The Roman poet Sextus Propertius is credited with the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and we tend to affiliate this term to the sad state of separated lovers; however, in these days of COVID-19 social distancing and self-isolation, one could interpret this phrase along the more ironical lines of “Stay away from me and I’ll love you more!” particularly in the context of all-too-close living quarters with family and housemates… and if you happen to be an introvert, like me.
Matthew (@CrowsFault) on Twitter sums up the introvert’s heart quite well:
And as for our extrovert friends and family, this meme says it all:
Within a few days of social distancing and self-isolation, we’ve witnessed the numerous cries for contact and reaching out on social media and within our own homes. Here in the priory (convent), we have a fairly good mix of introverts and extroverts. And when it comes to social distancing and self-isolation, the location of our priory is safely distanced and isolated from the rest of society. Our daily lives haven’t been extremely altered in the general societal lockdown, other than not going out for our apostolates (ministries) to schools, parishes, and diocesan events, and not going out for non-essential appointments, groceries, etc.
In a sense, we feel like we’ve become “real nuns” – enclosed on our priory grounds. No one comes in, no one goes out (unless absolutely necessary).
So, even though our daily schedule has remained mostly the same as our pre-COVID-19 days, our community dynamic has changed a bit. Everyone is home ALL THE TIME. All. The. Time. (Yes, that’s worth repeating.) As you can imagine, having 13 women of different ages (26-84yrs), cultures (English, Irish, German, French, Nigerian, Asian-American, and Canadian), and personalities can be quite a challenge, but also an incredible witness to the grace of God working in and through us. We’re all earthen vessels, fragile and prone to crack under too much pressure, but we are created as something beautiful, something able to carry within it the treasure and power of God’s grace and love (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7).
This then is the heart of community life: allowing God to love in and through you just as you are – and allowing yourself to receive His love in and through your sisters just as they are. (The latter is usually much more difficult than the former!)
This is precisely where the sharp chisel in God’s hand is delicately at work in making us His masterpieces. The introverts rejoice at the thought of self-isolation and having a good dose of “refuelling” alone time, only to find out we self-isolate TOGETHER. The extroverts become a bit stir-crazy being limited to the same environment and the same faces hour by hour and day by day. We suddenly re-discover our irritating habits and the irritating habits of others. To say the least, community life can be a bit tense at times. However, it is here that we re-discover that desperate need to depend fully upon the Lord, not on ourselves.
So, what are some helpful tips for surviving thriving in intense community living?
Be compassionate and kind.
Remember that no one is perfect (no matter how much they might seem to be); we’re 100% human with our good days and bad days, morning persons and night owls. People might be on high apocalyptic alert, while others are in some sort of chillaxin’ bubble oblivion. Either way, when these come together, there’s bound to be frustrating moments of misunderstanding. And to top things off, we’re living in strange and unexpected times. Let’s face it, right now we live in a pressure-cooker (whether alone or with others) and we’re going to see each other (or ourselves) at our best and our worst. What we need is compassion and kindness, towards ourselves and towards everyone else.
In Deus Caritas Est (18), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us “Love of neighbour… consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person, not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ” (emphasis added). In compassion and kindness, we are called to see ourselves and others as Jesus sees us: beloved children of God, treasured beyond measure, unrepeatable, seen and loved.
Self-care ≠ Selfish.
Everyone needs some personal time and space. (Yes, everyone – even our extroverts!) Know yourself: your limits, your boundaries, your strengths and weaknesses. Know what gives you life, makes you happy, releases stress. Have you always wanted to learn a new instrument, try something artsy, take up an online dance class, embark on a culinary adventure with all those cans of Spam and baked beans you’ve panic-bought? Or maybe you’ve craved some time alone for prayer and scripture reading but always felt too busy? Take an honest look at yourself and ask when was the last time you did something just for you, for your own well-being – without feeling guilty about it? Perhaps now’s the time!
It’s also helpful to frequently remind yourself: it’s okay not to be okay all the time. You’re human, you have emotions, you’re stressed out and worried. So are those that share in your isolation. And that’s okay. Have a cup of tea or hot cocoa. Sit on the sofa with your isolation-family and talk about the struggles, phone up a dear friend and cry it out.
The truth is, the more we can authentically care for ourselves, the more we can authentically care for others. Keep in mind the words of St Paul: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19). Take care of that temple by entrusting yourself to the Lord. Make time for God to be at work and at rest in you, and you’ll find the time and energy to help others.
Remember that we are not alone in this.
The struggle is real – but so is the solidarity!
During his Urbi et Orbi address on 27 March, Pope Francis poignantly reminded us of the disciples’ struggle during an unbearable and frightening storm at sea, when they felt their boat was sinking and all was lost: “On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are perishing’ (Mk. 4:38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.” In their desperation, they call upon Jesus while He sleeps soundly: “’Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them.”
In community life, much like family life, things aren’t always easy. Even though we might be surrounded by so many people – so many people who love us and care for us – we can still find ourselves feeling terribly alone, unheard, unseen, and very vulnerable. These are the moments where it seems our loved ones are asleep, that Jesus is asleep; but instead, we turn in faith to the Lord, knowing He’s there – in the same boat, with us. We cry out, and He calms our storms. He is (and always will be) Emmanuel, God-with-us.
In the absence of all that is normal, routine and secure to us, may our hearts grow not only in fondness for all our fellow boatmates, but also in magnanimity, for there’s no better time than the present to be magnanimous! (Look up the virtue of magnanimity – go on, pause the TV; you can do it.) Now is the time: turn to the Lord, wake Him from sleep, cry out to Him. He’s always there, waiting in hope for us and with us.
Sr Catherine is Dominican sister with the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. You can find out more about them and their ministry here.