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June 2020 - Wisdom from the tradition: living with Covid-19

Friends,

I hope you and your families are keeping safe and well. We continue to live with this new normal, and suspect that a new new normal is somewhere around the corner. Living with the lurking presence of coronavirus has been an exhausting experience for many; not only because of heightened anxiety that may seem a permanent companion, but because someone has redrawn the landscape in disconcerting ways, and everyone's life has involuntarily changed. How then might we respond in positive and healthy ways so that, during and after, we may continue to live a life that is not a diminished shadow of what was before?

Fortunately, we are not starting out with empty hands, and we can draw on the rich wisdom of tradition. For me, that often means finding cogent meaning in what has been learned in monastic practices.

Not far from here, just beyond Wheldrake, there is a Carmelite convent called Thicket Priory, where I visit with others usually a couple of times a year. In The Tablet, the Catholic news weekly, one of the sisters recently published a short article which begins thus: 

“We’re all like you now;” observed my self-isolating mother, “enclosed.” She isn’t the first person to make the connection between my life as an enclosed Carmelite nun and the present lockdown. Some have asked for tips: “How do you do it?” “What advice can you give?” 

There is wisdom in this ancient tradition that is pertinent for our modern world and current situation.

Likewise, an article published recently on theconversation.com explores 'Advice from the Middle Ages for how to cope with self-isolation', and shares some of the learning from historical characters such as Julian of Norwich, the famous anchoress, walled up in her cell attached to St. Julian's Church (coincidentally, also being the first woman to publish a book in the English language). 

The advice and wisdom found in both of these traditions meld together into some useful hints and tips for how we might live in the context of covid-19.

Find yourself a purpose in each day. You might need to create a new one, but without a direction, a reason, we drift on the tide without a rudder. The purpose may well come out of the following suggestions, but begin each day by plotting a course, however small that purpose might seem. A small ambition achieved brings a level of satisfaction and contentment.

Create a rhythm which is manageable and sustainable. Monks have a set pattern that they follow each day, which may change moderately with the seasons, but means that each period of time has an allotted activity, and, without good reason, one activity does not bleed into another time slot. For these religious, work has it period, and so does rest; prayer, in the formal sense, is given its time, but so is eating, socializing, sleeping and study. The purpose of the rhythm is not to occupy every moment of every day with activity, but to bring balance and health. We all know we should exercise regularly, stimulate our heads as well as our hearts, spend quality time with friends and with our pillows. The difference with monks is that they thought long and hard about what is important to them, and made sure they did a bit of each every day. This is not about limiting life and activity, but living each day to the full, in such a way that they can 'suck the marrow out of life' and then get up and do it again tomorrow.

Living in isolation, especially if we are by ourselves, might mean that we begin to feel as though we are only living for ourselves; self-focused and selfish, while we are self-isolating. This can not be healthy. But, then again, how do we turn our gaze outwards? Finding ways to be purposeful might be directly linked to our ability to live for others, either in acts of service or with acts of charity. The advice of Jesus himself was that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive', but this is not mere pious aspiration. We know that giving makes us feel good; it gives expression to something deep within us that really is good. And we know that those who live selfish and miserly lives can appear as shadows of humanity, grasping with closed hands, rather than generous with open hearts. Both service and charity confer benefits of health and happiness on the giver and the receiver. Perhaps there is a charitable cause you can contribute to, or a person you can offer support to via phone or internet? Then, when you lay your head on your pillow at night, you can say 'I have helped'.

All religious communities have a charism, a commitment to a common goal and a common good, without which they fade out of existence fairly quickly. This one is perhaps relatively simple – stay at home, maintain social distancing, don't put yourself or others at risk. Sitting at home can feel like the absence of a contribution to the common good, but this needs positively and firmly reframing. Our common goal is to reduce the rate of infection and to protect the vulnerable. What is my goal today? To do no harm and to contribute to the common purpose. I can do that!

There was strong advice in the anchorite tradition regarding the 'disturbing of the senses'. There are five ways in which our internal world can be invaded by the outside, and that it through the senses. These hermits, and all those who treasure the serenity of their internal landscape, understood that a storm can be created by what they see and hear, and thereafter can be trouble. If we do not want our peace or our mood to be disturbed or darkened, then we shall do well to monitor that which we allow in. The unmoderated consumption of news and social media allows the external world to take over our inner life, and, at the moment, that can only mean a darkening of our mood and a raising of anxiety, unless we are cautious and discerning.

So here's the thing: the wisdom of the ancients, and the pattern of their lives, was never purposed to limit and constrain life, in the same way that a fence is not there to bring sadness and imprisonment to a flock of sheep. The rhythm of their lives was designed to bring fullness, contentment, joy and purpose. If we gain anything from our corporate and personal experience of this pandemic it is that, even within the constraint and limitation of our government-sanctioned cloister, and with the assistance of inherited wisdom, life can be good – even full.

Nick Bird

Your Rector

This letter from Revd Nick Bird appeared in the June 2020 issue of The Grapevine