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Covid-19: Reflections and sharings

Weekly reflections by our Chaplain for Pastoral Formation Fr Colum Kelly and other sharings to sustain us spiritually during the coronavirus pandemic.

Week 6 - Last Words

I remember a conversation I had on a ship with a seafarer from Ukraine. I knew him fairly well for his ship was on regular trips across the North Sea.

All chaplains will tell you that if there is one subject sure to be a certain conversation starter, it’s family.

Seafarers love talking about the folks they have left behind and the months of loneliness they have to endure. There will be any amount of pictures for you to nod at and mutter words of loveliness.

Then Georgi talked about how important it is to leave home on a good note. He said, “Never leave the ones you love with anything bitter between you, for those final words need to sustain you through many months of missing and longing.”

I remember thinking how very true that must be. Of course words will be spoken in telephone calls, but calls made after a long shift might become tetchy, or misunderstood over a bad line.

Those last doorstep words must become lasting words; words that will be recalled in lonely times and in times of danger.

So that got me thinking again, what about all those people who cannot be with loved ones at their time of death?

Covid days are harsh and the numbers so overwhelming that we can easily lose sight of the brutality of what we are living through. Numbers are becoming a part of our daily news gathering and it is far too easy to lose sight of the fact that within these numbers are parents and children. Shame on us if we never look past the numbers, forgetting that they had names by which they were loved and cherished.

It is hard enough to lose a loved one in any way, but it is heart-rending to hear of loved ones dying away from those they have cherished through all their days.

What words will the grieving remember? Were the last words heard spoken in love? We would always like to think so. When people gather to console themselves in their grief there will be many stories beginning with “Do you remember when she said….”

I remember after my Mother’s funeral, we sat around talking about things she had said.

My favourite saying of hers, “Son you’ll need two things as you go through life, a good bed and a good pair of shoes for when you’re not in one you’ll be in the other.” 

Strange how some things stay with you and make a picture of someone you loved.

Treasure the words you hear for those last words spoken may need to become lasting words.

Week 6 - Anchor

Anchor ourselves in God’s love.

In my lockdown I only see the images of what’s going on in the outside world, one remarkable picture is people locked into boxes, two metres away from each other - the queueing outside supermarkets. 

I've never had to do that and I try putting myself into the picture. I would be nervous in my little square with an eye on those around me if they dare sneak an inch into my space. I am anchored to the spot until I get called forward into the next square. 

Pondering on this led me to something far more familiar to me - ships queuing at anchor waiting on their turn to be called forward into the next slot until eventually being called into the great marketplace of the port. 

For the crews at sea waiting at anchor can be a troubling stay, not knowing how long they will be kept there. Wondering when they will be able to come ashore and call their anxious families. It’s not unheard of that a ship can be at anchor for weeks while greedy owners try to negotiate a better price for the cargo. 

All queueing requires patience and an unflinching hope that the wait will end. What are our own anchors, what is it that keeps us rooted in these difficult times? 

Do these anchors hold fast or are the chains clanking and straining against the storm and high sea swell? 

Being shut away with my own anchors I live in hope, not some vague aspiration that things can only get better, as beyond my window I see signs of spring all around. The beauty of buds, shoots and blossoms all whisper that new life is coming. I see the extraordinary selflessness of people helping the less able. I rejoice at the skills of those who can save lives. The world around me is blooming, signs of promised hope bursting forth in a rich abundance. 

God asks us to be still, treasure that richness while remaining anchored in his love.

In due course, on the fine tide that faith tells us will come, we can raise our anchors and store them safely aboard. 

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. (Hebrews: 6.19)

Week 5 - Guardian Angel

What do you call yours?
During these ‘Covid times’ are you beginning to feel the loneliness and lack of human comfort? And aren’t we broken hearted to hear of the death of so many.

Such contemplations led me to think about someone I have ignored for too much in past years, my Guardian Angel. 

There was dear Mrs Mc Kenzie my very first teacher, beginning our school day with the prayer:
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God's love commits me here,
ever this day be at my side,
to light and guard, to rule and guide. 

As children there was total faith in our angel but somehow maybe we got a bit blasé and poo pooed the idea of needing an angel to guide our ways, becoming confident and sure in our own strength and ability and closing our mind and heart to the idea of needing a spiritual friend.

But maybe the lesson of these intensely isolated times is that we need our angel more than ever. This is not some abstract spirit but someone who is as close to you as your skin. Why not reacquaint yourself with yours, maybe even give them a name.

Our tradition has always taught that from our birth a Guardian Angel is given to us to guide and protect us, to accompany us with every step - the Angel of every breath we take. 

In this time of great anxiety I find it such a comfort to find that in scripture, where Angels usually bring a message from God, the first words of that message are “Do not be afraid”

One of the saddest things I hear with this disease is that people are dying alone, not allowed the consolation of loved ones. But they are not, as this is where I see the final act of our Guardian Angel; to be with us when nobody else can, to gently whisper “Do not be afraid” and lead us back to where we first met for this voyage.

There at our first breath, and our last.

Week 4 - Hands

The reality of being in isolation really hit me hard on Holy Thursday.

For 46 years I had celebrated the ceremonies of that day, my favourite celebration in the Church’s year - the procession to the stillness at the altar of repose, gentle moments reflecting on the horrors to come for Jesus and, even more significantly the unique feature of that day - the washing of feet, as Jesus did for reluctant disciples at their final meal together -  a profound example of what the call to service would mean. None of this was possible this year in Covid times.

At present the importance of washing our hands is stressed – a simple act but one so relevant and important to now. That got me thinking. Hands.

Not only the washing of hands but hands serving and supporting in this time of world crisis – the serving hands of key workers’ – a list of so many, but then what about the serving hands of family in such acts as washing, preparing food, holding, soothing; the fingers that tap texts, messages, phone numbers, emails and video applications to stay in touch with loved ones at a time when we are all so separated.

The hands of Jesus feature prominently in the Gospel stories. Gentle hands that healed not just those who maybe thought themselves worthy, but hands that touched lepers, the outcasts and untouchables of their day. He was not afraid to touch others, as we are just now with our distancing rules. Hands that held the broken hearted, fed the hungry and gave sight to the blind. Wounded hands that healed so many in body and mind, then nailed to a cross.

I hear it often said that we are all in this together, in the same boat, but it's not like that. We are sailing the same storm, but not in the same boat. We are all on different ships during this storm experiencing a very different journey; we are all just fighting our way through the storm.

Our serving hands are needed now more than ever to send the same message of love, humility and acceptance. Are they open?  Generous towards a needy person, those depending on our provision, cooking a meal for the lonely, elderly, writing a note to a friend needing encouragement, palms held together  in prayer … Our hands can do His work every day and become a blessing to others.

Look down at your hands right now and ask God to take them and use them for his service - I have shown you what to do so you may do this too”.

Week 3 - A letter to seafarers

Dear Seafarers,

Though we cannot visit your ships for now, know that we are still very much connected in our prayer and care for each other.

And how very necessary that is in these present times of great uncertainty. On land many are in isolation, in their homes or places of care, uncertain of what the future might bring. 

There is worry about jobs, food deliveries, wages, the welfare of loved ones - and even life itself.  Our Churches are closed and we are missing the presence of the Lord in Holy Communion.

But then, you understand all about these things, they have been a part of your life for as long as you have sailed.

For you they can often come together in the space of one voyage. You worry about wages, will they be paid this month? Will the chandlers get food to the ship in time? Are family safe at home? Is my job safe for another contract?

You can teach us so much about coping in these times we call unfamiliar, times that cause us to be so fearful.

Your lockdown begins on every voyage once the gangway is raised, hatches and doors fastened. Irrespective of the size of the crew,  the long hours, even months of isolation must be a drain on mind and soul.

On land we still have our creature comforts that may be luxuries to you. Hot showers, more space, a non-rocking kitchen. Most are still able to go for a walk outside. The food shops keep us supplied despite the selfishness of greedy people who see no further than their own needs.

We long for normality, no longer living in isolation from one another, but may have to wait some time, and the normality we seek may never return.

I mentioned our isolation from Eucharist, something we took very much for granted. Perhaps our understanding of the Lord’s presence has been too dependent on churches being open and masses being celebrated.

At sea you seafarers have come to understand that although Holy Communion may be a rare occurrence on your ships, the presence of God is ever real and a constant support; so close that we cannot see him.

May that Divine presence be a source of strength and comfort in these dark days.

The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, He helps those whose spirit is crushed. (Psalm 34)

Week 2 - Holy Week 2020

A Gethsemane Moment.

Holy Week is the most significant religious week of the year. In  a busy week from Palm Sunday to Easter Day the Church pulls out all the stops to heighten  the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Liturgical planning groups meet, choirs practice, readers practically know their texts by heart and nothing is safe from the rub of the Brasso cloth.

This year our churches will be empty, choirs will be silent and the great story our salvation will have to put on hold.The rota for those volunteering to have their feet washed will yet again remain unsigned. Palms may be able to be stored for next year, and maybe the music too but still we lose so much.  The loss is great but we know that it is the right thing to do in these strange times.

So what can we do?

May I invite you to take a seat at the Altar of Repose, in your mind or maybe you have a small shrine at home. Be still, attentive, let your hearts be open and astonished by the immense love that God has for all of us.

This is  our Gethsemane, aware of the great suffering around us and waiting to find  meaning in all of it. Even more suffering lies ahead, our Good Friday has yet to come before we dare anticipate Resurrection.

For Jesus Gethsemane was a time of waiting in great anguish and loneliness for even his disciples had fallen asleep. He was alone in the garden, absorbed in prayer to the Father.

Maybe the absence of our liturgies will help us to better appreciate the significance of the Easter celebration when we can sing Alleluia with our friends once more.

You seafarers reading this may think of that absence being the norm for you. For you rarely have a chance to proclaim Easter while on board and yet when I have celebrated Easter Mass with you, I have been overjoyed to find such faith  and understanding of the place of service in Easter. Not for you any reticence about volunteering to have your feet washed - everyone on the ships asked for it.

One final thought as you enter your quiet space, rethink the significance of our hand washing.  May it be a cleansing of hands ready to receive from others, and cleansed of selfishness be offered in service of others.

May your Gethsemane lead you to a have a Holy Easter as it was on that morning for the disciples. They too had many unanswered questions and mixed messages which they contemplated in silence and wonderment.

Have a quiet Easter.

Week 1

Unfamiliar times indeed.

So too for the seafarer, used to coming into port to be greeted by a Stella Maris chaplain who does everything possible to make their lives a little bit better; things great and small.

That welcome is now on hold because of the safety needs of both chaplain and seafarer, but we hope and pray that normality may be resumed as quickly as possible. However another welcome comes to you now in virtual form through social media, and is as heartfelt as ever.

Thousands are dying, our churches are closed, people’s movements are limited and the world cries out for normality, or even an explanation of what is happening. We are not used being taken by surprise and we don’t like that. We are not in charge, we have lost our control, perhaps it’s a time to be humble, to cast aside that arrogance. 

It is so easy to see God at work in the happy times of our lives and we thank and praise him for that, but now?

Maybe you recall the words in John’s Gospel of Martha after the death of Lazarus. “Lord if you had been here this would not have happened”. But the Lord is here, “Yes I will be with you to the end of time” the final words in Matthew’s Gospel.

Yet in these previously unimaginable days, that presence may be hard to grasp. Let me take you back 50 years to my days in seminary. Our Theology professor, trying to explain the presence of God, was reading aloud that same passage from Matthew’s Gospel.

Then he brought the bible closer to his face and continued to read but with greater difficulty. Finally he held the text tight against his face where he could no longer read and said, “That’s how close God is, so that we cannot see Him”.

Never forget that presence.

Pope Francis reminds us: 'Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realised that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us.'
All in the same boat by Pope Francis