I recently read an article by a religious sister in the US who pointed out that she had been “self-isolating” for 29 years very happily, sometimes not leaving her Community’s grounds for months at a time. As the pressure grows for ordinary citizens in this country to “self-isolate”, especially if they are over a certain age or have underlying health conditions, there is a tendency for secondary panic to set in, after the primary anxiety of not wanting to fall ill: this is the frightening question, how will I cope with enforced lack of social activities outside the house for the foreseeable future?
Some people, more self-contained or with more inner resources, will be better able to cope than others. But perhaps we Christians could do with a little more “silence” in our lives. I say that because I have been reading a profound book by Fr Donald Haggerty, Contemplative Enigmas: Insights and Aid on the Path to Deeper Prayer (Ignatius Press). It is addressed to laypeople: all those who would like to have a closer relationship to Christ in prayer but who are perhaps lost in a preliminary stage of petitionary prayer and who have forgotten what true spiritual “silence” means.
As Fr Haggerty suggests, our society, with or without the coronavirus scare, is not attuned to silence in the way that our forebears, before modern technology got going, understood it. Indeed, a world without computers and smartphones and the social media that comes with it, is scarcely imaginable to us. Yet “One can guess that no-one mentally slavish to a smartphone or a computer screen can have much patience for the attentive silence that alone can foster a deeper life of prayer” he notes.
But his book is not about attacking modern society’s dependence on, even addiction to, technology to communicate with others. It is simply an invitation to those who long for it, to come to understand the means to a more satisfying and enriched prayer-life. And presumably we all want this goal even if we haven’t articulated it; if we are made for God, as St Augustine memorably reminds us then presumably we yearn to talk to Him trustfully and confidingly.
This form of deep prayer is not just about us and our own spiritual growth. As Fr Haggerty emphasises, prayer is a love relationship – and true love is always concerned about others. During this coronavirus pandemic, it is heartening to note that people are more concerned about their neighbours’ wellbeing than in normal times. But Christian charity will always concern the soul as much as the body. “Our own small sufferings disappear in the dust stirring near the cross. In looking up, nothing keeps us from hearing the cry of thirst for the lost souls of the present day.”
That phrase, “lost souls” strikes terror – for Christians understand, as non-religious people don’t, what it actually means to be a “lost soul.” That is why Mother Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta, (Kolkata) took as the motto for her Order, the Missionaries of Charity, the words “I thirst”, made by Jesus on the Cross. It is that divine cry or appeal that keeps the Missionaries of Charity (among whom Fr Haggerty has volunteered for many years) focused on their relentlessly demanding but loving daily task of looking after the “poorest of the poor” as Mother Teresa described them.
So why read this book at all? Because in a time of enforced leisure or home isolation, such as we are being asked to undergo by our Government, we people of faith have the opportunity – without excuses – to think, to ponder, to pray and to explore more seriously what really matters to us in life: not all those home repairs and tasks that we have put off for a “rainy day” but what our true goals are and what we value most. Read it and see if it changes you.