At the start of another day of lockdown I was reminded of a remark made to me by an American man called John who I met while walking on the Camino in Spain.
I’d woken up early, as I usually do in these days, and thought, without a huge amount of enthusiasm, ‘oh, another day; do I really have to…’. It had been a good week up until that point, and a couple of important meetings and presentations which had required a lot of preparation and energy had gone very well. But I was feeling a little drained and flat in the aftermath and wondering how I was going to find some new motivation for a day in which there were no especially ‘big’ things happening (like a lot of days really at the moment, let’s face it!). I managed, somehow, to remove myself from the comfort of the bed and to get out for my morning walk. And I tried to tell myself how lucky I am to be able to do such a thing, when some of those prisoners supported by the Irish Chaplaincy are currently being allowed out of their cell for just 30 minutes a day, and are faced with the choice: to have a shower, to join a long queue for the phone (assuming they have the means to make a call), or to go into the exercise yard (where there may not be too much social distancing).
I followed exactly the same route I have for the last fortnight or so, which is through the bluebell wood on the way up to the Kent University campus. I didn’t want to miss a single day of the bluebells, although they’re fading now so maybe I can start to walk somewhere else. Variety is the spice of life, as they say! There’s a wonderfully fragrant yellow azalea which has just come into bloom in the cemetery near us so I might go there now. Mix it up a bit!
My life in lockdown has become a bit monastic, and there’s a lot I like about that. There’s quite a nice, simple balance of work, prayer, meals, reading, recreation (much of that in the form of walking or cycling). I’m a bit more tuned in than usual to the subtle but magical changes in the natural world: the colours and the smells, the times of the day when the birds sing more loudly, the wonderful sight in the sky a few nights ago of a crescent moon underneath a brightly shining Venus.
But any routine can also become a bit monotonous, and even my taking part every day without fail in the Facebook live-stream of Evening prayer from Taizé is not quite as ‘uplifting’ as it was in the first week or two (they began doing it a couple of weeks before Easter). And I’m clearly not the only one who’s feeling like that. In the beginning there were close to 4,000 people tuning in. This week the viewing figures are down to 2.5k! What are those vanished 1.5k doing instead, I wonder?
Most days I’m fairly content with this simple life but there are some days when I think ‘oh, I just want to get in the car or on a train or on a plane and, well, just go somewhere…anywhere’. It’s often tempting to want to ‘get away’, in the belief that we’ll somehow be more content or more stimulated or more this or more that if only we were in a different place. I was struck by Gerry’s piece in our Easter newsletter, ’A Time to be Still’, when he mentioned that in the 1650s the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal made a perceptive comment about the human condition. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,” he said, “is that he cannot stay quietly in his room”. There is even a word and a phrase in the monastic tradition to describe this restlessness (because imagine being in an actual monastery and following exactly the same routine every day, every week for, say, fifty years!). It’s called ‘acedia’ (from the Greek ‘akedia’, meaning indifference), or the ‘noonday demon’, and it’s a kind of listlessness, when the simplest of acts can take a huge effort. It’s when I can’t quite get the motivation or the enthusiasm to do anything, and the temptation is to want to escape from the mundane, the humdrum, the routine. Although, I know deep down that if I can’t be content here and now, I’ll never be content in some other place with some other people doing some other thing.
It was when I was feeling rather out of sorts and out of energy one morning that I met John, a fellow pilgrim. Yes, the ‘noonday demon’ can strike anywhere, even on the magical, mystical Camino to Santiago. We got chatting and John, who’d grown up in Tennessee, told me about how he’d just taken early retirement at the age of 50 from a highly stressful career in hotel hospitality in California. I asked if he had any hopes or dreams for his 50th birthday year, and beyond. “Weeelll”, he replied in his slow, Southern drawl, “Aaaahh just wanna keep ooon keeping oooon”!
My encounter with John helped lift me out of that particular little trough, and I often think of his words. And may we all during this time of lockdown (and beyond) find somehow the strength to keep on keeping on.