A PRIORY in lockdown is a fascinating place.
During the height of the pandemic, the entire community was confined to barracks to an extent heretofore unexperienced and unseen.
Keep in mind the fact that friars are not monks; we never expect to stay in one location forever.
We signed up to an itinerant life – we go where we are sent.
Or stay put when we are forbidden to be sent, as the case may be.
However, given the naturally garrulous nature of many members of an “Order of Preachers” – love of one’s own voice being a laudable trait genuinely encouraged by certain members of the community – any restriction placed upon our engagement with the outside world was going to give rise to a certain degree of tension.
Perhaps my favorite moment in this saga occurred during the House Chapter held in the midst of the crisis.
We had formally gathered together as a community, as we do every month, but this time observing the social-distancing requirements within the precincts of the priory.
The student brothers took this opportunity to place their socially-distanced seats behind large pillars, so that they might be able to take a brief nap or roll their eyes while the senior members of the community filled the room with the sound of their arguments.
The agenda for the meeting on this particular month contained an unusual item: ‘awareness of irritability during lockdown.’
The prior clearly felt that it was necessary to point out to the community at large that prolonged confinement amidst the brethren, even within an extensive Edwardian priory, is a situation likely to add further sparks to the already tinder-like atmosphere.
Silence greeted this explanation.
But, as the legal maxim goes, ‘qui tacet consentire videtur’ –
‘He who is silent is taken to agree.’
After all, there is the oft-repeated story within the Order of two friars who lived together at the Angelicum University in Rome and did not speak to each other for fifty years because they had different definitions of ‘charity’.
I have no difficulty believing that story.
Moreover, the burden of having to master the technology required to live-stream Masses and other liturgical celebrations brought with it another unexpected complication.
The absence of a parish organist, choir or parishioners was not accompanied by any corresponding diminishment in the liturgical expectations of the community.
No, no – they increased.
My recent appointment as ‘House Cantor’ thus became a source of immense joy as I engaged in the task of hymn selection and introit chanting, also known as my regular round of ‘Who can I irritate the most today?’
Parishioners viewing the live-stream rang in and wrote to complain of Mass settings used.
Friars objected to the alternatives.
Enforced attempts at a troped kyrie within a community of friars who would not necessarily qualify for the opening round of the Eurovision Song Contest were – understandably – less successful than we might have liked.
But we soldiered on.
Shopping too became more arduous, as those members of the community over seventy years of age were exhorted to stay away from markets and other large gatherings.
So ‘other friars’ had to take on those additional duties.
Prolonged confinement also made every thought more philosophical.
As I stood stunned before the serried ranks of granola bars at Costco, a closer examination of the packaging revealed a startling claim:
‘With real chocolate chips!’
In my dazed, locked-down state I could not help but wonder, ‘Is there such a thing as a ‘fake’ chocolate chip?’
‘How can we distinguish between a ‘real’ chocolate chip and a ‘fake’ chocolate chip?’
‘Is it the percentage of cocoa?’
‘What is the essence of chocolate chip – what makes it what it is?’
Clearly, I was missing the interactions I would normally have with other students in our classes on metaphysics or epistemology.
Lectures held via ‘Zoom’ or any other streaming platform were clearly not cutting the mustard.
Though, much like the imposed social-distancing requirements observed during our House Chapter, the ability to turn off the screen that displayed my own face during these online classes was an unexpected boon.
I found my patristics seminars – held from 2pm-5pm on Monday afternoon, immediately after lunch – particularly refreshing.
No doubt this is further evidence of the brutally accurate aphorism, ‘a lecture is that which passes from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either.’
Our normal pastoral work as students evaporated as the COVID cloud descended, so we were obliged – by the Student Master – to become ‘creative’ in our attempts at online ministry.
This evolved into a rather elaborate film-production process, whereby various friars around the province were filmed speaking to camera on a variety of topics of doctrinal or spiritual interest.
These clips were then sent to me from Sydney, Canberra, Fribourg or wherever, and I was tasked with adding attractive and engaging pictures and a soundtrack to the otherwise sonorous delivery of dense doctrinal content.
I now count ‘film production’ among my marketable skills.
Who said an apocalyptic pandemic was an entirely bad thing?
The benefit of being the friar in charge of the final edit, of course, was that I could determine how certain things were presented.
For instance, my vanity not being sufficiently flattered by the film in which I appeared (on the charism of ‘speaking in tongues’) I was able, through a newly-discovered setting, to turn myself into a cartoon before I was plastered all over the ineradicable internet.
Various other friars have sworn that a hair and make-up team must be available before they will be willing to stand before the all-seeing eye of the camera.
So, between the prior wandering around the church with a GoPro and the rest of us desperately praying for an end to the lockdown and pandemic, these last few months have certainly been an unexpected experience of religious life.
Humour aside, there were many serious moments during the height of the pandemic which, compounded with all that has happened in the Church and the world in recent years, prompted the despairing cry to arise from certain friars – ‘I didn’t sign up for this!’
To which we could all respond: that is the point of a vow.
It would not have any value if you could see what it would cost you when you made it.