Young Myanmar Catholic community during COVID. - Photo:St Columbans Mission Society
I made my final profession as a Missionary Sister of St Columban 47 years ago. It was during a Retreat that I decided to make my last profession. I was using St. John's Gospel to guide me, and I came across the text of John 17:19: "For their sakes I consecrate myself."
These words empowered me to make my decision and gave me a direction for the rest of my life! These words made me commit myself to the people who came into my life as a Columban missionary.
This text opened up a dream or a horizon for me as a Columban Sister, and that dream has drawn me into places, cultures and communities of people that I could never have imagined at the young age of 26. These words from St. John's Gospel have been like a star accompanying me, calling me in moments of doubt, uncertainty or confusion and when the risks frightened me. They have led me into medical laboratory work in a clinic, to walking the streets seeking provisions, food and medicine for the homeless, listening to their stories, and restoring their human dignity, self-respect and confidence to continue their life's journey.
I have been given the privilege of learning about the personal lives of many men and women of different cultures, languages and ages and in many situations of violence, poverty, and suffering, but also with unbelievable generosity, faith and love.
Pan Pan is one of the many beautiful people I have been privileged to encounter along the way. She is my neighbour in Myanmar, where I have lived and worked for 19 years. She suffers from very poor health and severe pain all over her body and her eyesight is deteriorating with the passing of each day. When she was younger, she educated her children and provided food and shelter for them through her skill as a handweaver. She sat on the floor from morning to evening each day, weaving beautiful traditional products like "longis" (skirts), bags, and scarves. But now her failing eyesight and arthritis mean she no longer has the sight and nimble fingers needed for the perfect handcrafting of these beautiful garments. Now she lives with her daughter and her grandchildren and, together with them, trying to live from hand to mouth, eking out enough for survival each day. It is difficult for her to walk and she is very often confined to bed.
But Pan Pan is a woman of deep faith. Even though very limited physically, her spirit is strong. Every morning, during the downpours of the monsoon season, the very cold mornings of January and the heat of summer, she limps her way to early morning Mass. She finds strength and comfort through her deep devotion to Mary, our Mother. During times of COVID lockdowns and the oppressive and dangerous political situation at present in Myanmar, she can be seen, whenever her health permits, stealing by at dusk to visit the Marian Grotto where she prays and pours out her grief and fears to Mary in whom she has placed her complete trust. Her faith and trust in God and Mary have sustained and encouraged her over many decades under very severe and oppressive regimes and are now helping her to be strong in the face of present atrocities.
Grandmother Pan, as she is called, is almost 80 years of age, and even though very ill, she is very much a person for others. When I meet her at Mass every morning, we chat, and she shares her worries and concerns with me. One morning during the pandemic, amid the unrest and fears of all that was happening around us, I felt unwell and didn't attend morning Mass. When I arrived for Mass the following morning, I couldn't believe the concern and anxiety for me that so many of the parishioners expressed, and they were relieved to know that my illness wasn't serious.
Pan Pan came to me later and said she hadn't been well either. She spoke of very good medicine that was available at the pharmacy. Thinking she was wanting the medicine for herself, I gave her a small amount of money and suggested she send somebody to fetch it for her. A few hours later, however, I saw her coming towards our house. She looked exhausted in the extreme heat of the monsoon season.
The political situation and COVID were further reasons for her to be staying at home. But she greeted me, handed me a package, and told me she had walked to the pharmacy to get the medicine. She hoped I would be well soon. I then realised that the medication she mentioned was for me, not for her. Not only was it dangerous for her to walk the roads but also, because of her slow movement, it had taken her a very long time to make the journey. As we chatted, she shared that she was my elder sister and, together with all the people in our village, we supported and encouraged one another on our faith journey at this very dangerous time.
Life's journey has been a blessing for me in communities of both Christians and non-Christians, all seeking peace through justice. Belonging to such a community has been a gift and a privilege. I have received so much more than I could ever have given.
Over the past couple of months, many people have asked me why I return to a situation that is currently so volatile. My heart, my trust in God, and the warmth of belonging to this community all call me back to continue to walk with them on this uncertain and risky path for as long as I can. "For their sakes, I consecrate myself."
Columban Sr Mary Ita O’Brien, from Ireland, lives and works in Myanmar.
Listen to "Reflection - Return to Myanmar"
- Read more from The Far East - January/February 2023