Good Zeal

Pandemic Sheltering and St. Benedict

St. Benedict in his cave at Subiaco, ItalyIt was a dark and stormy night. Yes, it really was. It was Thursday, March 12, 2020. Watching the local evening news, we decided to begin pandemic sheltering at home the next day. Coronavirus had arrived on our doorstep. As the rain pelted the windows, it seemed a precursor for what I dreaded, confinement and uncertainty. I felt panicked, tossing and turning through the night. Normally a zealous and happy individual with abundant social ties, it felt as if a dark cloud descended upon our home. How could I have failed to see the light and to know that the Lord is always present even when He seems far so away?

The next day, I began keeping a pandemic diary to document this historic journey. My first entry indicates that we missed Lenten Stations of the Cross and the fish fry at church. I recorded significant news events, weather, progress on our mail-order plants, cleaning projects, housework, cooking meals, baking bread, hummingbirds and butterflies arriving, adjusting to daylight saving time, and church services with Bishop Barron via the internet. Did you know that Venus was at its brightest on April 26th? Yes, I made a note of that and even drew a picture. On May 25th, I wrote one sentence, “George Floyd killed.” I stopped writing. I did not resume writing again until June 11th because I was emotionally drained, outraged, and grieving. Not just for Floyd, but for the thousands who died from coronavirus. Then, I wrote again but stopped on July 4, 2020, day 111 of sheltering. It all seemed so silly and useless and I got bored with it. During our nightly ritual, watching Wheel of Fortune, my husband asked me, “Why aren’t you writing in the diary?” I replied, “I’m reevaluating it.” Which meant that I needed to pray about it. And so, I did.

I am ashamed to reveal that the majority of my entries focused on what supplies I could not get due to shortages. Is it really important that we couldn’t find Charmin, grass-fed ground beef, sugar-free instant pudding, or white select-a-size paper towels? Although I continued praying the Liturgy of the Hours and remained faithful to my Oblate promises and Benedictine living, I did not embrace an opportunity to document my spiritual growth. Rather, my scribblings were mostly laments and complaints and mostly about me. The collective common theme was self-centeredness.

I reread The Life of St. Benedict by Pope St. Gregory the Great. I have read the book many times, and I am stunned that I always find something new. Benedict went to college in Rome and then dropped out due to hedonistic students and activities that repulsed him. Benedict, who had by then gained prominence as a holy man and miracle worker, decided to search for God. In a remote mountainous area of Subiaco, Benedict lived as a hermit alone in a cave for three years, embracing uncertainty and doing without necessities. Shepherds who brought Benedict supplies were taught about Christ as his way of thanking them for their hospitality and ultimately became his followers. His self-imposed isolation was key to Benedict’s spiritual development and creation of the Rule, one of the most important documents of Western Civilization.

Have you seen Benedict’s cave? I recently toured the “Sacro Speco” or “Sacred Cave” on YouTube. It is a small indentation in a rock, described as a “swallow’s nest” or “grotto.” Fr. Luigi Tiana, OSB, (Sacro Seco Holy Cave) stated, “It is here that Benedict learned that one must leave everything behind to build something new…. And it was necessary to learn in life what was superfluous.” I have been confronted with conversion. Every day, I envisioned Benedict in the cave. He didn’t avoid the cave, he ran to it and embraced it!

After lots of prayers and contemplation, I ran to God. And my zeal is back! I only wish I had written about the important stuff like giving up control and depending on the Lord. There were daily miracles that went undocumented. Baby mockingbirds leaving their nest in our pear tree and then jumping in and around our patio furniture learning to be birds. Baby bunnies frolicking in our grass every day. Finches and bluebirds bathing in our fountain. Together, my husband and I toiled in the garage with our heads buried in boxes packed many years before and laughed about old friends and co-workers. I took six big boxes of outdated checks and documents to the shredder contractor where the “jaws of steel” reduced it all to confetti in less than five minutes. He would not take payment. “It’s on me!” I found one bin with my son’s baby clothes, baby shoes, preschool artwork, and documents from grades 1-12. Going through that box was a walk down memory lane, four hours of true bliss reliving high points from his childhood. Yet, I failed to write about those delights in my diary.

St. Ignatius of Loyola developed the Examen, a series of exercises on self-awareness, “the oxygen of the spiritual life.” My self-absorbed pandemic diary was my opportunity to document spiritual milestones and my personal miracles. Instead, I squandered the opportunity and wrote about the mundane. I failed to acknowledge that the pandemic sheltering is my cave. It is also an extended Lent, allowing time to determine what is important and what is superfluous.

Otto, A. (2018, October 9). Self-Awareness: The Oxygen of the Spiritual Life. Ignatian Loyola Press.

St. Benedict’s “Sacro Speco” Holy Cave] tour in Italian with English subtitles. Spiritual Trekking Through the Holy Valley. January 30, 2017

Where it Began. St. Benedict’s Impact from Subiaco, Italy – EWTN Vaticano Special, August 4, 2019.

Image: St. Benedict in the cave, Sacro Speco, Subiaco, Italy

By Jan White, Oblate of St. Benedict

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