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A Monk’s Guide to Quarantine

(By Teresa Mull)

Fr. Ananias is a Benedictine monk who serves as the pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Patton, Pennsylvania. Long before COVID-19, he voluntarily embraced a life of “social-distancing” and isolation from public life, in the monastery, Fr. Ananias has uncommon insight into the lifestyle so many of us are struggling to adapt to now, and he was generous enough to share his wisdom in handling the present crisis as a monk would.

The following are highlights from my conversation with Fr. Ananias, about what it’s like to be a monk and the benefits lay people can realize by adopting monastic mindsets and implementing monastic practices in their everyday lives:

Why do monks choose to practice “social-distancing” and a sort of voluntary quarantine? What are the advantages of such a life? 

Fr. A: I remember very clearly when entering the monastery, the novice master, Fr. Sebastien, may he rest in peace, gave us a series of conferences as we were preparing, and the first conference he gave was on the fuga mundi, the “flight from the world.” He spoke to us very clearly on the fuga mundi, along with contemptus mundi, “contempt for the world,” not in the sense, of course, of hating the world, but in the fact that the evil that is in the world is something we never want to embrace.

So, we are of the world, but not in the world. We are in the cloister, but we are not distracted by everything everyone in the world might be. We certainly pray for all those situations that are going on in the world and for the people who are suffering in the world. All you have to do is go past what we call ‘the third floor bulletin board’ and see all the index cards that are tacked up there from day to day, people calling, and the prior putting up notes – please pray for this one, pray for that one. And so, we are very much aware of the needs of the people out there in the world.

What attitude do monks adopt when they are alone in their cells that quarantined laypeople can adopt now to grow spiritually?

Fr. A: A cenobite lives his life primarily in the coenobium – the community of monks. We are individual, and alone, if you will, from each other, in much of our lives, but we also are very communal. You might live alone in your cell, but the cell is not a place of imprisonment for us in a monastery. Our old Fr. Cryril used to say, ‘Your cell should be your friend, and it should be your companion, and you should find refuge in that place, and behind the silence of its closed doors, you’ll be taught what’s necessary for you to get to Heaven.’ And he would say, ‘Love your cell!’ and indeed, I did love my cell, when I was still in the enclosure.

And so, the cell is primarily for your private prayer and for your study, and yes, you sleep in your cell. Yet very much of the monk’s time is spent with the others – in the community, because when the bell rings in the tower, and it is then time to go to prayer, or it is then time to go to work, or whatever it might be, you are going to be with your companions, with your brothers who are vowed with you.

While the cell is our solitude, it is not a hiding place for us, because we are immersed in the life that is community with our brothers in religious life. The monastery is not an isolation from the world; it separates us from the world, but even more so, we are intensely mindful of what’s going on: the cares and the woes and the worries that other people in the daily grind of life have to deal with. We’ve been separated from that so that we can be more attached to God, and our attachment to God is intensified by our study, by our learning to live together in unity and community as brothers. It’s constantly based upon building that community, which is what we hope for in heaven: the communion of saints. I don’t expect God will practice a sort of isolationism: you’re on that cloud, and you’re on that cloud, and you don’t all have to be together. We are the communion of saints, and a monastery needs to mirror that.

How does a person who is physically alone find comfort?

Fr. A: It’s not always easy to live in unity, but it is unifying, because our goal, our purpose, our intent is to live as one, mirroring what happens in the kingdom in heaven. You work out your salvation alone, yes, but also with your brothers. They help you. They take off the rough edges. It’s typical, just as it would be in your household – if you’re a married person raising your children, work situations, and so forth – you can use the brethren with whom you surround yourself to help you. And that’s the wonderful thing about community: it’s challenging. Absolutely challenging. We may be somewhat isolated, from the world, as I said, however, we are never distant from the world, socially or otherwise.

You should never feel alone in the monastery, in the cloister. You might walk through the hallways of the monastery and not see a soul. You might not hear a word. The silence is deafening. But you know that they’re there. We may not speak to each other directly, but we are in conversation with Almighty God, and we are all a part of that communal conversation, and that is consolation to most monks.

There is a sadness for me in not being actually able to be [in the monastery with my brothers] and be involved directly in the prayer they are praying, but because we are a people of faith, we believe our pray is united, and there is comfort and consolation that by grace we are all united.

I am here, in this parish, alone, by myself, but that doesn’t ever make me feel that I am abandoned. It doesn’t make me feel like I am just trying to survive out here. Because that is not the case.

As laypeople are forced into a sort of monastic existence now, what lessons should they learn from their experience?

Fr. A: The whole business of monastic life is that you are separating yourself from the world, and that you are depriving yourself of all these dreams you might have had. As I said earlier, I hoped I would be married. I hoped I would be successful in a career as an artist, and I can go right down the list of all the things I wanted. When I announced to my parents that I was going to enter, one of the things that stuck in the ears of my heart after all my years, my mother said, with a mother’s love, ‘You’ll never make it,’ because I was very worldly. Fancy clothes, cars. And she knew I was attached to those things.

It’s very important for a monk to be able to let go of those things and to embrace a life of simplicity. And I think that’s a problem for a lot of people in the world. Their lives could be much simpler than they are, but they make them very much more complex. They’re intent on pursuing the things of this world, things that might give them status, or which they believe are going to give them creature comforts, that they forget what they ultimate goal is, which is heaven. And the only way we get to heaven is by a life of self-denial and self-sacrifice: death to self. You have to submit to that, but most people don’t wish to do that. We’re trained to, of course, excel, and in this day and age, almost to exceed, because here, everything is at our fingertips. We have all the social media that allows you to have everything right there, right now. That’s not the way we live in the monastery.

How can we offer our daily difficulties to better ourselves and those around us? 

Fr. A: The expectations people have now are being able to have everything they want when they want it, how they want it, with whom they want, and it’s wrong.

‘Does God will this? How long does God will it? He wills it for what reason? For the betterment of my soul.’ Again, people don’t think this way. They think, ‘OK, I can have this thing now. I can be with this person in this moment.’ They’re used to everything. If this present crisis is going to teach us anything, it’s that sometimes we are limited. Are we angry, because we are now limited? And at whom are we angry? God? The governor? The bishop? Who? Because I can’t do what I want.

Oftentimes, people see interruptions as an inconvenience, but I see it as an opportunity for grace. You set yourself aside, and you give assistance to the ones in need. You think of someone else before you think of yourself, and you unite that death to self with the death of Christ on the cross. This is an opportunity to sacrifice and to be inconvenienced, and not to grumble or growl about it, but to accept it as the permissive will of God and say, ‘Alright, I have these inconveniences. Everything has to change.’

Yes, it does have to change. And that’s what the Christian life is all about. You have to change. You are already made in the image and likeness of God, but you must be more and more conformed to Christ. And the only way you do that is suffering the inconveniences that cause you to die to self.

People are going to have to struggle with this [Coronavirus pandemic], but it’s an opportunity for them to reassess their lives and to simply say, ‘This is what is allowed in my life now, and I accept it. I am willing to change with this and become a better person for it.’ This inconvenience should make us better.

Are we obliged to obey the stay-at-home commands and others lawmakers are imposing on us? 

Fr. A: In the present situation, the government is saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that. It goes against everything in my priestly character not to celebrate Mass for the people of God, and I am commanded to celebrate it privately in a locked church. It just seems so wrong…though while people are not directly involved in [the redemptive act of Mass], I am consoled in the thought  that the priestly ministry still has the effect that it should be having – calling down grace upon the world. I must be obedient to the bishop and follow his present commands in this time of crisis. If you’re listening with the ear of your heart, what he’s saying is reasonable in the sense that we don’t want anyone to spread the contagion.

The Church teaches us that we owe obedience to lawful authority, if it’s not a contradiction to doctrine and dogma. We submit in obedience. In the Benedictine order, obedience is the first vow. In this instance now, we are going to have to be obedient to the law of the land which seems to be changing every day. Are they going to inconvenience us? Yes, they are. Do they have to much us angry and upset? No. These, again, are opportunities for instances of grace, because we have to re-order our lives. We have to be inconvenienced. We embrace this as a present Agony in the Garden, as a present Calvary. All of these inconveniences, we offer them up, and therefore, you accomplish a greater good in your acts of self-denial, and you’re not being angry or demanding about what you believe you should have.

How can laypeople behave in such a way that the consequences of this current crisis is mitigated?

Fr. A: People want answers now. I can’t give you those – I don’t know what they are. I can’t calm your panic completely. I don’t have a magic wand. I try to tell them – be calm, it will be fine. It will work out in accord with God’s will, if you allow it. But they want everything just to fit together presently, and not knowing what the outcome is going to be makes some people very, very nervous.

We need to live our lives serenely, so even in the midst of our suffering in the garden, there still has to be a serenity that comes from that, because we believe that in the midst of all the ugly, that the potential for God’s grace to work miracles is there. There should be a serenity in us even as we undergo the most difficult trials – to get to that point where we say, ‘I do serenely accept this. I might still be worked up about it, I might still have some trepidation, some anxiety, but, the reality of the fact is, I believe this is part of God’s plan, and therefore, I can still be serene in the midst of chaos.’

When the world is filled with chaos in a moment like this, we don’t need to contribute to the chaos. In being docile, if you will, in obeying the commands of lawful authorities, we contribute to the serenity that needs to exist in this time, and we teach others to do the same. I still believe God can make all of this right. We are either conduits of grace in the midst of all this, or we are agents of chaos. And what does the devil do, except sow seeds of division and cause chaos?

What might God be teaching us by allowing these present hardships and future ones? 

Fr. A: A monk’s life rarely changes. It’s the same thing every day, every day, every day. The bell rings, you get up. The bell rings, you go to prayer. The bell rings, you do this, you do that. I understand that people are upset that their schedules are being interrupted, but you need to just think – God is asking that these interruptions be accepted by us as crosses. He asks that we look at them as opportunities for deaths to self, to accept serenely the current chaos and work through this by God’s grace. This situation should cause us to be more dependent on God.

Teresa Mull is editor of GunpowderMagazine.com. Contact her at tess@wildertess.com.

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