The coronavirus pandemic has changed countless people’s lives. Many thousands have sadly lost those (earthly) lives and a lot of that change will be permanent, as loved ones adjust to a ‘new normal’ in a time of profound grief.
In fact, even our usual ways of mourning have changed: Requiem Masses are offered (for now) in private, and many families are confined in isolation, resigned to viewing the burial of their loved one via an internet connection.
It is staggering to think that, just a few short weeks ago, all of this would have seemed like the wildest fantasy. For me, as I write this, what is staggering is to consider how just a few short days ago I was living the regular life of St. Saviour’s priory with the rest of my Dominican brethren, studying from home and continuing our daily prayer for the world.
However, things sometimes quickly change. As the local epidemic began to gather pace and fears over hospital spaces and ventilators grew, the UK government gave the General Medical Council the extraordinary power to renew licenses to practise for all doctors who had retired within three years. Emails were subsequently sent, and survey responses were completed, indicating what level of patient interaction the respondents would be willing to undertake.
When my survey arrived, I felt a mix of reactions. Is this real? Could this actually happen? What state is my clinical acumen? Does my stethoscope even work? I had been slow to believe that any call would come: I’m three years out; I didn’t have extensive experience to begin with; besides, I’m a religious now, and this all seems a little over the top. As the days passed after the survey, I convinced myself that that call would not come. But, come it did.
I studied at Queen’s from 2007 until 2013, and during that entire span (and subsequently during time at St Malachy’s Seminary), the Chaplaincy was my home from home: not only spiritually but also physically, given the amount of time I used to spend there!
Here it was, before the Lord, fed by His sacraments and surrounded by good Catholic friends, that my spiritual life really began to develop, and inchoate thoughts about vocation progressed. Here it was that I really ‘met’ the Lord, encountering Him slowly, gradually, in the life of prayer and the (very imperfect) practice of the virtues. How amazing then is the Lord’s design that, several years later, He has placed me back in my spiritual nursery to endure the days of the lockdown away from my religious community, while I help out in the hospital.
By the time I was approaching graduation and the ensuing entry onto the wards as the most junior of doctors, my mind was more or less made up that the Lord was calling me to serve Him as a priest. I resolved to complete my two years of foundation training, and then to begin priestly formation.
The medical training was not easy: hours are long, most shifts yield little by way of observable reward, and maintenance of a life of regular prayer is barely possible. Driving me through this time, however, was an inner conviction that my future was set. There was no uncertainty in applying for specialty training programmes, I had made up my mind and had faith that the Lord would look after it. And so He did. It gave me immense peace which, though not now as palpably intense, has never really wavered. It is not to claim that my vocation has not been tested- it certainly has- but I have never lost the deep sense that I was born to be a priest; a very real gift from the Lord Himself. Therefore, I am certain that this return to medical work will be only temporary, given the current extraordinary circumstances.
I was made to feel very welcome upon my return, and there was undoubtedly some sense of excitement at the novelty, the camaraderie with colleagues, and the affirmation that comes from engaging in some tangible action to contribute towards assuaging, in however small a way, the present crisis . I have been very fortunate, and I am therefore very grateful.
I am sure this would not have been possible though, without the pledge from my brother Dominicans to support me spiritually every day in their prayers, often in time added upon their usual obligations. I have no doubt that I have benefited from the superabundance of grace which those prayers have implored from the Lord for my sake. Not only in times of emergency but at all times, the world is upheld by the prayer of the religious consecrated to God. This is one of the main aspects of the religious life which drew me at first, and it continues to do so at this time.
I have been very happy then to have had the chance to help in some minute fashion- many others would have been glad for such a concrete opportunity. I have never ceased to believe in the very real power of prayer however. It is easy to think oneself heroic when donning stethoscope and scrubs and, especially, when speaking in front of TV cameras. The real heroism of Christianity though, is hidden in the life of quiet sacrifice, in prayer and unheralded acts of charity to grow in love of the Lord by the help of His grace.
During such times, I am certain that very real heroism indeed is to be found in those who continued their Christian lives unnoticed, without access to the Sacraments but with unyielding faith and hope in God, our final reward. The giving of one’s life completely to Him (in whatever vocation) is the only path to true peace, lasting joy, and authentic fulfilment. Christ did not promise us a life free from trials, but that we would have that life abundantly both here and, ultimately, in eternity. It is that promise- the ‘already and the not yet’- which must sustain the religious and all Christians generally.
So I look forward to returning to living that religious life in community with my brothers: daily prayer, study and the common life is the natural (and supernatural) habitat of the Dominican, who is sent forth to preach the truth of Christ and His Church for the salvation of souls. That is the life I am called to; it is where I feel at home, I am sure of it. I am content then, that this spell will be temporary. I was consoled recently when, out for a run, I passed one of the many posters thanking the NHS. It featured what I thought was a pertinent tagline, based on a saying by St. Teresa of Avila: ‘remember that this too will pass’. And it will.