April 2020

Viewing the coronavirus crisis through a Benedictine lens

The building of community is one of our major callings as Benedictine Oblates. During this pandemic, we must remove ourselves from the community to ensure its survival, writes Judith Valente.

A friend of mine describes the deadly coronavirus scourging the world as a “spiritual earthquake”. It’s tempting to think of the virus as some mad terrorist rampaging across the globe wreaking death and destruction wherever it goes. I prefer to think of this pandemic as a time of reawakening – a chance to take a hard look at our lives and re-evaluate what really matters. It is a call to live our Benedictine values of community, hospitality, listening, simplicity, prayer and praise in new and more profound ways.

So many passages in The Rule of St Benedict seem to carry fresh meaning. “Day by day remind yourself you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do,” St Benedict writes in the chapter on “The Tools for Good Works”. Normally, we breeze through our days oblivious to the fact that our lives will someday end. At a time when shopping at the supermarket can lead to contracting a deadly illness, how can we not think daily of our own mortality, of our inability to know “the day or the hour”.

The hours I spend now in silence and solitude compel me to confront the person I’ve been. The question that haunts me isn’t whether I wrote enough books, or won enough awards, or traveled to enough places. The main question for me now is, how much did I love?

I keep returning to a line from the chapter on “The Good Zeal of Monks”: “No one is to pursue what he judges best for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else.” The building of community is one of our major callings as Benedictine Oblates. This crisis calls for counter-intuitive measures. To foster community, we must self-isolate. We must remove ourselves from the community to ensure the community’s survival.

That means reinventing our practice of Benedictine hospitality, which calls us to “receive all guests as Christ”. It calls for replacing personal contact with various forms of virtual contact — through online meetings, phone conversations and text messages. These virtual means of communication can become a new form of “spiritual communion”.

One of St Benedict’s most visionary ideas was his emphasis on care of the sick. In the 6th century, he recognised health care as a basic human right. “This must rank above and before all else, he wrote, so that (the ill) may truly be served as Christ, who said: I was sick and you visited me.”

In the United States, where I live, the crisis has broken open the many cracks in a health care system where millions remain uninsured. It has underscored the terrible iniquity of a system where the poor and people of color in many areas are five times as likely to contract the virus.

I pray that this crisis will finally spur our nation to address not only the needs of the uninsured, but also the many underlying health problems, such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, that cause people of color to die at disproportionately higher rates.

In the chapter on “The Observance of Lent” St Benedict directs us to devote ourselves to “prayer with tears” and “compunction of heart”. I never really understood what that meant. Now I do – as I cry daily over the images of health care workers bravely putting their lives on the line to save others. Of coffins lined up in churches and warehouses awaiting a proper burial. Of family members grieving the loss of a parent, a spouse, a brother, a sister who died alone.

The closing of churches to prevent the spread of the virus has caused me to reflect anew on the meaning of church. It is a word that has its grounding in the Latin ecclesia and the Greek ekklesia. Both mean to call out. It is a reminder that church isn’t merely a building. It is a state of mind that calls us out of ourselves to a recognition that we are part of something vaster, more mysterious and more significant. The earth is our church. The people around us are our church.

I have also pondered the meaning of sacrament. In the Catholic tradition, we tend to think of sacraments as rituals mediated by ordained clergy. The church teaches that sacraments are meant to reflect in a tangible way God’s grace in the world.  If ever there was a time when we needed to become sacrament for each other — visible, human signs of God’s grace – it is now.

The Rule offers clear guidance on how to be those signs: “You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love … Speak the truth with heart and tongue.”

In short, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way. The love of Christ must come before all else.”

I am grateful for the many messages of hope I receive from both friends and strangers. Many of those messages echo the spirit of The Rule. A Zen teacher urged on Facebook, “Remember to meditate for the whole world and every sentient being. Every single act of kindness and compassion through deeds or prayer will bring hope and peace.”

An Oblate friend shared a conversation she had with her husband. “Embrace your life,” her husband had said. “Be grateful. There is something beautiful in every moment, even if it’s simple and small — the chair you’re sitting in; the plaid shirt you’re wearing; the glint of sun coming through the window. Breathe in and notice how wonderful it feels going in and going down … Any pleasure you have right now is good.”

My friend’s husband is correct. Right now is good — even if the world seems perilous, our future uncertain, and our fear at times overwhelming. Our Benedictine commitment to prayer and praise calls us to seek, even in dark times, moments, of beauty and grace. The place where we are to “toil faithfully at all these tasks,” The Rule reminds us, is the crucible of the world. It is the place too where we are to “never lose hope in God’s mercy”.


Judith Valente

Judith Valente is an American broadcast and print journalist, and author, most recently of 'How To Live: What The Rule of St Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community'. She lives in Normal, Illinois, in the US and is an Oblate of Mount St Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. Her website is www.judithvalente.com

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