By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Luke begins his account of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah with a rather curious phrase: “Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’” (Luke 9:18). Those who already know the answer might gloss over the sheer oddity of the opening sentence. Read it again, slowly. How can Jesus be “praying in solitude” while the disciples are with him?
Luke tells us that Jesus was praying kata monas — by his lonesome, solitary. The Greek word monas, naturally, supplies the root for not only words such as monotheism and monogamy, but also monk, monastery, and monastic. In the paradoxical notion that Jesus surrounds himself with his disciples while he prays alone, Luke offers us the blueprint for the monastic life. Each person is a monachos, a solitary individual, yet has voluntarily committed himself to searching for the face of God with brothers who dress like him, and share his life of prayer, meals, and ministry.
This definition of the monastic life is especially helpful to ponder during a time of quarantine. In fact, the constraints of sheltering in place have created lay monasteries in homes throughout the world, even those in which silence-busting babies live! The enforced solitude can, if we allow it, provide us with opportunities for prayer, however removed we are from the physical sacraments. In a paradoxical way, these strange days also afford us the chance to reflect on our need to share our joys and sorrows with others, and to find creative ways of doing so.
As you may have heard, our monastery has been hit rather hard by the COVID-19 virus. With Luke 9:18 as my theological backdrop, I thought you might enjoy a few musings of mine on our heightened solitude in community. In his Rule, still the standard inspiration for our monastic life, St. Benedict stresses the essential beauty of tending those monks who are ill. Chapter 36 of the Rule, titled “On Sick Brethren,” begins in the following way: “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said, ‘I was sick and you visited me’ (Matthew 25:36), and ‘What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40).”
As one of the brothers who tested positive for COVID-19, I am confined to my room for two blessed weeks of splendid isolation. Fr. Ignatius, my novice mate, has been assigned to bring meals to me, and tend to any needs I might have. He left at my door all the essential items I need to celebrate Mass in my room, and has thus far not expressed any annoyance at my requests; in fact, he better not, since I could point to the Rule and remind him that he’s supposed to think of me as Christ right now!
Although we cannot gather together in the church at present, the bell still rings throughout the day to remind us of each time of prayer, and I have found particular solace in the structure of the Liturgy of the Hours: no matter where you are in the world, some monk, nun, priest or lay person is praying those exact psalms that you are at every hour of the day! The regularity of our common prayer helps me to maintain a necessary daily structure during my solitude.
In spite of our physical separation, we manage to bear one another’s burdens in creative ways. Putting the blessings of technology to good monastic use, we have become adept at Zoom video chats, both for community discussions and for individual meetings. Especially when we might be prone to indulge our anxiousness at the current situation, our monastic brotherhood is a constant reminder that we are never alone, and that immense graces are to be found in imitation of our solitary Lord’s fellowship with his disciples.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.