Isolation is not Incarceration

I have never been incarcerated, but I came close once. It happened when I was a young teenager. My brother, two years older than I, and another fellow comrade were at our farm in Pennsylvania when we heard a dog barking and watched as it chased a deer from our small game reserve. We quickly decided, quite unwisely, to shoot the dog, which was owned by men hunting on a nearby farm. They took us to court and my brother and friend were sentenced to a week at a juvenile detention center. I was left off the hook because there were only two guns and I, being the youngest, was last in line, so I never visited the detention center.

Years later, I needed a police clearance to get a visa for New Guinea, so I went to our town’s police station to ask for one. The officer in charge duly rifled through his 3 x 5 cards and pulled one out with my name on it. He looked at me with a smile and said, “Had a little trouble with a dog one time, did you?” “Yes,” I said rather sheepishly. He laughed and gave me the police clearance. I hope that the record wasn’t transferred later to a computer file.

Someone has used the word “incarceration” to describe the “shelter-in-place” order that we had. However, it doesn’t quite fit: we were not confined to jail or completely isolated from the general public. Nevertheless, because COVID-19 is a disease that is transmitted from individual to individual, we were told to avoid strangers, crowds and, if possible, stay at home: “shelter-in-place” is the polite terminology. But we were not really in isolation, incarcerated, with only bread and water.

However, during this pandemic, the word “isolation” and “quarantine” may engender feelings of loneliness, seclusion, and segregation. There are certainly cases of severe isolation. I recently saw a TV program about the history of West Point where the first African American to attend was “isolated” from his classmates during his entire four years. Nevertheless, he stayed at the school in virtual detention until he graduated. He performed an unusual but necessary act of bravery and paved the way for future “people of color.”

It is true that some prisoners not only face isolation but an extreme form of it: solitary confinement. We once visited a historical prison site in Australia where prisoners were led to church blindfolded and shielded from one. Solitary confinement is an extreme form of punishment that involves isolation to the extent that the prisoner has no educational, vocational, or rehabilitative programs. It is much worse than the isolation of “shelter in place.”

Seclusion can take extreme forms and some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers practiced asceticism by living in caves, cisterns and even trees. The most radical of the monks were the Stylites, the most famous of whom was Simeon, who lived on a small platform on top of his pillar for 34 years (some sources say 37 years). Despite his lifestyle—or perhaps because of it—crowds of pilgrims invaded his area to seek counsel or his prayers. No social distancing was practiced by the hordes of people who wanted his help.

Another famous hermit was St Antony, reputedly the first monk, who had to keep moving farther and farther into the desert for solitude. He ate little, wore itchy clothing, and rarely bathed. He is quoted as saying “Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells … lose the intensity of inner peace.” A fair warning to those of us who wander too far from our shelters.

We have heard of Francis of Assisi, but what about Clare of Assisi? There had been female hermits in the Egyptian desert and Clare was about 18 when she joined the movement Francis had started. Her order established the “privilege of property,” the right to own nothing. Clare’s primary contributions consisted of her writings, but she was best known for her poverty, humility, and charity. A good lesson for all of us in exile at the present time.

There is a very little difference between being lonely and being lonesome. A person who lives a lonely life has less emotional involvement with others than a person who is simply lonesome. A lonesome person may be depressed or sad because there are no friends to visit and no companionship. Sort of like having the “Covid Blues,” perhaps an appropriate name for a ragtime rendition that Monty could devise.

Jesus and his cousin John must have been close friends because when Jesus heard the news about John’s assassination he was distraught and went “to a lonely place by himself” (Matt 14:13). Sometimes, before daylight, or even all night, Jesus would go to a lonely place and pray. He did not want to be distracted in his prayers.

We should have time to pray during “lockdown,” but sometimes praying is not that simple. C. S. Lewis notes that, although there are passages in the NT that seem to promise the granting of our prayers, this cannot be what they mean. For example, Christ himself prayed three times that the cup of suffering (his death) would be eliminated, but it was not. “After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed” (in Fern-seed and Elephants (and other essays on Christianity), edited by Walter Hooper, p. 98).

In other words, simply praying that coronavirus will go away will not work. We do need to practice isolation, social distancing and take the necessary precautions to help stop the spread of the virus. I may be tired of washing my hands and not touching my face, especially when I need to itch my proboscis, but I am trying. I don’t want my name written down on another 3 x 5, or showing up as a COVID delinquent on some computer file.

Sheltering, for the most part
Karl and Joice Franklin