I’ll return to the shame theme in due course but in the meantime and given the situation these thoughts seemed more relevant.
Self-isolation offers an extended retreat – of sorts.
Seeing it as a retreat is one possible way of viewing what is happening and the enforced restriction on our activities. Thomas Merton wrote about how being apart from the other monks in the hermitage was his way of doing it. He wrote to Rosemary Radford Ruether in March 1967 about the hermit life.
The letter, Merton admits later, is somewhat defensive as he was reacting to her accusation that he, Merton, was cutting himself off in some ways from the world and the struggle for justice in the world by retreating into the woods. In our current pandemic we are not willingly retreating into the forest, but metaphorically we are retreating to our individual cells. In his defence of monastic concerns, Merton sees that these ultimate concerns are in fact human and universal. It’s about stripping off the veneer of the social world and reducing oneself to ‘a plain, simple’ person. Merton continues: ‘This condition of mere humanity does not require solitude in the country, it can be and should be realised anywhere. This is just my way of doing it. What would seem to others to be the final step into total alienation seems to me to be the resolution of all alienation and the preparation for a real return without masks and without defences into the world, as mere man.’
I like the idea of returning to the world after time apart without masks. The actual face mask has become such a symbol of our contamination and fear of being infected by or infecting one another; but the infection that does not recognise nationality, race, faith, gender and sexuality reminds us that there is more that unites than divides us. The psychological masks and defences are usually what we use to present ourselves to the world; if they begin to be dismantled as we have time out maybe we can see that they are less needed.
The Hidden Ground of Love pp.508