The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to slow down and spend more time together. Here are some ways we can make the most of it.
That was the advice of contemplative monks and nuns — people who seldom leave their home, following age-old traditions of withdrawing from the world for a life of prayer.
“We strive to live in habitual companionship with God, which some call ‘recollection’ or the ‘practice of the presence of God,'” a monk who wished to remain anonymous told Aleteia. “And that practice actually draws us closer to each other, even if our bodies are far apart. Since God is the source and end of each of us, we can only draw closer to each other by drawing closer to him.”
In explaining this concept, the monk suggested: “Think of lines emanating from a point. They can only get closer to each other where they are closer to the point.”
Another contemplative, Sr. Sophie Marie of the Sisters of Mary Morning Star in Monona, Wisconsin, echoed that image, saying that someone once explained it to her as the rays of the sun. When those rays are closest to the sun, they are also closest to one another.
Sr. Sophie Marie offered practical advice on how families with more time now and living in greater proximity to one another can draw closer to God.
“Don’t give into the temptation to just veg out — on your computer or your phone or your TV. St. Thomas Aquinas says that our intelligence is what is most like unto God. It’s really the greatest gift he’s given us on a natural level,” she said in an interview. “This is really a time that if people just sit in front of their TVs or their phones and try to fill this void by passively receiving whatever the media decides to give it, that’s unfortunate because our intelligence is like a blank slate. … Most Americans say they’re too busy or don’t have a lot of time, but here, with a lot of extra activities cut down — no kids sports, etc. — we have a lot more of this precious gift. So it could be a way that people put the precious gift of their intelligence and the gift of having more time together and use it to go deeper in their knowledge of God.”
The anonymous monk agreed: “It seems to me that much of the disturbance of society today is a result of the constant stream of noise pollution (aka ‘news’) and social media overload that doesn’t allow any silence or reflection which are so necessary for prayer … and just plain sanity,” he said. “The present circumstance is a golden opportunity, provided by God’s great mercy, for us to learn more about ourselves as the image of God — something that is more inside us than outside.”
To that end, Sr. Sophie Marie encourages Scripture reading, especially the Gospels. “In the Gospel of St. John, it says the Word is the true light, which enlightens every man,” she said.
Like other contemplatives, Sr. Sophie Marie also encouraged families to take up the prayer of the Rosary, “especially now, with the fact that we’re living through a difficult crisis.” She recommended reading St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort’s Secrets of the Rosary to come to an appreciation of how powerful the prayer is. “So many things in the history of the Church have been won or healed by praying the Rosary,” she said, citing plagues, wars and invasions. She herself grew up near the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin, where the Blessed Mother appeared to a woman in the 19th century. Sr. Sophie Marie is familiar with the history of a devastating wildfire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, when local people took refuge at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help and spent a night going around the property of the church on their knees praying the Rosary. “The fire went around them,” she said. “The next day, the outside of the wooden fence posts were charred and the inside was still painted.”
“So find a time to come together as a family,” she advised. “Maybe start a new tradition if you haven’t done that yet. ‘We don’t have karate practice or whatever, so we do have time for the Rosary.'”
But is there a way to avoid “vegging out” without necessarily spending all of one’s time in intellectual and spiritual activity? There is a happy medium, Sr. Sophie Marie says, and families can find enjoyable things to do, alone or together, that are both relaxing and edifying.
“Get outside. Smell the fresh air,” she said, offering an example from her own personal experience. “When my dad and sister come to visit, we do what we call ‘cardinal walks.’ We walk around the neighborhood and listen for cardinals and try to find where they are. It’s really simple but it’s a great source of joy. Just find ways to enjoy the simple things of life.” Families can go for a walk together and have a theme, such as “Let’s find this, or let’s find that,” she suggested. It’s a good way to train the mind to be aware of one’s surroundings and the array of elements in God’s creation, much of which is overlooked in our everyday lives.
“It’s very important for our human person, especially in our fight against anxiety, to use our five senses,” Sr. Sophie Marie counseled. “It’s very good for us to taste, smell, hear, see and touch. So any type of yard work, going for a walk. Everybody knows how I love it when someone is burning something, like a campfire.”
Cooking together as a family is another alternative, especially now that many restaurants are closed. And this too can be a way to exercise the senses — to “taste real food again,” she said.
Sr. Mary Grace of the Carmelite Nuns of Our Lady of Grace in Christoval, Texas, said that she and her sisters “take turns planning what we will do. That might work for families. Maybe after a day of work or study at home, a different member of the family could plan some fun thing to do each evening.
“Watching a good movie, like ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ might be good, especially this season” of Lent, Sr. Mary Grace suggested.
One element of living together is almost inevitable, and that is conflict.
“Parents with families suddenly confined to home may find themselves wondering: ‘What will we do all day? For weeks?'” said Sr. Aleydis Johnson of the Valley of Our Lady Cistercian Monastery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. She acknowledged that parents might be tempted to keep kids constantly busy in order to ward off fights. But, she said, conflict can be a way of discovering underlying issues and should not necessarily be feared.
“Maybe this conflict will tell us something about our self, and about our family, that we don’t want to know,” she said. “Monastic life, with its emphasis on separation from the world, silence, stillness, and simplicity repeatedly brings us face to face with our own sins, defects, and wounds and those of the others with whom we live all day, every day. … I think members of families, particularly parents, might experience a temptation to forestall the rumblings or eruptions of conflict through a tempest of activity and we encourage them to resist. Conflict, internal and external, is a message-bearer that you ignore or silence at great expense to yourself and your family. One of conflict’s messages is: ‘You do not know how to love. Love is hard and you are weak. You are poor in what matters most.’”
That message can be “cleansing and redeeming,” Sr. Aleydis said, “because Christ came to restore and transform the ill, the blind, the lame, the poor; those who can’t get it right or make it right; those who can’t save themselves or anyone else. Conflict offers an incomparable opportunity to learn, to heal, to love. When we run from conflict we run from our own poverty and the possibility of being made rich in Christ.”
“So, instead of focusing your efforts on keeping it at bay through an array of neutralizing activity, or retreat, we’d suggest lavishing your attention and availability on one another, simply being together, in one another’s company, without lists of things to do, getting to know one another as persons who can be filled with the fullness of God in order to empty it out onto one another.”
In addition, Sr. Sophie Marie would counsel having a “balance of togetherness and also times of solitude.”
“We have to be prudent about not spending 24/7 together, … knowing how to give yourself some breathing space,” she said. “That’s a basic human thing.”
“So much good can come of this situation,” said Sr. Sophie Marie. “People have been too busy to go to Mass. People going out to eat with one another and staring at their phones. If this whole thing makes us less busy, slow down and see what’s essential, in the big plan, God can allow these kinds of things to draw us back closer to himself.”
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