May 04, 2021

Pandemic Thoughts Raised to a Higher Level: Noel Keller rsm

I am an itinerant Scripture teacher who, often in the last several decades, led tour groups beyond the borders of the United States. Hopefully I helped them gain fresh or wider perspectives. Since March 2020, like millions of others, I am housebound. Indeed, in the last seven months, my car odometer advanced only 903 miles! The Pandemic is an experience I could never have imagined, and it has been difficult to adjust to. Although I am still employed, I’ve been shut out of my office; it’s located in one of our nursing homes whose doors are closed to all but essential workers. Moreover, my talks, tours, conferences, and retreats have all been cancelled. As a result, I am left with time on my hands and with a challenge to reconfigure myself. What to do?

Concomitantly, I belong to a group that is reconfiguring itself. This experience is not new for me: in my sixty years as a sister, the Mercy community has reconfigured itself four times. My entrance into this process began in Dallas, Pennsylvania in 1961, when I joined the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, Scranton Province. It was one of nine provinces across the United States with headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. By 1961, the Union’s membership was close to 7,000 sisters, 900 of whom were part of Scranton. From 1965 to the present there were many changes: Federation, Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas with approximately 7,100 sisters in twenty-five regional communities, merger of these communities into six ---and more recently---to one Institute group with 2,287 sisters headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In the ensuing years between 1961 and today, the world has become more complex and its needs have exacerbated. At the same time the number of sisters has dwindled significantly. Thanks be to God, the circle of Mercy has expanded: Mercy Associates, Companions, colleagues and co-workers bring their hearts, hands, and voices to the Mission of bringing God’s Tenderness to a world sorely in need of it.  As of February 2021, there are 3,137 Associates. What can we all do? Who can help us?  Insights from a painter and a poet point me toward an answer.

A sixteenth-century painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder called “The Census at Bethlehem” captures a slice of life in a very poor village in the dead of an incredibly harsh winter. He inserts a biblical story into the scene in order to teach his viewers a lesson.

The villagers are busy about many things, including the unhappy crowd to the left of the painting. They are pressing into the tax house to pay their taxes, which the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Habsburg dynasty, on the right side of the building signifies. King Philip II of Spain will use this money to wage war with France. Moreover, he is persecuting them religiously even as plague rages among them. A leper coming out of the thatched cottage holding a begging bowl and a clapper indicates this reality. These villagers are politically, religiously, economically, mentally and physically held captive. It is a pandemic on every level. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary enters the scene, but Bruegel’s villagers are so focused on what they are doing, no one sees them.

Might we be in the same situation today? The world seems to be imploding on every level as Covid-19 keeps people feeling frightened, isolated, and angry. “Where are you God,” they ask?  Bruegel responds to this question through his insertion: “God is actively present among you; just open your eyes and you will see.”  For strikingly, Mary’s face is the only fully formed face in his piece and one’s eye immediately goes to her. In fact, she is looking directly at the viewer. Through her, Bruegel invites his viewers to recognize the saving action of God in their midst, even in the direst of circumstances. This same wisdom is now offered to us.

An oft quoted line from the poet T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding is also helpful. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Taking Bruegel and Eliot’s wise counsel: “Open your eyes,” “God is near,” and “Know the place,” I go back to that one place and Identity that has never changed in the last sixty years, despite the other changes swirling around me. I am a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth and a daughter of Catherine McAuley of Dublin. As we all are. What might we learn from them? First, I will examine what it means to be a disciple. Then, I will suggest two insights that Mark’s Jesus and our Catherine might offer us: for theirs is a wisdom that can get us out of a pandemic atmosphere way of thinking and into a space that is alive and thrivin


In the ancient world, students would seek out a master-teacher and present themselves to him. Their acceptance was conditioned on the master’s approval. Students would stay and “be with” the master for a time; and when they were sufficiently taught, they would leave to become masters themselves. This is not true in the Jesus school. First, Jesus is the one who calls disciples, and they are given the freedom to respond to him. Secondly, as the root meaning of the Greek word ‘mathetes’ suggests, they will always be learners. There is never a graduation. Furthermore, the Greek verb ‘akouotheo’ mandates how disciples are to comport themselves. It is issued in the present continuous tense and means they will continually “follow after” the master-teacher Jesus, who is always in the lead, and from whom they will continually learn. It is an “on the way” type of existence that lasts a lifetime.

Jesus according to Mark 

I come from a generation whose mother received a pink Baby Book as a gift when I was born. It was meant to be filled in and it charted my development from the start. As a child I delighted in reading what I first said, when I got my first tooth, when I began to walk, etc. Later, I brought the insight of the importance of “first words” into my Scripture studies: what Jesus says first in each Gospel waves over the rest of each writer’s text. I imagine the four writers as Pastors, who took the information their listeners already knew and reconfigured it into a depiction of Jesus that, hopefully, would renew their faltering faith and reenergize their commitment.

Mark’s gospel is the first one. His community is being persecuted. Some members were so frightened they jumped ship.  Indeed, his work is often referred to as “Good News for Hard Times.  Like Bruegel, Mark tells them to “Open their eyes” and see the person they are following. He even shows them how to move from partial sight to clearness of vision in his central section [8:22-10:52].  It is the suffering Christ you are following after and he is carrying a cross.  Mark signals his theme through the words he has Jesus begin with: “Now after John was handed over, Jesus came into Galilee, continually proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, The Kairos time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; Keep on repenting and believing in the gospel.’” (Mk 1:14f). He also places Jesus’ demands in the imperative mood, and yokes Jesus’ words in the context of another term he will use throughout his work--- paradidomi/ handed over. Unfortunately, this word has been translated as “arrested” in most bibles, and in so doing loses its impact.  From the start, Mark’s listeners are told that discipleship comes at a cost: what happened to John, happens to Jesus, and it will happen to them.  As Mark’s Jesus says in 8:34: “If a person wishes to come after me, that person must deny his very self, take up his cross and follow in my steps.”  

Mark immediately follows Jesus’ words with a Call Story. It is the first of three call stories which he intersperses into his narrative [cf. 1:16-20; 3:13-19; 6:6b-13] and which chart what being with Jesus and doing the things of Jesus mean. In short, being with Jesus is being with others. It is a communal effort. Disciples are also presented by Mark as fallible followers who often fail [14:50], and who need to be forgiven and set on their feet to begin again. It is what meeting Jesus in Galilee after the crucifixion is all about [16:7]!

How does this all translate for us today during this pandemic time? The virus and its implications are our cross today: it is a persecution of sorts.  As Jesus’ disciples, we need to transcend our own sadnesses and reach out and be light to others, for mourning is at an all-time level: mourning for the loss of friends, the loss of jobs, the loss of freedom and a normal life as we knew it. People sit behind closed doors in retirement homes, alone and feeling claustrophobic, yearning to share a conversation or a touch.  Children miss the ordinariness of going to school and being with their friends, while grandparents have new grandkids they have yet to see or be seen by. Students have missed seminal events such as graduation ceremonies and proms, and holidays and sports events have been stripped of their festive communal nature. Moreover, while people got sick and had to be hospitalized, no family members could visit them or hold their hand; and if they died, their lives were remembered at a distance. Life in a bubble is grey! The stories are heartbreaking.  Mark’s Jesus calls us to a discipleship that sees beyond our own losses to a faith in action.

Image: Marie Henderson rsm

Catherine McAuley of Dublin

Among my favorite letters of Catherine McAuley is the one she wrote to Sister M. deSales White on December 20, 1840.  A line from this letter contains one of her most quoted maxims. Deep as it is, it is even richer when it is put back in context: Sister de Sales, a decidedly Irish woman, was lent with another Sister to the Bermondsey Community in ENGLAND! It was a “denying of her very self’ and it was to last a year. Now more than fourteen months later, and right before Christmas, de Sales receives word that her return home will be delayed. Pastorally, Catherine reaches out to de Sales through the medium of a metaphor she knew de Sales would understand, as she, like Catherine, loved dancing! Catherine writes in part:

My Dearest Sister M. de Sales I think sometimes our passage through this dear sweet world is something like the Dance called ‘right and left.’ You and I have crossed over, changed places, etc., etc. – your set is finished – for a little time you’ll dance no more – but I have now to go through the figure – called Sir Roger de Coverly – too old for your memory. I’ll have to curtsie and bow, in Birr – presently, to change corners – going from the one I am in at present to another, take hands of every one who does me the honor – and end the figure by coming back to my own place. I’ll then have a Sea Saw dance to Liverpool – and a Merry Jig that has no stop to Birmingham – and, I hope, a second – to Bermondsey – when you, Sister M. Xavier and I will join hands – and dance the ‘Duval’ Trio, back on the same ground. We have one solid comfort amidst this little tripping about: our hearts can always be in the same place, centered in God – for whom alone we go forward – able to do anything He wishes us to do – no matter how difficult to accomplish – or painful to our feelings….

God, Catherine says, is our dancing partner, as we trip about. God is near, as Bruegel also said to his viewers; and with God we can do anything, no matter how difficult it is to accomplish.  It is a letter I am sure Catherine would write to us today. 

Learnings: What can we do? Who can help us?

Jesus says: “Keep on repenting, that is, reconfiguring your mindset. And keep on believing, that is, practicing a whole-hearted commitment to the Good News of God in the gospel (Mk 1:14f).” As such, you will be a sign to others of God’s working among them, as others will be a sign of God’s working within you.  But first, to paraphrase Catherine, we must all learn to dance in the rain!

Messages to: Noel Keller rsm

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