Life with Zoom – Small solitudes, little deserts: Poustinia for a time of Pandemic

“A marathon not a sprint.” That’s a phrase government ministers and medical advisers are using for the the pandemic. For those on the frontline of hospital care pacing yourself must seem like a luxury. But for those of us locked down at home it is rather different. It is a fortnight since what I think of as week zero began and my diary started to empty, actual cancellation emails or just the reality that these things are not going to happen. I have Holy Week Sermons prepared on Augustine for Paris. Conference talks on renewal of the church planned for Australia and New Zealand, parish days on Julian of Norwich, an ordination retreat on the poet Gwenallt. When that material will see the light of day I don’t know.

It was in the middle of week zero that the platforms allowing face to face meetings online began to impact. Added to Skype and FaceTime, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and the now ubiquitous, among clergy, Zoom.

My short term diary filled again quickly. National and diocesan meetings. Conversations with Headteachers, MAT CEOs, Local Authority Officers. I have ‘seen’ my diocesan education team colleagues more in a week than I normally see them in a month. There is spiritual direction to be done on Zoom as well as ‘meetings’ with family and friends. In the village I live in caring for the elderly and housebound is being done on a What’s App group and together with that communication have been additional shopping trips for them. The community of priests I belong to (the Sodality) is also meeting three times a week on Zoom.

At the end of Week One of Zoom working I was shattered. So I decided to take 24 hours off all digital communication. It gave me chance to think about why the digital life has been so tiring when I normally have a significant online presence (Twitter, Facebook and my blog) which does not tire me.

Before thinking about the difference between my normal online activity and the new circumstances we are all in it’s important to acknowledge the exhaustion caused by trauma and anxiety. Almost the whole human population is experiencing a significant trauma. My observation of people and my own experience, is that there is a combination of shock, and from some, still, denial. There is a permanent sense of anxiety that never goes away. Several people have spoken to me about dystopian dreams. I may be wrong but this particularly seems to be so for those living in cities who are seeing places they know well, and which are normally busy, bustling places, suddenly bereft of people. Couples, families, households are spending enforced time together, our normal routines are broken, Many people are being furloughed or can’t get the work done that they normally do. This sense of being out of control causes stress.

Add to that our worries and concerns for those we love. My elderly dad in a nursing home. My nephew in China. A friend’s son with pneumonia.

Given all of this it is not surprising that we feel more tired than usual, or express our anxiety in other ways. For headteachers there is the additional task of organising child-care and exposure to children who might well be bringing the virus into school from healthcare parents. This real danger and the fear of it will only increase.

For clergy there is a strong sense of wanting to do something, added to not being able to do the things we normally do. The resentment about closing church buildings and the large number of live streamed services is, I think, a relatively healthy expression of all this. There is also, it seems to me, a fear among clergy that this will hasten the end of many elements of our inherited church life. With collection-plate giving no longer possible everyone realises that the financial consequences for parishes and dioceses are going to be enormous.

So, to get to online working, why is that making us more tired? I don’t want to universalise my own experience but I am hearing this from many other colleagues too. It ought to be better, we might think, none of the driving and travelling that I normally do, I ought to be less exhausted! But in fact, for someone like me who is strongly introverted I have lost all my ‘down time’. Time in the car is time alone. I miss audible books and Radio 4 when I am thinking about something different, or times when I am processing the meeting I have just had and preparing for the meeting ahead. All of that is gone.

Another factor that is unusual in online meetings is that there are few transition points, arriving somewhere, getting settled, packing up at the end of a meeting; all this creates a sense of transition. I find that I am now often going from one meeting to another without any transition. Often there are literally no gaps. Zoom in its free version is limited to 40 minutes. I think there is a wisdom in that. My best meetings online have lasted 40 – 50 minutes. After that I am tired. Online meetings require a level of concentration and attention that is different to being in a room with people. There are less non-verbal signals to read. There is also less opportunity for humour to relive tension, or give a moment’s breather. We may get better at that as we get more used to using these media. We may also need to get better at controlling our use of some of these platforms. On Microsoft Teams my colleagues can see if I am available (it may be possible to stop this but I haven’t found that yet). There have been times when as soon as I have finished one call a colleague has seen that I am available, and called straight away.

My own personal use of Twitter and Facebook has tended to be much more of a broadcast than conversation. That has been harder to maintain in the past week and is very different from Zoom and the video meetings.

So this coming week I am looking to change some of the ways I have been working to give myself more reflective space. Times to reflect and to prepare. Times when I won’t take calls. But also building into my weeks and months some ‘desert time’.

I must have first read Catherine de Heck Doherty’s book Poustinia some time in the mid 1980s. It is well worth re-reading. Posutinia is simply the Russian word for ‘desert’, but it also refers to the spiritual desert of those, poustiniks, who live in the desert of solitude. For a few years Poustinias were popular among the spiritually minded. Huts in gardens or rooms set apart at retreat centres were named Poustinia. Traditionally a Poustinia contained nothing except simple furniture, a cross and a Bible.

Worn out by my week on Zoom (and other platforms) I set aside Sunday as a Poustinia day. Using the little Oratory which I have made out of a lean-to on the side of the house. (It was probably built for laundry, perhaps as a laundry for the village.) The many icons and quite a number of books are rather more than a Poustinia would provide, but it is a sacred space. The Eucharist has been much celebrated there, with many people; sins absolved; oil applied for healing and psalms sung.

Other than celebrating the Eucharist I decided to make it a non-liturgical day. Not singing the Office but simply chanting the psalms through in order and reading the book of Genesis. My two favourite books of the Bible. Prostrations with the Jesus Prayer (see here) and the simple prayer of the Cloud of Unknowing (see here) completed the day.

Poustinia is available on Kindle. Most of us can’t live as poustiniks in our daily life but Catherine encourages us to find “small solitudes, little deserts”.

In these crazy times we need little deserts more than ever. It may be just a corner of a bedroom or a spare room, the attic or even space in the garage or garden shed. Perhaps the only place is a time, a walk round the garden or local park.

We all know that there are dark days ahead. In these days caring for ourselves is vital. That can only begin with self-knowledge. A knowledge learned in silence and solitude.

I have always needed time alone. More important even than sleep. Which is why I have always love the last hours of the night and first hours of the day.

As we renegotiate our lives with technology and lockdown we will all need to look at the way we spend our time. For me, social isolation and lockdown that is full of e-communication means I need more solitude. I don’t have a parish, and in any case there are now many online forms of worship, so Sunday is a good day for me to have a desert day. It may be that another day or time will work for you. Jesus needed solitude (Lk 4:1-2,141-5; Mk 6:30-32; Mt 14: 1-13; Lk 6:12-13; Lk 22:39-44; Lk 5:16). It is not surprising that we do too.

“The essence of the poustinia is that it is a place within oneself, a result of Baptism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity … The is another way of saying that I live in a garden enclosed, where I walk and talk with God – though a Russian would say, “where all in me is silent and where I am immersed in the silence of God”.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia AMP 1975 p.212

The spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint.

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