Monastic Tips for Self-Isolation
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.
There were three friends … and the first chose to reconcile those who were fighting against each other, as it is said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ The second chose to visit the sick. The third went to live in prayer and stillness in the desert.
Now in spite of all his labours, the first could not make peace in all men’s quarrels, and in his sorrow he went to the one who was serving the sick and found him also disheartened.
So they went to see the one who was living in stillness and prayer and told him their difficulties. After a short silence he poured water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water’, and it was disturbed. After a while he said ‘Look again’, and they could see their faces reflected in the still water.
Then he said, ‘It is the same for those who live among men; disturbance prevents them from seeing their faults; but when a man is still, then he sees his failings.’
Daily Readings with the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, SLG, p. 71
One thousand years before Christ, the Prophet-King David sent out a calming word over the ages, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). When I was a child, I was delighted to shake up a snow globe and see the snow falling on a Christmas scene. I couldn’t see much until I set it down and let it all gently settle. In the stillness, it was clear.
The most oft-quoted portion of the Sermon on the Mount is called the ‘Beatitudes.’ Before our Lord Jesus Christ says ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, He says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ (Mt. 5:8-9). A pure heart is like a clear stream. One of my favorite spots on Mt. Athos is looking 500 feet down from Grigoriou monastery to the sea below. It is so clear you can see the fish swimming. Clear hearts enable clear perspective.
In another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows us how essential it is to deal with our own issues before being effective in helping others. He says,
Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Mt. 7:3-5)
The humor of this scene is so obvious, but we forget it. With a log in our eye, we are trying to help remove a speck from our brother! Duh! We need a bit of self-reflection! But how can we remove the log?
One of the most timeless ways to let the ‘snow flakes settle in our snow globes’ is called the Jesus Prayer. It is very powerful but most calming. On Mt. Athos, I was taught it in the same way as in the Way of the Pilgrim, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Another common version is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (patterned after the publican in Luke 18:13). If you will take ten to fifteen minutes to start, find a quiet place and gently repeat the prayer, talking to Jesus from your heart, great benefit will come. It is also recommended to find someone who is experienced in the prayer, whose life you respect, with whom you can share experiences from your prayer life.
An early Christian bishop, who wrote the most commonly served Liturgy, was St. John Chrysostom. He also gave us some valuable tips on gaining a pure, clear heart with the Jesus Prayer.
The remembrance of the name of Jesus rouses the enemy to battle. For a soul that forces itself to pray the Prayer of Jesus can find anything by this prayer, both good and evil. First it can see evil in the recesses of its own heart, and afterwards good. This prayer can stir the snake to action, and this prayer can lay it low. This prayer can expose the sin that is living in us, and this prayer can eradicate it. This prayer can stir up in the heart all the power of the enemy, and this prayer can conquer it and gradually root it out. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it descends into the depths of the heart, will subdue the snake which controls its ranges, and will save and quicken the soul. Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus that the heart may swallow the Lord and the Lord the heart, and that these two may be one. However, this is not accomplished in a single day, nor in two days, but requires many years and much time. Much time and labor are needed in order to expel the enemy and instate Christ.
Letter to Monks (Patrologia Graeca 60, p. 753)
So, do you have to become a monk or stop helping the poor or stop seeking to reconcile people to achieve silence? No. Each of us has a path to which we are called. As a matter of fact, there is a wonderful story about St. Anthony, the father of monastics, that speaks to this very point.
It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang [Holy, Holy, Holy] with the angels.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, B. Ward, SLG, p. 6
In this time of trouble and affliction, this doctor shows us the way: Caring for the needs of the sick, remembering the poor, but all of this flowing from his contact with the Lord and His Kingdom. May His Holy Name give you peace and guide you to a clear and still heart.