Monastic Tips for Self-Isolation
Prayer and work
The entire world is experiencing the impact of COVID-19, the Novel Corona Virus pandemic. It is commonly said that one of the Chinese words for crisis can be interpreted as opportunity. With the limiting of so many being able to go out, we invite you to discover the opportunity to go in. To go in to the place of the heart. Over the coming days, we will be posting wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church regarding the values to be found from times of silence, solitude, and reflection.
A common experience of being alone with ourselves is a feeling of restlessness and at other times boredom. This was also experienced by the holy ones of old. In beginning to pray, the advice of the ancient ones was to creatively balance prayer and work.
Many forms of prayer are found in the prayer books. To pray from the written prayers at specific times has been a tested practice from the time of King David of Israel when he wrote, “seven times a day do I praise Thee.” Psalm 118(119):164. This became the “Hours”, where every three hours many Christians stop to pray. cf. Acts 3:1; 10:2-3; 9. The source for many of these prayers is the Psalter, the Book of Psalms. This was eventually combined with spiritual reading --beneficial reading that can enlighten and inspire us.
Another form of prayer is the single-phrase prayer. The most enduring has been calling upon the Name of the Lord. The expression most often found upon Mt. Athos is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The other widely used is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (cf. St. Luke 18:7, 13, 38; Rom. 10:13) When a soul from the heart begins to call continuously upon the Lord, deep changes occur within the inner life. We call this the "Jesus Prayer."
Nevertheless, especially in our time, there is the “passion of distraction”, as St. John of Kronstadt referred to it. As a result, the advice of Abba Lucius, St. Benedict and St. Antony below, is very relevant. They recommend handwork or purposeful activity that we can do while praying. This brings a sense of integration between the inner and the outer.
Some monks came to see Abba Lucius and they said to him, ‘We do not work with our hands; we obey Paul’s command and pray without ceasing.’ The [elder] said, ‘Do you not eat or sleep?’ They said, ‘Yes, we do.’ He said, ‘Who prays for you while you are asleep? … Excuse me, brothers, but you do not practice what you claim. I will show you how I pray without ceasing, though I work with my hands.’
‘With God’s help, I collect a few palm-leaves and sit down and weave them, saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness; according to the multitude of Thy mercies do away with mine offenses.”’ He said to them, ‘Is this prayer or not?’ ‘They said, ‘Yes, it is.’
And he continued, ‘When I have worked and prayed in my heart all day, I make about sixteen pence. Two of these I put outside my door and with the rest I buy food. And he who finds the two coins outside the door prays for me while I eat and sleep. And so by the help of God I pray without ceasing.’
Daily Readings with the Desert Fathers, p. 61.
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. The brethren, therefore, must be occupied at stated hours in manual labour, and again at other hours in sacred reading.
Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 48: Of the Daily Manual Labour
When the holy Abba Antony was living in the desert he was overwhelmed by boredom, and bothered by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, ‘Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?’ A little while afterwards, Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to teach and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage, and so he did this and was saved.
Saint Antony: His Life and Sayings; Monastery of St. Antony, Red Sea, Egypt 2010
It is rare for someone in these times to have palm branches, of course. But a time of isolation is a great opportunity to do some cleaning, baking, or a neglected project. When combined with the Jesus Prayer, it can bring great benefit to the soul. Not all work is conducive to inner prayer at the same time. Even then, if you start it with the simple request, “Bless, O Lord!” and make the sign of the Cross, it becomes a form of prayer. As you dedicate your work to God and the good of your household, family, community or those in need, the love you express in the labor will carry the
blessing of the Lord