The current issue of concern for each and everyone in the world, no matter who we are, where we are living, and to which religion we belong, is COVID19. This global concern affects us all in so many ways. According to the Worldometer, up to now (November 7th, 2020) there have been 1,251,379 deaths among 49,830,169 coronavirus cases. The whole world is grieving as millions of people have passed away because of Covid19. There is great insecurity when millions of people are losing their jobs and businesses while scientists still have not developed a vaccine. When most churches, mosques and temples were forced to close, people even began to question the presence and power of God. Being daughters and sisters of this world family and being threatened by the same pandemic, what can we as Dominican Sisters do to carry out our mission of preaching the Good News? What is the importance of our vocation as Dominican Sisters at this time? What is the challenge to our mission as the whole world is facing sadness, death, loss and insecurity?
As I witness people’s suffering and Covid19 spreads around the world, the question, “how can I bring the good News when the future is unpredictable for all?”, has been echoing in my heart and my mind. In seeking an answer, the four pillars of our Dominican life have been a surprising help for me to be strengthened, to be connected, and to be guided during this difficult time. Here is how I see that these four pillars play an important role in guiding us to be the loving preachers of the Good News for the world.
1) Pray. Speaking about praying seems so obvious for all of us, but it is not because we are in difficult times that we need to pray. Prayer is our daily food and inoculates us from all kinds of spiritual diseases. Prayer helps us to focus on God’s love and enables us to get closer to God in our daily life. Prayer is so important to help us learn who God is and who we are in our relationship to God and to others. For example, Psalm 103 reminds us of our frailty, but that God is compassionate and always faithful in God’s love: “a person’s life is like grass. It blossoms like wild flowers, but when the wind blows through it, it withers away and no one remembers where it was. Yet the Lord’s gracious love remains throughout eternity for those who fear him and his righteous acts extend to their children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and to those who remember to observe his precepts” (Ps 103, 15-18).
Even having prayed this psalm thousands of times, when our life is safe and sound, we might not be attentive to what we are saying. But now when life itself feels fragile, this psalm enables us to listen to God’s guidance in new ways and in return we are able to lead people to God. St. Thomas Aquinas pointed to the primary work of the Dominicans as: “contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere” (to contemplate and to share with others the fruits of our contemplation). It is true, how can we share with other people what we do not have? In order to guide people to trust in God, we must first trust in God and grow in God’s love. Of course, we cannot grow our trust in God without having a close relationship with God through daily conversation, or prayer.
Prayer is also the time for us to bring to God the needs and the pain of others. The fruits of our prayer for other people is that we become more compassionate and co-suffer with them, hence growing in our love for God and love for others. Prayer is our vocation and is our powerful shield. Once our lives are centered on God as the source of life, no fear can exist in us. When humanity feels powerless and fragile, only God can give us strength, hope and faith to move through this time.
2) Study: The second pillar is also important for us to resist the fear and stress from Covid19. For many people, it may be a difficult time to focus on study, seen as an additional source of anxiety, but for Dominicans, study is our joy, it brings us hope, faith and love.
First of all, study brings us faith because our study primarily centers on the sacred truth of God. The study of God is to focus on God’s work in the world and thus increases our knowledge and deepens our understanding of the wisdom of God. Jesus corrects the Sadducees, “you are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mt 22: 29). If we doubt God’s love and mercy during this time of trouble, it is because we do not know the Scriptures.
Second, study brings us love because God is love. By studying Scriptures, we learn more about God’s love. By the study of the world through sciences and through life, we can see more clearly the presence of God’s love in charity work, in creation, and in people’s good deeds. If we do not know how much we are loved by God, we can lose our faith in God and fall into the pit of insecurity and fear.
Third, study brings us hope because God is the source of our hope. Prophet Isaiah assures that “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and nor grow weary; they will walk and not be faint” (Is 40:30). If faith brings us trust, hope brings us security, confidence, strength, and peace. Many people feel insecure now because their sources of security, such as money and power, now become fragile with Covid19. But those who have hope in God are secure, as the book of Job 11:18 said, “you will be secure, because there is hope; you will look about you and take your rest in safety.”
Study is like a road leading us to the love of God. We cannot love whom we do not know. Saint Catherine of Siena said, “one who knows more, loves more.” Indeed, it is clear for me that the more I study, the more I understand God’s love, the more I get closer to God and other people. Scientists are studying to find the vaccine for the coronavirus; we are spiritual practitioners called to study to discover the spiritual vaccine to fight against the spiritual virus.
3) Community: perhaps common life is most challenging with Covid19 as we are called to observe social distancing. Although this is applied in the public sphere, it is also a challenge to religious communities where common life is crucial. Since many communities cannot pray together or eat together in person as we have been accustomed, we are called to find new ways to foster the common life. Many Sisters are very creative in how they sustain the idea of communal life through meal-via-zoom or common-praying-via-zoom. Social distancing is impossible for the Sisters from poor countries like Vietnam because many Sisters have to share the same room. How can they observe the social distancing when 13 novices share one room? Sharing space with so many people seems to be dangerous during this time of COVID19, but the Sisters do not complain but beautifully accept the reality and constraints of their own community. While Covid19 challenges our common life in practical ways, community is also one of our strengths during this time. While Covid19 has led to stress, anxiety, fear, sadness and loneliness for many people, community helps us to maintain bonds, to be interrelated, and to feel loved as we all work together to spread love and resist forces of isolation.
4) Service: Being Dominicans, we are called to serve the Word. Are we called to preach in front of large gatherings? These times may not be right for preaching in that capacity, but there are a lot of ways to preach the Word. Besides teaching theology or catechism in the classroom, we can preach the Word by writing reflections to contribute to the Congregation’s website. And critically, we preach through serving our brothers and sisters around us in our daily life. Pope Paul VI said eloquently in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” As preachers in the time of a pandemic, we are called to be witnesses to God’s love through our faith, our way of living and our way of serving.
Vietnamese people often say that “nhàn cư vi bất thiện.”, or “doing nothing is doing ill.” This is very true for our current situation. If we do nothing to help other people, we will isolate in fear and self-centeredness. This is not a healthy way of living a Dominican life. Moreover, serving others is not only at the core of the Dominican identity, but it also helps us to find ourselves and the meaning of life through our service. There is little time to focus on fear and distress when we are busy serving one another.
I have been touched by the love and service of many Sisters who are truly living the Dominican pillars. Those are Sisters who are working tirelessly to make sure the Sisters in the community stay safe and well. They are sewing the masks to donate to hospitals and nursing homes and sharing them with other Sisters in the communities and other people. These are Sisters who spend more time praying for peace in the world. These are Sisters who make an effort to visit one another virtually to encourage and to care for each other. Although these deeds seem simple, they are beautiful and meaningful because they come from love.
Covid19 is deadly, but cannot kill our love for one another if we do not allow it. Thus, this is a very important time for us to work together to resist coronavirus, but not to isolate from one another, rather to love more and care more for one another. Although now we cannot hug or shake hands, our love remains strong and thrives as we find ways to express our care and love for one another. The virus of isolation must not take the place of love in the community.
Agnes Liên Đỗ