Learning from the lockdown: re-discovering lunch breaks

The first Spiritual Director I had, when I was fifteen or sixteen was in many ways an impatient man. In one meeting with him I explained some injustice or bad deed I thought I had suffered. “Well, there’s no point whining,” he said, “What have you learnt from it?”.

I don’t recommend this as good practice on all occasions in spiritual direction. However, it is an ill-wind and all that. I’ve been thinking about what I am learning during the lockdown. Apart, that is, from the necessary skills of using Zoom (I can do break out rooms and everything); Go To Meeting, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams and more.

Yesterday, in a messaging conversation with my dear friend the Assistant Diocesan Secretary in the Diocese of Liverpool, I suggested we have a Zoom conversation, “How about one’o’clock?”, he returned. “Sorry, that’s lunchtime,” was my response, before we settled on a time later in the week.

It was only afterwards that I realised how extraordinary my response had been. Not because Stuart minded in the least. But because I haven’t taken lunch breaks for over twenty years, since I was appointed Acting Deputy Head at Emsworth Primary School in 1998.

I remember lunch breaks in school staffrooms before that as rather good times, friendly banter, much of it with colleagues who remain friends to this day. Birthday celebrations, cakes, those piles of books and odd objects that companies sold in staff rooms. Even my friend Becca introducing us to the Physalis in her lunch box one day. Exotic stuff indeed.

Since then, however, lunch has been always on duty, walking the corridors and playground, chatting to pupils or seeking out colleagues for whom this is a chance to have a quick ‘meeting’. School leaders are, and I am one of them, proud of this. Whenever Heads are together on a conference or residential training and have a sit down lunch somebody will soon comment on never sitting down to eat usually.

When I moved to the role of Director of Education here in Liverpool I brought these working habits with me. Like my colleagues in the team I am often driving around. So there are breaks between schools. I have learnt what food I can eat in the car as I drive without making too much mess. Sandwiches are hopeless. Thank goodness for Samosas and Baby Bel cheeses.

In the first week of the lockdown, like many other people I was introduced to Zoom. I think it is wonderful. I hope never again to ask people to drive to attend a meeting that takes a fraction of the time they were travelling. I have renewed old friendships and given real life to existing networks. It is a good thing. But that week I was frazzled. I learned how much I needed those driving times between meetings. Zoom meetings came thick and fast with barely time to pop to the toilet or make a cup of tea. Texting for a cup of tea to be brought to me during one meeting really made me realise how bad it had got. It was utterly unsustainable.

So I made some rules. Coffee at 10 every day, away from the desk, not a long break but time enough to make and drink a coffee; lunch for an hour from 1 to 2, tea at 4 – again just time to make and drink a cuppa, and not drunk at the lap-top or even on the phone. No Zoom meetings for work after 6. I still do early meetings when people want them, often early phone calls; so I don’t think I am being lazy in any way. Of course I have to be a little flexible, there awesome meetings I can’t control the times of, but then I move the break time.

This is the learning. Aren’t lunch breaks wonderful. It’s been helped, of course, by being able to sit in the garden most days. But taking time to make a proper meal (no more Samosas or sausage rolls), sitting down and eating it, conversation about something different to work, eyes off a screen.

Is this a lesson I can put into practice once this is over? I don’t know. Is it possible to do this as a Headteacher – perhaps some of my colleagues will tell me that they do? And, even as I write, I realise that in this crisis I am immensely privileged (not just in having a garden to sit in), most of our schools are open, most of our Heads are in school every day (I keep telling them not to be) and as for NHS staff and other Carers the idea of a lunch break must seem like a distant prospect.

In our Anglo-Saxon world we have always looked jealously at cultures where proper meals are part of working life – my dad used to drive five miles home and back to have lunch with mum and us during the school holidays. Even in the little village where I live the farm workers pass by as they walk home each day for lunch.

Corona Virus 19 is going to change our world. So many of those changes will be devastating and awful, but perhaps a few of them could be for good.

“Sorry, that’s my lunch break.” I’ll ask Stuart if he noticed. I am slightly proud of myself.

“The aroma of love” – Guest post from the Bishop of Warrington

Monday in Holy Week is the day when the Diocese of Liverpool gathers at the Cathedral for the blessing of oils and the Renewal of Commitment to Ministry. In this time of pandemic the diocesan communications team prepared a video service. The Bishop of Warrington, The Rt. Rev’d. Bev Mason, offered a reflection on the powerful gospel reading John 12:1-11. It is a profound and deep meditation that moved me greatly. I am grateful to Bishop Bev for allowing me to post her words below. You can watch the service here:

In our reading, Jesus is back in Bethany. It’s after the raising of Lazarus so you can imagine his celebrity status there, and the cult following he’s attracting.  It’s also just 6 days before the crucifixion, and he’s having dinner with Lazarus and his friends.

Wouldn’t you have just loved to have been there, listening and participating in the conversations. Undoubtedly, he was preparing them, as well as himself, for his formal entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah. (We’d have celebrated this, from our places of confinement, yesterday on Palm Sunday).

Well! Suddenly the conversations are interrupted by Mary – she’ the one, remember, who would sit with the disciples at Jesus’ feet as they’re being apprenticed.  I don’t know that anyone would’ve noticed her getting up …. But they’d certainly have noticed what happened next! She quietly fetches some nard oil … she goes back to Jesus,  she kneels down and she pours the oil over His feet.  

Now Nard was an exotic oil –  it comes from the Himalayas and so imagine how costly this was.  And she doesn’t just take a few drops – she takes a pound of Nard. She gently massages it into his feet. And then letting down her hair, she wipes his feet with it. 

It’s so intimate, that it almost feels intrusive that anyone else should be present:   In this most tender and beautiful expression of love,  the oil is soaked up from one body to the other … and the aroma of love, fills the room.

Usually when hear of incense and aroma in the Bible, they’re associated with priestly offerings and sacrifice.  Mary would have known this – as I’m sure, she’d have known the teaching from Hosea, where God says, 

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, 

the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. ESV Hos 6.6

In this ritual Mary is participating in Jesus’ death. 

I wonder if she knows that in doing so, she’s participating, too, in his risen life.  

Mary was a disciple of Jesus. She’d listened and watched and prayed and learned from Him. 

She knew that had Jesus been present when her brother was ill, he would’t have died. 

She saw him raise her brother from the grave.   

Through Jesus’ proximity to her and her, what we call,  teachable spirit, her asking and searching …. and desire to learn, Mary grew in the knowledge of God.  

Did she know she was in the presence of God?

At Jesus’ trial, just a week later, the Chief Priest will ask Jesus outright:  “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of God’… .  News that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead had spread and this was clearly what people were claiming on the streets of Bethany and in Jerusalem.  

Is this what Mary believed?  

I suspect so!  And I suspect it’s the knowledge of this and the fear of how this was all going to unfold, that brought her to her knees before him.  

This is a woman before the Messiah, the Son of God,  giving herself to him.

Today in this (Not the Chrism Mass!), from our places of isolation, we recall and we shall renew our commitment to God’s call upon our lives …  and the promises we’ve made to :

give ourselves to Him; 

and to follow and to serve him ….. in the good times and in the challenging times.  

We are each called in different, yet life-changing ways 

and each tasked with particular vocations and responsibilities.  

Friends,  I believe Mary teaches us so much about the Christian vocation.  

She sets before us a model of humility and service … 

She dares to buck stereotyping; 

In a room of men, she lets down her hair and exposes herself to rebuke – even though she’s about the service of Christ.  

She pre-figures the footwashing by Jesus of his disciples, in the Upper Room.  (I wonder if Jesus recalled this moment, as he washed his disciples’ feet!  

Mary embraces the drama of the anointing …. without explanation or commentary …  and in no small measure she pours out the costly oil, which speaks of the immeasurable love Christ pours upon us; and WE, in turn are to pour out upon others.

One of the immense challenges for each of us in these days of Coronavirus, is understanding what vocation means when things are unfamiliar. When we can’t minister in the tried and tested ways and when we mustbe distanced from people.    Mary draws us back to LOVE which is the essence of our being, our thinking, our actions, our service.  I think it’s this that Jesus was driving at, when he said, ‘I no longer call you servants. You are my friends.’

God calls us friends as he calls us to minister to him, and through him, to the world.   

And at the heart of calling and service is love.

This is exactly what we’ve been seeing in these present trials:

Friends, Bishop Paul and I are so very deeply touched and profoundly humbled by the faithful, creative and imaginative ways colleagues have adapted to the Corona crisis and how you’ve endeavoured to support, encourage, pray, lead praise, and provide pastoral care and bereavement support.  This is happening in parishes, hospitals, schools, prisons and very many other work places. Each in your way, and under very challenging circumstances, are pouring out the NARD of blessing of your calling – we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your inspirational ministries!  

For some Colleagues, confinement is something of a gift of time to pray and  read and learn. I encourage you all to make time to  attend to and build up your inner life.   

And as we journey, each in our way, through Holy Week, to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, 

may the life and joy of the resurrection touch and bless each of us, making us   ready for the new morning – and the world beyond isolation.    

God fill your heart with love.  God keep you safe and bless you.  Amen

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.

Not Simply To Endure Events: wisdom from Taizé for the time of the Coronavirus

As we come nearer Easter, anxiety is growing across the world in the face of the spread of the coronavirus. At Taizé, it seems that for the first time we will probably spending Holy Week and the Easter celebration without visitors. We have had to ask the people who had registered for the meetings to put off their stay, and the Church of Reconciliation is closed. We continue with our life of prayer and work “separated from all but united to all.” We are very conscious that intercession keeps us united with so many other people throughout the world.

By phone or internet, we receive a lot of news from people facing similar challenges in different parts of the world. Some of our brothers are living or travelling in Korea, Italy and elsewhere. Our Chinese brothers, in contact with their families there, have been following with attention and deep concern the developments of the epidemic since its beginnings.

Quite apart from the question of the precautions and changes to our way of life that are necessary, this quite unexpected and exceptional health crisis touches us in a deeper way. First of all, we are led to feel for the suffering and anguish of the victims, the sick, their families and all those who are severely affected by its economic consequences. We bear them in prayer.

We would also like to give thanks and express our admiration for those who are committed with all their strength to helping the victims and, more generally, in reorganizing public services. There are so many testimonies of creative generosity, of solidarity, and of people resisting passivity and discouragement.

In this difficult period, how can we not ask ourselves: What does Christ expect of us? What does the Risen One, who came to be with his discouraged disciples in spite of the closed doors, offer us? And to what is he calling us today? In the difficulties of the present, in Brother Roger’s words, “Not simply to endure events but, in God, to build with them.”

Following Christ leads us to an experience of conversion, of turning away from darkness and towards the light of the Risen One. Day by day, let us not be diverted by fears, anger, regrets, confusion, and the darkness that often claims to cover the whole world and to monopolise our attention… But let us remain united, deep within our hearts, to the source of peace that remains always beyond everything.

As containment measures and health precautions are increased to prevent contagion, let us take great care of the treasure of human relations. Let us keep in touch – through telephone calls and messages of friendship – with those who are isolated, and first and foremost the oldest, the most fragile and those already affected by another illness or hardship.

Over the coming days, we would like to take and transmit some concrete initiatives to express our solidarity spiritually. Every evening, a prayer with a small group of brothers will be broadcast from our house on social networks(at 8.30 pm, Western European time). And those who wish to do so can also send us prayer intentions.

As Saint Paul said to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, or anguish, or persecution, or hunger, or deprivation, or danger, or death? (…) I am certain that nothing will be able to separate us from the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39)

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