Felician sisters maintain strict social-distancing rules during eucharistic adoration at the order's convent in Livonia, Mich., June 10, 2020. (CNS photo/Dan Stockman, Global Sisters Report)

At a convent in Livonia, Michigan, 13 Felician sisters lost their lives to Covid-19 in 2020. Several others fought battles with the virus before recovering, but life at the convent has changed significantly in the wake of their losses. Two sisters reflected for America on the experiences of faith and grace they have found in the midst of a profoundly challenging time for their community.

Looking at my shoes and seeing glimmers of faith

By Mary Andrew Budinski

I remember sitting in my room, looking at the tips of my well-worn but shined black shoes. A faint reflection was there, just a small glimmer of light. My head hung down, and my shoulders bent under the weight of the virus. I had contracted it myself and was now watching others in my community suffer. It had me in a desperate position.

I am a woman of faith, but that faith had been tested, tried by fire. In my room that day, I began to talk to God: “Where are you in this pandemic?” God’s reply: Where I said I would be; “I am always with you.”

Covid-19 has had our religious community in its grips for almost a year now.

At times it has been difficult to feel this assurance. Covid-19 has had our religious community in its grips for almost a year now. We began in March of last year to take precautions against the virus, but its invasion was fast and furious.

I remember the first informational gathering of the sisters and nursing staff in our dining room. Along with other helpful information, one of the nurses sang “Happy Birthday” to demonstrate the length of time people should spend washing their hands. Soon after that lighthearted presentation, we were all quarantined to our rooms. Then, isolation was needed because sisters had contracted the virus. Between April 10 to May 10, twelve sisters died from the virus. Those who died ranged in age from late 60s to late 90s, and many were severely compromised by other health issues and the burden of age. Even with their limitations, however, each had a unique contribution to make and was an inspiration to us all while she lived. They are all now sorely missed.

Several other sisters between the ages of 70 and 99 contracted the virus and ultimately recovered after home care or hospitalization. We have been reshaping our religious life ever since.

My faith inspires me to raise my sights from the ordinary to the spiritual.

Like many of our brothers and sisters in the world around us, we have suffered losses of life, health, employment, freedom and security. Throughout this time, those words of comfort that came to me in my room that day have confirmed for me that it would be faith—a mystical one, not a magical one—that would carry me through this ordeal. By mystical, I mean that my faith inspires me to raise my sights from the ordinary to the spiritual.

Think about how you feel when you see a stunning sunrise or sunset. Its beauty can inspire us to think about the divine, and often to say, “How could you look at this and not believe in God?” So our thoughts are lifted from the natural to the spiritual.

But that beauty can at times be hard to find, and faith needs to be practiced. Still, every area of our life presents opportunities to do so. Sometimes faith is very comforting, like when we are all singing together in community. Most of the time, I think it is something we hang on to for dear life. It grounds us in our belief that the victory has already been won and that no reversal, loss or evil will take that from us. The pandemic has been an arena for us to hone that virtue, to lift our sights from the mundane—even the tragic—to the spiritual. We continue to practice.

It is natural for us to long to feel God’s presence, especially when God seems absent. However, when we look back on any struggle, and especially the relentless grip of the pandemic, we know that hindsight is better than foresight. In retrospect, faith helps us to identify and acknowledge the many ways God was with us in the midst of our struggle. Our sights were lifted from the mire of our suffering to the mystery of God’s presence.

I am convinced that God’s reward is given repeatedly every time we make an act of faith, because we become more aware that God is in our midst.

Gratitude floods the soul at the realization of the countless acts of love, concern and sacrifice we received from our caregivers and essential staff. When our community’s vulnerability became public, our brothers and sisters from our state, country and even the world extended their embrace through prayer, presence and even packages. Inspiring letters and cards of support came to us daily. We were overwhelmed by God’s loving presence in all these gestures. For me, it was no longer a faint reflection in my shoes that turned my thoughts to faith. It was the merciful presence of God that I saw clearly in the concrete outpouring of goodness—from friends and strangers alike—that touched our lives.

St. Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do see; the reward is to see what you believe.” I used to think of the reward being given in heaven, but now I am convinced that the reward is given repeatedly every time we make an act of faith, because we become more aware that God is in our midst. Just as Jesus promised, he is with us always.

I thought I was ready to die when I was sick and suffering, but now I accept God wasn’t ready for me.

-----

A particularly personal Holy Week

By Mary Ann Smith

When Holy Week arrived in 2020, it seemed like a good time to slow down, rest and pray in preparation for the resurrection. This is how I entered the quarantine, not knowing that I would enter into the meditation of Holy Week in a very personal way as I found myself suffering from Covid-19. I became exhausted and sick, and the announcement that another sister died only made me feel worse. I kept asking God why this was happening.

As night arrived and I lay there in pain, I recited the act of contrition over and over, wondering if I would be next. When morning came, I could not tell if I was happy I was alive or angry at still being alive. I kept asking the Lord why I was still here and why God took the others. The simple insight that my prayer and questioning brought me was that their work was complete and mine was not. I wasn’t sure what still needed to be done, but I decided that I would make each day a special day, appreciating the little things and responding to all the surprises the Lord had for me each day. I promised myself that I would live each day as fully as possible because I now knew first hand what a gift each day was for me.

I still have mixed feelings about the loss of so many of my sisters. I still struggle to make sense of why this happened to us, to me. I will never understand why, but I can accept and truly appreciate every day the Lord gives me. I thought I was ready to die when I was sick and suffering, but now I accept God wasn’t ready for me. He had work for me to do. Now I approach each day as a new opportunity to carry out the will of the Lord.

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