Despite the suffering caused by the enforced solitude many people have had to endure since March 2020, for at least some it seems to have spurred spiritual growth.
During the pandemic lockdowns of the past two years, people around the world got a sample of what it might be like to live a more contemplative, slower paced life, says the Rev. David Brinton, general secretary of the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas. And while those lockdowns also caused a lot of stress and loneliness, they also resulted for some in a lifestyle similar to that of people who take religious vows.“
It will be interesting to see how people’s spiritual lives were changed by the pandemic,” says Brinton. “Solitude became something that was much more a part of many of our lives whether we wanted it to be or not. And I think some people who were already predisposed to silence and solitude didn’t find it all that hard.”
For Karen Ann McKinna, solitude has been a spiritual path for some time. In 1996 she responded to what she refers to as a persistent, gentle call from God and took vows before her diocesan bishop to live as a solitary religious person.
McKinna’s vows include celibacy, obedience and simplicity of life. They also require her to remain unmarried and limit her social interaction mainly to the time she spends working as a tutor and volunteering. (She volunteers at a retreat centre and an organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities in her community.) McKinna spends most of her time in prayer and contemplation.
“Apart [from] the presence of technology I do not expect there would be much difference in how I live this out compared with a Christian of earlier times,” she says.
Because it involves taking vows and living by a set of guidelines designed to encourage a slow, prayerful life, the calling is somewhat like living in a religious order, she says, with some key differences. “I realized I was not called into religious community but that I was called to something similar. Friends have called me a ‘sort of a nun.’”
Indeed, Brinton adds, the celibate life has a firm basis in Scripture, which presents it as a way of connecting with the Christian faith and setting oneself apart from a secular world. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that a unique relationship with God is possible for those who leave open the space in their life that might otherwise be occupied by the obligations of marriage.
It can be a striking choice to make in the 21st century, Brinton says, when the idea of sexual restraint is treated with skepticism and sometimes animosity.
When someone feels called to take up the single consecrated life, they seek out a spiritual advisor and approach their diocesan bishop for evaluation and approval, which may include a psychological evaluation to ensure they are taking up the calling for appropriate reasons and are suited to carry it out healthily. They then begin by taking a set of temporary annual vows, committing to the life for a year at a time until, if and when they and their advisors agree they are ready, they undertake the life as a lifelong commitment. To be eligible, applicants must be single, widowed or divorced and at least 30 years old.
Brinton says it’s important to note, however, that this process only applies to those few who have taken formal vows.
“There are more people living this way of life than we are aware of because not everybody chooses to make personal vows to the bishop,” he says.
Some people may be living single, prayerful lives that they are quite committed to. But for others, formal vows can be an important way to contextualize their experience. “There are some people who find themselves single, and making a vow helps them to make sense of their single state. [It] helps them to turn that singleness into something of benefit to the Kingdom,” Brinton says. “The vow helps to make your singleness fruitful.”
For her part, McKinna says she thinks there may be more people called to the consecrated single life. While she says the idea of stepping into the spotlight to draw attention to her own life is at odds with the humility of her calling, she believes it is important to get the message out that there is meaning to be found in this unique way of life.
“This is a journey of learning and movement, not stagnant nor still! There is always more to come, more insight, more joy, more peace, more delight. These characteristics of God’s Grace are there for us all. In my case I seem to experience them in this life of solitude and silence,” she says.
Brinton agrees she’s on to something in looking for a way to spread the word while respecting the quiet of the calling.
“The consecrated life is like a mustard seed; it’s meant to be hidden,” he says, referring to a parable in which Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a tiny seed that must be buried before it can grow. “Its essence in some ways is being small and anonymous.”
Now, however, may be a good time to share it with people who are looking for ways to expand their spiritual lives, he adds.
“There’s no question that the enforced solitude of the pandemic has provided an opportunity for some people to examine the benefits of not being quite so frantic in the way we live.”