Chaplaincy Community Worker Bill Topping shares about life in lockdown at Barat House, the Roman Catholic / Methodist intentional student community at the University of Roehampton.
There is community; and then there is community in lockdown.
None of us who committed to live in Barat House – our ecumenical intentional community on the campus of the University of Roehampton – signed up to live in an enclosed order, but to some extent, at least in the early months, community in lockdown had a sense of that isolated religious life about it, which is not a negative thing at all.
Whilst undeniably challenging, and totally out of the comfort zones of some of our more gregarious community members, life in lockdown together has provided us all with ample opportunity to learn about ourselves, develop our lives of discipline and, I hope, grow closer to God.
My own personal perspective is that we are all called to live in community. That may be a residential community where one’s day-to-day lives are inextricably linked by virtue of living under the same roof. It may be a wider community where people live closely and encounter each other regularly, exchanging gifts and favours, food and fellowship, but ultimately returning to their own private space. Or it may be an even more dispersed community where members live all over the country and even the world, but who have collectively committed to a rhythm of life which involves separate but simultaneous prayers or reflections.
We at Barat House try and serve as a community in all three forms. Of course there is the residential community made up of students and two members of staff: we live together and engage in a way of life which involves committing ourselves to each other and embracing the ethos of the project as influenced by the faith traditions out of which it is formed, namely the Roman Catholic Church and the Methodist Church. Those who live in the house commit to engage in wider community projects, and endeavour to be present and helpful in the community that is the University of Roehampton, and the wider local areas of Roehampton, Barnes, Sheen, Putney and Castelnau, to name a few we have been present and active in. And, through a prayerbook we make every year, with our own prayers, reflections, photos and community members’ names past and present, we commit to an ongoing community in a dispersed manner, sharing together with all those who have been and gone, yet still belong. Once part of this community, always part of this community.
As a new community however, the way we try and achieve these aims is constantly evolving and the experience of lockdown has provided us with a variety of new learning experiences which will inform how we go forward. These new learning experiences we would like to share with everyone who may have struggled during this period of lockdown.
None of this is ground-breaking, but it is amazing the power of simple, collective, structured actions and the positive impact they can have on one’s own wellbeing, spiritual life, physical health and relationship with others.
Some of these points are extensions of what we already did, some are brand new, but we highly recommend all of them for those who struggle to live with others, particularly during these strange times, and also those who live alone; we think many of these can be implemented for individuals as well although you may find ie helpful to join together with someone else living alone for some gentle accountability, either virtually or now possible person as we emerge from lockdown.
Most of what we recommend are aspects of ancient monastic traditions so we are not claiming to be the originators of these, we are merely highlighting the value with reconnecting with such beneficial life practices.
As a Christian community it is vital for us to be rooted in prayer. Prayer bookends the day for us in Barat House now. Before lockdown, various full diaries meant it became difficult to establish any kind of rhythm of evening prayer beyond the Tuesday night community prayer (which all members commit to). Morning prayer however was doable and a pattern of contemplative morning prayer has emerged over the last couple of years, to the benefit of those who like to start their day doing so. Members of community, past and present, residential and dispersed, are prayed for every morning and it is undoubtedly one of the most important times of each Barat House Day.
Since lockdown however we have been able to create a culture of evening prayer too which bookends the day wonderfully and ensures we have some concentrated time with God – something which is too easy to avoid during “normal times”. It is a chance for us to remind ourselves daily why we are living where we are living and what ultimately is at the centre of our call to live differently. This is certainly something we will look to continue in one form or another beyond lockdown.
Whether it be prayer, meditation or a time of quiet, carving these times out in the day and incorporating them into the structure of your life causes it to begin to happen without you having to think too much about doing it, offering space to breathe and a time to be. Hopefully many of us will return to work more peace-filled, benefitting from the concentrated time of contemplation that has become part of our lives. We must try and resist the temptation to resort back to the culture of business.
Community members commit to sharing a meal with each other once a week. Ideally this would be much more regular but nine different academic timetables and working hours make that almost impossible. During lockdown, however, we have been able to share with each other in table fellowship more frequently. Being companions with each other to share bread is another community essential. Since lockdown we have had more community members sharing meals and pooling ingredients, trying new recipes and working on a house sourdough starter which produces the most delicious loaves.
Before lockdown everyone’s busy lives meant that the Tuesday evening, where one cooked for the rest on rotation, was often the longest period of time two community members spent with each other that week. It was absolutely no coincidence that those Tuesday night meals were regularly stated as being the most enjoyable and important part of the week. We kept the formal community meal in place during lockdown but it was lovely to see other informal community meals popping up regularly throughout the week. If it is decided to eat together regularly it is important to share the cooking and clearing up between everyone. Regular table fellowship can be counter-productive if cleaning falls on the same shoulders every week risking the build-up of resentments.
During lockdown we have been delivering meals to vulnerable members of the community in conjunction with FiSH Neighbourhood Care. It has been a humbling and rewarding expression of our commitments as a community highlighting the importance of food in community.
Barat House is owned by the Society of the Sacred Heart who until a few years ago still had Sisters living in it. The Society employ Janet, a crucial member of our community, to come in throughout the week and clean. If there is such thing as Glamping then I think this is certainly Glammunity. With lockdown, however, Janet has been unable to come in and so we have been doing her proud and have been keeping it spick and span. Three times a week, for an hour, we each have our own section of the house to clean. There is always a buzz of industry when the house is being cleaned. Everyone has their job, is taking it seriously and harbours no resentment – the house needs to be clean, we all dirty it, we all clean it. Sometimes we have an easy job, sometimes a harder job. A clean community is a loved community. Rather than let it get out of hand and then do a massive clean all together it really helps us to keep on top of it by having such a regular routine; aside from everything else it means there is never too big a mess because it was cleaned two days before. This time of the week is a special one because it reinforces our commitment to the community, both the people and the physical space, as well as providing us with the chance to show humility. I often find the hours of cleaning to be a good time to reflect on an issue that needs working out in my head or just simply mindfully stare into the toilet bowl. Cleaning is so important and handled well can be a real community building experience rather than something to avoid or resent.
In addition to cleaning we are also very lucky to have a garden in which we have been growing our own food. Designated hours throughout the week to spend in the garden together provide another opportunity for enjoyable group activity.
Saturday mornings during lockdown became a time for us to engage in some common recreation. For sometimes up to two hours we would sit together in the living room and work on something. I did some colouring, others some watercolours, jigsaws and models grew and languages were learnt. We would also often listen to a talk or a sermon together while we worked out our specific project. Old talks from Greenbelt festival were revisited and provided opportunities for learning and theological stimulation. It was a very enjoyable time spent together and was a peaceful way to start a Saturday. Finding time in the week to concentrate on a simple task like these can feel so rewarding and chips away at the anxiety to “be productive” with our time – this activity is very productive for ourselves and our own piece of mind without which “productivity” in the world can often only ever be superficial.
Common recreation in particular is an ancient monastic practice so there must be something in it.
For many people during this lockdown period, and I include myself here, our usual forms of release through physical exercise have been unable to happen. I played football and found it to be crucial for my physical and mental wellbeing. In lieu of that, and aware that many of the different community members’ football equivalents were similarly out of bounds, we designated time throughout the week to exercise together. We acknowledge here how lucky we are to have space in which to do this. Joe Wicks or other workout videos were often on, putting a number of us through our paces, paces which certainly sped up the more we did. Some community members went for jogs together to Richmond Park on certain mornings and others joined each other in walks. Yoga on a Monday night was also particularly relaxing. Having others with whom to engage in these exercises meant many of us were more likely to do it. The benefits from regular exercise are well-documented but become even more important when one’s normal route to that end is blocked. It has been crucial for me personally to continue exercising regularly and doing it as a community event has both ensured I continued to do it, and feel good as a result, but also provided us all with another part of the week where we are together, enjoying each other’s company, doing good.
Living in community is never easy and particularly increased in intensity and what was demanded of us in lockdown but we found with these practices that it was possible to coexist successfully during these strange times. None of these activities will be new to you and it may be that the communities in which you already incorporate many of these practices. If not though, it is our hope that, even as we seem to be coming out of lockdown, you may find some of these suggestions useful. They have been crucial to the life we have lived together in lockdown and have kept us sane, brought us closer with God and provided ample opportunity to learn about ourselves.