Retired Diplomat Sean Farrell, and Fr Bob Arthure have been cocooning in Ireland and have sent us some insights from their own ground.
Whatever happens, expect a slew of memoirs and journals of the Corona Year(s). I won’t be writing one but a few brief personal observation. As someone in his seventies, and a diabetic to boot, I have at least one hefty strike against me faced with a virus that overwhelmingly targets the old and infirm (even granting that ‘seventy’ is the new ‘fifty’). So, together with my wife, we embraced the lockdown totally and the ‘cocooning’ the Irish doctors recommended. ‘No going out’ did not of course apply to our modest but ample gardens front and rear. This provided some relief and our hearts went out to those less fortunate in cramped city apartments. With Portmarnock’s Velvet Strand a mere 200 metres away, the temptation to defy advice and venture out was strong but we stuck with it. It was all the more sweet when that first relaxation came and since then we have fulfilled our vows to walk on the beach daily. We talked to the neighbours, but the lack of contact with other family members proved annoying and upsetting – the phone, Zoom and Skype no substitute.
Our sons shopped for us, a task they performed heroically, always conscious of the risk of bringing the virus back and taking extreme care accordingly. Thank you boys! Shopping now involves queueing to get access; the supermarkets limit numbers to ensure social distancing, tedious for everybody, but up to now bonhomie and good nature has reigned. A factor in this has been the absence of rain itself, as April and May here have been unusually dry and sunny. A twenty or thirty minute wait in damp cold and wet weather might chill that cosy feeling, but at least by the autumn appropriate covered waiting areas should be in place.
To minimise risks further we confined shopping to once, perhaps twice, per week. The once luxury of the casual daily visit daily to the shop for one or two items had gone. Initially there was panic buying and consequent hoarding before restrictions were imposed. Toilet paper and paper towels were early targets for the hoarders (and online comedians), then eggs and flour supplies ran out. The supply line kinks have now been sorted, though eggs still disappear from time to time, less down to the virus and panic buying than to an epidemic of bird flu which has led to the slaughter of around half a million egg-producing birds. Some days random items can be unavailable and if this is on the shopping day then … tant pis for a week! Choice and opportunity are somewhat restricted though it’s a far cry from something akin to the old Soviet ‘perhaps bag’ experience.
The virus has also changed my reading and writing habits. I’ve rediscovered or caught up with authors after years away, John Le Carre, Donna Leon, William Boyd and Martin Cruz Smith among them. My columns have also been affected: the virus can hardly be ignored, but how to make writing about it at least readable and relevant?
And finally, personally, the reality of the virus has stopped my fictional work-in-progress in its tracks. I had a theme, I had a plot, I had good characters and I had 50,000 words written. It was a novel about Ireland in a post-apocalyptic world devastated after a global catastrophe. It promised to be a sure fire success – in my mind anyway. Then came the corona virus, probably, like the plot in my novel, a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. Clearly reality trumped fiction. I may change and adapt the novel. I hope the virus does not do likewise!
Fr Bob Arthure
Never in all my life did I imagine that I would spend several weeks living at a monastery of Cistercian nuns. Yet, because of the corona virus situation, that is what has happened.
Although I have known the community for many years and have regularly joined the sisters for prayer on Sunday evenings, living at Glencairn during these weeks has given me some new insights into their monastic life. Let me mention some of them.
First, Cistercian life is essentially about seeking God. It is about seeking a relationship with Jesus, a living relationship of faith. This seeking God is so central that the sisters are willing to give up everything else and focus on that alone. It is very impressive that two young, talented women, with all kinds of life options open to them, have chosen to become novices here and to give their life – their only life – to seeking to know Jesus. This seeking is more fundamental than any other activity for the nuns.
I have also been struck by the great variety of work that they engage in. The nuns are hard-working and busy. They cook meals and grow vegetables, they look after guests and maintain the buildings, they run the enterprises (altar breads, greeting and mortuary cards, and farm, where currently the sheep are lambing). I have met sisters driving a dumper, pushing a lawnmower, carrying a step-ladder, wielding a secateurs, and even armed with a scissors to cut someone’s hair. Among the 28 sisters there is an amazing range of skills and abilities, and from carpentry to candle-making, music to management of resources, everyone seems to be given the opportunity to use her talents. It might not occur to someone thinking about monastic life that it could involve a wide variety of work, making it interesting and fulfilling.
Another thing I have noticed is the community spirit. While diocesan priests are more like ‘lone rangers”\’, the nuns in the monastery truly form a community, as is clear in their praying together and their concern for one another. But they also retain their individuality. The sisters are not forced into the same mould so that they emerge like a platoon of soldiers, one indistinguishable from another. Each one remains herself. Newcomers don’t have to sink their own individuality and become a cog in a machine. This indicates a great deal of wisdom on the part of the Rule and of the superiors, and I see quite a difference in this regard between the monastery today and the atmosphere in the seminary as I knew it before the Second Vatican Council.
‘If you want to know me, come and live with me’ – this saying is proving true for me in a most interesting way in these weeks.
For more information on Glencairn Abbey see https://www.glencairnabbey.org/