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What We Can Learn From Medieval Monks About Isolation

When I first visited a Benedictine monastery the monk who opened the door said, “Follow me. I’ll show you to your cell.”

“A cell!” I thought. “Just like a prison!”

The word “cell” comes from the Latin cella, the word for a small room, a store room or a hut. Each monk lives alone in his own room, and in some monastic traditions the cell has two doors: one into the larger monastery and another into the monk’s own, individual walled garden.

What is the point of living in such isolation? You might ask. The first monks went out to live in the desert caves of Egypt in the fourth century. They did so in an action of repentance and retreat from the world. They went to be alone with God and the word “monk” comes from the Greek word monos — which means alone.

The monks were isolated for the spiritual motivation of finding God in solitude. They were imitating Jesus who often went into the mountains alone to pray. Down through the ages monks and nuns have continued this tradition as an example for all people and a reminder that while we are called to love our neighbor we are first called to an exclusive, one-on-one relationship with God.

Guidelines for Making the Most of Isolation

Many of us now are facing isolation because of the coronavirus. To find ways to cope with the isolation we can turn to the practical experience of the monks and nuns who have perfected the art of solitude.

What are some basic guidelines for making the most of isolation? First is the need for routine. A routine gives structure to the day, and the first fixed points in the routine should be a time of prayer or meditation.

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