular contact with friends, family, and community. “To start on the process of recovery, look out to see if there are others you might serve.”

Caption: Instagram post showing a detail from a tomb in the Abbey Church depicting St Pachomius

Acedia

In acknowledging isolation and despondency, monks recognise that this struggle is something they also face in their lives, and especially at this time. One monk of the community, currently teaching in Rome, described to me the sharp shifts in emotion as Italy struggled with the wave of COVID-19 infection. The sudden decision to close places of learning feeling almost like an unexpected holiday; excitement quickly engulfed by the fear and uncertainty about the situation, anxiety of risk from the infection and grief amidst the rising death toll. And then lockdown. “Now, inevitably, it has begun to shift to a kind of stale boredom. Cassian, of course, had just the word for it – acedia. Yesterday I just went to the end of the drive, simply to look outside and enjoy (really enjoy) the sight of the wisteria in the road. That is the real pity – to miss the spring colours and smells.”

His words capture the feeling of constraint even within the monastery grounds; while monks might be thought of as experts in self-isolation, life for Benedictines is not typically one of total confinement to the enclosure. Yet in recognising and naming the “stale boredom” as acedia, what was striking was the way in which he reached back into the history of the monastic experience. John Cassian, born around 360AD, compiled and digested the teachings of those ‘desert monks’ who had withdrawn from society to live lives of prayer on the Nile Delta. In his Institutes he describes the dejection and weariness that was a frequent foe of the monks, and was denoted by the Greek word ‘acedia’; the word itself can be translated as ‘lack of care’. Another term the desert monks used for acedia was ‘the midday demon’, identifying the sense of torpor and dejection monks experienced at noon when no matter how many times they looked up at the sky, the sun seemed to stand still and time refused to pass – a description that resonates with the sluggishness of time in lockdown.

Here, the recognition of acedia identifies our current state of boredom as a site of spiritual struggle. It offers companionship from history for those experiencing what was described in one healing service as “despondency and a sense of aimlessness, constrained as they are sometimes in very tight conditions”, dejected by circumstances that “seem, as it were, to be indefinite as well as unlimited”.

In isolation, such a struggle is hard – and it is against the backdrop of the solitary struggle of the desert monks that Benedictines understand the history of their structure and organisation, as a way of managing the struggle. It is with this in mind that we can understand the way the Benedictine monks in their outreach draw on lessons from their own life and rule, seeing it as offering an important insight for a time of lockdown. The development of the cenobitical way of life (eating and praying together) is understood as a response to the challenges of early monks’ individual struggles, recognising the need to support one another; the importance of a shared timetable as a discipline against the restlessness of boredom.

“Monks and media”, photo by DiuQuidem on Instagram, used with permission.

Social media as opportunity and as distraction

One of the dangers the monks recognise in this state of despondency – and here again they point to insights from monastic history – is the tendency to seek distractions. This concern has been explored in the monastic outreach on social media; are we equipped to deal with boredom, or do we turn to means of escape?

It is, of course, an irony recognised by the monastic community that social media can easily become precisely this kind of distraction. It falls into a category described by one of the monks as “things which, good in themselves, can have a power over us simply because they’ve got out of proportion”; putting them first, we make ourselves “less available to God’s love”.

In the face of the struggle of loneliness and isolation, the ability to keep in touch, to create co-presence and build community through social media has been invaluable. It has enabled people to share in the liturgy who would not otherwise have been able to, and it has created opportunities for learning and teaching that would not otherwise have been possible. As was made clear in a Q&A session livestreamed by the monks in May, “in one sense there have been blessings. I think we have to say they’ve come at a price”. The connectivity of the monks at this time has been one of these blessings, creating new forms of outreach that would not have been possible and involving people “to the ends of the earth”. At the same time, such an outreach risks binding people to what one monk termed “the servitude of the screen”.

The monastic community is now adapting to the easing of lockdown restrictions – from June 18 the church opened at limited times for private prayer – but even after congregations are allowed to return to church services, it is likely some of the monastery’s online outreach will continue. Certain activities, such as a weekly Lectio Divina session over zoom, have gained momentum that might be sustained into the future. There are opportunities to build new forms of community through online tools. And it can be fun – as the monk responsible for recording, uploading, and sharing services online told me, “I quite enjoy doing this!” – at the same time, he recognises the need for balance, both for the community as a whole and for himself: “I also need to avoid being swallowed up by social media!”

Richard Irvine has written more about monks and acedia in a time of lockdown here: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/religious-studies/?p=1081