Are We There Yet?
From Sister Wendy Grace Greyling, Novice at the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, ON
Sarapion the Sindonite travelled once on a pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Skeptical about her way of life – for he himself was a great wanderer—Sarapion called on her and asked, “Why are you sitting here?” To which she replied, “I am not sitting; I am on a journey.” (Benedicta Ward, The Desert of the Heart)
Are we there yet? Think back to journeys you have taken. Have you ever been on a journey you thought would never end? It can feel as if time is standing still and you with it. There is the sense that you are simply not getting anywhere, you are not making any progress.
You look around desperately for some way to make the time pass, some way to make the journey go faster, some way to reach your destination. That’s how I feel about the experience of COVID-19. We are on a journey that seems to have no end. The disruption to our lives isn’t over and nobody knows when it will end. We’ve done everything we were told to do; we’ve stayed home, washed our hands, avoided friends and family, postponed weddings, ordinations, and parties, been unable to attend funerals and it still isn’t over. At the convent we are still physically distancing from each other, in the chapel, the refectory, and every other time we meet as a community. Because of the physical distance, even when we are together, I feel as if we are apart. It’s hard to have a conversation with another person when you are trying to maintain a physical distance. We are still washing our hands multiple times a day, screening all of our essential visitors, keeping the door barred against those deemed inessential and for those of us who absolutely have to go out wearing masks and carrying hand sanitizer. But mostly we are just staying home. And the pandemic shows no sign of being over. The boredom is compounded by the sense of losses piling up on one another. The losses range from the trivial to the profound but they are all losses nonetheless. And always the underlying, unsettling thrum, “are we there yet?” Lately I’ve been reading a book by Laura Swan, called The Forgotten Desert Mothers. The women who became known as desert mothers went to the desert for solitude but also for deeper reasons. The desert was a place of physical, mental and spiritual stripping away of everything that could hinder their relationship with God. In reading about them I have tended to focus on their physical ascetic practices (like wearing hair shirts and bathing rarely) and yet their physical practices were not really the point. Their physical relinquishments seemed to be a preparation for the work to come. In reality the desert landscape which became most important was the inner landscape. Benedicta Ward calls this the ‘desert of the heart’. Our current situation has also involved a stripping away, a loss of normality, of routine, of small pleasures and large chores. Not one of us chose to be in this situation but we can choose how to ‘be’ in it. Can we see this season in our lives as a kind of desert experience? Living through a global health pandemic has stripped away the illusion of control. It has laid bare the reality of our lives. Even in so-called normal times we are not in control and when this pandemic ends we will still not be in control. As I sit here at my laptop, struggling to finish this reflection, all I can think of is that very familiar verse from Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Maybe it’s not about the destination but the journey. ~~ Sr. Wendy Grace Greyling, n/ssjd