The modern orthodox saint Silouan received the words, “Keep you mind in hell and despair not” directly from God. He understood this primarily as a call to humility as, if we lift ourselves out of hell, we become self reliant rather than God reliant. It’s the understanding of the 12 Step programme that there are times when we need to turn to something beyond us, a higher power, and avoid the addictive draw of despair. Silouan’s words apply to our time of lockdown.
In this context, hell may be understood as our current context. The fear, isolation and helplessness of these weeks. When lockdown started it was easy to work around this new context: Zoom kept meetings going; social media broke down isolation; news kept me in touch; new prayers gave me purpose. I soon realised that I had more Zoom meetings than previous physical meetings; social media kept me buzzing; news was forever streamed into my mind; and busyness in prayers kept me from God. My mind was not in hell but exhaustion was leading to despair, always doing and not being.
Now I try to stay in hell and despair not. My prayer life is sustainable and I give thanks for the simple repetitiveness of the Prayer Book office; newly rediscovered. As a parish priest I still offer intercession and Mass for the parish and its institutions but with rhythm and without despair, just holding before God. I periodically look at both the social media and the news avoiding the seduction of every “ping” on the phone. Allowing isolation to be a reality, but also ensuring that isolation leads to reflective solitude rather than crippling loneliness.
Sometimes, despair knocks at the door. Especially when I wonder if St. Mary Aldermary’s Host Cafe will again be viable or consider the precariousness of jobs and vibrancy in the City. However, for now I am as stable as the Benedictine I once was. The Desert Father Abba Moses said, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” We may not choose to remain in our house, flat or cell but we can choose to remain with the source of all wisdom.