By way of introduction
I am Sister Judith, a member of the Benedictine community of nuns that live at Turvey Abbey, which is on the High Street at the edge of the village. I have been a member of the community for 26 years, that seems quite a long time, but in fact I’ve been here much less time than most of the others. There are nine sisters in the community. A community of monks live next door, they join us in the chapel for the services. Our life is shaped by the rule of St Benedict, a sixth century rule that sought to lay out a lifestyle that would enable people to seek God and follow the gospel.
Maybe the first thing to say about Benedictine life is that it is communal. The emphasis is very much on seeking God together. We pray together, eat together, work together (or at least at the same times and to the same ends), we wear the same clothes and take time for personal prayer at the same times. St Benedict says that we should each pursue what we judge better for others rather than what is best for ourselves, and this is an important principle for us.
Our main work is prayer. The main emphasis of our prayer is communal which means we have more time for community prayer than we do for personal prayer. Each day is shaped by a series of five services or liturgies which take place in the chapel. These are known as the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. St Benedict calls this “the work of God” and says that nothing should come before it (although there are a very few exceptions). Everything else we do, however valuable or important has to fit into this timeframe. It’s the heart of our community life and it’s what gives our days structure and meaning. The best way to give you a sense of how it shapes our lives is to include the timetable. This is the timetable that we are using during these days of lockdown. It’s slightly different from our regular timetable as we don’t have the Eucharist and it does include a little extra “free time”.
6.10 Office of Readings
8.30 Lauds (morning prayer)
9 AM – 11:30 AM: work
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM: “free time”
12.45 Midday Office
1:30 PM – 3 PM: “free time”
3 PM – 4:30 PM: work
5 PM: tea/recreation
5.45 Vespers (evening prayer)
7.30 Compline (night prayer)
The first word of the rule of St Benedict is “listen”. This call to listen and respond to the word of God is very much a focus of our lives. We are called to listen in our prayer, in Scripture, in our relationships, in our encounters and in the all the situations and circumstances of our lives. We would say that everything we do, every task, every encounter and every engagement is an opportunity to listen and respond to the presence of God who can be found in every situation. To enable this listening to take place silence has to be an important part of our lives. As far as possible we keep silence during the day, even if we are working or eating together. We have set times in the day when we come together for recreation and can have the chance to chat. From after night prayer until 9 AM we keep what we call Great Silence. During this time we would avoid any conversation or contact even by note except where it’s completely unavoidable.
17 April 2020
Yesterday the lockdown was extended for at least three more weeks. It’s what I was expecting and what I think is the wisest decision, yet, my heart still sinks a little at the prospect. The last three weeks have been the strangest and most disturbing I have lived through. That may be a sign that I have lived a relatively easy life until now, free from many of the anxieties that earlier generations accepted as normal. I’ve never given this a thought before, but I’m now very aware that I am the first generation in my family to grow up with free healthcare, a welfare state, free higher education and free from the imminent threat of war. I’ve always taken all that for granted, seeing it as a right rather than the privilege it is. I’m beginning to change my mind about that.
The situation feels very surreal. It’s a bit like living in the opening scenes of a science-fiction film where everything looks fine but there’s is this sense that it’s not and that everyone is waiting for the horror to be unleashed. I wonder if this was how the phoney war felt, full of tension and uncertainty, with a sense of impending doom, yet with life appearing to carry on as normal. I’ve always wondered what it felt like to live with that daily reality during the war, how people coped with the tension and anxiety as they carried on with daily life as best they could. I feel like I’m beginning to find out now and I can’t help feeling that I’d rather be hearing about it second hand from other people’s stories.
In some ways one of the strangest things for me at the moment is that day-to-day our monastic life hasn’t changed much. We made a few adjustments to the timetable, but not very many, and we would have been making adjustments for Holy Week and Easter anyway. For the most part the shape of our day is the same, we follow the same pattern of prayer and work that we always have. As we are all well and are one household we are able to carry on with our liturgies, except for the Eucharist, although we are not allowed to have guests in the chapel. As a general rule we don’t go out unless it’s necessary anyway. Since lockdown we have interpreted “necessary” more strictly than we normally would, so fewer of us there are going out than usual and we are generally all here for most of the liturgies. It’s a bit like going back in time to an older form of monasticism. In some ways it feels like we’ve come back to the core of our lives, to the basics of monastic life, prayer and work. I’m sure that has the potential to be a blessing for us, and that it might give us the opportunity to rediscover forgotten riches, but it’s also quite a challenge.
The most noticeable difference is having no guests either in the guesthouse or the Chapel. Although we have regular closed times throughout the year it’s extremely rare for us to have no guests join us for the liturgy. It was especially strange over Holy Week and Easter when the chapel would normally be quite full. I know that many people would have found it helpful to be able to worship with us in these difficult times. I am sorry that they are not able to, and yet I am enjoying and benefiting from the unexpected space that it’s giving us. It does make the Chapel feel like a very intimate and prayerful place just now.
As guest mistress I’m a bit surprised that having the guesthouse closed doesn’t seem to have left me with very much more time. So far it doesn’t seem to have made a great difference to my workload. Of course, the first week we were closed I was busy cancelling bookings and arranging refunds and since then we’ve been caught up in Holy Week and Easter. We didn’t go back to our normal timetable until Tuesday, it might be that I notice a bigger difference then. One of the striking things about the situation is what a mixed bag it is. There’s all the fear, anxiety and uncertainty, sometimes I feel like I don’t know which direction to worry in first. Already, I’m finding it hard to imagine how we’ll get out of this situation. There also seems to be “good things” coming out of the situation, things I hope that as a community and as a society we are able to take forward into whatever new reality emerges. I feel a little guilty even suggesting that at the moment when so many people are struggling to manage.
I’m noticing how quiet the road is. Both my bedroom and my office are at the front of the Abbey, so I’m usually very aware of the constant hum of traffic going past. In normal circumstances it feels like that pretty much goes on 24/7, though I’m not sure that’s actually the case. It’s been much quieter the past few weeks, while that has been lovely in many ways it has definitely added to the sense of strangeness for me. It’s also been a lovely opportunity, giving me the chance to cycle on the road during the week. I would never normally risk that, but I have been enjoying being able to do it. I would like to think that in future roads would be less busy and safer for cyclists and walkers. Even as I enjoy the quiet I’m praying for the people who normally rely on being able to use the road and whose lives are more difficult because they can’t use it now.
I’ve always found Turvey a friendly village, people tend to greet each other when they’re out walking or cycling. Since the lockdown has begun that has increased and people have started to ask if we’re all well and to check that we have everything we need. I find that heart-warming and encouraging. Generally it seems to me that people are becoming kinder and more considerate since the virus started. I noticed it first on social media. There just seems to be more attempts to encourage and support each other than to put people down or argue than there were before the lockdown started. It’s as if it’s reminded us that people matter, that how we speak to each other, whether face-to-face or via social media makes a huge difference, that we can make the world a better place by the way we choose to speak to each other and support each other.
I am aware that this seems a very global statement and it’s based on my limited engagement with social media, but it does seem to be a real difference in my little corner of the internet and I hope it continues and spreads. People are really trying to find ways of using the Internet to support and encourage one another. I know that’s not the whole story, it never is, but I am trying to take heart from it. If we can do it in this crisis, maybe will be able to carry on doing it when we come out the other side.
18 April 2020
Looking back at what I wrote yesterday I wondered if I was beginning to sound a bit “Pollyannaish” (I really don’t like “Pollyanna”) and I certainly didn’t mean to sound like that. These are truly hard and challenging times, that are bringing real hardship and suffering to very many people. I don’t want to belittle that, and alongside that I am aware that there are signs of hope, glimmers of the silver lining now and then. I think as the situation goes on we may all be well served by noticing those glimmers and doing what we can to maximise their effect. Not that that will take the challenges away, it won’t, but it might help lighten the burden. What may seem like little acts of kindness, love and support will help us through this storm. I hope and pray that they will also outlast the lockdown and pandemic… And even if they don’t, even if we fall back into old ways as soon as it’s over, they will have helped us through this time, and that in itself is something to be grateful for.
Today I woke up to grey skies, cold winds and heavy rain. My immediate thought is that lockdown will be harder on days like this, it will take more effort to go out for exercise, it’s much easier to be cheerful, positive and encouraging when the skies are blue, even if it’s cold. It’s not that Turvey and the surrounding countryside isn’t just as beautiful in the rain, or that my life is any less privileged, it’s just that I have to work much harder to notice it on dull days.
I have a feeling that in these next few weeks the lockdown is going to get more challenging. Even with the uncertainty and anxiety there has been a certain amount of novelty about the first three weeks. It’s felt a bit like an extended Easter break. I think the novelty value will begin to wear thin and that we will have to work a bit harder at keeping going and maybe especially at keeping ourselves sane and cheerful. It’s going to take a bit of discipline and self-control as well as gentleness and compassion for ourselves and everybody else. It’s so easy to write those things. The reality is they are hard work at the best of times, and even harder work just now. I don’t want to sound gloomy (I clearly seem to have buried Pollyanna today!) But I do find it easier if I start by admitting that what we are being asked to do is hard. It seems more possible to make the effort if the hard work is acknowledged.
19 April 2020
I can hardly believe it’s Low Sunday already. The Easter vigil both seems a long time away and like it was only yesterday. Usually we would have the Sunday Eucharist at 10:15 AM, in the middle of the morning. It makes Sundays feel quite busy as I like to fit a cycle ride in before the Eucharist when the roads are quiet. As we are not able to celebrate the Eucharist at the moment we’ve altered the timetable and we have a much longer space on Sunday morning. In many ways this is lovely as it gives me time to cycle and take time for prayer, reflection, reading, journaling etc… without feeling rushed. I’m not quite sure that my body clock has caught up with the change and I keep trying to squeeze things into a shorter timeframe than I need to. I have a feeling that we may well be back to our normal timetable before my body clock catches up with this change, and that would be a pity.
We generally have a big congregation for the Sunday Eucharist. There are some people who come from the village or not far away. Others come from further away. Many of them have been coming for a long time, they are familiar faces and people we know quite well. Some of them have connections with the community that go back much further than mine does. I think there is at least one person who was baptised in our chapel in Cockfosters. In morning prayer this morning I found myself wondering how they all are, if they are safe and well and getting all the help and support they need. I wonder if, like me, they are finding the change to their Sunday routine a strange mixture of the disconcerting and the pleasurable. As I cycled to Harrold this morning church bells were ringing somewhere in the distance. I don’t know which church they came from. I’m assuming that it was some mechanical ringing arrangement rather than actual ringers, but I enjoyed hearing them drifting across the fields in the wind. It was a lovely taste of normality in these strange times.
It reminded me of one of the things I love about our Sunday Eucharist, we often hear the bells from All Saints during our celebration. The sound always strikes me as a lovely reminder that we are all praying together, even if we belong to different denominations and are in separate buildings. I think that’s an even more important thought to hang onto while our church buildings are closed than it is normally. So this Low Sunday as I go into our services, I am carrying with me all the people in our village who are praying at home because they can’t go to church. They are all helping to keep alive the flame of hope and love that still unites us in Christ even if we are physically separated from one another.
22 April 2020
The past few days have been quite busy. It’s been the oddest mixture of the normal activities that I would do week in week out, and some unusual things that I would never have dreamt of doing before the lockdown. The mornings were the usual mix of liturgy and laundry as is the case at the beginning of every week. I like the laundry because it has a sense of achievement and completion to it. I start the morning with baskets of dirty laundry and mostly by the end of the morning they’re washed, dried and waiting to be folded. A lot of my other work is ongoing and it’s rare that I get to do something that has such a definite sense of completion to it. The afternoons took a completely different direction. On Monday I took part in a Zoom discussion on compassion for TEDxStormont. I was invited by one of the organisers who came here on retreat. The other participants were Lord Alderdice a Liberal Democrat peer and the Irish poet and theologian, Padraig O’Tuama, whose work I greatly admire.
It was a strange experience, being my first time using Zoom or any other sort of digital conferencing app. Not being able to see people made it much harder to gauge their responses which made it difficult for me to pitch what I was saying. It was also quite nerve wracking because I was taking part with people who are vastly more experienced than me in these situations and I did feel that I was punching above my weight. I really wasn’t sure how the technology was going to work and what I was going to be able to do if it didn’t. I had had a few practice sessions with a friend beforehand who was very patient and give me lots of good tips, I think that helped.
I always find these sorts of things quite tiring, but I think doing it digitally was even more tiring. Normally I would get some energy from the physical presence of other people and from the engagement with them, not having that made it more exhausting and challenging. At the end of it I had absolutely no idea of how it had gone, and can’t begin to imagine how I could possibly have judged that. Since then I’ve had some positive feedback from people who took part, so I’m beginning to think that it was probably okay for a first attempt. If I was to do something like that again there are things I would do differently. At the very least I’d like to think that on another occasion I’d be bolder about rephrasing or redirecting some of the questions I was asked. It was a good thing to do, and I was glad to be asked, but it was definitely a challenge.
It’s also made me aware that I need to up my game on the tech side of things. I’ve never really used any of the video chat or video conferencing apps, I’ve never really seen the need for them. As a general rule, I’m not particularly bothered about being able to see people when I’m speaking to them on the phone. I think one of the things the lockdown will change is my attitude to all of that. I’m already beginning to use video chat more often. I see several people for spiritual direction. When the lockdown began I cancelled all my appointments, but as it has continued I am thinking about other ways of keeping in touch. I feel that people may need the chance to talk and have some support from outside their households. Even more than they would usually. So yesterday I “met” with one of my regular directees for spiritual direction. Normally she comes to the Abbey and we meet in the guesthouse. As that wasn’t possible we decided to use FaceTime. I found that it worked quite well. I was more relaxed about it than I was about the Zoom conference. I think that’s partly because the technology might be easier to use one to one than in a group, and partly because I’m a bit more experienced in spiritual direction, so I was better able to gauge how it was going. I’ve also booked another appointment later in the week by telephone, much as I am beginning to see the potential in video chats for this sort of work I’m quite relieved that the next meeting is by telephone, at least I know how that bit of technology works!
24 April 2020
Yesterday afternoon I had a telephone meeting with one of my directees. I think it went quite well. Now that I’ve done these meetings by video chat and by phone I’m going to contradict myself and say that I think I find it easier to do them on video chat. Doing it on the regular phone was much more exhausting. I found I had to listen much more intently than I would in a face-to-face meeting because I wasn’t able to pick up on any of the nonvisual clues I normally rely on. I know that the American broadcaster, Krista Tippett, says that relying just on audio deepens the listening experience. That may well be true for an experienced radio presenter like her, but I’m not there yet. I’m very aware that I have a long way to go before I get to that level. It may also be that it was particularly exhausting because it’s the first time I’ve done it. I suspect I need to improve my listening skills in both areas, but I do find spiritual direction easier when I can see the person’s face, even if it’s on a screen. To be honest I don’t think that either of these is ideal for spiritual direction. The best model is to be able to talk face-to-face in the same room. However, as that is not currently possible and we don’t know how long that will be the case for, I think this is a good enough stopgap.
Today has been a much more “normal” monastic day. By that I mainly mean that I haven’t been doing anything unusual on the digital front. I’ve mostly been doing very ordinary tasks, I spent some time sanitising door handles and light switches, I’ve answered a few emails, I’ve written a post for our Facebook spirituality page which it seems especially important to keep going at the moment. I’ve also started to do some sorting in the library. I’m community librarian but I rarely get time to do anything except to make a note of new titles that come into the house. Since the lockdown I’ve managed to do a little more, sorting through some books that were given to us by one of our regular guests several years ago. I’m also trying to sort out the Benedictine section of our library. It’s one of our most used sections, it’s not that big and is possibly more straightforward than some of the other sections to sort so it seemed a good place to start. So far what I have learned is that library work is slow, slow, slow. I’ve managed a bit of cataloguing and rearranged maybe two shelves! It would be nice to think that by the end of the lockdown I had at least sorted out this one section, but, seeing how slowly it’s going, I can’t say I’m feeling very hopeful.
It’s another lovely day, sunny and bright. The air seems very clear and I think it makes all the colours more vibrant. The garden, and all of the village is looking glorious, I’m not sure if this is a real difference or a perceptual one, or if that even matters. I’m enjoying the quiet and the beauty, it’s calming and soothing and sometimes it’s almost possible to forget why it’s happening. It does strike me as a bit ironic that as the situation makes us all more aware of how precarious and fragile modern life is nature appears more beautiful than ever.
26 April 2020
The last few days have been much more challenging. I seem to have been much more aware, and disturbed by the uncertainty of everything we are living through. Some days I go through my regular routine and everything seems normal. Other days I’m very aware of the stress and tension of the situation and it can quickly come to feel like too much. When that starts to happen I realise I have to find ways of keeping myself going. Monastic wisdom would suggest that these times that the best thing we can do is be faithful to our timetable, just keep turning up at the next thing, doing the next task. That can feel very counterintuitive, more often than not it feels like the last thing I want to do when life is challenging. But, as I’ve been feeling a bit swamped in the last few days I decided to give it a serious shot… And it’s worked I’m feeling more balanced and grounded than I was, and I’ve managed to fit in quite a few of the things that matter to me and that I enjoy. Apart from the liturgy Sunday is largely a free day for us, or at least “as free as we can make it”. Despite having felt a bit overwhelmed and disorientated to begin with, or maybe even because I started out feeling like that, I feel as though I’ve managed to use the day fairly profitably.
I’ve just listened to a podcast interview with a friend of mine who is an Anglican priest in Cardiff. She is parish priest of a large, underprivileged parish. It’s made me see how much more devastating the situation is for other people than it is for us. I know very few people affected directly by this virus. My friend is very much on the frontline, dealing with the fallout from job loss, illness, mental and physical, trying to arrange funerals that are loving and compassionate and appropriately distanced. It’s made me realise how many people the situation is pushing over the edge, and that has made Turvey feel very safe and protected.
27 April 2020
Today were having our monthly desert day. It’s a kind of retreat day where we take as much space for ourselves as possible. Instead of our usual timetable we start the day at 8:30 AM with morning prayer, then we worked until 12 and the rest of the day is free. As all the rest of the liturgy is in private we have the opportunity to have an early night if we need it. It gives us a chance to work on projects that take a longer time. Much as I find timetable a helpful framework it does mean that our day is generally quite broken up and it can be hard to find time for jobs and activities that need longer to complete. I am trying to decide whether to spend part of the time taking part in a Zoom discussion, not really because I’m interested in the discussion, but so that I can learn to use the technology more effectively. I have some time before I have to decide, but I have to see at the moment it doesn’t feel like the most beneficial way for me to use this precious bit of time.
Every so often, despite my best efforts the sense of anxiety and uncertainty comes back. There are so many frustrating unknowns about all of this. We don’t know how long this will go on, how long it will affect us, how we will emerge or what kind of world we will emerge into. We can’t possibly begin to know the answers to those things yet, but I have to admit that the not knowing is unsettling.
I had an email from someone the other day who said of the village “In this area the elderly aren’t isolated – everyone is offering help”. I think that’s a lovely comment on our village life. The seeds of it were there before lockdown and it’s something that I hope we are able to continue and build on after it’s over.
Life does seem to have slowed down to a more gentle pace, I think that’s a good thing and hope it continues. Even as I write this I can hear that the traffic is increasing outside the window, I guess that’s inevitable, but I would like to think it wouldn’t quite go back to being the way it was before. It’s been so lovely watching the air clear and nature begin to breathe again. I hope we find ways of preserving the improvements to our environment that we’ve already seen even in these few weeks.
28 April 2020
I had today all planned out, and it’s gone completely off track. It started out fine. I had a telephone appointment with my own spiritual director which I found both good and helpful. For the rest of the morning I’d planned to exercise, finish the laundry, do some journaling and phone a friend who has her birthday today. Most of that didn’t happen! I had an unexpected phone call from my aunt. It was lovely to chat to her as we haven’t spoken for a long time, and it threw all my plans for the rest of the day completely out of sync. It’s taken me almost the rest of the day to catch back up on things and that’s left me feeling rushed and frustrated.
I’m wondering if there is a lesson in all this for me, maybe to be more flexible and less controlling! At the best of times flexibility would not be my greatest strength, but as soon as things start to get stressful my tendency is to micromanage everything. I guess that’s why I had such a carefully planned out morning arranged in the first place. It’s partly a response to the uncertainty that we’re all living through. Maybe it’s also good as well as challenging, to have the reminder that I can’t control everything and fit it into my plans.
7 May 2020
I’ve never been great with numbers, and the bigger they are the harder it is for me to find any kind of connection with them. It’s been one of the things I found hard about this pandemic. As we’ve heard of increasingly large numbers of people dying or seriously ill it’s been harder remember that these are not just statistics, but real people. It takes a real effort to remember that each one of the 30,000 is an individual. Each of them had plans, hopes and dreams that have been cut short. They each had a network of relationships, family, friends, enemies, neighbours and colleagues who are grieving their loss and having to learn to live without them. The number of deaths is beginning to drop, but is still so high that it’s hard to keep any sense of the individuals behind the numbers. It’s tempting to think “it’s only 383 deaths today, it’s getting better, and to forget the real people and real suffering these numbers represent.
Often the really big things in life are better expressed in poetry than prose, I’m not sure why that is and I’m not about to try and analyse that. I’ve found that Padraig O’Tuama’s poem, “The pedagogy of conflict” helps me to bridge the gap between the numbers and the real people and stories behind them. The poem was a response to the troubles in Northern Ireland, another situation where statistics sometimes desensitised us to real-life stories. I’ve been finding it helpful to read the poem every day after I’ve heard the latest figures. It helps me to remember that each one of these huge numbers we are hearing is the first time a particular life has been taken. It’s the first time that person has died, it’s the first time a family has had to learn to live with the yawning gap that left when a loved one dies. Here is a link to the poem:
8 May 2020
Because today is a bank holiday I have a free afternoon. As the reason for the free time is the 75th anniversary of VE Day I’m listening to a bit of Benny Goodman as I write this. It’s impossible not to feel cheerful listening to a big-band, I can see why it kept people’s spirits up during the war. It does seem a little bit strange to be having a bank holiday on a Friday instead of on a Monday, I remember being a bit surprised when the change was announced. Now I’m struck by how none of us could have imagined what we’d be living through by the time that bank holiday came round! We couldn’t have known that across Europe planned celebrations would be cancelled or curtailed. We couldn’t have guessed that where celebrations did go ahead it would be in the midst of such anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Yet here we are, celebrating as best we can and making the best of what is very definitely a plan B. It’s made me think back to the war. It’s a time I think we often look at through the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia so that it seems to be all about pulling together, street parties and reunions. Much as I love that idea I don’t think the reality can have been that straightforward.
The anniversary landing in the middle of the pandemic has made me think about what it might really have been like. I know there was celebration, relief, dancing in the streets and church bells ringing at the end of the war in Europe. Yet it was a celebration in the midst of heartbreak, pain, loss and uncertainty. Our sister Anne was on active service with the ATS in Belgium on VE Day. She had just heard of her brother’s death on the last of the Russian convoys she certainly didn’t feel much like partying on that day. Instead she went on retreat at a local monastery, our mother house! That was the start of a whole new journey for her. There must be thousands of other people like her. People who had lost loved ones, or were waiting anxiously to hear if they had. People who still had family fighting or imprisoned in the East. People across war-ravaged Europe whose cities, towns and communities had been destroyed by the fighting. People whose families had disappeared into concentration camps and prison camps.
Today, as I remember them and look back I wonder if our celebration this year might be closer to the reality of the mixed experience of those first VE day celebrations. In the uncertain reality of pandemic and lock down we can draw strength from their perseverance and sacrifice. We can find hope in their ability to celebrate in the midst of all that pain, loss and uncertainty. I think this year especially we can identify with their fears and anxieties in ways that have not been possible before. This understanding gives the celebrations an extra depth and meaning that they might not otherwise have had. I hope it will give us courage and fortitude to face whatever comes to us in the coming weeks and months.
12 May 2020
The government has begun to ease the lockdown restrictions. I have to confess that I’m a bit puzzled about the rationale behind the decision. I realise the importance of getting the economy moving again and of getting people back to work and school. Yet, for all we have been told that everything is being done on the basis of scientific evidence I’m not convinced that it’s safe to begin to start changing things. I’m not at all sure that this won’t just lead to another flareup, worse than the first. The uncertainty about what we mean by “easing the lockdown” and how we might safely do that is making me quite anxious.
I keep reminding myself that the current changes will make very little difference to us. Our work and routine will carry on pretty much as it has done since the lockdown began. Yet, as I see changes beginning to happen, and as I hear the traffic increase on the road again I am very aware that there are issues we need to be thinking about, questions that we’ve put aside because we haven’t been able to answer them. We still can’t answer them, but they are more pressing now and we need to start thinking about them. I’m guest mistress and I have a myriad of questions about how and when we will be able safely to open our guesthouse again, what sort of extra cleaning regimes will we have to think about? How many guests we will safely be able to fit in? Will I ever be able to convince any guest to share a bathroom again, and should I even be trying to?
I’m part of a group of monastic guest masters and guest mistresses that meet every two years. We last met in January. I can’t quite believe how much things have changed since then. We’ve been in touch by email over the past week sharing thoughts, information and concerns about our guesthouses. Some of the communities are very much bigger than us, have much more guest accommodation or conference facilities, so some of the concerns are not relevant to us, but some are. I’ve several documents to read through drawing out the one or two strands that are relevant to our situation. As we are closed until the middle of July at least I have a little time to work with this.
15 May 2020
I’m getting used to seeing people for spiritual direction via Zoom, WhatsApp or FaceTime. Apart from the connection not being very good on one of the calls it was fine. It’s something that I would never have dreamt of doing before. I have one or twice been asked if I would consider spiritual direction by telephone or email and have always said no, that it had to be face-to-face. However I’m discovering that meeting digitally is a perfectly viable alternative. Even apart from the pandemic I’m beginning to realise that there are situations where it could be useful to offer to meet with people electronically. I feel as though this is broadening my horizons and my understanding of what it is to offer spiritual direction. I would still say it’s a plan B, but it’s one that has far more potential than I had expected.
Today we have our monthly day of recollection. It’s a retreat day for the community. We have no recreation together during the day and we have extra time for personal prayer at the end of the morning.
I’ve gone through the document from the hospitality industry that Father Oliver from Douai sent. There are only two or three sentences that are relevant to us, but it got my mind working and I’ve managed to make a rough list of the things we need to think about before the guesthouse can be open again. I feel very much less anxious having done that. I think that is for two reasons, I’ve realised that it’s not a huge amount, and that it will be manageable. Also, making the list gave me a sense of controlling the little part of this situation that I can. The reality is that it will be some time before we’re able to open again. For now I’m perfectly happy to file the notes/suggestions I’ve made until we need them. We are living in such uncertain times, with so many unknown and unknowable factors that my list might become irrelevant or redundant. I don’t mind about that, for the moment having the list gives me a sense that there is a tiny patch of organisation in the midst of a sea of uncertainty, and that is helpful. I don’t really think of myself as an organised person, and I’m certainly not tidy! But I am finding that a bit of organisation is quite soothing in such uncertain times.
19 May 2020
Our cook is on holiday this week. It means that instead of having communal meals prepared for us we each catering for ourselves. It’s a bit of a treat for us to be able just to go to the fridge and choose what we feel like eating. We’ve also decided to have a rest week while the cook is on holiday. We’ve altered the liturgy and are having the afternoons “as free as possible”. So the timetable for the week is:
Lauds: 8:30 AM
Vespers: 5:45 PM
Office of Readings, Midday Office and Compline are all in private. It will give us a chance to have extra time for rest, relaxation, prayer, reading, exercise or creative activities. The one exception to this is Thursday, as it is the feast of Ascension we are having the full liturgy for the day starting with First Vespers on Wednesday evening. I have to say I’m especially pleased about the chance to sleep in in the morning. I’m finding the whole lockdown experience quite exhausting, I’m not really sure why. I think it’s probably the uncertainty and the anxiety that it’s engendered. It feels like we’re on shifting sands, constantly moving from one uncertainty to another, especially as the lockdown eases and we don’t know what we’ll be facing in the future.
I have big plans for this rest week. My main work project is to use some of the longer stretches of time to do the online safeguarding course that I need to complete. Most of the units need more time than I can generally find at a stretch. I am unlikely to get them all done but I hope to make a good start. I’d also like to take some time for leisure activities. I’ve always wanted to learn to draw but have never known where to start. Having taught infants to write I’ve always had the feeling that the processes we used to teach handwriting, moving from tracing to copying to freestyle could work with drawing too. I’ve never yet found an artist who agreed with me about that, and have found some who very strongly disagree! But this weekend I found a YouTube series by a children’s book illustrator, Shoo Rayner, called “Everyone can draw”. I’d looked at other drawing courses and books, but they’ve all that seem to start further along the process then I need. It’s always felt like there were a few basic steps missing. This course seems to cover those steps, it starts really slowly and at the very beginning. I’m quite excited about it, and, while it does take practice and time I’m finding that I can do the things he suggested with reasonable results. I don’t expect to suddenly become a great artist or anything like that, I don’t even want to be. It’s just that I’ve always thought I’d enjoy being able to draw if I could do it reasonably well. So I hope to get some time to practice some drawing during this week as well.
21 May 2020
Today we’re celebrating the feast of Ascension. It signals a change of tone and emphasis in the Eastertide liturgies as the focus shifts towards Pentecost. It’s a lovely feast, yet it’s always seemed to me to be tinged with sadness and uncertainty. I imagine that the first disciples were just beginning to get used to the presence of the risen Christ when he leaves them again. All the hope and joy of the feast doesn’t take away that sense of uncertainty. It means that the feast has a particularly strong resonance this year. As we face the new uncertainty of how to ease lockdown and return to some sort of “normality” I find myself identifying with those first disciples in their confusion and uncertainty.
The combination of hope, joy uncertainty and fear that must have made up the first Ascension Day is very much mirrored in this experience of pandemic and lockdown that we are living through. For all the blessings, hope and kindnesses of these past months there is also a fair amount of pain, fear and uncertainty. Maybe one of the things we can learn from celebrating the feast in these circumstances is to accept that life is a mixed bag of joy and sorrow, pain and delight, it may be that it’s in the mixture that we can discover the real triumph of the risen Christ.
22 May 2020
Now that Ascension is over we are very much focused on looking forward to Pentecost. The changes obvious in the hymns, antiphons and readings, but it is also apparent in the appearance of the chapel itself. As we go through the liturgical year from season to season the decor in the chapel changes. Each season has its own wall hangings and lectern falls that are designed to highlight its spiritual themes. In the space of lockdown we’ve moved through several liturgical seasons. We started with the starkness of the plain cross and no flowers or musical accompaniment of Lent. Now we’ve moved through the brightness of our Easter tapestry and banners to the red and gold of the Pentecost tapestry. On one level this all feels like small changes, but the reality is much bigger than that. On the surface it changes the appearance of the chapel and its acoustic, so even though we are praying and singing in the same way we sound different. On a deeper level our Pentecost tapestry moves us forward, drawing us to reflect on the gifts we hope to receive from the Holy Spirit, and on how we might use them to help rebuild and remould our world.
I can find the change from one season to another a bit jarring. This is especially true in Eastertide as it is my favourite season. But I do think the physical change is valuable it reminds me that faith is dynamic and not static. The call to follow Christ doesn’t allow us to get settled or stuck in our ways, it’s always leading us onto the next thing asking us to let go of what seems safe and familiar and to embrace the uncertainty and unknowing of following Christ.
In the lockdown that reminder of change has seemed extra powerful to me. The gentle jarring of the changes in the chapel have made me more aware of the unsettling effects of the lockdown, and the sometimes more unsettling effects of it beginning to ease. This Pentecost I really do feel like we’re stepping out into the unknown, not just individually but as a community, a church and a society. We have no idea where the next step will lead us. We can no longer tell ourselves that our lives will continue on the regular and smooth path we expect. In reality I know that life is no more precarious than it was before, but we are much more aware of its’ precarious nature than we were , and now that we have that awareness it’s impossible to hide from it. That’s an unsettling and disturbing thought, it’s made me realise how much I need and want those gifts of the Spirit to be the driving force behind whatever grows out of this time
27 May 2020
On Saturday I took part in a zoom conference with a group of religious sisters and brothers. We had arranged a meeting about our use of social media just before the lockdown and had to cancel it. Someone suggested that we tried meeting on zoom instead. It was a really good meeting, we were able to share ideas about using social media and the different apps we have been using to reach people during the lockdown. Most of the group are much more experienced in using digital media than I am so it was a great opportunity to learn how to do things and to ask questions. We are planning another meeting in a month or so, and I now feel as though I have a group of people that I can contact to ask for help and advice about doing things online, which will be very helpful. It’s encouraged me to make an Eastertide video, which I have been thinking about doing for several years.
On Sunday I was interviewed for three counties radio breakfast programme. They wanted to know a bit about my vocation, about monastic life in general and about our experience of the lockdown. I was nervous, but I did enjoy it and I think it went well. The presenter was very nice and seemed genuinely interested. It did help that I had the questions beforehand and so felt reasonably well prepared. It was good to have a chance to tell people something about our lives here and about how lockdown affects us. The thing that really surprised me is how Scottish I sounded! I thought after 40 years in England that my Scottish accent had softened, but it really didn’t sound like it on Sunday.
Our rest week is over I didn’t do nearly as much with it as I thought I might but I did work in some of the areas I’d planned to, which was good. Nothing got finished, and I feel as though I’ve got a lot of things left half done which is frustrating. On the other hand I do feel rested and ready to go back to our usual timetable and that feels like a good result.
30 May 2020
I’ve stepped back from watching the news. I’ve only been watching once a day anyway, but at the moment even that feels too much. It’s unsettling and disturbing and makes me feel that everything is falling apart. I have to confess that I am not at all sure how far we can trust any of our leaders in this situation. I appreciate that I have to know what’s going on, but constantly hearing the same news and arguments rehashed again and again is less than helpful.
In the midst of this chaos I was struck by the celebration of a saint whose legacy helped shape our nation, St Bede the Venerable. It struck me that he shows us something of the best we can be as a nation, and I think in these fearful and uncertain times it’s good to be reminded of that.
Bede was a monk of Wearmouth, a theologian and historian. He’s been a favourite of mine since I studied his “ecclesiastical history of the English speaking people” at college. I always remember that one of my tutors said of him that none of the sources had a bad word to say about Bede. That would be a high accolade in any time, but is especially striking at a time when people were brutal about criticising those who disagreed with them. I am racking my brains to think about public figures who would fit that description today.
Bede entered the community at Wearmouth as a boy, and when the community fell ill with plague he helped his Abbot nurse the sick brethren. The only two survivors of that outbreak were the abbot and Bede. Bede then spent the rest of his life in his monastery, praying, studying, writing. He could have had the opportunity to travel because of his writing, but seems not to have taken it, preferring to stay at home and do his research by correspondence. I’m always touched by the simplicity and quiet dedication of his life.
This year especially his story has really given me pause for thought. Epidemic, and pandemic would been a normal part of life for Bede and his contemporaries, and for most generations between then and now. It feels to me like this epidemic has come completely out of the blue, I would never have expected to have any experience of epidemic. Rather naïvely I would have said all that was in the past and that modern medicine and technology would save us from it. As I discover how much of a myth that is I’ve become aware that it’s really only since the early 20th century, and then only in the developed world, that epidemic and pandemic have become something unusual. So now it seems like we’ve been living with a false sense of security for some time. We’ve been living with a myth that we are invincible, that there will always be a cure or treatment for whatever infects us. We’ve had a sharp reminder that however well-developed our society appears we are just as fragile and vulnerable as our ancestors were. I suspect Bede lived with more knowingly with that awareness of vulnerability than we do. I wonder if that’s what enabled him to look at his countrymen with the compassion and kindness that marks so much of his writing. I would certainly like to hope that this experience of pandemic will increase compassion and kindness in our society in an ongoing and lasting way.
31 May 2020
“Send forth your spirit Oh Lord and renew the face of the earth”
We’re celebrating Pentecost, the last day of Eastertide and the birthday of the church. It’s a feast of engagement, of going out into the world to share the good news. So it feels bit strange to be sitting writing this when I should be in Mass, celebrating the feast. Last night at our vigil the second reading began “the disciples were locked in….” My first thought on hearing it was, “I know how they feel…” One of the striking things about Pentecost this year is that, maybe for the first time, I have a real sense of the uncertainty and fear the disciples must have felt as they waited in that locked room. It’s easy to imagine that the spirit descended on them and they were never fearful, doubtful or uncertain again. The part of me that hankers after a happy ending wishes that was the case. In reality I suspect that it was no more the case for them then than it is for us today.
Pentecost seems especially baffling this year. It’s always a strange mixture of uncertainty, fear and rejoicing and proclamation. Most years the rejoicing takes over. This year I’m trying to hold all of those together in a meaningful way. I’m not sure how well I’m managing that but I have the few helpful thoughts going through my head.
For the first time this year I’m hearing a note of desperation in the accounts of the disciples gathering to pray continually. There’s a sense in which it feels like they prayed partly because they had no idea what else to do in those circumstances. There’s an element of that in our Pentecost prayers for me this year, and an element of feeling that really only the coming of the Spirit can save us in the situation.
In some ways it feels like the Spirit is already working in us in new and surprising ways. The lockdown has inspired and galvanised the church in ways I could never have imagined. We’ve been forced by circumstances to find new ways of connecting with each other, of communicating the gospel and including the excluded, during the lockdown. While in many ways it feels like we’re just as locked-in as the disciples were we are discerning new ways of reaching out to people. I’ve often felt frustrated that the church has been slow to grasp the possibilities the Internet offer us to reach out and engage with people. The lockdown has changed all that as churches use the Internet to keep connected, to support one another, to reach out and help their neighbours and to share the gospel. The coming of the Spirit enabled the disciples to be understood in any language so that they could share the gospel with the people of the day. It seems to me that this Pentecost the Spirit is giving us tools to reach out and speak to “many nations” in the language of kindness, compassion and caring that crosses all barriers because it’s the language of the heart, which can reach out and touch people’s lives even through the Internet.
13 June 2020
It’s been a very up-and-down couple of weeks. All of this is beginning to wear thin and I just want everything to go back to “normal”. Yet opening up again doesn’t feel right either, just unsettling. While we were fully locked down I could tell myself that the way forward would become clear. The reality is that there is no clarity, no cure, vaccine or immunity to this virus. It’s very much still out there and, we have to move forward in some way. It feels a bit like walking off a cliff.
I’ve read several articles recently that talk about us living in apocalyptic times. I’m never very comfortable with that sort of language, it always seems so open to misunderstanding and abuse. But if I go back to the original meaning of apocalypse, “to reveal” I can see there is a certain amount of truth in it. This experience of lockdown and pandemic is certainly revealing the cracks in our lives, individually and as a society.
I was reminded of this when I was cycling. I keep passing a broken wing mirror as I struggle up the hill on the Carlton Road. It’s completely cracked all over into small fragments, yet it still holds its shape perfectly. I don’t know how long it’s been there, since the beginning of lockdown at least I think. It pulls at me every time I pass it. Sometimes it catches my eyes because it’s glinting in the sunlight, but more and more I’ve been finding that I’m actually looking out for it. At first I thought it was just as a marker, if I get that far up the hill I’m probably going make it to the top, but recently I’ve been thinking that it’s more than that. It’s become a kind of symbol for me of what has happened to our lives and society since this virus became apparent. Many cracks have appeared in our society, some of them are new, and others have been there for a long time covered up or ignored. Now, they are being exposed along with the pain, suffering and injustice that goes with them. It feels like our lives have shattered in the way that mirror did when it hit the ground. Yet, there is undeniably beauty in the mirror, even shattered it’s a bit like a mosaic. It still catches the light and sparkles in the sunlight (and I always like a bit of sparkle). It still reflects the beauty of the changing sky, even with its cracks and gaps. I realise that it speaks to me of both the suffering and the hope, or even joy of this strange situation. It’s hard to hold those together acknowledging that both are real and valid parts of the experience. It’s so much easier either to be overwhelmed by the brokenness and pain or to brush it aside, focus on the positive, and try to paper over the cracks again. Tempting as that thought is I don’t think those cracks can be covered up now they’ve been revealed. We’re going to have to learn to live with the reality of them and the fragility they reveal, and to find what hope and beauty we can in the midst of them.
I’ve been watching the demonstrations taking place around the country and the world with some trepidation. I am horrified by what happened to George Floyd, and absolutely see why people want to demonstrate about racism as a result. In normal circumstances I’d be a hundred percent behind the demonstrations, provided they were peaceful. Yet I have to confess that in the middle of a pandemic I have some reservations. I find myself wondering if it’s the wisest thing to do and even feel as though maybe we should look for other ways of protesting, though I have no idea what those would be. It’s human instinct to gather together when we are hurt, to draw support from one another. It seems to me that one of the challenges we now have to face is to find other ways of showing solidarity and protesting that are meaningful, effective and don’t run the risk of spreading the virus. Even as I write this, I feel a bit guilty for saying this, clearly some people feel that their lives are more threatened by racism than by the virus, what right do I have to judge that? Am I only able to take that view because I’m living in a safe and privileged position? Would I be taking this view if the circumstances touched me more closely, for example if the protests were about disability?
Painful as it is there are things to be learned from all this. It shows us what we need to do to be a better society. All the areas that need fixed, racism, prejudice, poverty, homelessness, inequality etc… are glaringly obvious now, like the cracks in that mirror. Alongside that lockdown has revealed that we have the capacity to fix them if we choose to do so, look at how quickly we housed the homeless in March. As we’ve been faced by the fragmented, broken reflection of ourselves we’ve discovered (I hope) that we can be kinder, more supportive and helpful to one another. To choose to carry that on as we move out of lockdown won’t be easy, but I don’t think we can claim it’s beyond us as we might have been tempted to do before. As I’m writing this I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favourite books, “Tattoos on the heart; the power of boundless compassion” by Fr Gregory Boyle. He writes:
“Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion… [We move] ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out…We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
I think the pandemic helped us to discover that we can’t afford the “luxury” of dismissing anyone as disposable. We have to learn that everyone matters, that no one should be pushed to the margins, and that if one person suffers we are all poorer as a result.
14 June 2020
So far the only noticeable difference that the easing of lockdown has made is that the road is a bit busier. Having struggled to get used to the quietness when the lockdown began I’m now finding the increased noise quite a distraction. I’m a bit surprised by that, I’m sure that before lockdown I barely noticed it. I’m not sure if it’s because it seems faster than before or just because I’ve gotten used to the quietness. I’ve just read a blog post about the social bubbles that single people are now allowed to form. The blog, by a single woman, who found lockdown very difficult makes it clear that the move is a mixed blessing for her. I think her post touched me so deeply because if I wasn’t in community I could very easily have found myself in a similar position to her. I can’t imagine how I’d have coped, not very well I think. It’s made me aware of how fraught with challenge every change we make is going to be. However much we’re all going through this together the reality is that we have experienced it very differently, and that it leaves us with different concerns, anxieties and vulnerabilities. Part of the challenge we face now is how to take account of and value those differences as we move forward. One of the things the blogger did was make me think about the image of the bubble that’s being used. She wrote “bubbles are beautiful, and they are fragile. They float for a moment and shine and let in the light. But after a while they pop.” This image of the bubble is a very good one for what we’ve been through and what we’re going through. In their beauty and lightness they recall all the good things that had come out of this situation in so many areas. But we also need to remember that, like a bubble that pops and vanishes they could disappear if we don’t find ways of choosing to keep them alive as we move forward.
18 June 2020
I’ve been busy making cards for the past few weeks. It’s a skill I’ve acquired since I entered the monastery as we don’t buy greeting cards. If we want to give or send a card we make them. Someone once described our card making activities as being almost a cottage industry. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I’ve had to make five in as many days so I can see what she meant. If I have the ideas and the time to play around it’s an enjoyable and relaxing activity, providing at all goes to plan. It can also be frustrating when my ideas outstrip my creative skills. As I’m better at having ideas and executing them that can happen quite often. Fortunately, the ones I’ve just made have all worked out.
As I’m writing this I’m aware that it’s time to start thinking about making Christmas cards. I can hardly believe that and I never feel much like making them in the summer, especially if it’s hot. But I know that it’s far better to start them now than to wait until December and then have to do them in a rush. I’m always looking for an idea that’s quick, easy and beautiful for Christmas cards. I’ve never really found one that fits all of those categories. I mostly end up with something that’s quite complex. We have two weeks community holiday in July and I’m aiming to make a start then and get as many done as I can. As I’m writing this I can’t help wondering what position we’ll be in by the time I have to send them. I’m very aware that we started hearing about the virus towards the end of last year. I never dreamt then that it would shape and change so much of our lives for so long. Now I’m beginning to wonder where the end of the year will find us. It’s probably best to concentrate on making the cards and not to think too hard about what it might be like in December. One day at a time seems to be the best way to manage life these days. I’m very aware that’s a basic principle of spiritual life anyway, and one that I’ve never been good at. More than ever that seems a very important skill to develop.
25 June 2020
One of the church fathers, I can’t remember who, said “it is good for us to go from one feast to another.” I can sort of see his point as each feast brings us to praise God and gives us food and encouragement for our faith journeys. But in practice by the end of June I’m generally feeling a bit swamped by having gone from one feast to another. Since the end of May we’ve had Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart, St Thomas Moore and St John Fisher and the birthday of John the Baptist. When they pile on top of each other like that it begins to feel a bit overwhelming and difficult to focus on any of them. It leaves me longing for the steadiness of Ordinary Time, with it’s more simple and straightforward liturgies. I find I don’t get time to reflect properly on one feast before we run to the next in this situation. I’m glad that it’s all going to calm down a bit after the end of June.
26 June 2020
Seeing the crowds flocking to the beaches on the news has made me anxious again. It’s brought back the feeling that I had early in the lockdown, and maybe just before that, that we are sitting on a timebomb waiting for something awful to happen. Given what little we know about this virus I can’t see how we can avoid an increase in cases from this and that’s unsettling. It’s made me realise how much I hate the uncertainty of the whole situation.
Earlier this week I took part in another zoom conference with the Religious Together group. We had an interesting discussion and they have lots of ideas of things to try, or at least of programmes to look at. I’m finding that the meetings work quite well. There are definite advantages that we couldn’t have in a face-to-face meeting. We had people joining us from Australia and Ireland, which would not have happened if we had met for the day in London. Also, three of us from this community were able to take part. If the meeting had been in London all three of us wouldn’t have had the opportunity to attend because it would have left is too shorthanded at home. I really think this way of meeting has a lot of potential for religious communities to help us keep in touch and support one another in lots of areas. We all see the value of meeting together but it generally happens very rarely for a whole variety of reasons. It seems to me that zoom opens up the opportunity that makes more regular meetings a possibility for us. The lockdown has compelled those of us who might have been wary about meeting in this way to think again.
3 July 2020
We started our community holidays. Normally we have two weeks in July, 1 – 15, but this year we’ve extended it until the 19th. In normal circumstances that would mean no guests and “free” afternoons. As we’ve already been closed since March the no guest part doesn’t feel quite such a novelty. So far I’ve been using the afternoons to create another video meditation. I thought I was getting faster at these, but its’ still taken three days!
Since I finish my training as a spiritual director 13 years ago the group I trained with have met every year for a reunion. Normally they come here and we spend the day sharing, chatting praying and generally catching up with each other. As that’s not possible we’ve decided to have a mini retreat/reunion on Zoom. We should manage most of what we generally include, except for the shared meals.
We decided that the best way to manage the sharing is for everyone to write a short review of the past year and send it to the rest of the group. I thought this would be a good thing to help me see beyond Covid-19, which has so taken over our lives. I thought it would broaden my horizons to reflect and record something of life before Covid. In practice I found it incredibly hard to remember what life was like before it was overtaken by the virus. I found that either I couldn’t really remember things or they no longer seem to be important or relevant. It brought home to me again how much life has changed since Covid. It’s like a giant full stop and we’ve had to start everything from scratch again. I’ve been using Zoom for work for a while now and find it useful both for group discussions and one-to-one conversations. This is the first time I’ve tried to use it to connect with a group of friends. I am looking forward to it, to seeing everyone and to catching up. And I wonder if it will work, will we feel as connected as we do when we meet up.
I feel like I’ve over scheduled myself in the coming week. I’m on zoom most of Saturday, I have a 2½ hour zoom meeting for retreat wardens on Monday afternoon, several people for spiritual direction. I’d never have arranged that amount of things face-to-face in the same week. It wouldn’t even have been possible. I suspect I am going to find it quite overwhelming. I will need to think a bit more about boundaries and scheduling around online meetings and encounters, just as I would with face-to-face ones. I’ve been watching other people discuss just this dilemma on their social media for weeks, so I am bit annoyed with myself for having fallen into the same trap.
5 July 2020
I had a lovely gathering on Zoom yesterday with my friends. It was quite different from using it for work related things, it was much more relaxing and less exhausting. It wasn’t as good as being together, but it was refreshing and invigorating. I feel nearly as good as I would have done if we’d met up. It was lovely to see everyone’s faces and to hear their experiences of lockdown and what was going on in their lives. I think it helped that we had two meetings with a break in the middle. That’s the same pattern as we normally have used, only the break would have been for a shared lunch. We decided not to try to replicate the lunch on zoom and I’m glad we didn’t try. I think it would only have made us aware of what we were missing, I don’t see how we could have replicated the casual chat that we normally have over lunch and I think would just have been frustrating to try. It was also good to have a screen break in the day.
Balanced against missing the shared lunch was the opportunity for people to join us for part of the day. There were several people who had other commitments, and in normal circumstances they would have had to miss the whole day, but on zoom they could join us for part of the time at least. So I feel that the things that were lost were balanced by real and valuable gains.
I’ve just listened to the audiobook of Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the plague year”. I’d never have thought about reading it except that it was mentioned by a friend. I’ve never read anything by him before. I wasn’t sure that I would find it a helpful thing to read at this time. To my surprise I found it interesting, informative and entertaining. It’s been really good to read something by someone going through a similar experience to ours. It makes it seem more manageable, more normal and human. What struck me most forcefully is that there is very little difference between how people responded to the plague and how we are responding to Covid. It seems that despite increased medical knowledge and technology we are responding with the same mixture of anxiety, caution, stress and fear. The same debates raged about how to control the spread of disease then as now. Daniel Defoe expresses the same concerns about the effect and effectiveness of lockdown, the failure of business and the greater impact on the poor and most vulnerable that we see turning up in the news and on social media today. The same mixture of rumour, fake news and false cures were passed around in 1665 as we are dealing with now. He also talks about the need to do things differently, to build a fairer, kinder and more supportive society from the experience.
I do find all that a little frustrating, part of me wants to say “has so little changed?” But mostly I find it humbling and consoling. The fact that people hundreds of years ago struggled with the same thing we’re struggling with in very similar ways makes me realise that our responses, disconcerting as they feel, are nothing more than basic human responses to a life-threatening disease that we can neither see nor understand.
15 July 2020
I didn’t mean to leave this so long, but it’s been a busy few weeks. I spent a lot of time online for one reason or another. I had a Zoom meeting every day last week. Most were one-to-one meetings, but one had 55 participants! It’s the first time I’ve taken part in such a big online meeting. We spent some time in “rooms” so we could have small group discussions. The discussions worked well, but I did feel a bit like I was in Star Trek with faces appearing and disappearing on the screen. I really never thought all that technology that we saw in Star Trek would ever be a reality, but I am grateful that some of is and I guess it will come to seem more usual as I use it more often.
The meeting was for the wardens of retreat houses. It was very helpful on lots of levels. It was good to see some familiar faces, to get some more information about the opening of the hospitality sector and to meet with other people who understand the particular issues that retreat houses have in this crisis. The reality is that a lot of what we offer is about people being able to come together, to engage with one another and to build community whether that’s through the liturgy, in group sessions or the chance to spend time together over meals and coffee. With the current regulations that’s either impossible or to be discouraged. Added to that there is the risk assessments, cleaning regimes etc… That will need to be in place before we can open. I now have a document of about 165 pages of regulations and guidelines that needs to be looked at before we can even think about opening. I’ve looked at the first few pages and already from that I can see that it will be as considerable time before we are able to open the guesthouse again. We just decided to cancel all our bookings for the rest of the year., so I can put it on the back burner for now.
27 July 2020
I’ve been having a busy and challenging time. Having decided to cancel our events and bookings for the rest of the year I’ve been contacting people to return donations and cancel events. I think it’s absolutely the right thing to be doing, and I am glad we’ve taken that decision, yet I’m sad that we have to do it. I’m very aware of how much the people I cancelled wanted to be here, and I think that the experience of pandemic has probably increased that feeling for them rather than diminished it. I feel a bit like I’m letting them down, even though I’ve only had positive responses that tell me I am doing the right thing and that are very understanding. This crisis keeps throwing up situations that means I have to hold seemingly opposing things together. I have to balance having made the right decision with the feeling of disappointing people. It’s making me realise again just how much this crisis is changing our lives. It feels like everything we had is slipping away. For months I’ve been putting things off hoping that the situation would become clearer and settle down or even get back to ”normal”. Having cancelled everything for the rest of the year has brought it home to me that that’s not going to happen. I know something new will develop from this, but at the moment I can’t quite see or imagine what it will be.
2 August 2020
As I’m writing the date I can’t believe how much of this year has passed or how much of it’s been taken up dealing with a crisis that I thought was going to pass us by! I feel so naive about that now especially as it becomes more and more apparent that we have a long way to go before we’re out of the woods. I feel as though I need to give up any idea of returning to “normal” and to accept that we are currently living the only life we have. Everything I know spiritually, psychologically and emotionally tells me that the best way to deal with this is to accept what we have day-to-day and not think either about what we no longer have or what we may have in the future. Even as I recognise the wisdom of that I struggle with the reality of trying to do it.
If we want life to be different, to be more equal and fairer we’re all going to have to learn to live with less and prepared to put up with more inconvenience. I have to confess to some ambivalence about this. I absolutely see it’s the right, even the only, thing to do. I can even see that in many ways it would be good for me. Yet, the reality is that learning to live with less than I’m used to or feel entitled to, even if it’s the right thing to do and I want to do it, is not easy. It will bring a certain amount of frustration, annoyance and even grief with it. I wonder if that is partly what’s behind the protests and objections to wearing masks and other restrictions. We’ve lived for so long with the myth that we are free to make decisions for ourselves without thinking about the effect on everyone else and now we have to learn to rethink that. If the frustrations and limitations are beginning to chafe for an enclosed nun I can only imagine how much more frustratingly for everyone else!
5 August 2020
Recently one of our older sisters had a fall. She broke her hip and had to be taken to hospital. We weren’t allowed to go with her to hospital or to visit her while she was there. She is now in a care home for rehabilitation and respite care. She is in quarantine for two weeks after which we will be able to visit in a limited way. I can see that it has to be this way, but it feels wrong and unnatural. Fortunately the chaplain at the care home is a regular guest and a good friend of the community. She is able to see our sister regularly and knows her well, so at least she has a familiar face. It’s brought the strangeness and pain of these times home to me in a new way. It’s so different to how we would choose to do things. It’s frustrating, worrying and painful, more painful than I could ever have imagined that none of us is able to visit her. It’s given me a new sense of what a changed world we’re living in, how strange and unsettling it is, and of the sacrifices it’s demanding of us all. As I write this I am aware that so many people have already faced this situation and in much harder circumstances than us, I can’t begin to imagine how hard it’s been for them.
23 August 2020
Since I last wrote things have changed quite a lot. I’ve moved from not going out at all to having several outings on top of each other. Sr Lucy has had another fall and is back in hospital, just as I was thinking that her self isolation was nearly over and we’d soon be able to visit. She’s gone downhill quite quickly and is now in end-of-life care. This means that we are able to visit her again which I’m very pleased about. So my first outing since lockdown has been to the hospital, everything is very different there. Instead of wandering in freely as we would have done in the past we had to be checked in at the entrance and to wear masks, gloves and aprons for our visit. Although this seemed very strange to me it looked like everybody else was already used to it and accepting it as normal.
I also had to go to Olney to have my eyes tested. It was a strange sensation to be out in a “normal” setting again. It’s the first time I’ve been near any shopping centre since lockdown began, I was a bit surprised at how busy the town was. Although in some ways it didn’t seem very different to before lockdown, apart from the masks, there was an air of uncertainty around. It reminded me of the dazzled feeling that comes with moving from darkness into bright light, though I’m guessing it will feel begin to feel less strange with time.
I’m going home next week to visit my mum. That’s another first, the last time I saw her was December. She has quite severe dementia and the lockdown and pandemic have not been helpful. She has deteriorated a lot during that time, and I’m not even sure that she’ll recognise me. I know her dementia would have deteriorated anyway but I think the lack of stimulation during the lockdown has speeded the process up. It’s one of those unexpected side-effects of the pandemic. We’ve had to do everything we could to keep her safe and healthy during it, the price has been that not being able to go out and engage with other people has made her condition deteriorate more quickly. It’s a bit of a loss/loss situation.
11 September 2020
Sister Lucy died on the evening of 23 August in Bedford Hospital. It doesn’t matter how much I know a death is approaching I’m always surprised when it actually happens. We all had an opportunity to see her in the few days before that, and she was quite alert and able to talk to us. Her funeral was yesterday. Given the restrictions we decided the service would be private and that we would live stream the Office of the Dead and the funeral Mass. The service was calm and peaceful and felt very right. The live stream meant that the many friends she had could join us from a distance. I think that meant that more people could be present than if the chapel had been open.
I had my holiday. I spent a few days in Hampshire, staying with my sister so that I could visit my Mum. It was so good to have a few days away, and to see my family. We’ve been in touch all through lockdown, by phone or video call, but it was lovely to be able to be in the same place with them again. I spent some time with Mum. We had a very pleasant time, mostly singing along to Andy Williams and Andre Rieu. Mum is very musical, I’m sure she knows the words to every popular song from about the 1930s – 1980s, that hasn’t been affected by her dementia, and she still loves to sing. I’m not sure she knew me, and I don’t think it matters very much as she seems happy. Then my sister brought me back to Turvey and we spent a few days together in our guesthouse. It was a very restful and relaxing few days, apart from a few walks we didn’t do much. We got hopelessly lost on the drive back from Hampshire, having gone wrong at one of the millions of roundabouts in Milton Keynes. So we had to retrace our steps via a McDonalds drive-thru. It was my first McDonalds in about 15 years and it tasted as good as I remembered, but I should probably leave it another 15 years or so before my next one!
23 October 2020
A lot has happened since I last picked up this journal. In August it seemed that things were moving forward even if it was uncertain and tentative. Now, with the number of infections rising across the country again, restrictions increasing, and heading towards winter it feels like we’re going backwards, or at least like we’ve stalled. I know that they’ve said since the beginning that the infection rate would increase in the winter, but I didn’t think it would begin to happen as soon as it did! The variety and nature of the restrictions makes it very confusing. I can’t believe we’re heading towards the end of the year already, it feels a bit like we’ve skipped a year. I remember at some point Boris Johnson say this would be over by Christmas. I didn’t believe it, they said the same about World War I in 1914! But I don’t think I honestly expected it to carry on either. Now we’re heading towards a socially distanced Christmas (I can’t even imagine what that’s going to mean), with all the uncertainty and distress that will bring with it to so many people. All this makes it feel like we’re heading into a long, dark tunnel.
I’d like to end this on a positive note, but I’m struggling to see how. It’s not that there are no glimmers of light, it’s just that it can be easy to lose sight of them when everything seems so precarious and uncertain.
One promising project is developing online retreat material. It took what seems like a ridiculously long time to plan, but I think that’s partly because I was trying to figure out the technology as well as write the material. I’m planning some Advent and Christmastide material as well, I’m hoping that it won’t take so much time to plan those! Moving this sort of work online is one of the things the pandemic has opened up for me. Although the thought has crossed my mind before I don’t think I’d have done it without that push. Now, although it’s come out of necessity, I can see so many opportunities in it that weren’t always possible before. I think it’s something that we can carry on with even after we’re open again. I’m waiting to see how it goes, but I’ve already got a few people interested, so it is looking promising. I do find it inspirational that so many churches have embraced the digital space, learning how to move services, meetings etc… online to help keep the church alive and people connected and supported. I know it raises many issues, but it has also broadened our horizons about what church and community should and can be. That is a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel and a real sign of hope.
31 October 2020
As I’m proof reading this the infection rates are rising, restrictions are tightening and there’s talk of another lockdown on the horizon. There’s no point in fretting about it, though I expect I will. I’m very aware of how exhausted everyone is by trying to re-arrange or re-invent every aspect of life as we’ve been doing since March. The one consoling thought is that we have learned some useful and unexpected skills since then so maybe we’re a bit more prepared and able to cope than we were. Who knows? At least this time it doesn’t feel like so much of a shock.