The Great Pause

We live in strange times. A lot of things we took for granted suddenly but slowly disappeared. We find ourselves in a time of unexpected pause.

Much of our world has come to a screeching halt, giving us a pause.

I happen to live in the countryside, a 40 kilometer, one-hour-by-car commute away from lovely Ottensen, where I haven’t been since March 3. Life is calm here these days. Walking outside in the evening hours feels like Christmas Eve, with very few people out, almost no cars on the road; everything engulfed in silence. Days have a festive feel, with still low traffic.

It’s surreal. Sunny spring days would normally bring a lot of people out of their homes. These days, there would be a procession of cars from Hamburg to the countryside and vice versa. All this is very limited these days. Meanwhile, children have returned home from their studies, for an unexpected term break. So the crisis has become a family-defining moment, much like Christmas.

Who are the people we now spend almost all of our time with? And for how long will this continue? It’s as if the whole world has gone on a retreat. In the spiritual sense, a retreat is a good thing. It’s an exercise in pausing, leaving your normal life, heading into the desert, regaining your focus; and assessing your priorities.

Hence, a retreat throws us back on ourselves. And what we find there is often not very pleasant. First of all, our weaknesses are exposed in ways we’re not used to. Also, all the frictions of our lives come to light. Therefore a pause like this uncovers what we normally conceal with travel, meetings, gatherings, activity and all kinds of distractions.

Finding joy in the great pause

Our lives are getting both easier – with a lot of things no longer possible – and more complicated, since we’re referred back to ourselves. For instance, we need to do chores on our own that we used to delegate to others, in a society with a high degree of division of labour. We’re used to outsource our thinking and feeling to the cultural industries. Now, we notice the awkwardness of this.

The great pause puts our resilience to a stress test. Resilience is both personal and systemic. Above all, it’s talking new normalcies into being. We adapt to the unnormal situation we find ourselves in, hoping that this extraordinary spring break won’t last for too long. But can we perhaps even find joy in the great pause we’re given?

This is a time for introverts. Our interior lives are suddenly so much more important. We slowly discover our inner resources, or lack thereof. What keeps us going? How do we get things done? How do we structure our days, since a lot of external structures have either collapsed or significantly shifted? What are we missing, or not missing at all?

Blaise Pascal famously and ironically wrote:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Now that we must more or less do exactly that, it becomes a challenge. The Benedictine monastic tradition values stabilitas (lat. stability, steadiness, immovability), the lifelong commitment of a monk to his community. Since a monastery typically doesn’t move, this also includes a commitment to a certain place, or even the very same room, the monastic cell.

A wholesome rhythm

Our lives now have a monastic taste. The Benedictines use the bell to structure their days. The bell wakes them up in the morning and calls them to prayer when it’s time for it. In his small book The Rule of Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life, Wil Derkse describes the Benedictine way of dealing with time as

the wholesome rhythm of an ordered division of the day; the bell which keeps indicating that something needs to be begun or that it is time to quit something; an attitude which is not so much directed to “finishing” a job as it is to the work itself; and the taking seriously of the periods of concentration and relaxation.

What is a given in a monastery, we need to establish for ourselves. Hence, it is about developing new habits and adjusting existing ones. Derkse’s advice:

An essential step forward is the development of a fitting order of the day: a division of the day that gives a rhythm to the day, with a reasonably fixed pattern of exertion and relaxation, of spiritual breathing in and breathing out, of ordering one’s environment and moments when one is in touch with something beautiful.

A time for everything

Neither work nor leisure, nor everyday chores nor the demands of others should dominate our lives. Instead, there is a time for everything.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8)

There has been a lot of war rhetoric these days, and the drastic measures we all experience clearly have the odor of wartimes. Likewise, the pandemic radically reminds us of our mortality – a fact that techno-consumerism carefully tried to suppress. This is a time for war, albeit against an invisible enemy. It’s a time to weep and to mourn, to refrain from embracing and to break down. But sooner or later, after the pause, it will be a time to heal, to build up, to laugh and to dance. And a time for peace.

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash