Staying at home: a Benedictine perspective

A fishing boat in Bolivia

Sister Laurentia Johns OSB, from Stanbrook Abbey, reflects on the lessons she has learned as an enclosed nun which might be helpful for many of us as we continue to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

On rainy days, when we couldn’t go outside to play, my father would sometimes turn the kitchen table upside down and drape a cloth over it to create a makeshift sail boat. We children loved this game and would amuse ourselves on the ‘high seas’ quite happily for hours.

It’s a bit more demanding having to stay inside most of the day more or less indefinitely, as we are being asked to do in the current crisis. But that’s how Benedictine nuns live all the time, so maybe I can share a few tips.

How do 20 people live together in the same place all their lives with strict rules about going outside?

Lockdown – like a voyage

Sister Laurentia Johns OSB

Since joining the monastery, nearly 30 years ago, I have often thought that it is not unlike being on a ship. Far from being imprisoned in the monastery, we are on a voyage which we believe will end in eternal life with God.

It’s always easier to do anything, however difficult, if you’ve chosen to do it. We nuns choose to live this way because it helps us to concentrate on prayer, which is our main work.

We have no choice in the current lockdown but we can choose to cooperate for the common good wholeheartedly. And if we can remember that during the lockdown we are also on a journey towards re-building a healthy country, that will help us over the coming weeks.

Rule of Benedict

Benedict was a realist who knew human nature and did not play down the difficulties we have in sharing the same space. The Rule covers things like not hitting out at each other, making peace after a quarrel, and it recognises that monks will have to deal with feelings of anger and aggression. One instruction reads ‘you are not to kill’!

Instead, we are to try to live the Gospel by loving God and our neighbour, acting towards others as we would like them to act towards us, and praying to God for help with all we find challenging.

Tips for taking a silent retreat at home

Time together and time apart – striking a balance

One of the main ways the Rule of St Benedict helps monks and nuns to live together in harmony is that it allows people time and space to be alone as well as definite times throughout the day when they come together, such as for meals and to worship.

The room (or ‘cell’) of a monk or nun is a private place where they can be alone to pray, read and relax. It’s important for everyone to have some personal space and time.

We are fortunate in the monastery to have a room each – something many of us never had as children – and which many people today still cannot enjoy. You may have to be creative about this and perhaps have your own special corner or chair if you do not have a room of your own. Or might a timeshare among siblings work?

And when we are together we try to be truly present to each other – that means not having one eye on the phone!

A daily rhythm

We also have a very structured day with set times for prayer, work, meals and recreation. This creates a rhythm of life, which helps set up a healthy dynamic between times apart and times together. Children will be used to this from school and it’s worth trying to build a structure into time at home.

Silence

Silence, too, is important and is another way of creating space for one another

It may be unrealistic to expect much silence in the home situation but you might find it helpful to try a short time of shared silence in the evening. Perhaps followed by sharing concerns for grandparents, friends and whatever may be bothering members of the immediate family – questions about school, exams, the future. These could be offered up with an ‘Our Father’ or a simple prayer to Our Lady.

You may also want to think about listening to Compline as a family as a shared Night Prayer – the Stanbrook version is available on Spotify. It is a most calming way to end the day and helps you get a good night’s sleep.

Taking care of each other

Another important part of living together is trying to look out for each other’s needs. During this time of extra stress we’ll need to treat each other a little more carefully than we normally do.

Great leaders, like Sir Ernest Shackleton, have noted that this extra care is vital on challenging expeditions.

It’s certainly true on the monastic journey and will also be true for us on this ongoing shared voyage to recovery.

Blessings

When we live closely with others there are blessings as well as challenges. We get to know each other better; we get to know ourselves better.

Maybe we are less patient than we thought. That’s okay – we get to know God’s patience with us better and, hopefully, that helps us be more patient with others.

So this voyage to recovery can be a real voyage of discovery. May God bring us all safely to port!


The Stanbrook Abbey community was founded by nine young English women in 17th-century Flanders. After returning to England because of the French revolution, the surviving nuns settled first in Worcestershire in 1838 before moving to North Yorkshire in 2009.

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