Covidtide has been a deeply lonely time for many of us. My single friends miss gatherings and human touch. They bear a unique and heavy grief in this season. But those of us with a full house experience another kind of sorrow that comes with the unrelenting presence of people. We know well the strange dichotomy of simultaneously feeling lonely yet desperately longing to be alone.
Over the last few years, I’ve regularly retreated to a convent near my home, but since COVID-19 hit, I go more often. When I’m home, I catch myself fantasizing about the monastic life with its blessedly quiet order. But my home is a far cry (literally) from the hushed hallways of a monastery. I wake each day not to the singing of the Psalms but to a hungry one-year-old crying. Soon he is joined by other small voices.
All day and into the night, the house echoes with kids giggling, arguing, shrieking, hollering that we’re out of toilet paper, hollering that we’re out of milk, and my husband hollering that there’s too much hollering. With the pandemic’s curtailing of in-person school, playdates, babysitters, and open coffee shops (which are my office), there’s no escape. The five members of my family are nearly always together, housebound in a small space.
My monastic longing is understandable—I crave silence, solitude, and prayer. These longings spring from what theologian Greg Peters delightfully names “the monkhood of all believers,” which he identifies as the call on every Christian’s life to single-heartedly seek God. But I’m also learning that among these legitimate desires dwells a kind of monastic temptation.
In Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary, he chronicles his seven-month stint in a Benedictine monastery. As I have slowly read this book each Sunday over the past months, I find myself feeling genuinely jealous. I know that Nouwen and the monks he met experienced conflicts, boredom, and bad moods. They did not float from spiritual bliss to spiritual bliss. But nonetheless, I indulge in a strange, hyperspiritual fantasy. I imagine a life devoid of struggle—the deep quiet, the freedom, the solitude, the expansive times of prayer, the space to contemplate, the structure, the clarity, the daily spiritual oversight, the community, the slow pace, the chanting, the serenity, and the rich interiority. (Did I mention the quiet?)
Nouwen writes about his own spiritual fantasies during his monastic jaunt. He tells his spiritual director, the abbot, that he dreams about how someday God will mystically “reveal himself … in such an intensive and convincing way” that Nouwen would let go of his idols and commit himself unconditionally to God.
In response, the abbot is neither surprised nor impressed. “You want God to appear to you in the way your passions desire,” he says, “but these passions make you blind to his presence now.” He calls Nouwen—and me—to find God’s presence in the only place where it can be found: in our actual lives.
For me, that’s amid a loud house during a global pandemic, where I referee sibling squabbles, nurse an infant, and try to flash-organize five feet of space to look presentable during a Zoom call. That is my own monastic cell. Fantasies—even seemingly spiritual fantasies—are a distraction. They are a way of avoiding God in favor of an imagined devotion. The place God is calling me to is not a far-off, quiet ideal but the noisy moment I’m in.
There is another temptation that resides in my seemingly pious fantasy: the avoidance of suffering. Typically, when I forsake spiritual practices like silence or solitude, I tend to conceive of it as a failure of discipline—like skipping a workout and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s instead. But during Covidtide, having to frequently surrender these practices is its own kind of suffering. The call to notice God in the actual moment I’m in is therefore a call to meet him in suffering, however quotidian that pain may appear.
This is the mystery of the Christian life. Not only does God meet us right where we are—amid our raucous and roaring lives—but mysteriously, we meet Jesus in his suffering.
In the Gospels, we constantly find Jesus seeking to retreat to silence, stillness, and aloneness. Meanwhile, the crowd—with its noise, demands, needs, and, yes, babies crying, and even occasional requests for snacks—always finds a way to catch up with him.
It is a pattern: He withdraws to a solitary place; they follow. He withdraws again. They find him again. (This is a pattern every parent of young children who has tried to have a private phone call knows well.) And this is an overlooked but real way that Jesus empties himself and enters into suffering. He wants to be alone with the Father, but he rarely can be. His response—to the noise, to his disciples’ constant bickering and ill-advised questions, to the incessant needs presented to him—is always compassion. Again and again, “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them” (Matt. 9:36).
In this housebound cacophony of Covidtide, God waits to meet us. We still of course need times of solitude and silence, but we also must learn to look for God amid the noise and the crowds in our own living rooms. And there we find Jesus, a man acquainted with chaos, who still has endless compassion for the likes of you and me.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night (IVP, 2021).