In lockdown with my bachelor brother

Fr Alo Connaughton writes about spending time in lockdown with his bachelor brother, Brendan, who lives on a small farm in his 'old' home in Ballinacree, Ireland. Fr Alo said that he had often spent spells with Brendan in the past, but now, full-time residence called for a bit of adaptation.

Fr Alo Connaughton back home on the farm. Photo: Fr Alo Connaughton SSC

Fr Alo Connaughton back home on the farm. Photo: Fr Alo Connaughton SSC 

An invitation from an editor to write something on 'lockdown at home' reached me the same day I came across a quotation of Carl Jung about the necessity of constantly doing some reflection on where our lives are going.

Physically, I am not going anywhere at the moment. I spent the early lockdown months in Bangkok. At the start, a memory flashed back - an article from about 2014 in the Bangkok Post entitled: “A Pandemic: Not if but when?” written by an official of the World Health Organisation. No harm to remind people of the remote possibility, I thought.

During those months college work continued and there was a bit more time to do some reading outside the box. After a gap of 50 years, I realised how much I had forgotten, or never noticed in The Plague by Albert Camus. The second time around I could appreciate the predicament of the famous preacher, Fr Panneloux, as he lost his early certainty and struggled to find something relevant to say in sermons in a time of plague.

Back in Ireland in August, I had planned to divide my time between St Columban’s, Dalgan, for some academic work and home for a more hands-on side of things. Eventually, I had to decide on one or the other.

A bachelor brother, Brendan, who lives on a small farm in my 'old' home in Ballinacree, made it clear to me that he would welcome company for the lockdown time ahead.
I have often spent spells with him in the past but now,
full-time residence called for a bit of adaptation. Tastes in TV programmes, music or the best way to make a cake do not always coincide. A minor difference is that for him going to bed early means before midnight. Bangkok rising is 5.30 am but for me, Ballinacree rising was adjusted to 7.30 am. I see that changes are needed on my part if I am to offer real companionship to him.

It took me a while to come to terms with how much of any day is taken up with cooking, washing up, house cleaning, etc. even though we share the work. A plus is that my range of menus has increased a good bit. My mother's Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty has been an invaluable companion. Her recipes don't usually call for Italian sun-dried tomatoes, a bunch of fresh coriander leaves and a half glass of a famous French wine ... and other things unlikely to be found on our shelf.

There were a number of other things on my agenda of a concrete nature. Some I managed to do like pruning trees, rebuilding parts of stone walls and tidying up farmyard sheds. These days I have been helping my brother prepare a garden for potatoes and vegetables.

In late autumn I tackled a job requested by major seminaries in Bangkok and Mandalay - writing a simplified textbook on modern philosophy. Ambitiously I set my sights on Christmas as the finishing line. Easter is now upon us and I am still working at it every morning but at least I am now proofreading the final draft. I hope that simpler language and the humorous illustrations of Mico, a cartoonist with La Nación, a Chilean daily newspaper, will compensate for my deficiency in depth.

Sketch of Fr Alo Connaughton cooking a meal from his mother's cookbook. Sketch: Fr Alo Connaughton SSC

Sketch of Fr Alo Connaughton cooking a meal from his mother's cookbook. Sketch: Fr Alo Connaughton SSC

Early on, I saw a need for a bit of structure in my day. For a start, trying to implement advice received years ago: don't muddy the mental waters with news or the internet before morning prayer. Years of teaching patristic theology has given me a bit more appreciation for the Office of Readings.

I celebrate Mass with my brother shortly after breakfast - on the same table. The evening rosary is an unbroken house tradition. I live about five minutes walk from the local church and cemetery and try to visit most evenings. Nine 'COVID graves' have been made there since January 1.

Returning to the Irish media environment in the longer- term takes getting used to. One of the things is the narrowing of horizons. The main evening news seems to endlessly beat one local topic to death. The rest of the world and its serious problems get little attention. Keeping oneself informed of the global picture calls for effort. The BBC/Five-minute news/Available Now is invaluable for that.

Coming back to Ireland in the longer term makes one aware of a structural anti-Catholic prejudice in so much of the media. Do the articulate apologists who speak for 'our side' simply not exist – or are they excluded by those who control media time and space? A presumption that most Irish Catholics have a sufficiently informed faith to resist this negative barrage seems an unwarranted one.

But there are positives too. Funerals limited to ten are hard, especially on big families. But I have been able to do some Month's Mind Masses (a Requiem Mass celebrated about one month after a person's death) on Zoom with active contributions by family members far away in England, Canada or Australia.

This experience has shown me new doors that are opening. Internet does offer us great new possibilities if we have the imagination to recognize them. Failure to get involved to some extent in this 'world' will leave us on the margins.

I should have started courses on Modern Philosophy and Ethics in the Major Seminary in Mandalay, Myanmar, in January. First COVID and now the brutal coup have closed that door - at least for now. I was also booked for a term in China. A lay colleague from the Philippines has informed me in recent days that her contract in the Major Seminary in Beijing has been terminated because of new government rules about outside teachers.

The sound perhaps of another door closing? I would still like to respond to both invitations should the occasion arise. But I'll have to allow for the possibility that the Lord is saying to me 'Remember you are almost 77 – you are not indispensable.'

Starting from that day in 1963 when a classmate decided not to continue in our seminary in Dalgan and I was suddenly sent to University College Dublin instead, almost all my placements have been decided by the often unexpected decisions of someone else. “Fate” as Aristotle said, "is one of the big factors we can't control."

Columban Fr Alo Connaughton is currently in lockdown in Ireland and is normally involved in the formation of seminarians in Thailand and China.

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