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The ancient rule of cloistered nuns and monks offer vital lessons to Christians seeking to adapt to quarantine and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of Spaniards, lay and religious, are facing weeks of a lockdown while the virus claims thousands of lives.
A contemplative Discalced Carmelite advises that to make the most of a time of social isolation, routine and living day by day are essential. Sister María Teresa de los Ángeles, who lives with other cloistered nuns in Cádiz, a city in the south of Spain, said that it was "hard" at first to remain faithful to her vocation. She is one of 9,200 contemplatives in Spain, according to the Spanish bishops' conference.
Spain is the birthplace of Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, a noblewoman who was born in the 1500s and became known as St. Teresa of Avila. A mystic and writer, she founded the Discalced Carmelite order.
Of living with silence and removal from the world, Sr. María Teresa told El Pais newspaper, "This is a school: living in religious seclusion can be learned. Having voluntarily embraced a life in cloister. It's a privilege. It doesn't bother me a bit." Keeping to a schedule is vital, she asserts.
Sister María Teresa says she never imagined the way of life she accepted 20 years ago could become useful to people living outside her monastery's walls. To help others accept life shut-up at home, she recommends finding moments of silence, being selective with sources of information and spending time usefully.
She says she wants to convey with her list of 10 recommendations what she has learned in practicing monastic spirituality. The key is "patience, realism and self-examination," she emphasizes, saying: "It is difficult at first. That's why I say that we should be attentive ... It is an exercise of controlling the interior and the exterior."
Setting a schedule is important. The Carmelite nuns of Cádiz start their day habitually at 6:30 a.m. to pray, attend Mass and work at regular times throughout the day. Their days and years are marked by peace and regularity. But living a cloistered schedule is no guarantee that the outside world cannot intrude. For example, the nuns have closed their doors to visitors out of concern that their elder sisters are susceptible to infection and no longer offer their famous sweets and pastries for sale.
On her monastery's website, Sr. María Teresa offers the following lessons for the days of isolation and lockdown being experienced by millions of people around the world:
"What is most basic is the attitude with which you live and the interpretation that you have of the situation, the consciousness that it is not a defeat," she says. "Paradoxically, this can be a way of discovering the truest and greatest freedom — the interior freedom that no one can take from you, which comes from within."
She adds, "While it is true that officials can 'make' us stay home, your liberty consists in willingly obeying, knowing that it is for a greater good."
"Look inside yourself. The biggest space where you can expand and be happy is in your heart. You don't need space outside but to go calmly within your world," Sr. María Teresa advises.
"Perhaps you have still not discovered that peace of soul from which life wells up ... Life is creation of more life, communication of joy and love," she adds. "When you are accustomed to living with yourself, you will not want to leave."
Sister María Teresa reminds faithful they "have to work at peace" and urges them to exercise "virtues that require concentration and self-knowledge, which are those that we typically set aside to attend to a thousand 'outside' tasks."
"How you confront your emotions and thoughts, the managing of your senses and passions, will depend whether you live in Heaven or Hell," she notes. "Gauge and overcome yourself, because if you are carried away by fear, sadness or apathy, it will be difficult to cut the cord because there will be little escape."
"Discipline your heart," the nun advises. "When a thought does you no good, discard it. Try to incline yourself always to whatever you note has given you peace and joy. Harmony takes work."
Sister María Teresa describes living together peacefully as a key challenge in today's world — a challenge made more difficult by stresses stemming from the outbreak:
Because of the pandemic, we are weaker and susceptible to irritability. You will have to be very patient and use your common sense. Everybody is different, and every person can be sensitive for any number of reasons. Accept and respect others' opinions and feelings. It is very normal, when we are at home, to desire control over everything. Try not to do this — it can be the cause of many confrontations and frustrations.
"The only person you can control is yourself — your thoughts, words and emotions. Don't seek to control others, but control yourself," she admonishes. "With love you will find understanding and empathy and a willingness in giving and gratefulness in receiving. Respect admits frailty, lessens drama, lives and lets live."
"Nothing else can cause such a tremendous sensation of emptiness as spending time uselessly. It is a terrible enemy that can rid you of peace and push you into depression," Sr. María Teresa warns.
"Make a plan for these days and stick to it. Rest and work are not opposed, so take the time to engage in activities that are relaxing or stimulate your good humor," she suggests.
"Take your time with simple things — dice the onions nicely, cook beans on a low flame until they are tender. We have time!" she says. "Even though a stew can take two hours to cook, do it with joy. But do things well, regardless of how simple, so that they have value and purpose. [Allow] no senseless waste of time: 'Killing time' is killing life."
"How many times do we complain about everything we haven't done because of a lack of time?" Sr. María Teresa asks. "Well, now we have it!"
She suggests taking up new forms of prayer and devotions, as "perhaps ... you have exhausted everything that you knew."
"Why not try the Liturgy of the Hours?" she offers, noting it can be downloaded to any smartphone.
"Look up the writings of a saint and you will certainly find many things to fill your soul with new light," she observes, adding: "Don't be satisfied with what you already know. Now that there is an opportunity, open yourself to new things that afford wisdom and cause joy."
Sister María Teresa reminds the faithful they must be sensitive to the psychological and emotional needs of those around them:
Being realistic, not everybody controls their emotions equally. There are some who, because of their mentality, will find confinement is difficult. Emotions come not only from within but are also influenced by what we see, hear and touch. So, be selective about what you get from outside in order to avoid vicious cycles that can entrap us in desperation or make us lose control. Avoid as much as possible: pessimistic conversations and arguments, frowning faces, information overload, films of horror or intrigue and disorder at home. Because it is difficult to avoid our present situation, anything that enters our brain will stay there for longer than usual, so we must be careful not to obsess or allow negative emotions to take root within us.
Sister María Teresa stresses the faithful "need not feel alone, because you are not alone."
Underscoring this point, she reminds them that the love and affection of family and friends remains. In fact, social distancing, she says, presents "an opportunity to communicate at a deeper and intimate level."
She urges everyone to reach out to loved ones frequently and to speak "calmly and unhurriedly" when engaging them:
Listen to them until they finish, and allow dialogue to foster trust and the sharing of trust. Say what you have had no time to say, and say what you always wanted to say. Talk about everything or nothing but always with love, which reaches the soul and makes its home there.
"Answer that Christmas card that you ignored, the letter that gratified you but which you haven't acknowledged, the e-mail from an old friend," she adds. "Find the most fitting words and try to express your noblest sentiments. Speak from the heart and establish even stronger ties to your folks. You will find that distance is not absence."
Sister María Teresa counsels the faithful to "find moments of silence and solitude" to avoid being overwhelmed:
How many times have I heard people say: "How I wish I could spend a few days at a monastery!" Well, now is the time to do it at home. Usually, we get tired of the pace at which we live, as if we are carried away by the daily routine without time to assimilate what we live. We expect big changes in society. We hear a lot of, "Things cannot go on this way." Well, now we have this opportunity to go into a cocoon like the little caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. Reflect, think, meditate ... What can I change about myself to be better after these days have passed?
"Our separation from the things that we ordinarily have in our hands will help to see if we are really putting emphasis on the things that do matter, on things we can do without, and those which are irreplaceable," she notes. "A firm conviction to improve will make these days useful and create new men and women out of this crisis."
"Only prayer (which is our link in friendship with God) can strengthen life at any time, especially in adverse circumstances," Sr. María Teresa affirms. She recalls a reflection by St. Teresa of Avila — that prayer, "even when I say it in the end, is the first."
"Prayer means opening up to the 'other' who will come to my aid when I need help," she continues. "This is the most universal experience of love."
"Pray, talk with God and the hours will go by unnoticed," she says. "Tell Him everything. He won't tire of hearing you — empty yourself in Him with your need. ... He is your Father, Brother, Friend."
Above all, Sr. María Teresa stresses, "Exercise your faith and trust. If you abandoned God since your First Communion, try again while you have the time and serenity to talk to Him. Maybe you don't believe in Him because you haven't tried. Will you?"
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