ONCE IN MY LIFE, I experienced an equivalent of a thirty-day lockdown.  As a Jesuit scholastic, together with a handful of co-novices, we underwent St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises – a thirty- day retreat at the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches. 

We kept our physical distance, practiced isolation and adhered to a rule of strict silence.  What lessons did I learn then that can somehow be relevant for us during this period of Corona Virus quarantine imposed in different places today?

  1. RE-PURPOSE.  The most important thing, to my mind, as we prepared for the experience of thirty days of silence was to re-purpose this time of our lives; acquire a sense of mission, and to find meaning and purpose in what we were doing.  We wanted to be better persons-for-others, and to be better instruments in the work we had set out to do, and we believed that undergoing thirty days of solitude was a worthwhile price to pay.
  • ROUTINIZE.  We woke up at 5am, prayed and meditated, had breakfast, worked at the kitchen or the corridors, listened to the Novice master who gave “points for meditation”, walked quietly, took a brief nap after which we worked in the gardens, and followed a schedule regularly.  I looked forward to the evening walk along the path to the gate under the skies at night before going to bed.  I, for one, pretended to talk with the stars, and once in a while would pinpoint a “best friend” among the stars in the evening skies.
  • RE-FOCUS.  We had to re-focus and motivate ourselves at every step of the way.  It was one thing at a time, one step at a time, and at that time, praying the rosary seemed to be a good exercise in concentrating on one prayer at a time.  We set short-term goals that helped us to re-focus at every turn.  We learned mindfulness, though during that time we were not then aware of the importance of that term.
  • RE-CHARGE.  Going on a thirty-day retreat can be a daunting experience similar to climbing a mountain, perhaps, or going away to explore new territory.  It was fortunate that it was also a time to re-charge and celebrate.  To rest and relax, to eat healthy and sleep well, to exercise and become a person whole again.
  • RE-ASSESS.  The time of solitude can become a time of realization, to re-assess one’s strengths and recognize one’s shortcomings and weaknesses.  In a sense, it was like a “house-cleaning” experience of doing away with the worthless and superfluous things in our lives and stocking up on what is truly essential or “what truly matters” in life.
  • RE-CONNECT.  Strangely enough, the period of isolation provides one with the capacity to re-connect with significant people in our lives.  In a strange sort of way, you re-connect with your companions in the experience not so much in words but in small acts of kindness – passing the food, sharing spaces in places where once we gathered, a knowing nod in the corridors, and respect for others though at a physical distance.  In a retreat, of course, one attempts to re-connect with one’s God.  In times like ours, however, there are amazing numbers of ways to reconnect with family and friends, loved ones and those who truly matter by means of mobile phones, wattsapp or viber, Skype or Zoom, Facebook or Twitter.
  • REALIZE.  Finally, it is one time in our lives when we can realize that we’re in this together. Though in self-isolation, we can realize that we’re in this together.  We survive together, or we can bring others down. 

Astronauts, explorers in missions to the North or South Pole, adventurers in the oceans and mountain climbers, all have their experiences of living for long stretches of time in isolation, insulated from others and learning to live with a few in close quarters.  Whatever lessons they have learned, am sure that the 7Rs enumerated above may have some relevance for their capacity to survive and accomplish their respective missions.

It is my hope, that these lessons can help us endure meaningfully and live through this quarantine experience finding a renewed sense of purpose in the days that come after the lockdown.  It will be a changed world, and hopefully we can all be persons changed for the better.