Letters from Cardiff in lockdown: Stephen Lingwood

Today’s instalment for the Letters from Cardiff in lockdown series comes from pioneer minister, Stephen Lingwood. We’re looking for your stories, so please contribute to Letters from Cardiff in lockdown

We’re in this strange situation where a lot of us have got nothing to do, and really want to be helpful, but there really is nothing we can do, and we all feel a bit useless.

I’ve worked as a pioneer minister in Cardiff since 2018. What that means is that I’m freed from a lot of the usual duties of “vicaring” to explore what faith and spirituality might look like outside of traditional church. For me that has involved exploring the intersection of spirituality, community, and social justice activism, particularly in Canton and Riverside.

My usual working week involved working with Riverside-based arts organisation Gentle/Radical at their co-working space in the Wyndham Street Centre, as well as working with other community and activist groups. Before the lockdown started I was part of a group organising an interfaith prayer vigil for climate justice outside the Senedd every Friday afternoon.

Now of course all that has stopped. My usual weekly rhythms (a coffee while working on my laptop in Chapter Arts Centre on a Monday, a drink in the Crafty Devil on Tuesday, etc) – all that has gone. Sure, some things are happening online, but I do find myself with a lot less to do. Like most of us I’m just stuck at home.

I’m lucky that my employment is secure, for now. But I’m left with a sense of frustration, guilt, and (of course) loneliness because I can’t go out and do more. I joined the Canton Mutual Aid group and gave my phone number to two of my local streets, but in all the weeks that have gone by I’ve only been asked to collect someone’s prescription once. I’d like to do a lot more! I’d be happy to do it every day.

My sense is that there’s actually more people who want to help than there are people who need help! I know one person who has signed up to help at a food bank but they’ve not yet been called upon to help because the food bank has got a lot more volunteers than they need.

We’re in this strange situation where a lot of us have got nothing to do, and really want to be helpful, but there really is nothing we can do, and we all feel a bit useless.

In our capitalist society we’re used to thinking of ourselves as valuable only if we’re being productive – if we’re a useful cog in a machine, if we’re “economically active”, if we’re useful. In some ways of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be useful, with wanting to be helpful to the world, but the problem is when we get our sense of identity and value from that. The spiritual lesson is to know that your value as a human being is inherent – it doesn’t depend on your work.

I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe the challenge right now is to embrace that truth: that I’m useless, that many of us are useless, but maybe, actually, that is OK.

The Chinese religion of Taoism has a concept called “wu wei” which means “actionless action”. This is the idea that actually it’s not always busyness and frantic activity that gets things done, sometimes it is actually stillness, quietness, and “doing nothing” that achieves the most. The Tao Te Ching states, “The Way does nothing, and yet nothing remains unaccomplished.” That has never been more true than now. For those of us who are not key workers the most important thing we can do for our society is stay at home and do nothing other than look after ourselves and our families.

I think prayer is a kind of a “doing nothing”. It’s the “nothing” we do when we’ve run out of all the “somethings”. Apparently a lot of people are searching online for “how to pray”. I suppose because a lot of people are worried. I know I am. I’m worried about my health every time I go out, I’m worried about my job, I’m worried about my family. We never know when it might be our turn to get this virus, or the turn of someone we love. Where do you put all those feelings?

I take them to prayer. I don’t believe that prayer is magic. I don’t believe it means begging God to do something for us. I don’t think it works that way. I don’t think it changes God, I think it changes us.

I don’t want to push religion down anyone’s throat. I honestly don’t mind if you do Buddhist meditation or chanting or yoga or even just exercise. I’m what you call a universalist and so I believe the holy is in all religions, and all people.

But I do think that doing something spiritual, every day as a commitment, does bring deeper peace and contentment. Somehow, in a very mysterious way, “doing nothing” becomes the most important thing to do. Somehow “doing nothing” is actually what changes things. It changes me. I speak my worries into the silence and then I listen to the silence. And in a mysterious way I find a deeper and more lasting peace.

I’ve been trying to follow the example of Julian of Norwich (1343-1416). Julian lived through the Black Death, probably lost families members, and then spent the rest of her life in self-isolation in a “cell” by the side of a church, and yet she wrote “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Now, I’m not exactly in a “cell” in a two bed house in Canton, and I’m not exactly living like a monk (I do have Netflix) but I’m trying to be inspired by Julian in my life right now. I’m trying to live simply, quietly, to be still enough to pay attention to my soul. And so I chant, I meditate, I pray. I have a small altar table in my room with candles and a picture of a kingfisher painted by a friend of mine (the kingfisher has always been a symbol of the divine for me). Every Wednesday I share Celtic morning and night prayer on my page, Riverside Ministry Project Facebook page.

I’m also gentle on myself. Spirituality shouldn’t be another thing to be guilty about doing or not doing. Some days I eat biscuits and watch telly.

We’re in a global crisis, we need to be very gentle with ourselves however we’re coping. But prayer or meditation can really help in these times too. It helps me to live through these strange times.

Follow Stephen on Twitter @SJLingwood, or visit the Riverside Ministry Project.

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