InsightOut: Keeping My Hand to the Plough

Mary Ellen Sheehan, IHM, STD, earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and is a Professor Emerita of Theology at St. Michaels College of the Toronto School of Theology. Currently, she offers lectures, workshops, and retreats that relate theology to a range of questions emerging in our current cultural context. She draws on the contemplative character of theology to deepen our experience and understanding of God and to explore the meaning of committed Christian discipleship in our world today.

Keeping My Hand to the Plough

An oxbow river winding through a forest in Michigan

With committed colleagues and always stimulating students, I enjoyed 35 years of blessed ministry at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. There is simply nothing like the ecumenical and interfaith exchange at the Toronto School of Theology, where all involved learn so much from each other through theologically informed, respectful dialogue. In 2013, at the age of 75, I left Toronto and moved to Windsor. There, as my Irish-born father used to put it, I kept “my hand to the plough” by offering reflection days, workshops, and retreats on theology and cultural issues in several countries. I also became active in local Interfaith Centres, learning always and contributing, too, to these dialogues. Ah, the beauty of that endless curiosity I was born with!

In December of 2019, I made perhaps the biggest move of all: crossing the border to take up residence in Monroe, Michigan, where our IHM Senior Living Community is located. I received a warm welcome from our many IHM Sisters who live here, several of whom are my longtime friends. At the same time, I found myself engaged in considerable adjusting, recognizing through a few new aches and pains and through some energy and stamina diminishment that I am “aging” a bit! As well, I am still reckoning with the fact that I can no longer be in those stimulating classrooms at TST! However, being healthy and in the Independent Living part of our Centre, I still enjoyed my trips with friends to libraries and to the Detroit Art Museum and Symphony Hall.

But little did I know that by March 2020 everyone on our planet Earth would be adjusting! The border closed, so no annual spring and fall trips for me to Toronto to renew my friendships with colleagues and former students and to experience the rapid changes occurring in the city. In fact, I could not even go to Windsor to enjoy friends there. And increasingly, with new State health regulations, my freedom to go off our Monroe campus has been curtailed. New challenges indeed—COVID consequences—from which not even a bizarre USA Presidential Election process could distract me.

My first inclination was to go into a contemplative Celtic Anchoress state with my room as my hermitage. But that didn’t last too long! While I am sure that those Anchoresses had their informal ways to keep up with the village happenings, they did not have computers and mobile phones with global reaching apps and email! But me? I have those things and so I have figured out how to use them to contribute to the mission of our active IHM Religious Congregation, committed as we are to “the liberating mission of Jesus Christ” through preaching, teaching, and healing.

Through email, FB, Zoom, and WhatsApp, I have been able to communicate with family, friends, colleagues, and former students all over the world. We share our joys and sorrows together and thus keep the strength of Christian community—the Body of Christ, the people of God – alive and well in loving support for each other. After all, Jesus didn’t put any conditions on his claim: “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am in their midst.” We have supported each other in some family tragedies that have occurred, and while we have not been able to gather for funerals and weddings and graduations, we have not been COVID-defeated. For sure, there is no replacement for a personal hug or a good cry together, but technology has kept us connected.

Here in our IHM Senior Living Community we have Sisters who suffer from physical diminishment. But how they are contemplatively connected to our loving God! So, I go to them to ask them to pray with me for people I know in need of strength and consolation from COVID challenges. Several of the Sisters write down first names and put them next to their Living in Christ liturgical readings booklet and pray each day for them. We also have a practice of writing names on a board outside our Chapel so that they are brought into common prayer time, with all the proper COVID protections in place.

Personally speaking, I have preached at our Liturgy of the Word services, a practice that brings me so deeply into the ever-creating Word of God, a Word that helps us all to remember how life emerges from suffering when there is community. I have also kept current with challenging articles and books on colonialism, white privilege, racism, local LGBTQI church injustices, and other acts of social and economic exclusion. I have also participated in stimulating and personally challenging Zoom sessions on some of these topics. I share these resources with others and we have follow-up “techy” conversations that always lead to prayerful reflection and compassionate action.

And always, I have my classical music playing, and of course, too, at times the haunting renditions of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen and K. D. Lang.  At times, too, I put on a CD of poignant lamenting Irish songs. Always in reach is the current biography I am reading and poetry books. Prayer and the arts nurture appreciation. I experience in them beauty aborning from pain, hope arising from tragedy. In a sense, we can all produce something out of nothing when we share our God-given gifts with each other. Our loving God is always creating, healing, and transforming us, leading us to hope even as we struggle with COVID consequences.