“Your garret is exactly like a cell in the desert.”
~ Saint John of Valamo
“Your whole purpose at this moment is to change yourself inwardly.”
~ Theophan the Recluse
These times are putting just about everyone to severe testing of mind and soul. Speaking for myself, because I must continue productively working and negotiating with this world, there’s no avoiding the challenge to hold a constructive course during this destructive pandemic. I’ve gratefully kept to my early-waking routines, as they continue being as sensible as they are achievable. The one difference is that I begin my days- whether weekdays or weekend days- about two hours earlier than I did before the pandemic. This is how I can run my errands without running into crowds. I also use the lengthened mornings to gather my thoughts and strengthen for the day. Smaller measures require greater efforts.
Winter reveille begins in complete darkness. My floorcreaking footsteps, filling bathtub, and coffee maker are the sole sounds in the apartment building. The street outside is completely silent. It was very rarely this quiet before a year ago. Emerging from vivifying hot water to the rest of my barely-heated apartment, dressed and caffeinating, I give myself some time for some reading and writing. Then, still at my desk, I give myself a digestible morsel of radio news. The everything-online world will have to wait until later. Despite quarantining, there must be sanctified time for musing. And often amidst the musing, radio notwithstanding, it strikes me that even the sunniest personalities have got to be feeling the misery of these times. Much like the ways we’ve each had to find for contending with the logistics of closures and contagions, individuals must find their own ways to live above the fray. It has become more vital than ever to be able to lift one’s own spirit above the snares of apathy and fear. And ennui. My expression for the big efforts needed to do small things is the overcoming of pandemic inertia. Correspondents tell me they get too tired to reply to messages. “Zoom fatigue” is an energy syphon most of us have experienced, as well as mind-numbing “social media burnout” as our exposure thresholds are traversed. Without easy solutions, especially as it concerns the ways many of us must stay employed, ironic as it may appear, my compensatory measure is inward solitude. Imagine needing a healthful refuge away from the friction of hyper-vigilance. Isolation and contemplative solitude are two very different things.
“The way to God is an inner journey accomplished in the mind and heart.”
~ Saint John of Valamo
Seeking refuge from social distancing will likely sound even stranger in several years than it does now. But there are as many good reasons to find sanctuary these days as there were before a year ago. For more than twenty years, my offsetting remedy against workplace burnout has been to take time off every six months as a healthful retreat. I was able to do this for an eight-day stretch in 2020, just weeks before everything had to shut down. Not being able to make pilgrimages and retreats since then- let alone any sort of traveling- has added a palpable strain to the existing tension of this era. To be sure, this does not compare with major hardships I’ve witnessed near, as well as far. Isolation need not obstruct viewing life in context. Perception greatly benefits by regularly retreating to environments conducive to uncensored thought, assuring stimuli, and promising scenery. Essentially, the soul can renew by retreating within, whether or not in a destination such as a mountaintop or a contemplative community. Within the constraints of existing public health regulations, joining the list of redefined words is that of respite. At the same time, the ancient directive echoed in The Cloud of Unknowing to be “nothing and nowhere” must be put to the test when one’s confines cannot change. The inward habitation of the attentive soul continues to be immediately at hand for an individual, no matter the physical venue. That “nothing and nowhere” is actually “anyone and anywhere.” Saint Teresa of Avila wrote about our metaphorical recesses as she described the Interior Castle, consisting of “dwelling places” of contemplation as the soul progresses from materialistic wishes to union with God. The Benedictine brothers at Weston Priory, whom I have been missing very much, refer to “entering the deeper rooms of our lives.” Travels to places of pilgrimage and community are surely beautiful and the comforts are sweet, but doing this became profoundly important to me because it has been greatly needed. Now, as since last February, sanctuary must be of my creating, applying what I have learned through my experiences.
“Cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you,
and surround yourself with everything which can feed it and fan it into a strong fire.
Your solitude must become more collected, your prayer deeper, and your meditation more forceful.”
~ Saint John of Valamo
Perhaps the inward motion for refuge is a form of escapism; maybe even more so than a physical pilgrimage travel. Is a willing isolation within a mandatory isolation excessive? I would say not, especially in the context of the inward turning of the heart to God in response to the pull of the Spirit. It is no more an escape than it is to submerge into extended silence in the midst of a community. It is at once worship, it is recognition, and it is the submission of one’s conscience. As to the latter aspect, the ancient Psalmist observed that it is through the innermost that wisdom can be made known*. Rather than an escapism, such contemplation is integral to the soul’s progress.
Along with the phenomenon of retreating into solitude within quarantine is the aspect of expansiveness through the interior life of the spirit, yet without a physical place to go. Indeed, to each their own adversities. Every one of us has stories. The closed-in life with its pressures, frustrations, and uncertainties easily lends to the stifling sense of having nowhere to turn. My journal entries are more frequent, but shorter than they were a year ago. Not only are present days more fractured, without having cafés as writing venues, my customary long entries are gone. Writing continues to be a place to which I can turn away from dead ends and bad news. Of course I write about such things that are on my mind, getting them out of the ways of my thoughts. In the desolation of these times. To avert the kind of closing-in that can easily happen in solitude, there must be plenty of thought-expanding reading. The quotes in this essay are from the Philokalia, whose volumes of austere monastic wisdom have accompanied me for many years. Never far from me, they are once again receiving my attention. Sturdy and time-honored written words, especially sacred writing, provide refuge for the outcast. Those who are barred from advancing their careers from territories east of Eden can yet belong to the Divine in devotional reading. Study and reflection are ways to sow in this wilderness, redeeming the time. Continuity in reading and careful note-taking amidst this crucible are just as much a consoling balm as before, but the act of faith is enhanced, looking forward to more writing and more in-person teaching. My notebooks have come to remind me of earth-cellars that preserve the roots of the philosophical works of my studies. While in the metaphorical underground, I’ve been digitizing the notebooks after I fill them. Similar to precarious employment and housing, all aspects of living run parallel lines of what I call the bubble provisional. This indefinite season lives in a passing world, forcing me to set my heart on the world that will never end.
* Psalm 51:6