An old way of connecting

In the days before mass transport and communications, how did people manage to connect with one another? We know that some people travelled long distances to make business calls – think of all those archbishops, abbots and bishops who travelled to Rome from England in the middle ages – but most people just stayed put. How did they, then, remain connected with the wider world, and how did they know what was happening in far off lands? Well, first of all, they relied on others to do the information collecting and dissemination for them and, in the middle ages, that is why the church played such an active role in society. People knew what was going on elsewhere because the church told them, and news was passed on locally by word of mouth.

We have so many ways of connecting with one another today, so much so that we can feel overwhelmed with information. We do need those connections, but most of all we need the personal word of mouth connections that have always been important. Even if we cannot visit one another, we can pick up the phone and speak to each other and especially to those who are isolated without access to social media, the internet, or other forms of access. I am going to try and phone round everyone on my list gradually over the next few weeks and just check if everyone is alright and if they have everything they need. If we all do that, then we will remain connected as a society even if, like the folks of the middle ages, we cannot travel very far.

But, there was an even more important way in which people remained connected in times gone by and which could be our most useful way of staying connected in our trying times – prayer. Many do not now go to church, but many still want to light a candle and pray for those they know who are in need. It is a primitive urge to want to mark in some way that we are thinking of people and wishing them health and good life – what in other terms we might call ‘blessing’ – and we can do that even if we are not sure about God or what to believe in. We are connected at the level of human spirit, that which makes us feel for and care for one another, and by taking a few moments each day to remember others we are connecting with them in care and feeling for them.

For those of us who acknowledge that God is that which holds all life together in this realm of feeling and care, we will want to pray that his blessing is upon all around us at this time. I will be saying prayers and remembering everyone on my list (which I have divided up into sections for each day) on a daily basis at 10 am and 4 pm, and I invite you to join me in prayer at those times. Better still, draw up your own daily list of those you want to remember and, maybe lighting a candle as you would if you were in a church, remember them at 10 and 4 each day as you pray along with me.

Above all, in these difficult days ahead, don’t just connect remotely – pick up the phone and communicate personally, and join me in praying for those on your list of those to remember. May God bless us all.

Lent with Herbert Day 19: Gladness of the Best — Malcolm Guite

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have completed Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into bliss, a bliss which is all the more real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow, and in our last post we saw how Herbert focused that ascent and centred it […]

Lent with Herbert Day 19: Gladness of the Best — Malcolm Guite

An approach to loneliness

I know this post comes hot on the heals of the last one, but I couldn’t help but offer a reflection on the loneliness that some now fear in our present crisis. Loneliness is a very real problem for some people – especially those living on their own – but it is not an insurmountable problem. It is possible to be alone and not feel lonely, and the fear of being isolated is often more imagined than real. I don’t want to deny that some people will feel isolated in this present situation, and we should all be on the lookout for them. However, most of us have neighbours to whom we can turn and there are many groups who are ready and willing to help those on their own.

As a student of the monastic life, I have to say that I have always been impressed by those who can maintain a life of silence and social distance – especially the Trappists, or Cistercians of the Strict Observance – whilst also remaining inwardly content and secure. I think the reason for this is that, even in their silence and distance from one another, they still feel the spirit that connects them in prayer – the common spirit that unites each and everyone as members of the human race and God’s creation. We are never alone if we imagine ourselves to be being held in the hands of God and in each others prayers. Of course, it is impossible to remember each other in prayer all the time, but monastic communities remember one another, and especially their absent members, at certain times each day.

One of the things we can offer to those who feel lonely or alone is the assurance of our prayers. We can offer to pray for them at a specific time, or a couple of times each day, and we may even want to share in that prayer time with a phone call, email, or other kind of personal contact. Some of us may have no choice but to be alone, but we don’t need to be lonely. Prayer can connect us to one another and to the source of all life. Prayer can also be the means by which we learn how to make personal contact with one another and, as St Benedict told his monks, prayer doesn’t have to be complicated and long-winded. In fact, St Benedict says that prayer should be brief, but it should be regular, often and consistent.

For the lonely, the worried and the anxious, I offer the following prayer courtesy of the Church of Eng;and:

A prayer for us all:

Loving God,
Bless us all, particularly now.
Particularly when we are comforting others
Particularly when we are offering hope
Particularly when people are isolated
Particularly when we feel overwhelmed ourselves
Particularly when we are afraid.
Help us to remember that you are right here, now, in the midst of us
Calling us by name.

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Starting over

I have decided to refresh my website as the world is changing dramatically for most of us at the beginning of 2020. With a viral epidemic now in full swing, it seems a good time to revive one means of communicating with those who may want to hear from me and, yet, who I cannot make physical contact with right now. For these few days towards the end of March I am set to be in self-isolation, not because I think I have contracted the virus, but because I have some mild symptoms which may prove to be just a cold, but which I also don’t want to pass on to others – common cold or something more serious. Better to be safe than sorry in these worrying times.

Life in God’s creation is a strange thing. If we believe that God enabled a creation that includes viruses and bacteria that can kill us, as well as great bears and tigers that can also kill us – and, in fairness, which we also kill not just to survive, but also for sport – what does that say about creation and the place of each and everything in it? We like to think that we, and the friendlier parts of God’s creation, are meant to be and have a purpose, but what about those things that are not so friendly – like COVID-19? An evolutionary biologist would say, of course, that all things exist in a fight for survival and that only those with the fittest characteristics survive. That seems a bit harsh when we’re faced with a crisis like our present one, and it is true that co-existence and co-operation could have been more widespread in creation if we humans had not tipped the balance in favour of the competition for survival.

As I reflect on the possibility that I and my loved ones around me may get something that may kill us, I am forced to acknowledge that, although many things remain a mystery, my life is more than survival and much more than a certain quantity of years. Our humanity, and our life as spiritual beings in God, should be about quality and not quantity – about the love and joy we bring to one another, and the peace which we create between one another. When I say my prayers I am not asking for more of this or that or for more years and experience to be added to my life, but for the peace, love and joy that passes all understanding. No viral infection can kill that. But, maybe by being infected with this spiritual way of life – a life of prayer which seeks to bathe everything in peace, love and joy – we can overcome the viral threat that affects our bodies and, perhaps more importantly, the selfish race for survival that affects our quality of life.

May God bless you during these trying times, and please watch out for my regular reflections.