Diary of an Involuntary Anchorite

In the middle ages to decide to spend one’s entire life in one room usually attached to a church was an accepted if uncommon thing to do. Those who chose this were mainly women ( – nchoresses, from a Greek word meaning to withdraw – men who chose this lifestyle were called anchorites. Their enclosure was much stricter than that of those of us who are social distancing to slow the progress of the coronavirus. I have a whole house and garden to move about it,, and social distancing does not appear to mean not taking the dog for a walk, though I am choosing the less busy routes and keeping the recommended two metres from other pedestrians. Anchorites didnt have the internett or supermarket deliveries, but they did have servants, who fulfilled much the same role. Lady Loretta, the anchoress who lived at St Stephen’s for over 40 years is thought to have had two woman servants ( who performed the Tesco online function) and a male servant who acted as her email server, taking messages to others far and near.

Challenges like the coronavirus epidemic can be ways in which we learn new things – as I said in my sermon on Sunday like Psalm 84 “ going through the vale of misery use it as a well” so I thought I would use my blog to reflect on what we can learn from our involuntary enclosure which looks to be going to go on for at least two months, and also what medieval anchoresses can teach us about this. . I’ll aim to post something here everyday . I dont think the blog has a comment function but if you want to join the discussion emal me petertoon@aol.com and I will weave your thoughts into the disucssion

Thursday 19th March – Feast of St Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

“The night has passed and the day lies open before us” These words are part of the introduction to Common Worship Morning Prayer .https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-in-daily-prayer. They are I think intended to be words of hope, but for those who suddenly find themselves in self-isolation or social distancing with all plans for the day cancelled they may sound more like a threat than a promise.

I’ve been thinking about how I will spend my time as an involuntary anchorite. For many people all they have to do is get up in the morning – after that what they do is controlled by other people; family need breakfast, then you get to work on autopilot where people ask you to do things all day until you escape and go home – by then all you want to do is flop. My life was like that when I was a GP – once you got into the building there was a constant succession of emails, phone calls patients and staff asking me to do things – I never had to wonder what to do.

The other part of my life, as a writer and academic gave me a bit more freedom to decide what to do, which meant I got some experience in organising my own time, and have had some more in 8 years of retirement, when you don’t have to do anything but you do need to avoid the temptation to spend all day with your feet up drinking gin (or Pastis in my case).

I think St Benedict got the principle right – in his Rule he laid down how monks should balance their time between prayer, reading and manual work. This was what Loretta would have known as the “outer rule” for a monk and as the Ancrene Wisse (http://tei.oucs.ox.ac.uk/Projects/EETS/soton/texttran.html ) advises this will differ between different people according to their personality, gifts and commitments. But the “inner rule” which underlies this – that we should organise our time into different contrasting periods and balance our lives with different activities, some physical, some mental – seems good for us all

I think I have managed to change the settings so people can comment on my posts – if you read this do give it a try and see how it works.

Knitting your way through Enclosure Friday 20th March

At the end of 1981 I was moving from Oxford to London to start a new job, and for a while until I could find a flat I stayed with some friends in Tottenham. A friend of theirs was half Polish, and had arranged to spend a year in Poland in order to strengthen his understanding of that side of his heritage. Unfortunately he arrived just a few weeks before the Communist leaders imposed martial law in attempt to halt the unrest channelled through the Solidarity movement. Wikepeadia tells us that during this period “ A curfew was imposed, the national borders sealed, airports closed, and road access to main cities restricted. Telephone lines were disconnected, mail subject to renewed postal censorship, all independent official organizations were criminalized, and classes in schools and universities suspended.”

His response to an experience quite similar to Covid enclosure was to take up knitting and he knitted his way through martial law for some months until he was able to return to the UK. By good fortune I had a chance to learn the rudiments of knitting in Avignon last November and I find listening to music whilst knitting very soothing. So on my last shopping outing before close down I bought some wool and a very cheap but lovely pair of bamboo needles and I am knitting my mother-in-law a scarf. I have done about 10 cm so far and the target is 1.5m, so that should keep me calm and take many hours of the next few months.

Life without internet Saturday 21st March

Before the epidemic erupted we had arranged to change internet and phone provider, and yesterday was fixed as the day for the handover. The day started with a Zoom conference with Christians Together in Canterbury, and then someone phoned me up. We had been told that the change over would take place sometime in the afternoon, but about 11 30 I was in the middle of the phone-call when the line went dead. When I tried to call back I got a message saying the new service would start at 7 45 pm. A check on the computer confirmed that we no longer had an internet connection either.

I had topped up my mobile the day before so I was able to send messages to tidy up urgent outstanding things ( so long as I did it from the top of the garden where I could get a data signal) and then I settled down to a day of real isolation – no internet.

Knitting, books, CDs and DVD’s kept me occupied but it really made me notice how dependent on the net I am. Whilst knitting I was thinking about various writing projects I’m engaged on, and I kept thinking – “ I’ll search that on the internet”. I couldn’t post yesterday’s blog or do any of the other keeping in touch emails I had planned for the day – let alone watch all the cheering videos people have posted and have more online chats.

Although the internet is buckling under the strain of the load of replacing all our face to face meetings: video providers have reduced their streaming quality and those who use a lot of bandwidth for things like online video-games asked to restrict usage. Perhaps before this is over we will all have to ration our internet use. Meanwhile if this is over in a year’s time, perhaps a challenging thing to give up for Lent would be the internet? After all I managed without it for the first 40 years of my life!

Meanwhile we are back on-line, so I can post this and also yesterday’s thought now.

3 thoughts on “Diary of an Involuntary Anchorite

  1. Dorothy Jerrome

    Hello Peter. I hope the scarf is growing by the day. Even better than bamboo are metal needles – the point slips effortlessly past the wool….No chance of finding out for a few months but one day life will return to (a new) normal. Thank you also for your sermon, sorry for leaving a response to this and your generous blog so late. I seem to have spent much more time than usual glued to the small screen (ipad, laptop, phone etc) and am now scrolling further back. Thinking of you and our other Anglican Friends, stay well and safe. Dorothy

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