Until we all receive an effective and safe vaccine we’re looking at a continuing period of isolation and near or actual lockdown.  But there are a few upsides to this and one of them is that, through the whole experience of being in a high tier or in lockdown, people have have been brought face to face with depth.

We have had, for example, to contemplate the ultimate subject of death.  And it seems also that quite a few people have begun to ask profound questions about the way they live their lives, preferring the quieter, slower pace created by the restrictions to the frenetic pace of normal existence.

Many too have been forced into closer proximity to those they live with.  Although, for some, that has been a negative experience, for others it has been a chance to reconnect with loved ones, to eat together, exercise together, talk far more and enter into a deeper experience of relating.

Still others, living alone, have had to contend with a very long period of solitude.  Again, for some that has been a negative experience but we have also heard talk of enjoyment of the stillness, of reading, of walking and even of meditating.

The shallow end

It’s possible that the tight restrictions on social interaction are bringing with them an awareness of the shallowness and unwanted pressure of much of modern living.  No longer existing quite so much on the surface or quite so fast, people have taken the time to discover that in the depths lies buried treasure.

For a few this will be old news.  Those, for example, who have suffered in their lives or who have a profound spirituality or who have gone on a journey of discovery and healing in psychotherapy may already feel that they have encountered a deeper reality compared to which much of contemporary life can feel superficial.

Such people may consider that the media pump out shallowness.  Celebrity culture and the dumbing-down of news and its replacement by human interest stories would be two obvious examples.  That’s in the wider context of the dilution of the ‘educate’ component of the mandate to inform, educate and entertain in favour of just entertaining.   Even the deeper outlets may give the impression that ultimate reality lies in Westminster.  And, incidentally, if you want to set Westminster’s affairs in a more meaningful perspective by looking at the global context, you’ll have to make an effort to find quality foreign coverage these days.

The enemies of depth

The enemies of depth are over-busyness and noise.  A loud culture in a hurry to find the next experience focuses on the future not the present moment.  The words of the 17th century French writer, Pascal, are relevant to a frantic society confronted by lockdown:  ‘All the unhappiness of human beings comes from just one thing, which is not being able to remain quietly in a room’.

Out of the trap with a Trappist

The best-selling American writer, Thomas Merton, knew about all this too.  He was an interesting character because he was also a Trappist monk.  Unusual for a best-selling writer.  Even more unusual was his decades-long battle with himself about whether to stay a monk, not least because he was so interested in the world.

But Merton believed that, paradoxically, monks who appear to have left the world often plunge more deeply into it than those who are still living in it.  They see a lot.  And one of the things that Merton saw was the danger of ‘hectivity’.  Listen to this.  It’s from Merton’s book Seeds of Contemplation and although it’s a criticism of some religious professionals it has a far wider application:

‘Their lives are devoured by activities and strangled with attachments.  Interior solitude is impossible for them.  They fear it.  They do everything they can to escape it.  What is worse, they try and draw everyone else into activities as senseless and devouring as their own.  They are great promoters of useless work.  They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures.  They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God’.

That’s a warning and you can translate it into other, non-religious, settings.  Try politics or the office for example.

Beyond words

Merton believed that this futile, empty, stressful activity stood in stark contrast to what can be found in periods of stillness and quiet.  He would have recognized the benefits that some people have found in our lockdowns.  He pointed to more benefits besides.  In another book, Contemplative Prayer, he quoted a 7th century theologian, Isaac of Nineveh:

‘Every [person] who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within.  If you love truth, be a lover of silence.  […] It brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe.  In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent.  But then there is born something that draws us to silence.  […]  If only you practise this, untold light will dawn on you in consequence.’

Deeper still?

Interesting thoughts and not ones we hear much these days.  Could it be that these individuals who spent a great deal of time exploring the depths of silence – far more than most of us ever will – have something useful, even essential, to pass on?  It may be that the taste of life outside the hamster wheel that many of us have recently had could encourage us to develop a listening ear.  In the words of one final writer, Richard Foster, ‘the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people’.  The book in which he wrote that, Celebration of Discipline, has sold over a million copies worldwide so somebody out there must be listening.  And that was before the lockdowns.

I wish you a Happy New Year.