As always, in a time of crisis, people look to the Poor Clares to help with their prayers. In addition, in the current situation, it has struck people that this is a community of women who are living in a sort of self isolation – by choice. How do they cope with this and how are they coping now?
‘You could look at our way of life as a self isolation, in that we have stepped back from the mainstream. However, there are differences and I think the differences are crucial for trying to face this new reality for many people’”, said Sr Colette, Abbess of the Poor Clare Monastery in Galway, to the Advertiser yesterday.
“Firstly, we have come here by choice, or more accurately, as a response to a call. That makes a huge difference, in that it is not something that has been imposed on us. For us, it has been a positive choice and in doing so, we believe that we are doing it for a greater good. We come here to pray and carry people in our hearts to God, for His blessing.’
“For people who have been asked in this crisis situation to self isolate, it is vital to see a meaning in it. They are doing it for the greater good and to save lives. If we have meaning in our lives, we can face anything.’
‘I realise that self-isolation is not easy. We can feel the pinch in many different ways. So as well as the obvious help that our faith can give, we need to understand that part of that is also about looking after our wellbeing in other ways. When Jesus walked this earth, he looked after people’s bodily needs as well as those of the soul and that includes mental health.
“Now, we can appreciate little things that maybe we had overlooked for a long time. The rising and setting of the sun, which goes on rhythmically each day. I particularly love on a clear night, when we rise to pray at midnight, to see the moon. It is so beautiful and we can take it for granted. The singing of the birds – they are alive and going about what they always do and this gives us the promise that life continues and we will come through this.
“We are all in this together and it is so encouraging to see the different ways that people are creatively reaching out to others, amidst the restrictions. We have so much to be grateful for and being intentionally grateful to God is a powerful way to help dissipate the doldrums. We all have something that we can be grateful for,” she said.
Sr Colette also believes that delving into our creativity is so helpful too, as it takes us out of ourselves and the limitations of our present situation.
“Music, art and nature are all ways of going beyond the situation into another realm and this can counteract negative thoughts and emotions like anxiety from taking a grip on us. Taking the time to read a book or doing something like a jigsaw can take us out of ourselves for a while.
“Another thing that is important when people are living in isolation, is to keep a structure or rhythm to their days. This balance is built into our life here in the monastery, which is punctuated by work and community time, as well as prayer.
“I have read some lives of people who have lived through being imprisoned in solitary confinement. One that stands out for me was Fr Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit who was imprisoned in Lubianka Prison in Moscow during World War ll and was sent to a Siberian work camp for fifteen years. His family thought he was dead, but ultimately he got back to America in exchange for two Russian spies.
“In his book, He Leadeth Me, he shares his experiences and the things that sustained him, especially when he was in solitary confinement. He established a rhythm for himself, dividing the day up and doing things like physical exercise in his cell, as well as establishing a routine of prayer throughout the day.
‘But most of all, it is my faith in God that helps to give meaning to my life and I can see that many people are rediscovering that now,” she added.
“The faith is deep within the Irish psyche and it is a well-spring that can be plumbed in order to achieve peace and serenity in unprecedented circumstances,” she said, adding that she was moved by Pope Francis’ speech in Rome last Friday.
“Pope Francis gave a unique audience last Friday evening, to an empty St Peter’s Square. It was dark and lashing rain – he could have been in Eyre Square. A white, lonely figure, speaking to the world. His main message was ‘Do not be afraid’, a phrase that re-echoes throughout Scriptures, over and over again. He somehow helped to put words on the reality of our vulnerability and the emotions which flow from that, which this pandemic lays bare.”
A time of choosing
Sr Colette believes this medical storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules...
“It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain, and strengthen our lives and our communities.
“And he goes on to suggest that we should “Seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. A time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track.
“And people are rediscovering the power of prayer, but it is not easy at the start. It is like getting back to exercise if you have gotten a bit out of shape,” she jokes. “It is harder at the start, but gets easier and one feels much better as you get back into it and the endorphins flow.’
Asked what she would say to those who are afraid of death, in the face of this pandemic, Sr Colette said a fear of death is very real now.
“Yes, death is a reality in our lives that we often prefer not to think about. And fear of death is very real with many people, especially now. Perhaps, more than anything else, it is what is involved in the actual process of dying and the fear of what’s on the other side that bothers and even torments us.
“This is because we forget how much God loves us and because of false perceptions of what God is like. Many people harbour the very uncomplimentary idea to God that He is temperamental and moody, constantly judgemental and only interested in our sins. The reality is very different. God loves each of us individually so much and His love is real.”
Following on from this, and conscious that many are afraid of dying without the Sacraments, she added:
‘It has been heartbreaking to hear of so many people dying alone on the Continent. And I know that a lot of people, maybe especially older people, fear dying alone and without the Sacraments. These are exceptional times and Pope Francis has given us great assurance about that, reminding people that God is above all, a God who is merciful.
“We do not need to fear Him and He will take account of these circumstances. Here in the community, we have been particularly remembering to pray for those who are dying and especially those who are alone. In fact, only today, we were asked for prayers by someone whose mother was just admitted to hospital.
“It is not the virus, but she is in danger of death. She was heartbroken that she cannot be with her in the hospital and this is a very real cross for many whose loved ones are sick now. Our prayers can help. In particular, The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which is a very simple prayer; it has great promises attached for those who are dying.”
We need to remember God’s promise that, ‘Even if you walk through the valley of death, I am with you…’ In fact His name Emmanuel means precisely this, ‘I am with you’.
So have you any other practical ways of getting in touch with God that might help our readers ?
“I think we need to try to embrace that word from Jesus, ‘Do not be afraid.’ He tells us that we do not gain anything from worry and indeed He says ‘Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life?’
“So do not worry; do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts of his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself.’
(Matthew 6:27,31-34 )
He is always with us and we can access Him in simple ways. Simply calling on the name of Jesus, brings His healing love to us. Little phrases can punctuate our days like, ‘Jesus help me’, ‘Jesus protect us’, ‘Jesus I need you’, ’Jesus I trust in you’. And we can also reach out to others in prayer. Someone even told me recently, that she was using the time for washing her hands as a time to say the ‘Hail Mary’ for those who are sick, instead of singing ‘Happy Birthday’!
Calling on the name of Jesus brings us into His presence and this presence is a lifeline for us, an anchor that can steady us when we are tossed about by the storms of our fears. As our song, Calm the Soul says,
When my boat Lord is storm tossed and sinking
When fears in my heart take control,
Say, ‘Be not afraid’ to my spirit
And your answer will calm the soul
When I flounder around in deep waters
When the stresses of life take their toll
A sudden deep hush steals upon me
Your gentleness calms the soul.
That first verse actually captures very well what is happening to many now. People in this lockdown situation might find it calming experience to watch the video of Calm the Soul on YouTube.
I leave the final words to Pope Francis from last Friday:
“We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives... in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”