Life under lockdown: How monks and nuns find liberation in isolation

April 28, 2020

Source: CBC

The Orthodox Hermitage of the Holy Annunciation sits on an old hilltop farmstead overlooking the LaHave River near New Germany, N.S. Three monks live inside.

"Monastics are not naturally drawn to self-isolation and social distancing. It might be a bit of a misnomer out there that we're anti-social," says Father Nathaniel, who like others at the hermitage goes by one name. "The truth is the opposite: we're very social. It's just with the bigger society out there — we've found something better."

Father Jean-Baptiste agrees. Five years ago, he lived in a nice house overlooking Halifax harbour and had a good job. But he felt called to isolation and followed that into a monastic life. For him, it was about embracing a richer and deeper existence.

"I tasted something that was so much greater — a love, a peace of God that I felt," he says. "Monks are like naive teenage lovers: we just jump right in and follow that hope that we felt."

He says that deliberate entrance into isolation differs greatly from the unwanted COVID lockdown around the world. But he believes unordained people can also embark upon "the last adventure humankind can do."

"That adventure is not going around and finding entertainment, finding distractions, but it's putting aside all the ambitions we have, putting aside all the possessiveness of the world; no longer being a slave to that, but becoming a true hobo, a true wanderer," Jean-Baptise says.

Spiritual growth in alone time

He notes they are isolated from the wider world, but not from each other: a situation many families and roommates are now experiencing. He says living together in close quarters is actually one of the hardest parts of monastic life — not the isolation.

"And this is where people will learn they're not maybe as perfect as they thought they were," Nathaniel says. "They're going to annoy other people and it's going to be their fault, and they're going to have to ask for forgiveness. And this is going to be good, if we can all manage that. I'm not perfect and neither are you, and that's OK."

While many of us experience lockdown as a loss — loss of work, of school, of socializing, of parks — the secret is to focus on the potential gain, the monks say.

"In my experience, spiritual growth has only ever happened in alone time. It's never happened for me in a larger social group," Nathaniel says. "I would say this is a perfect time for people to go inward a little bit and do some spiritual searching. This is precisely the situation where something like this can get done very meaningfully."

To do that, they recommend creating a "sacred" space in your home: a corner where you go to choose isolation, even during lockdown, and use it to pray or meditate. Live here and now, not in a mourned past or an imagined future.

"That means to resolve that we're in isolation now. We have that horrible pandemic. Some of us are laid off or there isn't even work to go to at the moment. We are at home," Jean-Baptiste says. "It's self-abandonment. You're abandoning yourself to the situation at hand and living in the present."