More Resilience Wisdom from the Frontlines.

For the benefit of anyone who is just now dialing into Sunday Morning Café, for the last couple of months, we have been exploring the stories of front-line healthcare workers with an eye toward locating what has kept them resilient through this ordeal.  

This week, I wanted to return to the story of Virgilio and Elsie.  You might recall that they are a middle-aged, childless married couple who emigrated from the Philippines approximately twenty years ago.  They both work as nurses in large, prestigious metropolitan hospitals.  What brings me back to their story is that Elsie is the first of my frontline subjects to actually catch a life-threatening case of COVID from one of her patients.  For six weeks, her talented husband took FMLA to assist his wife in fighting for her life. 

Obviously, a thorough knowledge of best practices in pulmonary, and highly contagious viral illnesses was responsible for their physical resilience through the course of this odyssey.  In addition to that resilience resource, fifteen years of prioritizing their marriage provided a steely kind of grit for Elsie.  She never wavered from her decision to “fight this disease” because she didn’t want to abandon Virgilio.  He worked around the clock in large and small ways for her because “she is everything to me.”  

Spirituality as a Source of Resilience

Another source of resilience surfaced when I asked this couple about their spirituality.  “My Catholic faith is important to me,” Elsie said.  Being married to a Filipina myself, I was not surprised by that answer.  Except for the island of Mindanao, Catholicism is practically the national religion of the Philippines.  But having been raised Catholic, myself, I know that there are cultural Catholics who claim the label of this tradition, but not the contents.  Elsie and Virgilio are not cultural Catholics.  

“Praying the rosary twice a day comforted me.  I would pray it in the morning, and at night.”  For those unfamiliar with this practice, the rote prayers of the “Hail Mary,” and “Our Father,” are used as a kind of mantra while the imagination is freed from the normal stream of thoughts, worries, and spontaneous stories that churn in the mind.  Like mindfulness meditation, the mind and imagination are focused.  Unlike mindfulness practice, the mind and imagination are specifically focused upon moments of Christ’s life culled from the Bible.  The over-riding intention of this form of contemplative prayer is intimacy with God.  Stated another way, the purpose is to rest in God’s presence.  For a woman struggling for breath, and unable to sleep, this was a precious resilience resource indeed.

An affectionate smile broke over my face when Elsie said that her lonely and frightening six weeks, sealed in a bedroom, was made more bearable by playing church songs.  That comment transporting me into my deceased Filipino mother-in-law’s kitchen.  Elvie, would spend hours humming her choir’s songs while slowly, and methodically making chicken adobo, pancit, oxtails, and egg rolls.  In its own way, my mother-in-law’s cooking always seemed to me, a kind of contemplative prayer. Elsie’s comment about her use of church songs made me think of how she and my mother-in-law took tried and true recipes and ingredients from their Catholicism, and altered them into a very personalized spirituality for themselves.  

“On Sundays [of her six weeks in quarantine] Virgilio and I would watch Mass together.”  She, in her room, and he in the living room would cue up their parish’s Mass.  On their phones they would count down, and then press, “play” together.  Through the course of their lives, both separately, and together,their weeks would have been punctuated by this sacred ritual.  Clearly, making contact with the transcendent in this familiar way was important to the both of them.  I also wondered if living a whole life with the rhythm of this weekly Sabbath practice provided a kind of normalcy at a time when “normal” was pretty hard to come by.

One more spiritual/religious practice she mentioned involved her family from a distance of thousands of miles.  At three o’clock in the morning, her extended family from around the world engaged in a home-grown ascetical practice.  The belief behind this practice is that three-in-the-morning is the hour when suffering is at its peak.  Her family members would wakeup at this hour, or stay awake to explicitly pray for Elsie.  While gasping for her next breath, unable to sleep at this hour, the sense of being spiritually held like this provided her a sense of solidarity and ground under her feet.    

Having practiced psychotherapy for thirty years, I am not sure that anything can completely prepare a person for when life’s inevitable brutality comes knocking.  In some ways, the lessons learned through illness, accidents, or death are unique to the situation, and the person.  Having said that, Virgilio and Elsie’s story illustrates how a person can lay down a foundation one-layer-at-a-time, one-day-at-a-time, that can serve as a resiliencybulwark when flooded by life’s challenges.  Their Catholic spirituality, practiced since childhood, provided them rituals, well-worn mindfulness practices, solidarity, a sense of meaning, and Holy Presence.

A Resilience Question to Ponder

I understand the distinction and the reason for the distinction when someone shares that they are attracted to spirituality, but not religion.  The excesses of religion can trend toward superstition, tribalism, sectarianism, exclusivity, and anti-intellectualism.  Not for Virgilio and Elsie, their story pointed to a profound spirituality within their religious practice.  This couple’s story raises an important resilience question:  “Is there a way of re-appropriating your religious tradition, clinging to what is life-giving and transcendent, and leaving the rest aside?”  Having your week punctuated by a Sabbath practice to connect with a community, with the Sacred, and with the Sacred-in-the-Self has a way of providing both rest and ongoing direction.  Having sacred practices and a beloved community to fall into has a way of carrying you when you aren’t capable of walking on your own.  It can also provide a time-tested playbook that you can borrow from through life’s most wonderful, and difficult challenges.  Like my mother-in-law and Elsie, can you take the recipes from your own religious tradition, and tweak them to make them taste just right for you and your family?  

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