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Sister Jennifer on the ‘life changing experience’ that is isolation

Sister Jennifer, a Gibraltarian enclosed Discalced Carmelite nun living in Ronda, and has spent many years leading a secluded monastic life. She has shared with the Chronicle advice on what people should do during this isolation period. She encourages people not to waste their time and think of others.

By Sister Jennifer
Hello, my name is Sr. Jennifer of the heart of Jesus. In Gibraltar you might know me by my family name: Jennifer Gomila. I am an enclosed (contemplative) Discalced Carmelite nun.

That would be in a nutshell that I live within a monastery behind grills (bars) dedicated to prayer and sacrifice for the world, and only on exceptions do I leave my monastery to deal with official papers and the like.

So as a news media reporter from Málaga said: we contemplative nuns know what it means to be “housebound”. I have been living in the monastery for nearly 35 years.

I have been asked to share with you how we are dealing with Coronavirus in our Convent, and what message I would like to share with the people of Gibraltar who are at home in self-isolation?

First, I want to congratulate you all on the many initiatives that you are taking to keep the spread of the virus under control. It’s going to be tough but not impossible. Also “chapeau” (hats off, in my case it would have to be my headdress) to the many volunteers that have signed on to help all those housebound, especially the elderly with errands etc.

To doctors, nurses, administrators, ambulance driver and everyone in the healthcare services and those who are still working to help us all get through this trying time with as much facilities as can be.

How are we living this time of epidemic?
Well not much to say there. Apart from the usual hygiene of washing hands and turnstile with its bell knob, that is touched by those who come to buy cakes etc., being an enclosed convent, we are doing quite well.

We do have contact with the “outside world” through the turnstile and the groceries etc. that are brought to us. But they leave it at the door because they say they are not allowed to enter for our own safety.

So far, we have been kept safe, but being realistic I believe in the long run it will also come in, and we shall have to “brave” the virus like everyone else.

Quite frankly it is not something that makes me anxious.

Convent and community life keeps one so busy that we just take a moment at a time.

Without the virus threat continuously upon us, convent life is quite a challenge in itself, and from having your day running smoothly one minute the next you can find yourself rushing a sister to the hospital for any number of issues, a critical low sugar content in a diabetic or a lack of oxygen in blood in one of the elderly etc.

So why stress ourselves unnecessarily with what might happen when we are already being kept on our toes, continuously, with things that become very critical in seconds.

Each day brings its own cares and worries, and we must take care of one day at a time. As a Christian I am a firm believer that “everything works for the good for those who love God”, as St Paul says in his letter to the Romans 8:28.

Or as I think it was Socrates who said: “for those with a goal in life all winds (even the adverse) are favourable”. And so, I am convinced that a lot of good, will come out of this critical time that we are living. But it will depend on how we live this moment of growth.

In general terms for too long we have had it too good, especially in Gibraltar. The terrible hunger, war zones, economic crisis like Venezuela and the like were things too far off to really make us lose sleep over it.

There is nothing wrong in living a good life but when you look out to the whole picture of this world, somehow, to me at least, I felt that it was so unrealistic. I have always told those groups of people who have come to see me, that we were far too well in Gibraltar and I was worried that one day it would all collapse, and I wondered if we (Gib) would know how to deal with it.

One thing is to live each day at a time and another is to grab everything you can for one day not wanting to think on what might await you the next.

The choices we make have consequences and responsibilities. And now it has arrived. And whom are we going to blame? This is not a war between countries where we can take sides and opinion on who is right and who is wrong. This is no frontier queue where you can thrush your anger and shout to your hearts content: “how unfair they are being to us”.

This virus knows nothing of cultures, nationality. Of rich or poor. Of powerful persons or powerless ones. It hits out indiscriminately and for once we have no one to blame.

So maybe we are now in the best position where we can STOP looking at our belly button and see us as a real part of this whole human family who live on earth.

What message would I give to those of you who are at home in self- isolation, although by the time you get to read this, most of you, will be made to stay at home?
First and foremost, I would like you to see this self-isolation, or homebound period, not as a punishment, or some authoritarian imposition by the law. The long and short of it is that, your self-isolation, is the work of love.

The reason that, first the elderly, are confined to home was because society, are concerned for your well-being, so that you will not be infected. Now both elderly, and not so elderly, are being confined for the same simple reason: your safety.

Now you too, are suffering the pain, of separation. Not being able to see your children, or your grandchildren, so as not to jeopardize their health. Is it not because you love them, that you are willing to go through this and pray all will be well and over sooner than later?

Love is painful, and passionate, but true love is also extremely detached.

When a mother loves her children passionately, she worries about every headache her child has, and every slight fever and yet she has to fight her desire to keep her child always by her side, if her love is to be true, and teach them to be able to stand on their own two feet. Teach them to fight their own battle. Take responsibilities for their choices in life and help them to grow wings and fly from the home’s nest, regardless of her own desires to keep on treating him/her as their little child. It’s called true love.

I am sure you are also noticing how much humor is circulating around due to this epidemic and being housebound. And for a few minutes we forget the separation, the pain, the fear and we laugh. Only man can laugh and cry at the same time.

It takes challenging circumstances like the ones we are living, for the human being to bring out all its creativity to make the most of a terrifying time for many, depressing for others and very stressful for the majority.

It is also a blessed time when people are forgetting their wellbeing and giving themselves to others. Making themselves useful. For a society that mostly just thinks of their own well-being and their fun, this is bringing out the best of the human soul.

Also, I would like to tell you, what I tell those who are considering retiring: make sure you have a plan B, and C. Take this time as a long-awaited time to do all those many things you always wanted to and never had time to do, because you were always working.

Yes: take that time to see a good film, read a good book, pray.

But permit me to say something. Please do not waste this precious time that you have been given.

I do not believe it is a time to just laze on the sofa and see one series of Netflix after another. Or sleep in till midday with just no motivation.

Neither can you spend all day on the phone answering hundreds of WhatsApp messages all day long. What a waste!
You have to organize your day! And make a list of priorities! This self- isolation is going to end, but what are you going to take out of it when it’s over? This should be a life changing experience.

Take time to put off the TV. To put off that mobile. And try spending some time each day in silence with yourself, if you live alone. Or time alone with your spouse or partner, and children. For once let’s be able to see the face and eyes of our loved ones and not just the top of their heads as they bend over their iPad or mobiles. What a blessed miracle if the flats could ring with the voice and laughter of its inhabitants and not just the background music of the television.

Last, I’d like to say that this is a time to count your blessings.

Some years ago, a friend, receiving treatment in U.K. shared something that had made him really think. One day he found a pamphlet that had been pushed under the door of the flat he was in.

In it he found the following: “If you are reading this pamphlet that has been pushed under your door, then you are one of the few lucky ones who has a door of a home because millions of people in the world have no roof over their heads”. The pamphlet continued on those lines, enumerating the many things he was one of the lucky ones compared to the millions without the things it was enumerating. It really hit him home.

I too think we could sit down, maybe with a biro in hand and a notebook: look slowly around you and write the many things you have and because of it you are one of the few lucky ones compared to the millions who do not have it. An example would be:

1) If you are homebound, you are one of the lucky ones because you have a home to be homebound to, whilst millions do not.
2) If you are sitting watching a film...having a nice warm coffee etc....you are one of the lucky ones...
3) If not being able to go out you can still talk to your loved ones, via telephone, or even see them through WhatsApp or Skype, you are definitely one of the lucky ones, because million of people in all countries are not only housebound but die of loneliness and unloved having no one to call them every day and show them they are loved.

If each of us tries to do that on a daily basis maybe you will start to smile, counting your many blessings, and not feel so isolated knowing that you are truly blessed and lucky for the many things you have and maybe have taken for granted for so many years.

Well my friends forgive the long write-up, and Know yourselves daily lifted in my prayers, to the Lord who in His mercy showed me His unfailing love. And gave me the freedom to live, this life, with the abundant joy of one who knows that the sails, of her tiny and fragile boat, are set on the goal that nothing on earth can destroy or hinder. Which is the fulness of God himself.