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Letter 7: 12th June 2020

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Dear Friends

This is the last letter in the series, written at a time of transition from crisis to living with a new reality. Now it is possible to look back and see a narrative arc emerging; one episode coming to a close even as another, much of it still unknown, begins. We can see, now, that the greatest ordeal fell on Easter weekend, when the press of patients in intensive care was at its most demanding.

The story is by no means over when the greatest ordeal is passed. The pace for many of you has been as punishing since then; the relaxation of lockdown requires your vigilant attendance; for the most vulnerable even more care has to be taken as the streets become busy again.

But in the classic plot line of the hero’s quest, there is a time following the great ordeal when the protagonists draw breath, count the cost, and allow themselves to feel the gains of the journey. You can take a moment, now, to realise your greater strength and resilience, and reconnect with the deeper resources upon which you drew in order to undergo the ordeal. You know they are there because you felt them; and you can call upon them again. Joseph Campbell calls them the ‘elixir’ which is the real goal of the quest, not recognised until it is found; attained because of how we journeyed.

And having gained the elixir, you can both enjoy it and pass it on. This, in the story of the hero’s quest, is a new level of life. The journey begins afresh, and we too are changed.

What have we learned, what can we bring into our new level of life, our unknown future?

Our leadership has been tested, we have felt the weight of it and the cost of it. The need to make unpopular decisions. The importance of giving one’s word only when one can keep it. The acknowledgement that those who are idolised - the key workers - and those who face criticism - our political leaders - share a common humanity with us all. Fallible yet motivated by public service. Fearful and by the same token brave.

We learned that the human species is not at the top of the food chain. Our science knows all too well that we have to work with the grain of nature, not against it. We learned that we must live with the coronavirus; we will not defeat or obliterate it.

We learned to commune even as we distanced ourselves from each other. The distance allowed us to see each other more clearly, to give each other the space to be ourselves and exist in our own peace. And we learned that we are also porous to each other: my health depends on your health. I cannot seal myself off from you, so I must care for you. We learned that kindness is more important than almost anything.

We learned that the most valued members of our societies are those who enact love through care. These we cannot do without, and our economy has to arrange itself in service of humanity’s care for one another and for the planet that provides us with food and shelter.

We learned humility, and gratitude. For simple, true things: birdsong; a tree trunk; eyes smiling above a mask.

We learned that the hero, in the hero’s quest, is all of us.

I leave you with this image to sustain you in the next unfolding episode of the story. Birds catch thermals, a bank of warm air which supports them on the wing, which they can ride, resting even as they move. Find your thermal, that sweet spot when you relax into your work, your skill, your vocation, and the response from those whom you serve. You need to be supported. You need to feel that you are not alone, that the burden doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders. Find your thermal, and ride it. Fly!

You continue in our thoughts and prayers.

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute


Letter 6: 5th June 2020

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Dear Friends

The symphony of public service continues to respond to the pandemic, the music changing as circumstances change: tight, emphatic, staccato chords releasing tentatively into longer sweeps of notes as lockdown eases.  You keep playing, and we remain grateful.

You play or sing your service as individuals but the part that you perform - the tenor line, say, or the second strings, or the wind section - is given to you by virtue of the institution within which you work.  And no matter how attentive, selfless and technically correct your service is, if the institution within which you offer it is off key then your service too is compromised.  So it matters that our public service institutions of Parliament, government, law, healthcare, education, faith, journalism and more are themselves able to attune to strong values and virtues.

Just as our own souls need strengthening to keep them supple and ready for service, so the ‘souls’ of our institutions do too.

If your soul is where your intrinsic value is to be found, which it is, then it doesn’t quite make sense to say that an institution has a soul.  Institutions don’t have intrinsic value; they are defined by their function.  But an institution does have a personality, an emotional atmosphere that dictates the norms by which its workers act.  This, which can be called its ethos, needs to be nurtured every bit as much as its efficiency.  The ethos can give you energy or drain it from you.  It can expect your best performance or condone your sloppiest.  It can make you feel valued or exploited.  It can be something you are supported by and can trust, or something you have to defend yourself against.

How do we tend to the ethos of an institution?  Of course you who lead it are responsible, but you may find it hard, particularly in ancient, established institutions like those of our constitution.  A negative ethos can stubbornly persist even when every job title and department has changed, even when every person who works in the institution has been replaced.  Nevertheless only people can enhance or modify the ethos.  And leaders cannot do it alone: you have to empower your staff, all of them, with some agency and experience of effective influence.

Over the last four weeks we have unburdened, fed, exercised and rested our own souls, and we can attend with the same readiness to the ethos of our institutions.

We can unburden them of old and painful baggage, which if ignored will carry on affecting all that the institution does.  Unattended baggage is a reason why a negative ethos persists despite structural change.  What are the stories the institution is holding on to?  Tell them out in the light; find the creativity in their shadows.

We can feed the ethos with our institutions’ better narratives: what are their histories, how can they inspire us now and how can we add our chapter - the pandemic episode - so the story remains healthy and vibrant and inspires others in the future?

We can maintain an institution’s ethical buoyancy through exercising our moral muscles, actively practicing and rewarding integrity, patience and kindness, making the institution supple in its response to the unforeseeable and unknown.

We can recognise the importance of rest for a healthy ethos, and be determined to make time for it for all staff, switching off for long enough to quieten our buzzing minds and reconnect with the peace in our hearts, giving ourselves time to process grief, to address fear.

This week I invite you to look up from playing your own instrument and notice the institutional ethos that is directly and indirectly influencing your performance, and see how you can in turn influence that ethos to the good.

Next week will be the final letter of this series, but in September the letters will be published, together with some reflections by public servants, in book form.

You continue in our thoughts and prayers.

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute


Letter 5: 29th May 2020

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Dear Friends

If you read a story in which the protagonist has to keep going for a long time, you can find yourself longing for the poor hero to be given a rest. You feel exhausted on their behalf. If the narrator doesn’t attend to this, the narrative starts to lose plausibility because no one can keep going without a break. We are not automata.

Just as the silences between the notes are intrinsic to music, so rest between achievements is intrinsic to human flourishing. We know the importance of sleep, when brains process data, cells renew and bodies regain height. Sleep restores us: we can face almost anything after a good night’s sleep, and almost nothing after a bad one. And the less we are able to come to rest during the day, the less we are likely to do so at night. Travelling physically between meetings gave us regular transition moments of rest, which online meetings, always in the same place and at the same computer, do not.

We are in danger, during the Covid-19 pandemic, of getting stuck in fight or flight mode, permanently in a state of heightened awareness, always in warrior pose, ready for action and reaction.

If you feel that the success of the response to the pandemic rests largely on your shoulders, or at the very least if you let go for a moment of your bit of the response there will be dire consequences for others, then you are unlikely to be able to rest properly. You may feel resentment that half the country is working its fingers to the elbow while the other half twiddles its thumbs. And if you can’t serve as you wish to, your enforced stillness could be anything but relaxing.

How, then, can our minds stop buzzing and our hearts fall quiet? I have these suggestions to offer.

Try putting your service in perspective. A philosophical trick provides an analogy: how do you make a line shorter without doing anything to the line itself? You draw a longer line next to it. Place your service next to something bigger. Look at the stars hanging in the clear night skies and imagine the galaxy cradling our planet. See your place and purpose in a much bigger story.

Make a discipline of regularly relinquishing your claim on your work. Each of the great Abrahamic faith traditions has a sabbath. The principle of regular rest is a way to avoid pride, to recognise the smallness of one’s contribution. The sabbath is the time not only to rest oneself but also to give everyone and everything else a rest from us. In a way, nature has had a rest from us in these sabbath weeks of lockdown. Make sabbath time not just weekly, but between activities during the day.

Laugh at yourself. Find humour in your work. It might be gallows humour, but it helps.

Instead of the adrenalin-fuelled tension that leads to exhaustion, we can practice gently engaging our attention to our service, then releasing it, just as we might engage our muscles in exercise then release them. We can learn from the way fish move in the sea: they flap their fins when the waves flow in the direction they are going, and wait while the waves ebb. They do not try to fin against the flow. And for rest, they don’t wait for the sea to stop, but dive deep beneath its waves and find its quiet centre.

In these ways we can keep going steadily for as long as we are called to do so. And we will emerge into whatever new worlds are waiting for us better equipped to flourish in them.

I invite you to attend to the practice of resting your soul this week. Next week, in the penultimate letter of this series, I will try to show further how the souls of institutions can be strengthened.

You continue in our thoughts and prayers.

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute


Letter 4: 22nd May 2020

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Dear Friends

The weeks unfold, and with them the story of the pandemic and our response to it. Your work continues unabated. The pressure is eased in some quarters and not in others, but your diligent attention has to be sustained, perhaps especially now, as people begin to move a little more freely again.

You must attend to the strength of your soul, your very self, if you are to sustain your steadfast service.

If your soul was a field, how would it feel? Fertile, or parched? Even if the exterior is dry and cracked, there will be moisture underneath. Unburdening and feeding our souls, the work proposed in the last two letters, could be thought of as turning the soil of our souls to soften them and prepare them to receive and germinate good seeds. Sowing good seeds is the exercise proposed in this week’s letter.

The seeds I want to suggest sowing, while coronavirus tests our endurance, are kindness, balance and patience. These seeds will not take root by wishful thinking only, even if the ground is prepared. We have to act to sow them, but we can do this with surprisingly simple, physical movements.

Kindness can be summoned with a smile. However miserable you may feel, the physiological effort of stretching your cheek muscles changes your mood. It has to be a really big smile to work, like pushing the seed sufficiently far into the ground to ensure it will germinate. Smiling sows the seed of kindness in your soul. Keep doing it, even behind a mask. It will become a habit, and you will look more kindly on yourself and the world.

Balance starts as a physical feeling. Try standing or sitting still for a moment and feel the ground beneath your feet. Send your attention downwards into the ground through your feet, following the seed, as it were, as you sow it all the way into the earth. Find the balance in your body supported by the earth and thus find it in your soul. Balance will generate a measured way of looking at your self and the world.

Patience can be evoked and practiced by, quite simply, moving more slowly. Start when you’re not in a hurry, and then choose deliberately to slow down when you are in a hurry. We all know the pressure of rushing from A to B, with the journey an infuriating necessity, and everything and everyone you meet an obstacle to your arrival. In lockdown, the ‘journey’ sits between one activity and the next. Take time to pause between activities. Properly. Deliberately slowing your pace changes your perception as the seed of patience is deeply sown. Obstacles become encounters, often with beauty. You find time to welcome a stranger, even if it has to be in the form of a wave from a distance.

If St Paul is right, practicing patience will generate the energy you need to persevere through these long weeks. And if you discover in yourself the steady strength to keep going, then hope will blossom.

Mother Julian of Norwich said that hell is despair, the complete absence of hope. So, whatever you are feeling, practice walking more slowly. Feel the ground supporting you beneath your feet, and smile at the world around you.

Next week, I hope to offer your souls some rest.

You continue in our thoughts and prayers

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute


Letter 3: 15th May 2020

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Dear Friends

You are all heroes in the story of the Covid-19 pandemic. You are heroes not because you have superhuman powers to save the world, but because, simply, you are protagonists. You undertake the labours the story demands of you, each in your own calling, with diligence and skill, but also with mixed motives and partial knowledge; with determination and a smile, but also with fear and grief in your hearts. You are fallible, and so are your institutions, and that makes your willingness to keep going through the story all the more impressive.

You can’t control the story but you can try to respond with the best that is in you, by strengthening your souls. Last week we sought to unburden them. This week we hope to feed them.

It’s not so easy.

You, public servants, are not good at asking for yourselves. It is as if your time, none of it, is your own, and your needs, none of them, can come first. The attitude is sweet and honourable and wrong. You must feed yourself in order to feed others and keep on feeding them.

The ‘food’ could be music or art or reading or prayer or dancing or laughing or silence or nature or conversation or a really absorbing film. For an institution it could be giving employees time for any of the above; it could be trust, freely given and exercised with integrity; it could be properly delegated authority. The soul of an institution is fed if its people are fed.

Do you know what feeds your own soul? It might be similar to that which helps unburden your soul, just with a different focus. It should be a distinct, new act, like moving from washing your hands to eating a meal.

I cannot tell what feeds your soul, only you can do that, but I can offer tests to help you to choose well.

Food for your soul is energising. If you come away from an activity depleted, then it is not food for your soul. It may be necessary for your public service, but if so, you must ensure you replace your energy with something that does feed you. Ask: is this activity, this company I am in, a radiator or a drain?

Food for your soul is lastingly nourishing. It is not junk food; it is fresh, good food. It is not grabbed and eaten on the go, it is prepared with love and served with grace. It leaves you deeply satisfied, not briefly stuffed. You don’t hastily swallow without tasting; you savour every delicious mouthful.

Food for your soul is sufficient in itself. It is never utilitarian; it is never partaken in order to achieve  something else; it is enough just to partake.

Food for your soul works obliquely. You partake out of love, not to make you a better person or change anything. And yet it strengthens you and the world is better for it.

Food for your soul harms no one.

‘Love bade me welcome’, wrote George Herbert, ‘but my soul drew back.’ This week draw forwards, find out what is food for your soul, and give yourself time to relish it, not as a duty, not as yet another burden, but because you love it with all your heart: ‘Sit.  And eat.’

Next week, God willing, the letter will offer some suggestions for exercising the soul.

You continue in our thoughts and prayers

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute


Letter 2: 8th May 2020

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Dear Friends

You, public servants, and the different institutions through which you work, form a symphony of service which has never played so actively and fully as now. The music is sometimes being written barely moments before you play. How do you sustain your performance when you cannot be sure what the music will be, nor how long you will have to keep playing it?

I said last week that your soul needs to be strengthened if you are to continue to respond, serving the public, carrying the nation through this time of crisis and trial, however long it lasts, whatever unexpected challenges it presents.

One way of strengthening the soul is to release its burdens.

You serve with all your hearts and that brings great fulfilment, but your service can weigh heavily on you. You relieve others of their troubles - in your MP’s surgery, say, or through your medical care, your civil servant’s advice, your truthful journalist’s story or your clarity of political leadership - but you can find that those troubles still hang about you, left behind in your heart when the one you have served has gone free. You carry the sweat and dirt of our nation. It can be painful.

You have to find ways of removing the sticky residue of your selfless service from your soul. Just saying rationally to yourself that there is no need to have this feeling doesn’t, on its own, get rid of it. And in fact, as any therapist or confessor will tell you, you can’t get rid of the feeling, but by recognising it is there and attending to it, it stops being damaging and can even become a source of creativity. A thousand different practices help and you will find one that suits you - it may be walking in nature, or talking openly with trusted others, or going deep within yourself to find the quietude beyond the pain that allows the pain to diffuse. I offer you the Ignatian practice of feeling your way to your place of desolation. Sit quietly, breathe for a while to bring yourself to stillness, then imagine yourself on a careful interior journey to where you feel most tender and vulnerable. It is like seeing a dear friend before you who is in great pain and you cannot take away their pain but you sit beside them and give them your attentive, loving company. You do not shun your vulnerability but wait with it, and it becomes life-giving.

There is another way in which souls carry burdens. Notions of how things should be done based on how they were done in the past can bind and blind us. The pandemic has presented completely new challenges demanding responses that have no precedent. Unburdening our souls means loosening fixed perceptions and seeing afresh. That always needs the eyes of others who are not like us. Diverse perceptions often initially make no sense to us.  The voice that speaks quietly so you nearly miss it; if you’re talking too loudly you drown it out; and if you’re looking too hard at one thing you can fail to notice the alternative view in the corner of your vision. The diverse voice may come from among those obliged to keep away from active service, shielded through medical vulnerability, well placed in their stillness to see what others might be too busy to see.

Wide open awareness and careful attention to the voices and perceptions of others keep the soul of the individual and the soul of the institution supple to respond to the new, as we need to now.

It would be good to make time this week to unburden your soul. Next week, God willing, this letter will offer you some food for it.

You continue in our thoughts and prayers.

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute


Letter 1: 1st May 2020

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Dear Friends

In all the great stories, protagonists embark upon a quest. They cross the threshold into the unknown, face trials, make mistakes, find mentors and companions, go through a time of darkness when everything has gone wrong and everyone has deserted them, face a great ordeal which tests all that they have and are, and emerge into a new level of life, transformed by the journey.

Most of the challenges and tests of our lives, though unique in their particulars, follow a similar arc, and looking back, it can be possible to see how we have moved through such journeys, long and short, great and small, and been formed by them.

When you are in the middle of a story, however, it’s difficult to see where you are or make much sense of the narrative arc. You are just going through the story. Is this the threshold of a new journey, or just another step along the current one? Is this real darkness, or a passing shadow, with much worse to come? Is this the great ordeal, or one of the many trials that lead up to it, training ground for the real challenge? If we knew when the story was due to end, we could work out where we are, as we do reading a book or watching a drama on television or a film or play. You can see where, or know what time, the story ends, so you can work out if this is the real denouement or if there is much more to come.

We don’t know when this story of the coronavirus pandemic is going to end.

And although a great deal of educated planning can be done based upon scientific research and intelligence drawn from other places and times, this story, like all stories, is unique. It’s frightening to think that things could get even tougher. How long can we bear to be in lockdown? Will we be able to cope with a second wave of infection?  What is the new normal to which we will have to adjust?

We can prepare as much as possible by anticipating scenarios, but we also have to prepare ourselves and our institutions for the unknown. We have to be like the medieval knights training their souls and bodies for quests which by definition they could not anticipate, trusting they would be ready to respond and adapt to they knew not what.

The quest we are embarked upon together is already testing our endurance. The trials are strong and long: key workers’ arduous shifts in communities, care homes and hospitals; civil servants’ production of coherent guidance at all hours; journalists’ pressure to ensure stories are interrogated and then told truly; ministers’ need to show steady, wise political leadership; Parliament’s need to scrutinise; citizens’ often painful internal journeys in the long secluded hours of lockdown.

The response to the quest has been magnificent, but if we are to have enough strength to endure for an unknown length of time we have to attend to ourselves.

The image I offer is of an archer, arrow held ready to let fly from the bow. The further back the archer draws the arrow, the further and more truly it will fly. We have to draw the bow back into whatever feeds our spirits to help them endure, as regularly and attentively as we eat and sleep and wash.

The question: what strengthens my soul? is a question for us all. Many answers are available but the best answer for oneself becomes clear when the question is asked at depth. Stay with the question this week, keep asking it without rushing at an answer and, God willing, the letter next week will provide some suggestions which may have meaning for you.

You continue in our thoughts and prayers.

With love

Claire

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert

Director, Westminster Abbey Institute

It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.

Martin - The Dean’s Verger

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