The simple message to ‘Stay at home’ except when necessary was repeated over and over. We were invited to settle into a new way of life called ‘cocooning’. No country was spared the COVID-19 illness and many deaths followed. News of the deaths of four Sisters, from a Religious Order at the other side of the town, due to COVID-19 brought its danger to our doors.
The diary was now empty of appointments and meetings as we were told to ‘stay at home’ during what now was called ‘lockdown’. The experience of coping with this sudden change in lifestyle provided some invitations. The first one I felt needed attention was to build some structure around my day. As a community, we already had structures around our prayer life and mealtimes. Just at the beginning of ‘lockdown’ I had planned a meeting with my Spiritual Director and happily I was blessed to continue my monthly sessions by phone. I found great support in those sessions especially as I navigated through the initial weeks of cocooning. And so, I was ready for that inward journey which was awaiting attention!
The story is told from the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers about an old man who begged Abba Moses for a word of advice. The word wasn’t what he expected, ‘Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.’ Where does one begin with this invitation?
Just before lockdown, I had started reading ‘The Choice’ by Edith Eger, an Auschwitz survivor. She didn’t let the horrors of the Holocaust break her. In fact, they helped her to live again with more strength and remarkable resilience. In her many wise words, now written in my diary, there was a route, a roadmap for me to take for this inner journey which I like to call a ‘desert pilgrimage’. Edith became my first psychological crutch as I set about building a structure for my new way of being.
In navigating the journey, it was also important to search for some meaning to this strange and dangerous time. Another pilgrim companion was Victor Frankl. His book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ was a great a gift to me now more than previously. When speaking about prison as a ‘provisional existence’ he says ‘it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.’ When speaking of camp life he wrote – ‘It became easy to overlook the opportunity to make something of camp life’.
Life during the COVID-19 did seem to me to be a ‘provisional existence but one where I found opportunities ‘to grow spiritually’. So, beginning with Iain Matthew’s book ‘The Impact of God’, St John of the Cross became another companion on my desert pilgrimage. All three had a lot in common as each had a prison experience which prepared them to be instruments of transformation for many people.
I searched for meaning through this experience of isolation during COVID-19. Some of the newer theories of ‘Meaning Making & the Art of Grief Therapy’’ (Neimeyer R.A.) which I find can help grieving people are also helping me at this time of so much loss. With the live streaming of the Mass each day, I am giving much more attention to the scripture readings. Some meaningful supports of challenge and wisdom as well as words of comfort and healing were presented by the various scripture readings during Lent, Easter and after Easter. I sensed in a real way the words of Hebrews 4:12 – ‘The Word of God is alive and active’ as so many of the scripture readings were speaking directly to our experience of the COVID-19.
My daily walk became more a ‘Contemplative’ walk around the beautiful developed parklands at the edge of the river Blackwater. The route brings me through a feast of woodland, home to so many different kinds of trees, grasses and wild flowers and much more. My senses have now become more alert to the sounds of flowing water, bird song and the whistling of the wind through the trees. Sometimes, I like to listen to Jan Novatka singing her meaningful earth chants as these beautiful parklands open their gates to all of us walkers who soak up the richness and welcome it gives us.
Along with the spiritual, psychological and physical supports on my journey during COVID-19, I was in a position to continue my outreach work by phone to both the ‘Befriending with Ballyhoura Rural Services’ and with the ‘Bethany Bereavement Support Group’. As well, I have spent some time preparing for the many losses caused by the Pandemic. I’m very grateful to ‘The Irish Hospice Foundation’ for their helpfulness in providing new training for exceptional times both through their website articles and videos as well as webinars on the topic of COVID-19 grief. Looking at ‘RTE Investigates : Inside Ireland’s COVID Battle’ was important for me as it touched the reality of the raw grief and suffering of sickness, death and dying due to the virus as well as to the awareness of the awful suffering of relatives due to COVID-19 hospital restrictions.
This ‘desert pilgrimage’ time has not been wasted! I have had many supports to navigate this COVID-19 time. Psychological and spiritual supports intertwined and were backed up by a life of deeper prayer. The search and outreach continues hopefully with a greater wisdom and a sense of gratitude for all the gifts of kindnesses that I have received, gifts such as the company and support of community and the joy of being with others in their loneliness and grief. My blessings have taught me to try to live in the present moment, foster social connections and community, go deeper on my ‘desert pilgrimage’ and search for meaning and also in the engagement of what contributes to the common good.
Christine Valters Painter, another COVID-19 companion, wrote in ‘The Soul of a Pilgrim, Eight Practices for the Journey Within’
‘On a true pilgrimage, we soon discover that the journey within has its own rhythm and momentum. We realise, if our hearts are listening, that there are secret destinations that reveal themselves as our path unfolds.’
Dolores Brophy rsm