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Smiling behind your mask — Sister Constance Veit and the heroes of the Little Sisters of the Poor

Healthcare workers show off the masks made for them by Archmere Academy junior Margaret Atkins, Archmere freshman Austin Curtis and Taylor Duchinski, a junior at Strath Haven High School in Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Atkins)

By Sister Constance Veit, LSP

There is great irony in the twists and turns of our journey through COVID-19. Despite the obvious simplicity of the three basic means of limiting the spread of the virus – hand washing, social distancing and the use of facemasks – more and more people seem to be ignoring the advice of public health experts. As a society we only seem to pay attention when the numbers reach crisis proportions and the intensive care units fill up.

Sister Constance Veit, a Little Sister of the Poor, prays the rosary March 25, 2019, with elderly residents of the Jeanne Jugan Residence for senior care in Washington. Sister Constance is considered a spiritual mother by many of the residents, who said they will honor her on Mother’s Day. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

This situation reminds me of the biblical story of Naaman, a Syrian army commander and a leper, who visits a prophet in Israel seeking a cure (2 Kings, chapt 5). After a long trip Naaman arrives at the home of Elisha the prophet with his retinue. A messenger appears, telling Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times and he will be cured. Naaman balks at these simple instructions and walks away in a rage because he feels that the rivers of Syria must surely be better than any water in Israel. His servants intervene, however, suggesting that perhaps he ought to follow the prophet’s instructions. So Naaman washes in the Jordan and sees his skin miraculously restored.

Naaman was angry because he expected a reception befitting an important public figure. He wanted a big show with the prophet waving his hands and doing something dramatic on his behalf. But Elisha didn’t even bother to come out and greet him and his prescription seemed far too mundane for a person of his prominence.

We’re a bit like that today. We’re told over and over that the key to controlling COVID-19 is wearing facemasks, washing our hands and avoiding crowded spaces – and yet as a society we can’t follow these simple directives.

There are any number of reasons for neglecting such common sense measures – from political loyalties and claims of personal autonomy to naïve notions of invincibility and even “pandemic fatigue.” But it seems to me that what’s really lacking is a real sense of social responsibility and authentic concern for the most vulnerable members of our families and local communities.

For a time, we seemed to celebrate the heightened sense of connectedness and solidarity to which the pandemic gave rise. We admired the charitable initiatives publicized on social media and the celebrity appearances on Zoom. But we quickly grew tired of it all.

Social consciousness and solidarity in this situation, it seems to me, should be measured over the long haul, even when this entails sacrificing the habits and pastimes we most enjoy. This is what our elderly Residents at the Little Sisters’ Homes have had to do for the last four months, and for them there is no end in sight.

While young people have begun going out to beaches and bars, elderly nursing home residents are virtual prisoners in their own rooms. They remain deprived of many of the daily activities they most enjoy. They eat alone in their rooms and haven’t had a haircut or a hug from their loved ones in months. On the rare occasions when they are allowed out of their rooms they must wear a mask, and so must their caregivers. No exceptions.

In the world of long-term care, we are subject to constant oversight by outside agencies. We have no choice but to accept the advice of experts. There are few voluntary recommendations and many obligatory regulations. Yet everyone seems to understand that we are all in this together and that personal sacrifices must be made for the good of all. I hear few complaints among our residents and staff. Everyone goes on smiling behind the masks.

I dare say that what sets the elderly and our devoted caregivers apart from the beachgoers and bar frequenters is that they know how to put the good of others above their own and they’ve discovered how to find joy in little nothings and mundane moments spent together.  Perhaps this wisdom comes from not having a lot to start with, or from living close to death on a daily basis.

As I walk through the hallways of our Home for the elderly, I find myself humming a well-known tune composed by Charlie Chaplin (although he didn’t write the equally well-known lyrics, I discovered). So I try hard to keep smiling behind the mask even when my heart is aching. I tell myself, “Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”

So, I implore you, keep your mask on and hum whatever tune lifts your spirits above the present gloom!

Sister Constance Veit is the director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.