Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The great seventeenth-century philosopher thought that most of us, most of the time, distract ourselves from what truly matters through a series of divertissements (diversions). He was speaking from experience. Though one of the brightest men of his age and one of the pioneers of the modern physical sciences and of computer technology, Pascal frittered away a good deal of his time through gambling and other trivial pursuits. In a way, he knew, such diversions are understandable, since the great questions—Does God exist? Why am I here? Is there life after death?—are indeed overwhelming. But if we are to live in a serious and integrated way, they must be confronted—and this is why, if we want our most fundamental problems to be resolved, we must be willing to spend time in a room alone.
This Pascalian mot has come to my mind a good deal in recent days as our entire country goes into shutdown mode due to the coronavirus. Shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, school campuses, sports stadiums, airports, etc.—the very places where we typically seek out fellowship or divertissements—are all emptying out. This is obviously good from the standpoint of physical health, but I wonder whether we might see it as something very good for our psychological and spiritual health as well. Perhaps we could all think of this time of semi-quarantine as an invitation to some monastic introspection, some serious confrontation with the questions that matter—some purposeful sitting alone in a room.
Might I make a few suggestions in regard to our retreat? Get out your Bible and read one of the Gospels in its entirety—perhaps the Gospel of Matthew, which we are using for Sunday Mass this liturgical year. Read it slowly, prayerfully; use a good commentary if that helps. Or practice the ancient art that has been recommended warmly by the last several popes—namely, lectio divina. This “divine reading” of the Bible consists in four basic steps: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. First, read the scriptural text carefully; second, pick out one word or one passage that specially struck you, and then mediate on it, like a ruminating animal chewing on its cud; third, speak to God, telling him how your heart was moved by what you read; fourth and finally, listen to the Lord, discerning what he speaks back to you. Trust me, the Bible will spring to life when you approach it through this method.
Or read one of the spiritual classics during this time of imposed isolation. Keep in mind that, prior to the rise of the physical sciences, the best and brightest people in our Western intellectual tradition entered the fields of philosophy, theology, and spirituality. One of the dark sides of our post-Enlightenment culture is a general forgetfulness of the astonishing richness produced by generations of brilliant spiritual teachers. So take up St. Augustine’s Confessions, preferably in Maria Boulding’s recent translation, which reads like a novel, or Frank Sheed’s classic translation. Though he lived and wrote seventeen centuries ago, the spiritual seeker of our time will discern in Augustine’s story the contours and trajectories of his own. Or read the Rule of St. Benedict, especially the section on the twelve degrees of humility. If you dare, follow St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, preferably under the direction of a good guide (who doesn’t have the coronavirus!). If these texts and practices seem too dated, spend your quiet time with Thomas Merton’s splendid autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which, in compelling prose, tells the story of the twentieth-century author’s journey from self-absorbed worldling to Trappist monk.
And of course, pray. When Merton was once asked what is the most important thing a person could do to improve her prayer life, he replied, “Take the time.” Well, now we have more time. Do a Holy Hour every day or every other day. Dust off your rosary, which I think is one of the most sublime prayers in the Catholic tradition. When we pray it well, we meditate on the mysteries of Christ; we call to mind, fifty times, the inevitability our own passing (“now and at the hour of our death”); and we entrust ourselves to the most powerful intercessor on earth or in heaven. Not a bad way to spend twenty minutes. Take the time at the end of the day to examine your conscience—and not in a cursory manner. Do it carefully, prayerfully, honestly. Ask yourself how many times in the course of the day you missed an opportunity to show love, how many times you did not respond to a grace, how often you fell into a habitual sin.
Now that we’re being asked to keep a certain distance from our fellow human beings, embrace the solitude and silence in a spiritually alert way. Go for that long walk on the beach, across the fields, up in the hills—wherever you like to go to be alone. And just talk to God. Ask him what he wants you to do. Pray for your kids or your parents or your friends who might be struggling. Tell him how much you love him and how you want greater intimacy with him. And please put away the iPhones! Open your eyes, lift up your heads, and take in the beauty of God’s creation and thank him for it.
If Pascal is right, many of our deepest problems can be solved by sitting, with spiritual attention, alone in a room. Perhaps through God’s strange providence, the quarantine we’re enduring might be our chance.