I first realised all this panic-buying was getting serious when I got a phone call from the biscuit aisle of our local Sainsbury’s. The shelves weren’t completely empty, my housemate told me, but it was slim pickings. We both laughed incredulously as she listed the few types of biscuit the other shoppers had left us. In the end I went with these Almond Thins:

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C. was shopping for me because like many people in our part of South London, I’d had to self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms. I still can’t be sure what I experienced was the virus but several days of odd fiery fevers and chest issues make it likely, and poor Southwark has been hit very hard. Both the sickness and isolation have felt like a battle at times and I was lucky my symptoms were relatively mild. We’re not really used to sweating it out through long periods of feverishness, which would have been a much commoner feature of life in medieval times. The night the worst of the fevers broke I woke to blessed stillness to hear a bird singing outside my window and just at that moment it was the loveliest sound in the world.

Another milestone of recovery was the return to coffee and biscuits. I might never have discovered the all-buttery consolations of the Almond Thins were it not for the present crisis, just as I might never have discovered the goodness and faithfulness of so many people in my life if I hadn’t been ill. From both far and near, friends and family have prayed for me, messaged me, cooked for me, brought me food or paracetamol and just generally cheered me on through the days I’ve felt anxious or vulnerable. The last few weeks may have been short on biscuits but they have been very rich in love.

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Walking round the neighbourhood on my daily constitutionals it’s good to see signs of hope and solidarity, from the cheery messages on local businesses to the brightly painted rainbows in children’s houses inspired by the andrà tutto bene pictures in Italy (a motto Julian of Norwich would have loved). Yes, we’re all still reeling from the disruption to our old patterns of life, but it helps that we’re in this together and so many people are finding creative ways of reaching out to one another even when we’re physically apart.

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From BL Royal 20 C V

Plague is one experience no sane person would ever want to share with the Middle Ages yet here we are exposed to what would have seemed a very medieval anxiety once. Familiar works like Everyman, the Danse Macabre and even the Divine Comedy were all shaped by the necessity of navigating death someday, though to Christians it was never an end but a doorway. The whole Memento Mori tradition, often seen as morbid in our own time, was meant to help people live more purposefully in the here and now. 

Part of this hard-won wisdom is learning to separate the things that matter from the things that don’t matter. Saving lives matters more than leaving the house whenever we want to and we’ve a new appreciation of the value of many ‘low-skilled’ jobs. Many of the things that preoccupied us a few weeks ago have come to seem trivial, old grudges not worth holding on to. Minor irritations and inconveniences are put in their proper place. ‘Stay safe’ is the new ‘Kind regards’.

Souls are like athletes writes Thomas Merton, and this Lent it feels like we’ve all been given our own marathons to run. Yes, our lives will never be the same again, and for a time they may feel thinner and more constricted, but at the end of this I pray we’ll emerge richer in ways we can’t see right now. “I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers,” the apostle John wrote in one of his letters and this is my prayer for us all in the coming months.

Further Reflection

So many medieval writers offer comfort in times of trouble and sickness. These last weeks I’ve been drawing from Julian of Norwich (Malcolm Guite’s post on her work might be a good way in if you haven’t read her) and, in a later age, John Donne. Texts available free with other out-of-copyright works from Project Gutenberg.

Has the plague closed your theatre? Many wonderful institutions have been releasing content to help us keep our spirits up through the lockdown. Thursday night is now theatre night thanks to the National Theatre. You can also visit a museum from your living room, listen to beautiful music from the Berliner Philharmoniker or watch an opera streamed from the Met in New York.

Make a call. Write a letter. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. There’s so much we can do to support each other even from a distance, so keep on reaching up and out.

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From BL Stowe MS 955, Le Petit Livre d’Amour

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