A monastic choir, the saying goes, is never more itself than when it is alone. For my community of apostolic Dominican sisters, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly proved this to be the case. Thrown into enforced monasticism by national lockdown, our busy religious life has been pared down to its essentials of common prayer and sisterly community – a change which has proved both a purification and an opportunity.
I live in a convent of 13 sisters in the New Forest. We pray the Divine Office of the Church together five times a day, beginning with the Office of Readings at 7am and ending with Night Prayer at 8.45pm; in between those times, we preach the truths of the Faith to children, teenagers, catechists, catechumens, and anybody who wants to chat on the train. When I first visited the convent as a teenager, I thought to myself: “This is all very nice, but I wonder what they do all day.” I stopped wondering that within my first 24 hours as a postulant.
Long before the pandemic hit, geography alone meant we were not unfamiliar with social isolation. Our chapel is beautiful but, for a Dominican house of prayer, uncharacteristically rural; we are 40 minutes’ drive from our nearest cities, not a huge distance but expensive enough when divine providence is paying for the petrol. The issue of keeping up our Dominican presence of prayer and evangelisation throughout our diocese, given the problems of physical distance, had been on the community’s mind for several years.
Our answer to the challenge took two main forms. Three years ago, we signed up to a free “webinar” platform and began offering weekly, hour-long interactive reflections on the coming Sunday’s Gospel. Then last year we installed a camera in our chapel which livestreams our liturgy on Church Services TV. In this way we could offer, to paraphrase a Dominican motto, both our contemplation and the fruits of our contemplation to the public beyond the New Forest. On average, the webinar attracted 20 attendees; livestreamed Mass and Divine Office had a digital congregation of 50.
Then came the pandemic. As one retreat or parish event after another was cancelled, we began offering more and more of our preaching and catechesis online: a daily lectio divina webinar as well as the weekly Bible study, plus YouTube videos on making spiritual communion and the meaning of the Paschal liturgy. We continued to livestream our liturgy, adding devotions such as the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Those years of finding ways to reach out to people at the far end of our diocese were very much starting to pay off now that we couldn’t even visit our next-door neighbours.
The response to our online apostolate has been heartening, but it has become clear that the greatest service our community offers at this time is our livestreamed liturgy. Before the pandemic, we would every so often receive an email from somebody saying they enjoyed watching Mass; we received probably an equal number of emails from our respective parents asking why one sister or another was missing from Morning Prayer or sneezing during Rosary. Now we are receiving emails of gratitude and prayer requests several times a day.
This is not surprising, of course. Why shouldn’t the prayer that has transformed and renewed each one of us within the religious life also have the same effect on those outside of it? The liturgy we pray in common, offered together to the God who has adopted us as his daughters in Christ, is one of the most powerful and profound earthly signs we have of the communion we are all made for. Human beings are hardwired for communion, both with God and with each other, and as Dominican preachers we know that there is no better or more efficacious way of getting this or any other message across than simply stepping aside and letting Christ do the talking: through the Scriptures, through the liturgy of His Church, through the small signs of sisterly love which show forth His image and likeness.
For us sisters, the pandemic has challenged us to find inventive ways to preach the Gospel at a time when its message of hope is desperately needed. But it has also served, within the mysterious designs of providence, to remind us who we are and what we are for. It is not a meaningless coincidence that even as everyday life has changed almost beyond recognition, the only thing that has remained unaltered in our lives is our celebration of the Divine Office to which we have bound ourselves by our religious consecration: our common praise, offered for the good of the whole Church, of the God who is God yesterday, today and forever, pandemic or no pandemic.
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