Diary of an Involuntary Anchorite page 2

I’ve decided to keep my diary manageable I will start a new page on my blog every Sunday. If you want to start from the beginning the go back to the page without a number

Getting real – Mothering Sunday

Even though it has changed our lives, for most of us Covid 19 is still something pretty abstract – we hear the death figures on the news, but so far a lot of us (me included) don’t actually know anyone who has had the virus, let alone died of it. But in the last few days I have heard of two people whom I do know who have lost a friend or relative in the epidemic. One is someone my mother-in-law was at school with in France, whom we have often visited; she is French but of Italian origin, and two relatives on the Italian side of the family have just died. The other is a priest who spent a few months in our parish during his training – he has lost a friend from college.

The other thing which has made it real is that it is Sunday. Now I dont work I quite often have a quiet day at home – reading, writing, cooking, gardening – so although a series of such days is unusual, none of the last weekdays has felt that strange. But on Sunday I almost always go to church – twice to sing in the choir if I am at St Stephen’s, maybe preaching or taking Evensong. When we are in France I go to the local Roman Catholic or Orthodox church in the morning, and often there is a concert in a local church in the afternoon – a different sort of churchgoing.

Today I had planned to go to Quaker meeting – partly because I do that sometimes, and partly to avoid the Family worship. Avoiding the inevitable Rutter anthem is always attractive, but also this being the first Mothering Sunday when I no longer have a living mother I preferred not to be so forcefully reminded of what I had lost.

I tried to sit quietly as in Meeting for Worship alone but its much harder not to be distracted and I only managed half an hour. I did however manage to “attend” the midday Eucharist streamed from the Cathedral – albeit a bit behind time as although I can hear the bell from my garden announcing the service I havent quite got the hang of how to get on as soon as they start streaming. But one advantage of an online service is when you’re late you can just rewind time and dont miss anything (the other advantage is that you can knit through the sermon, but don’t tell the Dean!) It was a simple but beautifully done service which if you couldn’t join in a service you can still see it below.

Monday 23rd March The Wisdom of beasts

The Ancrene Wisse advised anchoresses “you shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat. ”. St Julian of Norwich, probably the most famous anchoress, is usually portrayed with her cat. For the medieval anchoress a cat was probably a practical necessity to keep rats and mice away from her anchorhold. I don’t have a cat in my involuntary anchorhood, but I do have a beast – a small dog.

I should tell you about Poppy. She was my mother’s dog and a great comfort to her in her days of solitude after my father died. We often wondered what we would do for Mother when the dog died; in the event we found ourselves involuntary dog keepers when Mother died last September. I say “keeper” because to talk of dog owners is quite false – it’s as true to say they own you, for often they set the agenda and the pace, not you. I’m writing this on the sofa rather than in the library where I usually write because Poppy can sit beside me here.

Poppy is a great example of how to live. Her needs are simple – basically food, walks, sleep and human company. Her trust is amazing – she knows that if she barks eventually doors will open, food and water will appear, and someone will appear for company. She copes with abrupt changes in her life without fuss – small ones as when I decide to move around the house and pick her up and take her with me, to big ones like moving from Worcestershire to Canterbury to Avignon and back.

She is a perfect image of asking in faith “ the eyes of all wait upon Thee O Lord and thou givest the their meat is due season”

I suspect Loretta and her fellow anchoresses also learnt a bit about holiness from their cats. I hope I can be as content and as trusting as Poppy in the next few months.

A mistaken analysis – 24th March 2020

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced legal measures to force people to stay at home to fight this epidemic. This morning I got a long email from a Russian friend, arguing that this was just another form of influenza and that we should fight it by carrying on as normal : “Stop doing nothing. Regain your human thinking, feeling, doings of the will. Move around, meet with people”

Otherwise, she argued, we would lose creativity, submit to fear and stop caring for the poor and disadvantaged.

I thought I would share my reply to her with you:

Thank you for your texts. You are right we are in a wartime situation, but I think you are wrong about its consequences and your response.

This is the first global pandemic for 100 years and the first time we have have had a chance to control it because of modern information technology . In the Black Death in 1349 one third of the population died. In 1919 between 20 and 50 million people died. If we just carry on as you suggest then as many could die in 2020 as in 1919. But China has shown that if everyone stays at home the epidemic can be controlled.

As for fear, although I am sure many are frightened most people seem to be supported by the love and care of their friends and neighbours, which does not need physical contact to be expressed. ? They are staying at home to protect their friends and those in the community they dont know but still care about Again we are fortunate – we have the telephone, email and skype to keep in touch which did not exist in 1919. We have radio and television to tell us what is happening throughout the world and keep us entertained.

As for creativity, it does not stop because we are at home; indeed the end to frantic rushing and pointless activity frees up time for creativity. I am writing, cooking new recipes, making bread, making music and knitting presents for those I love – all things I might not have found time for in normal times. Others tell me similar stories.

As for the poor, as always they will suffer most if the epidemic gets a grip. But in England we have seen the most right-wing government in decades spend huge amounts on supporting those whose livelihoods are threatened by the epidemic – a government which in normal times would expect people just to get on with it and let market forces rip.Let us pray that the changes we are seeing now will put a permanent end to the mad pursuit of wealth and exultation of economics over people which is and always has punished the poor and is destroying our planet.

And as for doing nothing, in two weeks time we will be remembering the death of someone who “did nothing ” and by his patient doing nothing – his suffering and death – transformed the world. Jesus who described himself as the Son of Man was as he predicted “given over into the hands of cruel men and crucified” . Whatever you believe about the Resurrection, think of the creativity, the care for the poor, the casting out of fear which his ” doing nothing” has unleashed. It has led to Bach, Gregorian Chant, Chatres cathedral, the roof of the Sistine Chapel – hows that for creativity? It has led to care for the poor – to Mother Theresa, St Francis, to the campaign to abolish the slave trade, to the prison reforms promoted by Elisabeth Fry – how is that for care for the poor? It led to Maximillian Kolbe taking the place of someone else in a Nazi death chamber; it led to Archbishop Romero speaking out against the oppression of the poor and being shot at the altar; it led to Perpetua and Felicity a slave girl and her mistress going hand in hand into the arena in Rome to face their death – how is that for casting out fear?

And all become someone 2000 years ago didn’t do anything. Let us all go and do nothing with such consequences.

Thursday 26th

I’d imagined that lockdown would leave me oodles of time to do the things I don’t normally get round to. This has been true up to a point, but it is surprising how the days fill up – yesterday so much that I didnt get round to writing an entry in my diary. There were the normal things – walking Poppy, preparing dinner, washing up etc. Also my first attempt at a Tesco delivery which took me ages – partly getting used to the software and partly because I kept on thinking about things I’d forgotten – and a first and unsucessful attempt to record the meditation I had planned to do in person next Sunday in Sittingbourne and Canterbury. Software learning takes time – but one good thing to come out of this is that we’ll probably all be a lot more skilful.

I think also I’m doing less because the change of pace has slowed me down – in the same way as you slow down on holiday. I’m sleeping better and longer, despite the limitations on exercise, and it feels harder to keep going. Also the first sunny day it was fit to be outside was a temptation just to sit and doze in the sun. In a way it is nice to feel so relaxed – but I wonder if this goes to far it leads to accidie, the problem monks had of being listless depressed and unable to do anything in the middle of the day. Need to watch that.

If I should die….Friday 27th

According to data from China, the death rate from COVID-19 in those between 60 and 69 – my age group – is 3.6. Men are about twice as likely to die as women, which puts that up to around 4.8%. I have mild asthma which probably adds another 2 or 3 percentage points. That compares with a risk of around 1 % general mortality for a man of my age in the UK in normal circumstances; probably a bit less than that for me as I am not aware of having a disease likely to kill me.

So this pandemic increases my risk of dying this year about ten times. We all know we are going to die, but we avoid thinking about it most of the time. This virus makes us all more aware of our mortality. For me this awareness has made me more conscious of good things; having a nice meal, sitting by the fire listening to music with Yvan (my husband) and Poppy (our dog) feling the heat of the sun on my face.

A E Housman writing in the persona of a twenty year old that he could expect to see fifty more Springs (life expectancy has increased a bit since his day) , and that “ to look at things in bloom, Fifty springs are little room” so he would spend his time looking at the cherry blossom.

So as well as making sure my executor can find my will and sharing my funeral instructions, I plan to spend as much time as possible looking at the spring flowers in the garden. They are much more beautiful when I know this may be the last yearI see them

Poetry 28th March

Before all this started I had decided one of my Lenten tasks would be to sort out and cull my books. Like most of my aspirations for Lent it will only have been partly kept, but I have found and organised my books of poetry, and one of the slots I am trying to keep in my day is a time to read some poetry. Today I opened Alexander Pope for the first time for years, and found the Essay on Man:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

As well phrased and as true as when written nearly 300 years ago.