By Dustin Hungerford
When the 2019-2020 seminary year at St. Meinrad started, I don’t think any of us had an inkling that it would be very different from any other year. The seminary schedule is concretely fixed (as if Moses gave it personally to the monks of St. Benedict!).
We have morning prayer at 8, classes until 11:15, Mass at 11:30, lunch, afternoon classes, evening prayer at 5, then various meetings after that. On Wednesdays, after morning Mass at 8, we head to ministry. Each day is full. You get so used to the rhythm, it can be hard to know which week or month it is — pray, study, minister, repeat. That is, until COVID happened.
The world as we knew it screeched to a halt. People were scared, sick and dying. Masses were canceled, school suspended, workers furloughed. Even on this Holy Hill, so often removed from the outside world, we were not exempt. As the pandemic unfolded, a real sense of uncertainty descended on us. Would our families be safe? What if they got sick? What if we got sick? Would we be able to continue the year? Would our lay teachers be ok? Would our co-workers still have jobs? Like everyone else, we lived in a time of uneasiness.
Then the day came, March 17, 2020. The seminary suspended the semester. Students had four days to decide to go back to their dioceses or stay and enter a life of quarantine. No time for long farewells, no time to send our deacons off with a proper celebration, like so many others in the world, time was short. On Saturday, March 21, 46 seminarians, including myself, entered the life of cloister and quarantine.
Strict isolation, parts of the school were off-limits, no trips off the hill, no quick stops at the grocery or CVS, classes continued online and the schedule was paired down.
In some ways, it felt like the beginning of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” but after a few days, we began to discover something else. When the endless distractions of life, even here, were removed, the depth of community that exists here at St. Meinrad was revealed.
Like a cosmic emergency brake, the pandemic stopped us in our tracks, but it forced us to pause, look around and reevaluate what was really important. How often during the humdrum of the regular school year had we put off visits home because of some paper or exam? How often had we rushed through daytime prayer so we could get to lunch? How many times had we passed that quiet little niche to the Virgin Mary with barely a glance? The life of cloister meant we had only each other and God to set our eyes on.
Perhaps, in all this suffering, the Lord offers us a moment of grace, a moment to stop, whether here on this blessed hill or there, in the world amid all the stress of bills and work, to see what really matters. I think we will discover that it is each other that we miss the most. I didn’t hurt over not being able to go to the grocery or the movies. I missed my family. I missed the faces of my best friends, the rowdy voices of my nephews, the complaining of my brothers, the laughter of my little sister, the hugs of my mother and grandmother. Still more, I needed to deepen my relationship with the one who gave me all those wonderful people, with the God who made me and calls me to him.
Cloister came to an end. I came home and was able to do summer ministry at Baptist East Hospital and the great parish of Our Lady of Lourdes. However, as I returned to St. Meinrad in August, it was to a different sense of myself. It was to a sense that I have to keep my eyes on what matters most: on my prayer life, on people, on God. In a time of pandemic, the love that shines so brilliantly in them is the greatest source of strength and the surest source of hope. God love you!
Dustin Hungerford is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Louisville.