Coronavirus & The Hidden Life
Word from Dom Benedict Nivakoff, the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia:
Dear family and friends,
St. Benedict exhorts us: “Keep death daily before your eyes.” In this prompting taken from the fourth chapter of our patron’s Rule, we are reminded that God is the ultimate master of our lives, even if His presence is not always evident. In a fatherly way, St. Benedict also calls us to weep for our sins in fear of the coming Judgment. The reality of death and judgment reminds us to trust in the mercy and justice of God alone, whereas being forgetful of death can lead us to rely on ourselves and the world’s solutions to our problems.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, life for the monks in Norcia (all healthy as of March 30) continues much as normal, with a few exceptions. Every morning, during the solemn high Conventual Mass, we have added prayers against pestilence. In the afternoon, we process through the property with relics of the True Cross, praying for liberation from “plagues, famines and wars,” as did the ancients, who knew these tribulations often arise together. Particularly in our prayers are the many doctors and nurses who are sacrificing much — and risking much — to keep others alive and return them to health. Our region of Umbria’s population is geographically dispersed, so the cases of coronavirus around us are fewer than in the far north. We know that this could quickly change.
A striking change for us has been the complete absence of visitors to the chapel. Although Norcia is off the beaten path, we are blessed to be able to often share our life — the chanted Office and Holy Mass — with visitors. The measures adopted by the Italian government have meant that most Italians now live in an imposed cloister in their homes and our friends abroad cannot travel. Hiddenness from the world takes on an almost sacramental symbolism during this extraordinary crisis.
For centuries, it was not possible to see up-close the mysteries of the altar. In certain periods, curtains were drawn at the most important moments of the Mass. Still today, the solemn prayers of consecration are said in the lowest of tones – a whisper – as the drama of the liturgy unfolds. The hiddenness intrinsic to the Mass (with an iconostasis in the Byzantine rite) was common to all in some form for many hundreds of years; it summoned an atmosphere of mystery. In our age, which demands to see in order to believe, God is offering us a chance to rediscover mystery – the mystery of the Mass’s unseen efficacy (2 Cor 4:18). We must rely on an invisible medicine for our ultimate salvation in the face of this invisible threat.
One of the monastery’s greatest blessings in recent years has been the new monastic life born in trial. Many of the monks were clothed and made professions in the period after the 2016 earthquakes. Now, new monks persevere amid the pandemic. For example, on the Feast of the Annunciation, a young novice made his simple vows. Though no lay faithful attended, a full array of monks, angels and saints were there to watch. A spring snowfall brought a further sense of the unexpected to the event, making the feast’s momentous Gospel all the more prescient: “no word shall be impossible with God.”
It becomes clearer every day that we will all be suffering with the physical, economic, psychological and spiritual consequences of the coronavirus for some time. We should be willing to learn the lessons God wants to teach us. A great temptation is to demand that God return what we have lost. In the field of tragedy, God sows seeds of new life. We all must water them with our prayers (both seen and unseen), our sacrifices and, perhaps, even our lives. But death does not have the last word.
Please keep up with the monks of Norcia via their website — and if you can be generous to them, please do. I remind you of the kind of witness they are to the world, by quoting the last words of The Benedict Option:
Who knows what God, in turn, will do with our faithfulness? It is not for us to say. Our command is, in the words of the Christian poet W.H. Auden, to “stagger onward rejoicing.”
The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray Matins, and fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza. Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night.
“The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of St. Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,” he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”
The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside of the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery, and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people.
The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi, and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began.”
“I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries,” said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future.”
Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s façade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The 14th century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its façade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.
With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, prayed. Later, amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.
Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake.
“Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.
“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are OK. Much to tell you but just pray. I am well and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”
The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors, and left town.
“[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.
Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years – not days or months – to understand.”
Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the façade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin the rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.
“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat”.
Let it be. Let it be.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
These are Christians who know how to remain steady in catastrophe. We have so much to learn from them. One practical lesson is the importance of maintaining regular prayer during this time of confinement. I’ve written in this space about how surprised I was to discover how much the online Divine Liturgy meant to me. Online worship can never be an adequate substitute for corporal worship, especially not in sacramental, liturgical churches. On the first Sunday my parish had livestreamed liturgy, I didn’t even plan on joining my wife and kids on the couch to watch it. What was the point?
But standing in the kitchen pouring coffee, listening to those familiar words, and chants, I felt something move inside me. I realized in a new way how much of my own inner life is constructed by the words of the Divine Liturgy — and just hearing it made my bones vibrate harmoniously, so to speak. I sat down on the couch and prayed along with the priest coming to us over the video link. And I was grateful. At least we have this.
Going back to Dom Benedict’s missive, I am struck by this line:
Hiddenness from the world takes on an almost sacramental symbolism during this extraordinary crisis.
That’s a powerful word. As I sit here writing this, at my kitchen table, I look out the window and everything looks normal, even serene, in my neighborhood. But I know that that is an illusion. This virus is moving among us, striking people down with incredible cruelty, and infecting others who have no idea that they are sick. Wyoming Doc wrote to me this morning:
I have been doing this for 30 years. I have seen lots of things happen. I have held people’s hands through some of the most terrible moments. I have NEVER seen anything affect the human body like this virus is able to do. These patients are in horrific agony. To the one, they feel like they are drowning. I have never seen an upper/lower respiratory virus attack the heart like this one does. And the pain that is caused is like nothing I have ever seen before from an infectious disease.
He is seeing this, because he is in the hospital, on the front lines. Me, I’m doing like most of you: sitting at home, inside an artificial peace. What we who are not on the economic front lines can’t see — yet, anyway — is the horrific pain the virus is inflicting on people economically. But we will. None of us will escape it.
For now, it is still relatively hidden. As Ross Douthat said:
The strangest thing about this crisis is what you might call the not-yet/but-already experience – where things that haven’t yet happened (symptoms, hospitalizations) are nonetheless settled facts, and we measure the way telescopes catch light from the past, from a dead star.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 30, 2020
As Dom Benedict said, we are all now having to hide from the world, in our domestic cloisters, for the sake of saving lives. We can’t become too comfortable with that — I mean, we can never allow ourselves to believe that online church is anything but the barest facsimile of real church. If church was nothing more than the conveying of information, then one would be as good as another. But even in Protestant low-church traditions, which downplay sacraments and liturgy, the way of conveying that information is inextricably part of the information. The medium really is a big part of the message. The message you hear in the solitude of your home is not the same message you hear standing in the flesh with the worshiping body of believers.
Nevertheless, I strongly endorse Dom Benedict’s exhortation for us to meditate on what God is trying to teach us with this period of hiddenness. What does it mean to discover — or to re-discover — mystery? In my case, I had become too accustomed to taking the Divine Liturgy for granted, but more than that, as I explained above, I discovered how liturgy had become sedimented into my bones, and how I carried it within me.
This is just the beginning, though. Rather than be resentful over what this virus has taken from me and my church family, I am trying to stare more deeply into the loss, to find its meaning, and to find redemption in it. To paraphrase Dom Benedict from the earthquake aftermath, these mysteries will take a long time to understand; our right attitude is to “pray and watch from the mountainside” — that is, to keep up our spiritual disciplines (or take new ones on) and remain open to the Holy Spirit to guide us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Remember Dom Benedict’s words:
A great temptation is to demand that God return what we have lost. In the field of tragedy, God sows seeds of new life.
The monks of Norcia lost their basilica, and lost their monastery. They lost practically everything, in a few moments of shaking. They moved out to a property they owned on the mountainside overlooking Norcia, and started from scratch. But as Dom Benedict told me later, there was a hidden blessing in it. Their previous monastery was right in the center of town, on the piazza. They received lots of visitors. The noise of being in the center of things made the contemplative life more difficult. They did not realize how much they needed greater silence until the earthquake took their home and their church from them. God did not restore what they once had; rather, He gave them what they really needed. If they longed for a return to the old church, the old monastery, the old style of life in the town, they would still be in despair. They discovered, though, that they already had the things that were most important to them: their faith, the mass, the brotherhood, and the Rule.
It’s going to be like that with most of us too, one way or another. This is going to hurt. But if we allow it to be for our own purification, for tearing us down so it can build us up in faith, hope, and love, then it will have been a severe mercy.
One thing this crisis is making clear too is the lack of a hidden spiritual life in many of us. I am discovering how much I had come to treat the Sunday liturgy like a crutch, and allowed my daily spiritual life to fall slack. It’s not that I had ceased to pray, but that without realizing what was happening, I had allowed myself to get lazy, and to depend more than I should on the outward exercise of Sunday worship, instead of also cultivating daily prayer as I ought to have been doing.
One more thing on the hidden life. As you know, A Hidden Life is the name of Terrence Malick’s most recent film, based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic farmer martyred by the Nazis for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler, considered by him to be an Antichrist. I just checked, and it’s for rent for $5.99 on Amazon streaming. Now would be a great time to watch it with your family. Alan Jacobs wrote a beautiful essay about the film, focusing on how it demands patience. Excerpts:
Now that I have defined the words “martyr” and “passion,” I will define one more word. In the New Testament the word “mystery” refers to an event, or a reality, of overwhelming significance, but a significance that is either unstatable in words or altogether unknown. Thus St. Paul speaks of “the mystery of iniquity”—what in our more prosaic and insensible times we tend to call “the problem of evil.” In Paul’s view, to call iniquity a “problem” is to trivialize it beyond recognition. For one who believes not only in God but in the goodness and graciousness of God, iniquity is the profoundest of mysteries. One scarcely dares to speak of it at all, and nothing is more desperately to be avoided, on this subject, than glibness.
The story of Franz Jägerstätter, as told by Terrence Malick, is a Passion narrative; a narrative of a witness; a mystery.
There’s a good reason, then, why a scene early in the movie presents us with a lengthy meditation by an artist who is restoring the paintings on the walls of a local church. The temptation, he says, is to comfort—to give the people “a comfortable Christ.” Will he ever have the courage to show the people “the true Christ”? He thinks he might. Someday. I see this as a question Terrence Malick puts to himself: Can he, dare he, show us the Passion of a poor Christian who has taken up his cross and followed Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death? Can his imagination stretch from the staggering beauty of the Alpine valley where Franz and his wife Fani had hoped they would be high enough, distant enough, to be safe, to the horrors of Tegel prison and then the guillotine? Can he show us? Perhaps. Can he make us understand? No.
When Dom Benedict says that the hiddenness that is so emblematic of this virus, and the crisis it has brought about, can teach us to rediscover mystery, I think that this is what he means. We will not be able to understand why God has allowed this to happen. But it has happened, and God remains God. We must learn to seek God in the quietness of our own homes on Sunday mornings, and in the solitude of our hearts. When the preachers of the Word fall silent on Sundays, we must listen for His voice spoken in less obvious places, especially in the courageous, compassionate deeds of doctors, nurses, and medical workers. Don’t expect understanding. Who could possibly understand why a good God allows a disease like this to run rampant around the world. Theologians have their theodicies (explanations for why an all-powerful, all-good God permits evil and suffering), but who is really convinced by dry arguments, even if they are true? This is where faith comes in.
I’m thinking of Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Russian Orthodox Christian sent to the gulag by the Soviets in the 1970s, because of his faith. He suffered terrible tortures and deprivations there, but continued his evangelization among the inmates. One night, he suffered despair, overcome by his pain and brokenness. Why, he wondered, did God let this happen to him? That night, God sent him the first of a number of visions, which revealed to the agonized prisoner that because he (Ogorodnikov) was there in prison, telling death-row inmates about Jesus, some of those men — those who responded to the call of conversion — went to their deaths as believers, and were now with Christ in paradise. Those revelations made Ogorodnikov understand the hidden workings of the Spirit, through his suffering in his body.
You might ask: couldn’t God have done this some other way? Why did He have to put Ogorodnikov in prison to suffer for the sake of those death-row inmates? Well, you might as well ask why God had to take the form of a man, and suffer and die for the sake of all of us. It’s a mystery that we can explore, but can’t fully understand. We come to know that mystery not by sorting it out logically, but by taking it into our hearts, and living it, knowing by faith that God is present, God is with us, and will never abandon us.
God has been made manifest to us in church on Sundays for all of our lives — in the proclamation of His word, in the presence of the gathered communion of believers, and, for many of us, in the Eucharist. Now that has been taken from us for an indefinite period. Do we believe that God has also been taken from us? That His word has been stolen from us? That the communion with others in the Church has ceased to exist? Of course not! These things are hidden now. We are in the desert. God is there too. “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God,” says St. Benedict, in the prologue to his Rule. The light is hidden now within darkness, and absence. This is a mystery.
I can’t tell you anything more about it. But I can show you this passage from Terrence Malick’s film To The Wonder. The voice you hear is Javier Bardem’s; he plays Father Quintana, a priest who is having a deep crisis of faith, and is searching for the presence of God … and finding Him in the faces of the poor and suffering people he serves.