Jesus drew great crowds of people (e.g. Matt 4:25; 5:1) and those who were “afflicted with various diseases and pains,” he healed (4:24).
In these times, we are avoiding such crowds so as to avoid the spread of disease. Our way of life has been disrupted by this coronavirus epidemic. Yet still, Jesus Christ is our healer also in times like these.
Most of us have been forced by these circumstances into varying degrees of solitude. And there are some who find such solitude itself to be a kind of plague from which they seek deliverance. Some of us are more introverted and don’t mind being alone, but some of us are extroverted and draw our life’s energy from our relationships with others. For these people, these times are especially psychologically trying.
One of the most extroverted people I know lived for many years as a monk. Some people find this quite surprising. And they say to him, “Surely you know how to deal with the situation like this? You were a monk in a monastery for many years! You of all people should be prepared for this.” But he does not find himself at ease with this situation. He makes the excellent point that a monk lives in community with other monks. The word “monk” does come from the Greek word monos, which means “alone,” but only a hermit is truly alone. A hermit is a monk, but a monk is not necessarily or usually a hermit.
Every once in a great while a person will come to me, usually a young person, with the desire to be a hermit. This is usually a negative reaction to life in the world – primarily a desire to cut themselves off from the world that has given them so many problems, rather than a desire to unite more perfectly with God. They think, “If only I could be alone and away from other people, then I could grow in holiness.” I always observe to these young people that the vocation of a hermit is the rarest of vocations.
Hermits usually spend many years in a monastery before becoming hermits. It is usually only out of a monastery that one is called to radical solitude. Usually the monks that are called to it are quite elderly, with much experience of monasticism already. St. Basil the great even cautioned about the dangers of such solitude saying, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?” The new commandment of our Lord is to love one another as he loves us (John 13:34). And he washes feet (John 13:1-17). He serves others and is present to others – at least a good amount of time.
But he does also withdraw frequently into the wilderness in solitude for prayer (Luke 5:16). And he does also teach us not to pray on the street corners where we can be seen, but to go into our closets and close the door and pray in secret where only our Father can see us (Matt 6:5-6). To pray alone. To spend time alone with God. Perpetual solitude is the rarest vocation, but occasional solitude is a universal vocation – even if you don’t like it.
I do not believe that God is the author of any of evil. He does not make death he does not want us to suffer (Wisdom 1:13; 1 Thess 5:9). However, neither does he hesitate, when suffering comes into the world, to use it to bring about a greater good. I believe that a good he may be using this evil pandemic for, is to teach us all of our need for solitude with God.
There is of course no such thing as solitude without God. God is everywhere present and fills all things. So solitude is always really alone time with God. It can get quite uncomfortable without all of our comforting distractions. But this discomfort can teach us where we need to grow.
Now, for hopefully a short time, the whole world is experiencing what is ordinarily the rarest of vocation – just a taste of it, but this could be a significant experience for us
Today is the Sunday of St John Climacus. He is the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent – a book traditionally read every year during the Great Fast. That fact alone shows us how significant it is to our spirituality. It is a convicting book, with much to teach us about where we need to grow and how to do it. It is also a monastic book. This causes some to find it unhelpful. And, indeed, it would be unhelpful to apply all of it unthinkingly or too literally to our non-monastic lives. Very few of us are monks. And even fewer of us are hermits. But we are all one in the body of Christ, and we all have something to learn from the monks and from the hermits.
St John Climacus was a hermit for many years. While we’re getting a little taste of what it’s like to be a hermit, maybe we can learn something from a hermit. This would be a good time to read the Ladder. Even though we are not monks, maybe we can recognize that monasticism has something to teach the whole world.
One piece of practical wisdom we keep hearing during this time of staying at home, or at least I do, is that it is important to maintain a schedule even while we are in this radically disrupted way of life. It’s important for our psychological health. This is something the monks know very well – the importance of a schedule, especially for those living alone. Without any external worldly pressures to put life in order, we need the self-discipline of a schedule if we are to continue to flourish. First and foremost, this includes a schedule of prayer.
Each of us can have a simple rule of prayer we keep in our homes at all time. Too many of us have relegated Church to something we do at church, but not so much at home. This epidemic is an opportunity for us to give new life to our prayer corners in our homes, or to start to build a prayer corner if we don’t have one. Now is the time for the rebirth of the domestic Church.