Isolation is hard. There is a strange paradox in the isolation and distancing of our present moment. Am I isolating and distancing myself simply because the State tells me to do so? While the civil authorities are right to tell me this to slow the COVID-19 spread, do I only seek to be an obedient citizen as I rightfully should be?
No, I do this because I am a human being and I am hard-wired to help and aid others. I implicitly recognize in them the same dignity that I bear. I want them to be safe, secure, and healthy just as I desire this for myself. I want to help them. I cry out “Lord have mercy!” for those whom I don’t know but whose human flesh I share, who are seriously ill and dying without family and friends.
Simply put, I love them. I distance and isolate myself out of love—a strange paradox indeed. As a Christian, I am trying to understand what this time of affliction means. What is God asking of me as I strive to understand a more distanced and isolated life, yet one that through technology offers me a sort of closeness?
There was a time when I considered a monastic vocation and wondered whether it would be the fulfilment that I sought in my desire to live a religious life. Even though there is probably 45 per cent of me that would be very happy as a monk, it has never been more than that. The life of a hermit has never attracted me; it is a unique vocation among those who discern a call to religious life. In fact, unique is too euphemistic: it is probably one of the most radical of all vocations. To live a solitary life, to eschew regular human contact to grow in holiness through strict asceticism and unceasing prayer requires a level of kenosis, of self-emptying of which few of us are capable or for that matter called to embrace.
Yet, even the solitary is connected with a community, often a nearby monastery where he or she can regularly gather with others to celebrate the great feasts of the Church such as Easter and Christmas. The 4th century Life of Antony written by St. Athanasius of Alexandra presents the reader with the life of St. Anthony the Great, one of the principal founders of the monastic tradition.
St. Anthony for much of his mature life lived as an anchorite, a solitary bound to one place such as a cave or a hilltop, where he worked out his salvation through ascetical labours and in doing so achieved union with Christ -the goal of all of us who live the Christian life. Yet, St. Anthony even in his life of solitude was never alone: he had disciples who would come to him and he interacted with the local church.
Isolation is never total. We are never alone. I am not nor likely ever will be a hermit. I have always desired and lived a communal life, and even as a celibate deacon who lives alone, I need community; I need the regular physical presence of others, of friends and family. Their love for me displayed through smiles, laughter, slaps on the back, a warm hug, a kiss on the cheek, or just their simple quiet presence in a house, cements community. For the Christian the love of others reveals the infinitely deeper, unfathomably deep love of Christ in whose image and likeness we are made.
In our present day, the level of isolation that we experience is unprecedented for most of us. For some it means isolation at home with family or housemates with all of the joys and struggles that brings. St. Albert the Great, in remarking on communal life, stated that “Our greatest penance is the brethren.” So, take heart, frustrated wives and husbands. Take heart teenagers and 20-something youths whose eyes are now permanently rolled back in your heads at seemingly incessant parental nagging. Believe it or not, it’s your salvation that is being worked out. You are being called to love as Christ loves us.
We are all slowing down in these times and we are being blessed with renewed opportunities through seeming isolation to rediscover genuine human community shorn of the façade of Facebook friendship and disembodied social media relationships. These are useful tools to be sure when we use them in an ordered way recognizing their limitations. They are no substitute for close human community.
Give me the flesh and blood of human interaction. Give me the messiness of close community. Give me the love that it demands. For now, as I am asked to forego physical contact with those whom I love and who love me, I am asked to be content with the pixilated face, the virtual hug, the virtual back slap. Yet, still I am growing in love. That is what God is asking of me in this moment. I am called to love. And when this time is over, and we come back together may we deepen and strengthen our relationships and our communities for love’s sake and for the life of the world.