By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
“A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” – Sayings of the Desert Fathers
For the past eight weeks, it sometimes seems as though I’ve been conscripted (along with 700,000 other Alaskans) into an old school retreat under the direction of the Governor and his public health director, Dr. Ann Zink. I’m not sure that they would consider themselves retreat directors. Still, nonetheless, since the middle of March, they have provided us retreatants daily conferences, a rigorous regimen of spiritual exercises (Stay home! Maintain six feet distance from others! Wash your hands! Wear a mask! Don’t touch your face!) and plenty of unstructured time and the solitude to ponder the big philosophical and spiritual questions.
For those of us who aren’t working full-time as essential workers (God bless every one of them!), the shutdown has opened a lot of time for those of us sheltering in place, even if we are working from home and caring for our children or grandchildren. People in our community and around the country have found creative ways to fill their days. Some are sewing cloth face masks for our healthcare workers and each other. Others are gardening, taking up envelope-and-stamp letter writing, learning a new skill like bread baking or a new language, finally getting around to reading “Middlemarch” or “Anna Karenina,” and spending hours on social media.
Despite not choosing any of this, we’re embracing the “new normal” as our necessary part in “flattening the curve” of the spread of the virus and protecting our most vulnerable neighbors from a pandemic that has already claimed some 75,000 dead nationwide (as of May 9th). But I’ve been pondering how this period of isolation and separation, (even from each other in the celebration of the Eucharist) might not be something to simply put up with or get through, but as an opportunity to grow spiritually as unique as the moment we all find ourselves living through.
By suggesting that this time might be an opportunity for spiritual growth, I don’t mean to make light of the truly tragic circumstances so many of our brothers and sisters are living through. But we live the spiritual life amid history as it unfolds and are called, as St. Ignatius of Loyola taught his followers, “to find God in all things.”
In particular, I’ve been thinking of how this time might be an opportunity to make friends with solitude. I know that Jesus spent time alone from his public commitments (the crowds) and from his closest friends and family members (the disciples) to pray in solitude in deserted places. What freedom Jesus had, what discipline, what a surrendered heart!
Yet I struggle to accept his invitation to draw closer to the Father in solitude. Every day is a struggle to put into practice Jesus’ command to go into your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. [Mt.6:6]. But in this new normal, what might have seemed ideal to strive for as I look for ways to schedule time alone with God in prayer into my busy routine has now become an actual, daily possibility while sheltering-in-place.
Circumstances have opened the door to the inner room and the invitation is there to cross that threshold and spend prolonged time alone with God. The starting point, at least for me, has been to make friends with solitude, with time spent alone. For me, this has had two requirements and four graces: silence that is present, not absence, patience with distraction, an unshakable sense of communion, and fervent intercession.
The first requirement is simple: a place to be silent and alone. A room of one’s own is nice but not essential. A chair in the living room before or after other people in your life wake up or go to bed—a place to sit in the yard or the porch. Out in the car, preferably looking at something other than the garage door.
The second requirement is a bit more challenging but not insurmountable: establish a rule of prayer. Pick a method of prayer to start with that is not too complex, but that is personally a good fit and that can be done every day. (For me as a deacon that’s the Liturgy of the Hours). The rosary, Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer are all good: the critical thing is settling on a way of prayer and stick to it.
The graces are simple but indispensable. Since they are graces, they can’t simply be summoned up at will, but I can ask God for them.
The first grace to ask for is to experience silence and solitude, not as absence and emptiness, but as the experience of God’s living and loving presence. I want to make friends with solitude and silence, not for their own sake, but because that is where Jesus encountered his Father.
The second grace to ask for is patience with distraction in prayer. It’s inevitable. I find distractions discouraging, because I’m embarrassed that my attention span is so short, and my thoughts are so undisciplined. Same with falling asleep, which happens from time to time. But if God can somehow be patient with my limitations, I suppose I should too.
The third grace to ask for is for an unshakable conviction that whenever I spend time alone with God, I am doing so in communion with Mary, all the angels and saints and with the entire Church, past, present and future. Being alone in solitude doesn’t mean being separated from those I love and who love me. Their support in prayer is a profound consolation.
Finally, the fourth grace to ask for is for fervent intercession. Solitude in prayer is an opportunity for me to call to mind those who need prayer and to pray for them (unworthy as I am). What works for me is to start with the daily intercessions from the Divine Office and then consult the list I’ve made of those I need to pray for or who have asked me to pray for them.
So while I look forward with longing when we will all be together again, in person, at the table of the Lord, I’m grateful for the opportunity to become better acquainted with solitude and to spend more time in the “inner room” Jesus directs us into. May my ‘cell’ teach me all that I need to know.