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Coronavirus: Testing for faith

Ann Marie Guinee has worked as a student support worker and voluntary retreat director in Crescent College Comprehensive SJ in Limerick. Currently, she is doing a PhD on Ignatian Spirituality at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Here she offers a reflection for Holy Week based on a faith diary she kept during Lent.

It’s week three of Coronavirus Lockdown. Like most people, I have had plenty of time to think, not least about my faith and my mostly Ignatian spirituality. My faith has been probed and prodded over the last few weeks, like a tooth that is sensitive; I want to leave it alone, pretend it is fine, but my tongue keeps finding it and testing it without my consent, bringing flashes of discomfort but a strange satisfaction at the same time.

Now is the time to elicit the ‘strange satisfaction’ of our faith and to test our theological propositions in the context of the real challenges of living through this time. There is no refuge to be had in the routine of Church services, no hiding behind philosophical discussions on the meaning of doctrine (or life) with post-graduate colleagues. Netflix can only go so far. There are no adequate distractions. Only a real orientation and sincere leaning on God can overcome moments of anxiety and despair. When I wake at 3.00 a.m. thinking about my son who hasn’t been feeling great and about his vulnerability to this virus because of asthma, I cry out to God like the psalmist, realising my utter dependence on His love and protection. When my own allergies kick in and I am feeling wheezy or have a headache, it is God’s mercy I implore. When I hear the rising death toll, mostly in the East (meaning Dublin, where most of my family live) and see images of panicked queues at the supermarkets, it is to God’s peace I appeal in the face of being overwhelmed at my lack of choice and control. God comes back to me in a myriad of ways. An intuition of His tranquil presence soothing me back to sleep; words of reassurance from a sister or friend; a joyful or even comic Whatsapp message from one of my choir-friends to lighten the mood, a new prayer coming in on an email from a colleague that asks for exactly what I need right now and reassure me that I am not alone. Or God comes as the deepening silence that allows me to face my fears and offer myself to Him in trust.

Calm me Lord, as you calmed the storm,
Still me Lord, keep me from harm,
Let all the tumult within me cease,
Enfold me, Lord, in your peace. Amen

I ask myself what is this ‘real orientation’ within my faith and how is it different from what I did before? This lived ‘difference’ is what is dawning on me now, and from what I hear through various conversations, real and virtual, on other friends in faith too. Based on the last three weeks I can make a few observations that may resonate with others.

My faith works best when I give myself up to God’s plan for me and trust Him. In this sense, my faith began before I knew about Christ or had a thought about the Church. It came with the sense of my smallness belonging to something much bigger. I can associate this feeling from my earliest childhood memories of stones and shadows, rivers of rain to float sticks in, the softness of birds and the novelties of the changing seasons in a world that was mine to run through, explore and wonder at. I felt I belonged in that world of nature even more than I felt it at home with my family. In that place of play and freedom I also fell and cut myself, broke an arm, had near accidents with cars, got lost, was hospitalised with illness and even experienced the death of schoolmates, but still, I played and I explored. In my childish being having control was not an issue. I didn’t have it or desire it. The person I turned to in my head, the source of answers to my unspoken questions about the feeling and being of things, was the one who orchestrated it all, me included. I didn’t have a name for that person then.

I am finding more of that childlike life coming back to me in these weeks. There is time to explore the world again, whether watching the birds from a chair on the patio or exploring paths and fields within a two-kilometre radius from my home that, unbelievably, I have never walked before. I find returning to me the urge to climb over a locked gate to see what treasure is behind it along with the desire to pick cowslips and skim stones in the river. I and those around me are drawing again on our creativity and on what God has gracefully made a partner to that creativity in nature and the world around us. And what is a child but utterly dependent, a taker of what is offered, a maker of joy out of small things, one who trusts. In becoming again this child of God I am gratefully retrieving my deepest faith.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us,
that we should be called children of God! (1 John 1).

God knows me and communicates with me. The more time there is to think the more aware I become of my ‘inner life’. Thanks to an upbringing in the Catholic faith I have the language now to name God as my inner partner. This God knows me inside out – He should do as I talk to Him all the time. But it goes beyond that. God is the steady knowing behind my ups and downs. The “steady air” to my riding of the “rolling level”. I can’t claim to know God through all the years, I only know to address my inner dialogue to Him and to receive his answers through the events of my day. He, however, knows what is definitively me and works with that to bring continuity through crisis and change. God holds on to me in the bracing currents of unpredictable life. For this, I praise and thank Him.

Jesus Christ also rode the rolling level, swooped and soared. Christ is the consoling God who knows what it is to be human, to feel the fear and the love and the doubt and the joy. For me Jesus is most real in the garden of Gethsemene, sweating with anxiety and tearful, crying out to God. I feel his humanity there and his understanding. A few years ago when my son was doing his Leaving Cert music exam, he chose to sing ‘Gethsemene’ from Jesus Christ Superstar as one of his performance pieces. I will never forget how broken my heart was when I first heard him sing the whole piece through (he didn’t know I was listening outside the door of the music room). This is the prayer of a confused and terrified young man, who knows he is going to be taken from his mother and beloved friends, tied up, tortured and crucified when the sun rises on this approaching day. It is time for the consequence of handing his will over to God a long time ago, the frightening truth of that submission. Now, in the worst of the terror, he struggles to hold on to the security of the God for whom he has become this prophetic, eccentric and alternative human being. Now he doubts and wishes he could turn back. Finally, his human nature summons its last vestige of courage and faith and chooses against its drive to live, acquiescing to the will of God this last time. I endured a pain in my heart for this Jesus, experiencing in catharsis his suffering as Mary might have.

I have made my own Christian prayer of submission, many years ago, when I in full consciousness, as an existential choice, prayed the prayer of St Ignatius: “Take Lord, receive, all my liberty; my memory, understanding, my entire will, all I have and possess. You have given all to me, now I return it. Give me only your love and your grace, that’s enough for me.” In these days, when I wake at night wondering if I am sick or if I am to be called to faithfully model something – this could be great grief – in this time of illness when the whole world is at risk and everything once presumed is reduced to this hour, this day, I recall the offering of my life to God as a reality check. I don’t know the day or the hour when His call will come. But then, I never did. I only ever had this hour, this day. Like Jacob, I wrestle. Like Jesus, I maintain my offer for this day, and return to rest in God’s “steady air” for now, where I hope I can be of some use.

The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Re-learning how to pray: In these times of the virus, prayer becomes more than the dialogue in my head, often offered in the middle of doing my daily tasks like driving or walking. I require more than the evening Examen, helpful as it is, where I find where I walked with Christ in this day, where I fell and how the help that lifted me up came to me. My prayer increasingly becomes a heartfelt searching for the answers to the questions about human existence and suffering that God has already given in the life of Christ. Scripture has powerful answers. I am turning more and more to contemplation on the readings of the day. The saints and martyrs have powerful answers. On our Whatsapp prayer network, someone puts up a quotation from the readings of the day, or a favourite psalm, that resonates perfectly. St Teresa of Avila’s “Let nothing disturb you” circulates. Augustine’s night prayer is gratefully received. John Henry Newman’s “Some Definite Service” encourages hope. There is even a prayer about staying off your mobile phone for the sake of your sanity! From a Saint in the making perhaps.

Each of us realises we are not alone in feeling whatever it is we are feeling at any given time. This is what it is to be human and to live out of faith, in a community of faith. Thank God for the models He has put before us. Mostly I thank God for his incarnated Son who alone can make sense of fragile and beautiful human life.

Prayer of St Augustine

Watch, O Lord, with those
who wake this night,
Or watch, or weep;
Give your angels and saints
Charge over those who sleep.

Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ
Rest your weary ones,
Bless your dying ones,
Soothe your suffering ones
Pity your afflicted ones,
Shield your joyous ones.

And all for your love’s sake
Amen.

Thinking about the ‘signs of the times’: I opened a message in a different group chat the other day to hear a climate activist thanking the Corona Virus repeatedly for forcing people to action that will save our planet. It made me angry but it forced me to think hard – a typical response to a prophetic word, perhaps.

One would be foolish to ignore the voice of God speaking through these times, or to speak too casually about it. On reflection it seems that the voice of God and that of science are working together. If we are, as Teilhard de Chardin SJ affirmed, “collaborators in creation,” we need to attend to both voices urgently now. The clues to the proper creative action needed are in the things we are missing most in this time and in the things that are returning to us. In the first category, speaking for myself, I would have to include shopping, eating out, driving, always doing things or going somewhere, planning quick and easy ‘rewards’ for myself. I can clearly see a value in these things being taken away from me. I can understand how they fit with Thunberg and science’s warnings about consumerism, waste, carbon footprints and personal responsibility.

In the second category, what is returning is what will bring about the new creation that is needed: stillness, reflection, home-cooking, growing things, making things (for me that is knitting and music), sparing things, realising that I have enough – an abundance in fact. I am gaining a new appreciation of family and friends, of the beauty and privilege of the world, of education and work, of the gifts I have been given, of my health and that of those I love. I am more deeply aware of my individual responsibility for this world and all its people. At the same time, I am acutely aware that I, and my group, are not at the centre. We are dependents, on nature, on the collective actions of humanity and on God.

I can’t agree with the glib idea of thanking Covid 19. There is no circumstance that could make me thankful for even one heart-breaking death, for the grief of one family or even one person. The prophetic voice does, however, make me feel ashamed and sorry, wanting to do things differently. It makes me plead for another chance, like the psalmist: “Rise up O Lord; Deliver me, O my God…Deliverance belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people.” I pray for this great interruption and destruction to be followed by Divine intervention.

The Miracle at Troy

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

Seamus Heaney

There is value in trusting and obeying a higher authority: it surprises me that I am writing, and feeling this. We are living through a time when this country has had its trust in Church and State deeply shaken and rightly so. I am old enough to recall harsh treatment of women and children deemed to be in unorthodox situations. My best friend was pregnant at 17 and was a target for judgment from priests and society over many years. Luckily for her, her parents were enlightened enough not to give in to pressure to have her secreted away to a Church-State institution but, even so, she had to endure a high level of shaming by staying in her local area. I can still remember the rows at my own family dinner table when I tried to stand up for her. Yet she did a holy thing – the right thing – enduring the shame and judgment in order to bring a child, and great joy, into the world. I firmly believe that I know where Jesus would have stood in this scenario.

The deconstruction of Church and society in recent times has been absolutely necessary and there is further to go with this. The key thing is that we never forget, for one second, those that were deeply hurt by the abuse of power and the complicity of blind obedience. But, a shift is taking place. In the Church Pope Francis is leading a new evangelisation which is bringing the love, mercy and compassion of Christ into the public arena again. In his own person he is embodying a Christ-like image of power. People follow him not because they are shamed or frightened or ordered to but because he inspires their love and admiration.

Now, under the pandemic of Covid 19, something is also happening in our State. We are being united under the kind of leadership that is emerging in these stressful times. I can only speak for myself and the people I know but we are trusting our leaders and that trust is being rewarded. Leo Varadker, Simon Harris, Tony Holohan and the hardworking teams that support them are, by their honesty, forthrightness and leadership skills obtaining the obedience and respect of the people of Ireland in what is less a question of law and more a question of ‘heart’. We are turning to them with heartfelt need and they are responding with conscientious and compassionate leadership. I find God’s order in the way the heart has returned to the centre of things. Pope Francis spoke about this in his Ubi et Orbi blessing last week when he compared the current crisis to the storm on the sea of Galilee endured by the disciples who expressed concern that Jesus, their leader, needed to show he cared for them. To feel uncared for is deeply hurtful and damaging. To be accused of not caring, he thinks, would have shaken Jesus too.

In both Church and State I find myself in a new situation: I feel cared for and I want to be obedient, to trust in and have the relief of decisions being guided by a higher authority. Even as I write it I realise how it aligns with how I always felt about God. I just never imagined that this could line up so clearly with the world. I ask myself, if this continued, this kind of leadership in Church and State, would the world be moving closer to the Kingdom of God? There is definitely, for the first time in a long time, a vision of the Kingdom in this present situation. By the reduction in our own power we have made greater room for higher powers and the world is becoming more transparent to the voice and activity of God.

In affirmation of my feelings about leadership, I received a Whatsapp message yesterday from two friends of mine from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, two young Coptic nuns who run entirely by themselves St George’s Coptic Orthodox Abbey in Delvin, Co Meath. At their kind invitation I visited them there in January and was amazed by the hard work they do and how they are living out their religious lives so fully and joyfully. They told me stories back then of how they were managing sheep on the Abbey land for the first time and how they were losing weight from running after the sheep daily. In messaging them back yesterday I told them I hoped they were getting plenty of exercise running after the sheep in these times of restricted activity. Their reply was moving: “Running was a lot when they were still young, to train them but now they hear our voice and follow us.”