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Attentiveness: Isolation

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology


When a virus spreads by human contact, our health, and possibly life, is dependent upon our being alone.

Isolated.

For many of us this is a very uncomfortable thought: “I may be alone in my apartment or dorm room for three or four weeks? What will I do all that time? I will be so bored!” [See below for mothers with children.]

About 10 years ago I had a sabbatical in Princeton while my wife had to stay back in Pittsburgh teaching elementary school. We would only see each other about four times in six months. What would I do? I am so needy!

I decided the only way I would survive would be to assume the life of an anchorite monk (except for my time in the library doing research). I wrote down my strict rhythms of life as if I were a monk: time to rise, read Scripture, eat, fast, read, ride my bike, pray, etc. Key to this period of time was to not turn on the tv and to use the internet only for limited news and email.

It was a transformative period for me. Transformative.

This ascetic rhythm of life was very hard…for about a week. Then something strange began to happen. With the extra time I had I began to memorize more scripture: all of Isaiah 40. I began to pray more. I found that I wrote more and my writing had greater creativity and clarity. I have never written so much in such a short period of time. I think my mind and my spirit were refreshed and enlivened. I felt especially alive!

Can this difficult time—when there is so much anxiety and fear—become a time of renewal and deepening of our Christian life? For some of us it will mean weaning ourselves off of relationships and the need to be heard. For others it will mean breaking the addictions we have to cell phones, gaming, and maybe even “social” media.

I believe the “other side of the coronavirus” will EITHER be a place where we have become more lonely, depressed and agitated, OR we will look back and recognize it as the period of time when our faith was deepened and strengthened like never before. Really.

We are at a crossroads in this pandemic season.

Silence. Prayer. Stillness. Scripture. Refreshment. Life.

We can learn a great deal from the monks of old. St. Evagrios the Solitary (because he was alone!) said. “He who bears distress patiently will attain joy, and he who endures the repulsive will know delight.”[1]

Many are experiencing distress.

If you have some time alone, think about it.

MORE THAN THIS: Gordon-Conwell in Hamilton, Massachusetts is built upon a former Carmelite seminary, a Roman Catholic high school for training future priests. The Carmelites have always had a special vocation or charism for contemplation. Contemplation is rooted in silence and prayer, but it includes community and service to others. It may be a good idea, in addition to thinking of this time as a time of personal contemplation, to also see this as a time of growth in what community and service mean. We have daughters who have children; their children’s schools are closed indefinitely. One daughter must work five days a week. Many of us have relatives in retirement homes which are closed down. No visitors for elderly people who live for visits from relatives and friends. Their isolation is loneliness.

During a time when others are anxious and alone, can we think of our contemplation and deepened Christian life, also as a time when we think more about serving others: the elderly and young mothers, especially? But also, health care workers who will soon be overworked. We don’t know who else will be in special need. However, as with the early church in times of persecution and famine, let’s pray that we, and our church communities, will grow in contemplation, community, and service.

Attentiveness.

At this time we need to be attentive to the new opportunities to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

[1] “On Prayer” #93.

SWS


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.