Benedictine Wisdom On Living Through Crisis
April 28, 2020
As the reality of a global pandemic was sinking in for many of us in the United States, I was living in a monastic community in Erie, Pa., with five Benedictine sisters. In early March, I was having breakfast with Sister Carolyn, who is 80 years old, and her visiting 84-year-old brother. They told me about living through a scarlet fever epidemic in the 1940s. The two of them, six and 10 at the time, were quarantined in a hospital with dozens of other children all squeezed into large rooms. Their mother was back home caring for their two other siblings who had scarlet fever but to a lesser extent. Their father had to stay at his brother’s house because he was still working and had to keep his distance from his family. Sr. Carolyn still has the sign that was kept in the window at their house, that reads: “QUARANTINE.”
Both Sr. Carolyn and her brother agreed, it was terrifying. They were scared to be away from their parents for so long without knowing when or if they could return home. They ended up staying in the hospital for six weeks, and the memory is still alive today. But it is not only the memory of fear that persists in them, it’s also the feeling of living through the crisis and emerging on the other side of uncertainty.
For people who have lived through crises before, whether public health, economic or political, they are familiar with what crisis feels like and how to move through it. Learning from these memories of moving through crisis helps us. To those who are new to such events, I hope should have some sense of assurance that we have been here before. While this particular pandemic has its own challenges, one thing we do know is that there will be another side of this crisis.
This is one of the most significant gifts of the intergenerational friendships in my life: having a larger sense of time. Each of our spiritual and religious traditions have these stories and histories to learn from; and as I have learned, the Benedictine community is full of lessons for our own moment in time.
Sister Joan Chittister, another Erie Benedictine, has written extensively on this topic, most recently in an article entitled “Principles for a pandemic.” In it, she looks at the more than 1,500-year history of the Benedictine tradition, where it “has lived through every plague, epidemic and pandemic in the Western World: smallpox, the Black Death, cholera, yellow fever, the Spanish flu and HIV/AIDS to name a few.” While there is nothing specific in the Rule of Benedict about the ways to live through a pandemic, as Sr. Joan writes, “there are principles aplenty.” The basic truths of Benedictine life, in her words: “[begin] with a sterling spirituality, an abounding love of community and an incessant sense of personal responsibility that makes the undoable, doable always.”
These commitments to spiritual practice, community and collective responsibility have adapted from age to age, and culture to culture – helping monastic communities ride the waves of massive transformational moments. Our own time is no exception. We, too, desperately need to live out these values. Each one can help us live through this change and emerge on the other side more whole people and societies.
Spiritual practice, whether prayer, meditation, or sacred reading sustains our spirit and psyche. Community, through family care units or neighborhood grocery trip drop-offs, meet our material needs and nourish our bodies. Finally, collective responsibility, through mutual aid networks and other acts of solidarity, maintains the structures of service in our society so that we may come out of this rooted in a strong, cohesive web of relationships.
The stories from our elders and teachings from our traditions can provide us all a sense of stability and grounding, even in the midst of chaotic and ever-changing circumstances. To be connected to these memories opens up not just tokens of the past, but roadmaps for our futures.
In each of our communities, traditions or disciplines, there are stories and histories that have the potential to teach us about our collective future. What better time is there to turn to our elders and to learn about these traditions and histories, than right now?
Finally, in addition to revealing a way into the future, based in our past, Benedictines also offer a way of living in the present.
A recently re-aired ‘On Being’ interview with Benedictine Brother David Stendl-Rast reminded us of the practice of gratefulness. As Br. David shares, it is not about being grateful for everything, rather being grateful in every moment. His practice of gratefulness boils down to three words: “Stop, look, go.” As a society, we have essentially been stopped – for most of us, our busy lifestyles are on hold, and we’re paused at home. So now that we’ve slowed down, we need to notice the beauty or look for the opportunity of the moment… and step into whatever the moment asks of us: Go!
It reminds me of the poetry of Mary Lou Kownacki, another Erie Benedictine Sister. One of her mantras to end a poem with is a simple yet powerful question: “Is this not a miracle?” As we walk through this new reality, Benedictinism – and many wisdom traditions – can help us turn to the miracle in the moment, hang onto that piece of hope, and use it to build more beautiful possibilities.
Katie Gordon is a bridge-builder across traditions and generations. She is a national organizer with Nuns & Nones, an alliance of spiritually diverse millennials, women religious, and key partners working to create prophetic communities of contemplation and care that incite courageous action. She finds her spiritual home with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie PA, where she lives with the community and works with Monasteries of the Heart, an “online monastery” that translates monastic wisdom for contemporary seekers.
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