Sister Patricia Murray, IBVM
Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (USA)
Secretary of the International Union of Superiors General
The consequences of the present crisis
linked with Covid 19,
in the life of the religious community here
and there in the world.
In August 2019 I was invited to speak at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Scottsdale Arizona. That seems like a very long time ago from where we are today, where travel is almost impossible. Many of the elements of that talk have taken on a new meaning when I ponder them through the lens of the present Covid-19 crisis. During the talk in Scottsdale I quoted the poem TRASNA written by a Sr. Raphael Considine, a Presentation Sister. TRASNA in the Irish language means Crossing and I’ll begin this afternoon by sharing it again with you – for I believe these lines sum up the Covid Journey that we religious are undertaking during these long months. Sr Raphael wrote:
The pilgrims paused on the ancient stones,
In the mountain gap, Behind them
stretched the roadway they had travelled,
Ahead, mist hid the track.
Unspoken the question hovered:
Why go on? Is life not short enough?
Why seek to pierce its mystery?
Why venture further on strange paths risking all?
Surely that is a gamble for fools… or lovers?
Why not return quietly by the known road?
Why be a pilgrim still?
A voice they knew called to them, saying:
This is Trasna, the crossing place.
Choose. Go back if you must,
You will find your way easily by yesterday’s road,
You can pitch your tent by yesterday’s fires.
There may be fire in the embers yet.
If that is not your deep desire,
Stand still. Lay down your load.
Take your life in your two hands,
(you are trusted with something precious)
While you search your heart’s yearnings:
What am I seeking? What is my quest?
When your star rises within,
Trust yourself to its leading.
You will have light for your first steps.
This is TRASNA, the crossing place.
This is TRASNA, the crossing place.
These lines reflect many of the conversations that are happening today among religious worldwide. At UISG we have been holding Zoom conversations involving female and male religious from different continents, imagining the future of religious life together. Again and again participants are saying “we are being called to something new”; “we can’t go back, we must move forward”; “we are part of suffering humanity and we are all experiencing our fragility and our vulnerability.” “Let us read the signs of these times are saying to us today.”
During that same presentation in Arizona I offered a series of calls which I hoped would speak to their reality as leaders. Today I want to revisit a few of those images again in the context of Covid and the question you posed about the consequences of Covid in the life of religious in different parts of the world. I’m obviously drawing largely on my experience with religious sisters but I am sure you will find echoes in your own lives and the lives of your brothers.
The first call is Widen the tent of our hearts.
The prophet Isaiah said: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.”(Is 54:2) This image when applied to religious life or indeed to any life speaks of both flexibility and rootedness, unbounded hospitality and secure identity. We are invited not to hold back, to stretch wide but at the same time to “strengthen our stakes,” by ensuring that what holds the tent in place needs to go down deep. This verse invites us to make space in our hearts, for Christ and for those among us who are struggling. This is the vision that inspired founders and foundresses and was central to their vowed life as “a concrete expression of (their) passionate love.”2 Our founders translated their response into a particular way of life which responded to the needs of their times. Today particularly during this Covid Time as religious we see our charisms are being stretched and enlarged. But how to create this space when in some parts of the world our physical spaces are being controlled and we may feel limited. In other parts religious are seen as people on the front-line and can move freely. However no matter what the context I see religious drawing on the inspiration of their charisms to find new ways ro widen their tents.
Today perhaps all of us are being given the opportunity to move closer to one another than ever before, sharing our anxieties and our fear as we face the implications of this pandemic together. We also share together the goodness, the generosity, the sense of community and solidarity when we join with many others who as individuals and groups reach out to those in need. We can do that when and if we meet someone face to face. We can do that out of windows, by telephone or twitter, or facebook or Zoom. The possibilities for creativity are enormous. I am thinking of the baskets lowered from apartment windows in Italy and elsewhere or the singing from balconies or choirs on line to raise people’s spirits – simple ways of sharing with those in need. The basket is a powerful symbol because anyone can take from the basket or can add to the basket. It is such a wonderful symbol of community, togetherness and solidarity.
I am particularly aware of the ways in which many congregations have quickly “widened their tents” and moved to respond to local needs in different and creative ways:
- Getting the whole community involved in preparing food for local families; going out on the street to share food and other supplies as is happening in different parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
- Sharing food and their own tables with those who have lost jobs and travelled back to their rural homes from big cities in India and Brazil .
- Travelling to remote places to tell people about the disease and how it can affect local communities and how best to prepare – sisters are traveling in groups down the Amazon to reach remote communities.
- Working with local communities to develop creative ways of making masks, managing social distancing in slums where people live on top of one another or finding ways of providing enough water for regular handwashing in places far from wells or bore holes – things we can often take for granted.
- Setting up a Zoom counselling line in India, where people can phone if they are anxious or fearful which has now been extended into Africa.
- Using the radio to reach those in the rural areas – to educate them about how to recognize and to protect themselves against Covid.
- Establishing temporary accommodation for those who have lost their jobs .
- Using modern technology so that people can pray and worship together, can engage in Lectio Divina.
- Developing rituals for death and dying and for kindling hope and compassion.
The responses needed today are more often not in the big initiatives but in the tiny mustard seeds - a word of hope, a listening heart, a compassionate presence, a healing glance. This mysticism of encounter is happening everywhere – it is “far reaching, personal and outgoing.”3 We are seeing this mysticism in action in our communities at sick beds, on city streets with homeless people, on the borders with separated families, in refugee camps, in hospitals and parishes with people who are struggling.
This Covid time is showing us that it is these small, hidden, unknown acts of kindness and love that will transform our world. It is the quality of our presence individually and in our community that matters above all. While we can’t touch one another, shake a hand or give someone a hug, we are being called on to find other ways of conveying our love and care. Pope Francis has often spoken about a revolution of tenderness reminding us that “God’s tenderness brings us to the understanding that “love is the meaning of life.”4 Through this revolution of tenderness and love, the pope is proposing a humble way to move continents and mountains.5 Religious are asking themselves more and more “when people pass by or come to ask for sustenance or just for a moment touch our lives, “what do we have to offer them?” “what is the nourishment that we can give?” “what is the unbounded generosity and (tender)love that is an essential part of our witness.”6 We must provide the many practical things needed at that moment but we feel that we are called to give more – a radical prophetic presence and witness, of having a global heart; “of being a pilgrim and prayer presence” ever watchful, “making intercession, firm in faith,” with God on behalf of the whole suffering world.7
The second call is to Be Present at the Borderlands
Pope Francis speaks about an outgoing Church, a Church “in uscita,” which needs to move out onto wounded landscapes, to the borderlands. This time of physical distancing and lockdowns challenges us in this regard. Gloria Anzaldua used the metaphor “borderlands” or “la frontera” to refer to different types of crossings – between geopolitical boundaries, between places of social dislocations and the crossings which exist in multiple linguistic and cultural contexts.8 Borderlands are everywhere: in our local neighborhoods, at national and international levels and very close to home within our religious communities. Perhaps this pandemic has exacerbated the borders that have always existed on the basis of race, religion, class and caste. Many religious men and women speak about the growing community tensions as the demands of dealing with Covid increase in local and national communities.
I have heard several in religious communities noticing the physical borders that have had to be established within their communities for health and safety reasons: between those who were infected with Covid and those who tested negative; between those who are front line workers going out to work and those staying home – who were often more frail and elderly, between those in gowns and masks meeting the sick and those who need protection. They have also reflected on the courage of those thousands of lay people who choose to come to work in aged care home, hospitals and clinics and the many who provide essential – garbage collectors, those delivering food and different products, those providing public transport, cleaners and cooks – the list is endless. However these and many others risk their own lives and families to provide services within religious houses and institutions.
We have to cultivate a “borderlands” heart and mind. Seeing through “the eyes of others” is essential to gain a deeper understanding, an empathy and compassion, than is deeper that what can be achieved by staying within one’s own social milieu. I was deeply moved to hear of sisters and brothers working as doctors and nurses in a hospital India who donated all of their salaries to those who provided essential services in the hospital and who are not well paid. In other cases those in charge of facilities for men and women religious have told their workers to stay at home and have found other ways to find essential staff in some instance bringing in members of the congregation from other countries and continents.
“Borderlands” is indeed a rich metaphor. It can represent the multitude of places and opportunities where people from different cultures and contexts can cross over to one another and where the possibility to learn and grow together exists. We are living in borderlands. I believe in this time of the Covid pandemic – this kind of crossing over is happening at personal and communal level, both through presence and even virtually. On UISG Zoom webinars religious men and women are meeting across languages to share, to reflect and to pray together on a multitude of topics. When this happens relationships are built that gift one another and lead to mutual transformation. This is not merely about surviving side by side but it is a process of building deep connections, celebrating and appreciating difference, committing to collaborate together.
Some men and women religious are working at geographic borders where refugees and migrants are still arriving with hopes for a better life in the midst of this pandemic? They still long to fulfil their hopes and dreams in the Global North even though they risk being affected by the virus. The Spanish theologian Mercedes Navarro reminds us that the Christian God is “a frontier God” and that “to survive at the frontiers one must live without frontiers and be a crossroads.9 So in our contemplation, in our prayers, in our outreach, we need to constantly inhabit frontiers and borderlands; we need to live prophetically in the in-between space and to find ways where we can carry people across the divide of culture, religious, gender, race and ethnicity. We need to be people who stand at crossroads physically and spiritually, watching and waiting. The concern of our hearts, the power of our prayers and our advocacy can support those brothers and sisters who are at physical frontiers in different parts of the world. Can we ask ourselves: “What does it mean to live without frontiers and be a crossroads today? How can we be present physically and spiritually in today’s borderlands?”
Finally we are being called to Embrace Vulnerability:
Perhaps one of the images that captured vulnerability was that of Pope Francis praying alone in St. Peter’s Square. Before the pandemic looking at developments within religious congregations’ worldwide one could notice a life cycle moving through the stages of birth, maturity, loss and diminishment, leading in some cases to conclusion. We are living the cycle of passion, death and resurrection at personal and organizational levels. Now with the impact of Covid this sense of living the paschal mystery has been deepened further. So many congregations have lost members due to the effects of the virus – some have lost few and others large numbers especially at the early stages when we were unaware of how contagious this virus was. Obviously Italy and then Spain was very badly affected at diocesan level and within congregations. Many priests, sisters and brothers died. This pattern was repeated in other countries, especially in the USA. At UISG we were deeply affected by Covid – as a personal level when Sr. Elisabetta Flick who had served as Assistant Executive Secretary died just three months after her retirement in the north of Italy just three days after falling ill. We all I’m sure have had similar experiences. Then at UISG we were hearing on a regular basis about the many congregations that had been affected and infected. Then congregations were mourning their sisters and brothers and unable to bury them with the usual congregational rituals and liturgies.
As religious we were and are experiencing a greater fragility and vulnerability. In a profound way, this makes us more relevant than ever; it places us in communion with the people of our time and place who are coping with the death of loved ones and the inability to say goodbye. We are all living in a kind of liminal places. The Scriptures remind us that such liminal places are often desert or mountain wildernesses. The people seem to be continually forced out into the desert – “to take the harder, more onerous and hazardous route – as an exacting exercise in radical faith.”10 It is here in the desert, that people are fed, five thousand at a time and a new community takes shape. We are constantly reminded that “the place of scarcity, even death, is revealed by Jesus, as a place of hope and new life.”11 Richard Rohr describes “liminal space” as “the crucial in-between time when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening.”12 It is the waiting time. We religious at this time seem to be in this waiting time where we are being called to be patient, to allow time and space for the new to break through. In this liminal place we can share our insights with one another and listen deeply as we share how we feel that God is calling us; these conversations can reveal the whispers of the Spirit.
The spiritual writer Belden Lane, reflecting on the death of his mother writes that the “starting point for many things is grief, at the very place where endings seem so absolute.”13 Our faith reminds us that that “the pain of closing” is often “the antecedent to every new opening in our lives.”14 We know that our experience of weakness, confusion and searching, places us among the men and women of our day. What we have to offer to people today is above all our experience of vulnerability, fragility and weakness and our profound belief that God’s grace seldom comes in the way that we might expect? It often demands “the abandonment of every security” and it is only in accepting the vulnerability that grace demands that we find ourselves invited to wholeness.”15 It is through our own limitation and weaknesses as human beings that we are called to live as Christ lived. The profession of the evangelical counsel of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience is “a radical witness to the power of the Paschal Mystery” as we surrender everything to the one who offers eternal life. Can we lead conversations about fragility and vulnerability among ourselves and with others? Do we believe that God is preparing the way for something new in our own lives? In the life of the world?
A few summers ago, I participated in a seminar on Creative Leadership in the Burren School of Art in the West of Ireland. The Burren itself is an extraordinary geographical landscape. One of the important karst/limestone regions in the world, there is a certain mystical quality about the place. We were a very varied group of people from different walks of life and from all over the world. We had many good conversations about leadership. At the end of each session, a poet, or a musician or an artist responded capturing the essence of each conversation with a poem, a symbol or a musical response... because the leader is truly an artist. At the end of one session Martin Hayes, a traditional Irish fiddle player played a piece which ended with a long-extended note. I realized that as religious, we have to learn to hear and identify these long notes which play out in daily life and which point us to what is happening at a deeper level, calling us to discern how to respond.
St. Ignatius of Loyola asks us to imagine the Trinity looking down on the world and to place ourselves there contemplating what is happening to humankind. We can almost hear the Trinity saying “let us work at the transformation of the whole human race; let us respond to the groaning of all creation.”16 The meditation invites us “to descend into the reality of the world and become involved in it, in order to transform it.”17 Going deeper touches the mystical-prophetic depths of our lives from which all our action flows. The answers lie in being open to engaging in simple acts of encounter and communion with those who are near and those who are far away. We have seen that we can do this in many different and creative ways in these times. Encountering the other and being in communion with others is at the heart of our vocation, even as we find new and creative ways to do so.
Living the mysticism of encounter calls for “the ability to hear, to listen to other people; the ability to seek ways and means” of building the Reign of God together at this particular time. Across the world religious see themselves anew as missionary disciples, seeking to move forward, boldly taking the initiative, going out to others, searching for those who are lost and lonely, fearful and forgotten. We feel called above all to be a contemplative presence in the world, discerning how to respond to these changing landscapes; telling one another what is happening wherever we find ourselves, how we feel called to respond and inviting support from one another. I am truly amazed in these times how religious men and women are networking and collaborating sharing what they have for the sake of those most in need. They often demonstrate “courage in the face of the unknown- a courage that understands fidelity as “a change, a blossoming and a growth.” Ultimately, as religious witness “faithfully to the ongoing and unending quest for God in this changing place and time.”
1. Sr Rapahel Consideine, Presentation Sister.
2. Pope Francis, Witnesses of Joy: Apostolic Letter to all Consecrated Persons on the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, #2.
3. Pope Francis, Witness of Joy, # 2.
4. Pope Francis, Theology of Tenderness, September 13, 2013.
5. Mt 17,19; 21,21.
6. Patricia Jordan FSM, Shifting Sands and Solid Rock (Herefordshire: Gracewing Publication, 2015), 14.
7. CICLSAL, Keep Watch, To Consecrated Men and Women, Journeying in the Footsteps of God, 8th September, 2014.
8. Introduction to the Fourth Edition by Norma E. Cańtu and Aida Hurtado in Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands: La Frontiera – The New Mestiza, 4th Edition (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012), 6.
9. Anzaldua, Borderlands: La Frontiera – The New Mestiza, 6.
10. Beldon C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, London: Oxford University Press; 8th edition, February 26, 2007, 44.
12. Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for Holy Saturday.
13. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 25.
15. Ibid, 30.
16. Fr. Daniel Ruff, SJ, Bulletin of Old St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia, Advent 2008.
17. Josep M. Lozano, “Leadership: The Being Component” in J. Business Ethics, Published online 23 March 2016.