Over the last thirty months, I have heard this psalm again and again recited in choir by my neighbours the Carmelite Sisters of Kiyinda and gradually, like the drip of water on a stone, the psalmist’s advice has come to sums up some aspects of my life as a VM.
Like all missionaries, you are reminded to forget your own people as you “work and live side by side with the people sharing our talents, friendship and love. This pre-supposes an openness to the needs of others and the humility to meet them wherever they are at. It calls for a spirit of confidence and poverty which is ever ready to listen and respond to others” (VMM Spirit & Lifestyle). It could almost be a motto for a VM as you head overseas. It means being a listener, “being a witness where it can easily be seen that God's Spirit is so strong within us that it is visible in our lives and actions. Christ was available to all, and reached out to the poor, the sick and the rejected. His mission is now ours. It is a call to be wherever there is injustice of any kind.
"Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education; wherever people lack the facilities necessary for living a truly human life, are afflicted with serious distress or illness, or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian love should seek them out and find them." (Apostolate of the Laity, para 8.4)The majority of our world lives in hunger and want deprived of the most basic necessities to live a decent human life. Impelled and driven by the Spirit of Christ, we should not stand by unresponsive to the needs of our brother and sisters. They must have the tools to enable them to develop and be free. They need the skills and the expertise to bring out their own resources and gifts. It is not simply a matter of handing out money, food or equipment. It calls for more than that. Our response is to share who we are as well as what we have” (VMM Spirit & Lifestyle).
“Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. If I do this, then I Shall Act Justly, Love Tenderly and walk humbly with my God”put the head down and keep going, be that the time where the electricity has just gone for the fifth day in a row or the water is not running so it means hauling jerry-cans, or maybe battling the mud as you try to drive into the villages to visit a health unit or parish to see how they are getting on with their accounts. And generally, it works out ok, because if the power is out and the generator isn’t working you get to chat to the neighbours and see what is happening in the world, or else time to sit and reflect how you are sharing in the daily experience of 93% of Ugandans who never have power. Or if you have to haul jerry-cans of water to use, you realise very quickly just hope much truth is in the expression “Water is Life” and just how much we take running water for granted at home.
Something else you rediscover is time. In her autobiography, A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle writes of chronos and kairos, the Greek words for time. Chronos is the measurable passage of time. It’s chronology, the time “which changes things, makes them grow older, wears them out.” Kairos is the immeasurable moment, an opening or a break through, an intersection with eternity. God’s time. L’Engle was remembering an instance of rocking her grandchild, feeling no older than she had when she rocked his mother, singing the same lullabies, but knowing all the same that chronos had done its work. “I sit in the rocking chair with a baby in my arms, and I am in both kairos and chronos. In chronos, I may be nothing more than some cybernetic salad on the bottom left-hand corner of a check; or my social-security number; or my passport number. In kairos, I am known by my name: Madeleine.” The ability to be patient with time is a skill you have to rediscover in Uganda. We often joke at the Administration when agreeing a time for meetings or functions, “Is that mzungo time or African Extended Time?” which demonstrates the reality of an agrarian existence where time is in seasons and days of sunshine or rain, not minutes and seconds rushing madly forward to some unimaginable ending which never comes. Where a meeting in the village you have to wait until the more practical side of life such as digging in the garden to grow tomorrows food has been dealt with first. Such an encounter requires that you refocus your experience of time from that of deadlines and targets, to one where you move at a pace which is in tune with the pulsating staccato of your heart.
The nature of time itself seems to change especially when you work and live in what is effectively a religious community at the diocesan headquarters. People from home often joked with me when I first arrived about the fact that my little house was in a compound with three convents of religious sisters, one monastery of enclosed nuns, one house of religious brothers, a diocesan priests residence with eleven priests and the bishops house and cathedral precincts and asked the question how on earth do you live there? At the same time my Ugandan neighbours within the compound were also concerned and asking how this mzungo was going to adjust to the simple life. How a person would deal with that kind of situation will vary from person to person.
For me the process of deciding to actively live in community time was the element which made it possible; to become part of the community and live in its rhythms and patterns than try to impose your own. As the VMM Spirit & Lifestyle puts it, “We do not impose ourselves or our way of doing things. We are available rather, to go wherever we are invited in the world, and need to grow through receiving from those to whom we go. Our work entails human relationship, working and growing together to build a more human and loving world, filled with the spirit of God who sends us”. For me, it meant an ability to switch back and forth from calendar time to liturgical time, a focus especially necessary when sharing your life and time with the Carmelite community, where the joys, daily practices and even sometimes the diet of the day can be determined by the cycle of the liturgical year.
"All religions agree that it is practice not dogma that makes perfect. St Augustine made it clear that we are judged by how well we have loved rather than how well or what we have believed. The Dali Lama does not tire of saying; the purpose of all religious practice is simply to make us nicer and more compassionate people. Religious practices by themselves have only a limited effect on such a personal transformation. In fact by themselves, these practices can even make us worse. There is a tendency for any external practice that is not connected to an interior dimension to become addictive which may lead to the building of walls of self-protection and condemnation around a person and their religious world. Religion without serious contemplative practice is sadly defective” (Fr Lawrence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, Winter 2009). Our prayers as VM’s, as well as being shared and public, also involve personal and silent encounters with God for which there can be no substitute. We learn to be still and to listen in all types of prayer, not only to the needs of our brothers and sisters in the noise and action of today's world, but also to that silent movement of God's action within us which leads us to a deeper awareness of God's love for each of us and a greater sensitivity and caring for all God's People. We bring together in harmony the voice of the people and the voice of the Spirit, and we strive to respond to both. VMM missionaries are therefore listeners. Our witness will be seen when God's Spirit is so strong within us that it is visible in our lives and actions . The need for reflection for anyone in life is one which we sometimes ignore at our peril. One of the things that has struck me about Ugandan life is the way that religion and spirituality pervade the daily activities of the day for so many people, where the interaction of faith and life is a practical unity for ordinary people. One image which sums this up for me, which connects my two worlds of Ireland and Uganda, is that of an elderly woman sitting clutching her tattered and sellotaped repaired prayer book as she prays her battered and chipped rosary beads for her family, neighbours and friends living and dead, petitioning mother to mother with the Blessed Virgin for her support, prayers and intercession with her Divine Son.
But at the same time, sometimes there seems to be a very western approach to things. The church in Uganda is a living expression of the statement of Tertullian in the second century that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” where the Christian community (of all denominations) look to their Fathers in Faith who were martyred in 1885 and 1886. It is a young church, and like any young man is aggressively active, constantly on the move with new projects building, rebuilding, new programmes, daily initiatives. A bit like Martha , there is much frenetic activity – and rightly so some would say. In Kiyinda-Mityana Diocese, one of the Districts the diocese covers is Mityana where there are fourteen registered health units in the District; of which nine belong to the diocese serving the entire community without discriminating against anyone. There is a huge need to build a physical infrastructure for the social needs of the people and the church is often the only body willing to undertake such work as a result of what should be our preferential option for the poor. But there is also a need for this young vibrant church to sit at the feet of the Master and pause and reflect; to remember why it is so busy at the work it is doing, to pause, “to be still and to listen in all types of prayer, not only to the needs of our brothers and sisters in the noise and action of today's world, but also to that silent movement of God's action within us which leads us to a deeper awareness of God's love for each of us and a greater sensitivity and caring for all God's People” (VMM Spirit & Lifestyle) . But it is not just the church that must do it, we are all called to pause and sit at the feet of the Master. That is one of the gifts I have begun to learn at Kiyinda especially through the example of the professed religious women of the diocese who embody the story of Mary and Martha . Each is necessary for the life of the people of the diocese.
The story of the two sisters Mary and Martha begins with Jesus and his disciples entering a village where a woman named Martha lives and has a home. Luke tells us that Martha opens up her home to Jesus and his companions; and then at some point becomes irritated with her sister, Mary, for sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he is saying instead of helping with all of the preparations that need to be made for this large group of men. Martha is so put out by the situation that she goes to Jesus and says to him “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” And Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
From my experience, the examples of Mary and Martha could be applied to the Carmelite Sisters and the Gogonya Sisters respectively. The Carmelites are enclosed nuns, ten unique individuals living a challenging vocation from day to day enclosed within their monastery. The Gogonya sisters are practical, down to earth religious sisters who work in the community as nurses, teachers, catechists and farmers. Each contributes in their own way to the life of the diocese and the community they serve. Each is loved by their community for the assistance they give, often the only support spiritually and materially to the poorest of the poor; women who have given their lives, their energies and their very souls for the poorest of the poor. Two imagines in particular sum up the relationship between the two for me:
• An enclosed Carmelite nun, sitting in mediation, illuminated by the setting sun as she prays for the world and contemplates forty three years of vowed life far from her home and family in a foreign country
• A sister working in a busy health unit in rural Uganda without running water, relying on solar power and minimal drugs or support from the government, who doesn’t get paid a whole lot and lives in only slightly better conditions than many of the people she is treating, sitting holding the hand and wiping the brow of a dying young woman, whose body is emaciated by the AIDS related TB which is killing her, offering comfort and consolation that this person in their pain and suffering is not alone, that someone cares for them as a person.
They are two images which constantly come to mind, contemplative witness and active witness, both necessary like your two lungs. But in recent times, it is the first which occurs most frequently especially when you are asked by visitors like I was a few weeks ago as to what was the point of the Carmelites life; and that is the gift of the Carmelites to the diocese and to the church in general. If you are a person of faith their witness and example is either the most important thing in the world, daily drawing near to the feet of the Master and bringing the needs of the diocese and the world to his attention or they are wasting their time. The image of men and women contemplatives was echoed in a blog which I came across where the blogger Webster Bull was recounting his experience of a retreat at a monastery during the Office of Readings at 2.30am and the reflections it prompted for him.
“God made the night. He separated the darkness from the light, calling the dark times “night.” Night is dark, mysterious, and even in this abbey church before Vigils, a bit terrifying. The silence here in Spencer, in high grazing country fifteen miles from the hum of truck tires on the Mass Pike, is intense. The faint humming sound I hear is some combination of breeze off the abbey walls and the current of my own cardiovascular system. There is something to be sought here, perhaps something to be found, maybe even something to be feared. Yes, it does put "the fear of God" into a man. Anyone, monk or man, grunt or Navy Seal, who enters this darkness every night and makes it his own personal patrol, is moving in a realm most mortals would prefer to sleep through. I don't wonder that the monks of St. Joseph Abbey pray side by side, virtually shoulder to shoulder, in long uniforms that keep them warm and probably comfort them. This is hard man's work they are doing. And like the men and women of our armed forces, they are doing it for you and me”.Their witness is a silent gift to the young church in Uganda which in time will bear fruit as that church matures and reminds us all to have a balanced approach. That gift of silence and space for contemplation is something which more and more we are trying to recover. Br Alois of Taize writes in the 2010 Letter from Taize,
“Whatever our culture, our age or our history, we share a longing, a thirst for life in fullness....[this thirst is seen] as a mark engraved by God in us to draw is towards him..... It is true that it is not easy to keep alive the spirit of wonder and adoration, since our societies set such a high value on efficiency and doing things as quickly as possible. Yet during long silences where nothing seems to happen the Holy Spirit is at work within us, without our knowing how. Knowing how to wait...being present, simply, with no ulterior motive. Kneeling down, recognising that God is present. Opening our hands in a gesture of welcome. Quieting down is already an expression of openness to God” (Letter from Taize 2010)The gift of silence and community in contemplation has been a personal gift of the Carmelite community to me during my time in Kiyinda. I started joining the sisters in praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the official daily prayer of the church for morning and evening prayer. It has been a practice which has provided strength and support throughout the good times and bad in many ways and reminded me that to be a Christian means to be in communion with your neighbour. It has also provided a rhythm to each day, or as it is described, hinges on which the day turns. Often you might not feel like joining in or maybe there are times when the words seem just like that, words. But as Kathleen Norris noted in "The Cloister Walk", there is a power to the daily recitation of the psalms which begins to imbue your very being, where the poetry of the psalms begins to resonate with you throughout the day. Even if the prayer you are saying has words which do not appeal to you that day, somewhere in the world, there is someone who needs that prayer.
Part 1 - Introduction
Part 3 - Suffering
Part 4 - Solidarity
Part 5 - Friendship and Goodbyes