By Sister Victoria Incrivaglia

Recently, I went to Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood, Missouri, to walk on one of their nature trails. The leaves have been changing, and I wanted to see and photograph the colors on display. The autumn season brings a striking reminder of the changes within life and reminds us that we are close to Thanksgiving, a time when we gather to share and give thanks. In framing the images that I hoped to include in my photos, I saw more than I expected. Those realities paused me to stop and reflect on life during the last 18 months of COVID-19 shutdowns and quarantine in light of the approaching holiday.

This process of reflecting upon the images heightens both awareness and imagination. There is a stillness that extends an invitation to enter into sacred silence. In the first photo, we are surrounded by the mysteries of changes in color, beauty and life itself. Environmental factors and the weather play a part in the changes in the leaves; trees’ fall color is a side effect of going dormant—the process of shutting down temporarily to conserve resources during the cold winter.  I have learned that a tree under stress will start going dormant sooner than the expected dates for autumn. 

This approaching Thanksgiving holiday will be met with new meanings of gratitude. The many months of the shutdown during the pandemic brought financial, emotional and spiritual stress for all of us. The season of autumn teaches us that we are waiting. Autumn is rich with metaphors:  shorter days, prevalence of darkness, trees letting go of their leaves with the promise of new life. As Sisters of Mercy, we strive to balance our doing with being. 

I asked some community members to reflect on their experiences of COVID-19, especially those who had to go into quarantine and isolation. One individual shared how she needed to regain her grounding. There had been a feeling as if a curtain had been lowered, and she had no idea of when it would be raised or how long all of us would be in the dark. In time, she found her prayer and reflective moments to become more real and intense. She described how this type of quiet and solitude seemed to wrap the Earth with a giant blanket of peace and stillness.

A member of the Visitation Community, who resides at Catherine’s Residence, the retirement center in St. Louis Missouri, described the isolation as similar to the first 15 years of being in her cloistered monastery, prior to changes within their Community; it felt to her like a long silent retreat. When she tested positive for COVID, she experienced feelings of fear about what could happen. The healing brought relief and gratitude.

Other members of Catherine’s Residence described the experience as constricting, lonely, being in solitary confinement, challenging. Meals arrived with a human carrier, there were extended hand waves to neighbors across the hall and the ongoing change of seasons witnessed through the windows. The time also presented a deeper side for reflection: Who am I? What do I believe?  Prayer became that of an anchoress. 

These realities of having a home, being well-fed and cared for during the pandemic, brought insights, and the experience emphasized our privileged status. The return to routine of gathering for Liturgy, prayers, meals and socials deepened the gratitude of belonging to the Community of Mercy.

The movement through COVID-19 demonstrated the resilience of our members. In the absence of noise, movement and chaos, silence manifests the voice of God who calls to us each day.

Robert Sardello, in his book Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness, writes:

Silence bears the wholeness we keep looking for while we do not know exactly what we are looking for. It is around us and within us. It goes to the deepest depths of the soul and to the outermost reaches of the cosmos and continually unites the two at the centering place of our heart. Here we discover the power of re-creation.

As we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, we remember that trees have become dormant, there has been a global struggle to survive through the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are all part of this life-changing journey. We come to understand more deeply how God is present in the noise and in the silence of our being.

Photos by Sister Victoria Incrivaglia