Six Months into Lock-Down

During our summer of lock-down, I realised that there are certain works of fiction which it was probably best to avoid when we were all feeling a bit wobbly and some of us decidedly isolated and lonely. I had already reached that conclusion by the end of August when I watched the 2017 film Passengers.

5 000 people are in the suspended animation of hibernation on board a gigantic spacecraft bound for a far-off planet which they are to colonise. A technical malfunction in the automated system results in one Passenger being woken 90 years too soon. He finds himself alone on a vast star-ship, with the seemingly inevitable prospect of spending the rest of his life with no possibility of any human contact. This Passenger could be the most isolated and lonely human being who has ever lived; and he finds little consolation when he discovers that he does have the company of a rather creepy android bar-tender, a robot who keeps him very well supplied with whisky.

For those who found themselves isolated by necessary shielding in the past few months, that was probably not the ideal film to choose as relaxing and inspiring summer entertainment, even though (Spoiler Alert!) the very last scene of this film can most easily be interpreted as an affirmation of the innate positivity ingrained in the human condition. I would put it like that rather than say it has a happy ending.

Through lock-down, lots of people were talking about feeling isolated and about missing all sorts of points of contact with family and friends. That has continued into this term when many have been finding University life stressful, exhausting and debilitating. A lot of people are currently feeling at least a little bit like that lone Passenger.

In contrast to our current experience, many spiritual traditions value the idea of ‘retreat’, taking ourselves away from the familiar and withdrawing into solitude in order to listen without distraction or defence. We can find opportunity for new understanding and awareness and growth by relying only on our own resources and resilience. The supreme example of that in the Christian traditions is the Temptations of Jesus. For forty days Jesus has contact only with the Holy Spirit and with the devil. And I wonder, when it really comes down to it, which is more terrifying to be left alone with?!

If you want a good piece of fiction to illustrate this, try a novel by Jim Crace called Quarantine. This probably is a good one to read in a lock-down. Five people go into the desert to make a retreat, each in search of the way forward for their life’s path. They happen to choose the same time and place that Jesus has chosen to enter the desert for 40 days. Jesus takes himself to an inaccessible cave half way down a cliff. The five others are not able to have any direct contact with him, but (Spoiler Alert!) they are each able to receive what they need from their retreat merely through knowing that Jesus is there.

Those are two very different types of solitude and isolation. One is enforced, through a malfunction on a star-ship or through pandemic lock-down. That type of isolation can be very debilitating and destructive. The other type can be very constructive, when solitude is taken on voluntarily, when one knows that the time is right to learn more about yourself in order to grow as a person and to find vision and clarity and establish commitment for the way ahead.

For some months now, we have all found ourselves in a situation which none of us chose; lock-down, Rule of 6, all the other restrictions, are given to us. So how can we react healthily? This is a resume of what the psychologists and counsellors seem to be saying at the moment:

Firstly: Nurture yourself. Even among all the restrictions, find something that you enjoy. Look after yourself. Get enough sleep. Give yourself a treat. Eat something special, but not too much; keep it healthy! Remember that it is not only OK but absolutely necessary to do whatever keeps you positive. Nurture yourself.

Then: Expect less. Admit that our present surreal circumstances are tiring; in recent times I have often replied to ‘How are you?’ by saying ‘Exhausted’! Yes, there are still deadlines for essays and assignments and for marking and giving feedback and filling in forms, but recognise your limits of time and energy and inner resources. Expect less.

Next: Stay in touch. Particularly for us extroverts, Zoom and Teams and Facebook and WhatsApp are not the same as the Real Thing, but they may be the best we can get at the moment. Accept that they will have to do. Stay in touch.

Then: Live the “Both/And”. Admit we are all mixed up at the moment. We can say at the same time, “I’m not feeling OK today” and “I’m resilient enough to get through today.” Admit that it’s difficult and we are going to make it to The Promised Land on The Other Side. So it is okay to contradict yourself. Embrace paradox. Live the “Both/And”.

Finally: Take notice. Treasure Moments with a capital M that come your way, particularly the unexpected. For instance: my preferred route to walk from home to Campus takes me across a bridge over Finchett’s Gutter, the delightfully named little stream which hides immediately beyond the car park on the far side of the Sports Hall. A couple of days ago I got to the bridge. Suddenly, barely a couple of yards away, there was a flash of bright blue. Just as I realised who I had disturbed, the kingfisher was gone, out of sight along the stream. That made my day. So be aware of surprises, of beauty, of kindness. Cultivate your sense of wonder. Live in awe of what is around us and within us. Take notice.

Covid Chronicle

I walk into work in my mask, put out our blackboard signs and open up my laptop. Roll up, roll up! We’re the university chaplaincy. Gone are the days when our purpose is to drag students to chapel, now we are all about building community. ‘For all faiths and none’ is our mantra. ‘Connection, community, care’ is our business. We hold a crisis summit. How can we build community when everyone is in their room on Zoom? And they don’t seem to want to Zoom at all anymore.

The campus looks like a quiet summer’s day, instead of the bustle, noise, queues, nervousness and banging music of the first week of term. Chaplaincy has a marquee for covid-secure, socially-distanced games. We sit in masks, playing charades, and socially-distanced games not played since Brownies and Cubs. We have craft sessions where students and staff bring their own things and floating heads sit on a laptop on a table, joining in from their homes. It feels slightly wonderful and vaguely tragic. The few who come agree: it’s strange, but it’s better than nothing.

A dancer comes to an online chaplaincy chat, upset that everyone on her course, despite the careful bubble system, has been transferred to online classes. She has clearly been crying. After six months of isolation, this is what she returns to after one blissful week of classes and some sense of normality. She is told, this is at least until half-term, when it will be reviewed.  She complains about how much she is paying for the classes, but I think: what will this do to them? How dangerous is this? They are alone, entirely alone, many living independently for the first time, many only eighteen. It is like some terrible experiment, alone in rooms and bubbles, in constant fear of two weeks self-isolation, afraid that their precious few hours a week of face-to-face teaching contact will be withdrawn.

And then I remember and am just about heartened by the extraordinary bounce I have witnessed in students. This situation is terrible, if it were me: entirely alone, on my own as a new student, with no friends and no family, no contact, no certainty, I’d be lost. But I think, they do have extraordinary bounce, they might just get over this, most of them. That’s what I hope anyway.

Time in Lockdown

Long, long ago, back in the mists of time, in the era we now refer to as ‘normal’, before we had heard of Covid-19, when we could set foot out of the house for any purpose we wished, in the age during which we shook hands with strangers and hugged our friends, when pubs were usually full and the M56 was sometimes frustratingly stationary, I never felt I had time to do everything I wanted to. In those days, a pattern of work defined the week and so many opportunities presented themselves in Chaplaincy that we had to be selective over what we chose to pursue. Then outside the University, the hours left for personal interests and hobbies and for commitments at home never seemed enough. There were so many books to read, photos to create, art galleries to visit, crosswords to solve, mountains to climb, friends and family to spend time with, …

Now, in this era of lock-down, work follows an unfamiliar pattern and creates new challenges. Learning how to operate new software is time-consuming and exhausting. It all adds up to a different but no less demanding pressure. Then beyond the hours taken up by Virtual Chaplaincy, there are still so many possibilities of home-based activities. Strangely, though, I have been spending my non-working hours on activities which are different from those I devoted time to before. Perhaps even more strangely, the things I feel I do not have time for now are different from those I felt I did not have time for when all was ‘normal’.

As an aside, I will mention that during lock-down I have been putting into order a family archive. The other day I re-read some autobiographical reflections which my Mother wrote shortly before she died. I had forgotten that she (at the age of 5) and her Father both contracted flu in the 1918 pandemic. Here was a reminder that history repeats itself. Progress is slow on organising the archive to pass on to future generations of the family as there are so many other calls on the 168 locked-down hours in every week.

I have now reached the point in this blog at which I undermine everything I have written in those first three paragraphs. I once heard someone say that complaining, “I don’t have enough time” is a form of greed; it means we are not satisfied with the one resource we all have the same amount of. We all know exactly how much time we have at our disposal each day. There is nothing we can do to buy any more or to give some away.

The service of Morning Prayer includes the words: “We rejoice in the gift of this new day.” Morning Prayer thus sets us the challenge to think of each new day coming to us out of the generosity of God: to think of time not as a cruel master taking the past away; not as the straight-jacket which makes me struggle to fit in everything I have to do today; nor as a threateningly blank, empty space which I need to fill with anything which will keep me occupied. Instead, I am challenged to think of time as the friend which presents me with opportunities; time as the gift which enables me to live and act, to appreciate creation and love other people; time as the medium in and through which I know God.

Hourglass

Recognising the challenge to use the gift of time wisely does not mean that we have to account obsessively for every moment; we should not be concerned about wringing the last drop of potential out of each second. Indeed, at the moment, as many of us struggle to keep spirits up during these surreal days, the first call on our time might be simply to concentrate on whatever keeps us positive and hopeful, without worrying if we are being productive or creative. Whatever our circumstances, our aim is to be present at each moment so as to savour the gift of time, whether in ‘normality’, during lock-down or (as will surely happen one day) when we reach the new world on The Other Side.

With that thought, this blog must end. I have run out of time to write any more. There are so many things I have to do …

… but wait a minute! Oh dear! I need to slow down, read what I have just written, learn from my own blog, stop rushing and value the gift of time, treating even this moment as a gift of God.

Peter Jenner

 

News from the Mother Ship

It feels so strange in Chaplaincy House this afternoon. The last couple of hours have been reminiscent of working through a list of things to do before I can go on holiday or finish for Christmas. What has to be done to tie up loose ends, bring tasks to a conclusion and clear away piles of paper on the desk? … but this feels different, a drawing things together without the anticipation of holiday or Christmas, but preparing for uncertainty and with a certain sense of boding ahead.

There seemed a particular finality a few minutes ago; I put milk in my Last Coffee and then switched off the Chaplaincy House fridge. When did our fridge last get unplugged? It might now be taking an extremely well-earned rest but hot drinks on tap is the mark of a Chaplaincy which is functioning properly …cup of tea

… or at least it was. When the Archbishops made a statement a few days ago they issued instructions which included the suspension of public worship. However, they talked about our not ceasing to be the church, rather that we carry on being the church in a different way.

So, since the beginning of this week I have learnt a lot about unfamiliar software, like ‘Zoom’ to stream services, and new social media to keep in touch. (My thanks are due to Laura who corrected my spelling of ‘Whatsapp’; I had previously thought the concept behind ‘Wattsapp’ must have come from the inventor of the steam engine.)

In the past few days I have learnt again that the people who appreciate our prayers in difficult times are much more numerous than we often think. In our present circumstances I have noticed again the remarkable resilience, the innate compassion and the wonderful creativity of the human spirit.

Facebook

So, despite Chaplaincy House closing for the moment, we look forward to carrying on being Chaplaincy in different ways. We look forward also to the day when we will ceremonially switch the fridge back on again. Some obscure ancient saint must have written a prayer for the resumption of a hot drinks service and a thanksgiving for a place to keep milk cold. I will research that one.

In the mean time, apropos of nothing more than keeping up morale, I will tell you that my friend’s new job is in a factory that makes chess pieces. Next week he is on knights.

Keep in touch.

 

Prayer is the Therapy: Hearts of Stone to Hearts of Flesh

On 10th October the Church remembers Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth century priest and poet whose writings explore the beauty and goodness of God’s creation. Traherne was educated at Hereford Cathedral School and University of Oxford and took holy orders in 1656. During his lifetime his work was largely unknown but was re-discovered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has become much admired.

In ‘Centuries of Meditations’ he writes:

“Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels…You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more so, because people are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world”.

How can we start each day with such an optimistic attitude and live the day in our Father’s Palace as if we were among the Angels? It’s quite a challenge in the humdrum of our daily lives.

In Luke Chapter 11, the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray. He gives them the words of The Lord’s Prayer, a pattern of praying which emulates the way Jesus lived his life and his relationship with his heavenly Father. We can call God Father because the Son calls him Father. We no longer need to hide from God, who is both an intimate Father God and heavenly Creator God. We can pray modestly for our daily needs, because our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask. If we persist in prayer, we can have the assurance of knowing that “for everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened”, as our heavenly Father loves to pour out his blessings on us. We can live in a spirit of forgiveness, ready to receive and offer forgiveness, so that our communities can flourish. And we can pray for help and deliverance when trials and temptations come, just as Jesus did. In this prayer, these few lines, and in his own life, Jesus showed us what it means to be children of God and we can take our own place within his prayer and know that we are children, not of an anonymous God, but of the same heavenly Father as Jesus.

Luigi Gioia in his book ‘Say it to God’ says “prayer is the therapy through which our hearts of stone are progressively turned into hearts of flesh because prayer is simply remaining in the presence of the Lord just as flowers remain exposed to the light of the sun that sustains their life”. And “just like flowers, the moment we stop turning to the sun we start withering”. So perhaps we might like to begin each day with a prayer of thanksgiving, turning our face to the Son. We might like to pray the Lord’s Prayer, spoken very slowly line by line, to ponder the angels in our midst. Perhaps, as we practise this, we can truly enjoy and be grateful for what God gives us each day and share our blessings with one another as sisters and brothers of the same family.

AJ Upton

Chaplaincy Team

 

The Divine Creative Spark

I have never been to California, but if I ever do find myself somewhere near Los Angeles, I will not be able to resist the temptation to go to a rather run-down suburb called Watts, essentially to visit someone’s back garden. At the end of a cul-de-sac, in a non-descript house backing onto a railway line, there once lived an Italian by the name of Simon Rodia. His profession was listed as ‘cement finisher and tile setter’. He moved into Watts in 1921 and once there he spent every available moment of the next 34 years in his garden building Things. These Things became known as the Watts Towers. The centrepiece is a tower a few inches short of a hundred feet tall. The Towers look like a giant 3D spider’s web. It all claims to be the largest structure ever made by one man working alone. Rodia was offered help many times but he said this: “Nobody helped me. I think if I hire a man he don’t know what to do. A million times I don’t know what to do myself.”

Rodia 2

Every surface of the towers is covered with eccentric, brightly-covered patterns which on close examination include all sorts of everyday objects embedded in concrete. The decoration includes 15 000 tiles, 11 000 pieces of pottery, 10 000 shells, 6 000 pieces of glass, various bits of railway equipment and all sorts of other things.

One day the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department woke up to the fact that for 30-odd years someone had been building 100-foot towers without planning permission or any safety checks. So an aerospace engineer devised a ‘load test’. A steel cable was tied to the tallest tower in an attempt to pull it over. It turned out that the towers are so strong and stable that the test had to end because the Tower refused to fall down and the steel cable snapped because it was under so much tension.

Over the years Simon Rodia gave a lot of interviews and, of course, he was always asked, “Why?” He was only too pleased to give an answer. The trouble is, he always gave a different answer. He seems to have been incapable of communicating coherently, except by building giant Things. There are various suggestions about how best to understand what Rodia thought he was doing. Some people have looked into the life and work of this eccentric and see in him an extreme example of a trait which is in all of us: the need to be creative. One aspect of his story is quite revealing: when Rodia deemed the Towers to be finished, for a time he disappeared. He never wanted his creation to make him famous or rich; his motivation was the pure, fundamental, enjoyable, satisfying act of creating as an end in itself, an inbuilt drive to bring into being something which was not there before.

I first came across the Watts Towers through an account in The Ascent of Man, the history of science which was the brilliant creation of Jacob Bronowski. Bronowski says that Simon Rodia “had learned his engineering skill as he went along, by doing, and by taking pleasure in the doing.”  That’s a good basis for life; we learn best by doing and taking pleasure in the doing.

The Bible begins with two creation stories. In the first of them, in Genesis 1, we read that on the first ever Friday afternoon, we humans were made in the image of our creator. But if you’ve read from the beginning of the Bible, at that point you only know two things about God. The first is that he has spent five days making things. The second thing is that he looks at what he has brought into being and he sees ‘that it is good’. So the most fundamental thing about us, in his image, is that we have an inbuilt drive to create and a propensity to take delight in what is; our fundamental humanity is found in being excited about bringing things into being and in finding joy in what exists … hence we occasionally finding ourselves building giant Things colourfully, magnificently and extravagantly. However, creating is not always about making physical things; for some of us the creative satisfaction is in creating music or literature or knowledge or understanding or insight or community or family; bringing into being something intangible is no less creative. It is worth taking a little time to wonder what exists which would not be there without us; whatever you have brought into being is a reflection of the divine creative spark in each of us which is fundamental to who we are.

Peter Jenner