Monks share tips for a balanced quarantine life

Trappist monks processed through the halls of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, Ky., from the church to the dining hall at lunchtime in this 2011 file photo. (Record File Photo by Marnie McAllister)

The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has many working adults converting their homes to offices and places of worship, but striking a balance between work and prayer can be an elusive feat.

Though hard to achieve for lay individuals recently thrust into it by forces beyond their control, religious women and men have been perfecting work and prayer for hundreds of years.

Brother Paul Quenon — a Trappist Monk who works and prays at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky. — said it can be done and can even become “second nature.” It takes some thinking ahead and figuring out where in one’s day to fit in prayer.

“The problem is how to structure your time. If you can structure prayer into the day somehow — morning, midday, evening — it gives you something to move towards and something to move away from and towards again,” said Brother Quenon in a recent interview. “It sets up the rhythm of the day and that makes things go by much more easily.”

The monks at the abbey rise at 3 a.m. and say their first prayer of the day by 3:15 a.m. said Brother Quenon.

“I’m not suggesting everybody does that,” he said. He noted, however, that many people are having difficulty sleeping through the night and that might be an opportunity to spend time in prayer. The extra time some have gained because they’re telecommuting can also be spent in prayer, he noted.

Brother Quenon, who’s entering his 63rd year of religious life, suggests that individuals pray the Divine Office using the popular booklets “Give Us This Day” and “Magnificat.”

He also suggests turning to the Psalms. Psalm 91 — which the monks pray daily — is particularly important during this time because it talks about protection against the plague, he said.

Brother Quenon also recommends reading Psalms 33, 63 and 4, which the monks pray at the end of the day.

Father Michael Casagram — who also works and prays from the Abbey of Gethsemani — recommends individuals take some time each day to read and reflect on Scripture, especially the New Testament.

“It’s amazing how much people can be encouraged and strengthened in their Christian commitment simply by exposing themselves to a reading of the Scriptures,” said Father Casagram. “One of the best things is for people just to expose themselves to the Scriptures and allow it to speak to them. It’s amazing how the Gospels, in particular, will speak to us in our own time if we simply read and reflect on what is being said.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, which the monks follow, reminds the monks to be aware they are always in the presence of God. That is true not only for monks but for every Christian and every human being, said Father Casagram.

“We’re all, as Christians, baptized into Christ and therefore Christ is really the source of our life as Christians. Christ is ever near to us,” he said. “I think if we can take a moment or several moments throughout the day just to simply be aware of the grace of one’s baptism … that one is in fact in the presence of Christ and that divine grace is at work in our hearts.”

Once one finds moments during the day to pray, Father Casagram said people should be open to sharing their frustrations with God as well.

“God really wants to hear the cry of our heart, especially with the pandemic, that we bring before our living and loving God the needs of all of God’s people,” he said. “There are people suffering all over from the effects of this pandemic, and so, bring before our living God the suffering that’s going on in our world. I think in a way, this whole thing is bringing us to greater consciousness of the needs of one another.”

Though the global pandemic has brought with it fear and death, Brother Quenon and Father Casagram said it can still be a time of renewal and growth.

“This is a time for people to rethink their relationship with one another, to think about the way we are living our lives,” said Father Casagram. “We’re not living on this earth as human beings simply to make money or to feed the ego-self. We’re here to live for God’s glory and to meet the needs of one another. And I think this time is allowing us to be a lot more conscious of our deeper needs.

Father Casagram said it’s easy in today’s world to get distracted running from one activity to the next. The shutdown that has resulted from the pandemic can be seen as a chance to re-examine life as a Christian which he noted is “to give witness to Christ and to what the Gospels are telling us.”

“If we’re really going to be Christians we have to take seriously the Gospel values, which is not about money and power. It’s about serving one another and serving the living God and seeking the truth which is all about our continuous dependence on God,” he said.
Brother Quenon said having to slow down, all of a sudden is indeed challenging.

Thomas Merton — the famous Trappist monk and author from the Abbey of Gethsemani who died half a century ago — may have described this experience best when he wrote:

“For a person who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform. And often is quite beyond his power. We must first recover the possession of our own being.”

The pandemic, noted Brother Quenon, has forced many into resting.

“It’s an opportunity to see another side of life. If you’re anxious about the future you just have to yield yourself into the hands of God and God will take care of it. And stop worrying, because worrying is not going to help you any. It’ll just ruin your health,” he said.

During this period, Brother Quenon suggests talking to a friend, keeping a journal, practicing Lectio Divina, catching up with work around the house, cooking, taking a walk before dawn and simply being quiet.

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