Like many of you, I spent yesterday morning, not at church, where I would usually be, but sitting on my sofa at home in front of a laptop, watching a livestream of my pastor preaching to an empty building. In just a week, it seems, everything has changed. The Covid-19 pandemic means that ordinary Sunday services, along with most other kinds of social gathering, won’t be possible for some time to come. It’s unprecedented and unsettling (though I’m very grateful for the technology that enables virtual connections of various types).
So it feels rather alarmingly on the nose that I am currently finishing up my doctoral thesis on the prayer lives of solitary recluses. The people I’m writing about were not forced, but chose, to undergo seclusion, often far more radical and permanent than most of us currently face.
I got interested in this topic partially out of the desire to understand that choice in light of its Christian context. How could people have considered voluntary isolation to be a valid way to live out their Christian lives, when the emphasis of the New Testament is so much on the unity of Christians with one another and with Jesus? As I discovered, these ideas actually aren’t in conflict at all. Instead, there is a productive interplay between the practice of solitary devotion and participation in the reality of the united Body of Christ, which feels particularly pressing to me now in light of our suddenly more isolated circumstances.
I have been thinking in particular about a text written by the eleventh-century monastic reformer Peter Damian: it’s an essay in the form of a letter to his friend Leo, who was a recluse. The Book of ‘The Lord Be With You’ is all about what it means when hermits and other solitaries, alone in their cells, say prayers which imply a collective context – like ‘the Lord be with you’, which might feel strange to say to an empty room.
Peter confidently affirms that when hermits, like his friend, pray these prayers, they aren’t just pretending that others are there. No – they are participating in the reality that the Church is fundamentally united across place and across time: ‘the Church of Christ is united in all her parts by such a bond of love that her several members form a single body’. The Body of Christ is made so by love, not by being in the same place.
‘Even if she seems to be scattered’, Peter says, ‘yet the mystery of her inward unity can never be marred in its integrity’. So when a single person prays alone – he uses the example of the priest celebrating mass, but applies the same principle to prayer more generally – he ‘sees as present with the eyes of the spirit all those for whom he prays, whether or not they are actually there in the flesh; he knows that all who are praying with him are present in spiritual communion’. Prayer is never something we do truly alone, because our unity with God draws us into unity with each other.
This book is almost a thousand years old, but the truth it communicates has been a real encouragement to me this week, and especially as my scattered local church ‘gathered’ in our various homes to pray, sing, and listen to God’s word. God is with us – and so we are also with one another. What a comfort!
I never expected to be finishing my thesis in a state closer to reclusion than I have ever experienced (I’m not totally alone, thankfully – my housemate and I are keeping one another company). But it’s strangely fitting and certainly encouraging that this time, whatever disappointments and hardships it will bring, has reminded me of the doctrine that first intrigued me about these medieval people and their faith. It’s a reality that I hope we can all hold on to in the coming weeks and months, seeing our unity through God with ‘the eyes of the spirit’.