To Romania With Love
I have been asking myself why I should be chosen by God to work and care for abandoned children in Romania. Perhaps he just wanted the humble presence of someone whose life combined service in nursing with a commitment to a life of prayer through the Secular Order of Carmel. Perhaps this combination would help bring a little healing, both physical and spiritual.
Images of suffering
The newspapers and television here in our country are, sadly, never short of images of suffering. It was the faces of Romanian children which we saw in 1991 that touched me and left my heart troubled. For these faces were marked with terrible suffering; with expressions which said, 'I am lost.' So, in 1991 I responded to the call I felt and went to Romania. What I found there was a country ravaged by forty years of extreme communism; where responsibility for the suffering and deprived had been ignored. It was also a society where religious freedom was suppressed and where the church was divided between the Latin and Eastern rites.
Maybe it was the sight of all this suffering that troubled me and caused me to look at my own actions and attitudes towards others. But for whatever reason, I found that I wanted to make the presence of the kingdom of God real here and now, since it is a kingdom destined to be established on earth as it is in heaven.
In the beginning
In the early days of my work in Romania, 1 spent my time using my nursing skills caring for the most forgotten children. These were children who were living in the state institutions. As many as two hundred children lived in appalling conditions where adequate food and water were denied them; where all were unloved and rejected. Even so, while living and working in the midst of this environment, I became conscious that these people had their own deep awareness of God's love for them. Their gift to others was the sharing of their love for Jesus and this brought healing in the process. Here I discovered that if I too could lake the time to respect the dignity of each person, I could help provide an environment of acceptance that could be transforming.
1 also visited the adult institutions and I could see from the faces of those whom I met there what the children would become in the future. The realisation that these children would end up living unloved, as these adults lived and died, helped convince me of something that I could never forget or walk away from.
Work and prayer
The call to Romania, I have discovered, is not for the fainthearted. Working with the poor requires endurance, patience, determination and compassion. I know the work is not something that I can do by my own strength but something that only God can do through me. As a Secular Carmelite, my prayer has helped me lo see this. And in the work I do, I try to live the Christian life according lo our Rule which is, of course, inspired and nourished by the Teresian Carmel. I recognise that our vocation is a life both contemplative and apostolic.
After the orphanages
Now, nine years after my first visit to Romania, I no longer work in the state institutions. A charity has been founded and we have built two homes which care for the children from the state orphanages. Together with Romanian religious Sisters, we try to rebuild their lives, following the example of Jesus by showing compassion for the most rejected and marginalised in society. Our small communities are places of acceptance and love where damaged children can be restored to life. I journey often to Romania and try to be faithful to the vision set before me. Hopefully, I can grow in my ability to guide and help the children whom God has given us now and will give us in the future. We have also set up a fostering programme where children who have been abandoned in the streets, the hospitals, or the state orphanages are placed with carefully chosen foster families. There is a great need to give these many abandoned children a warm, loving family.
During the time I spend in Romania I am beginning to see other areas in need of the light of the living gospel: Romanian society and the relationship between the churches. Over the last few years Romania is slowly recovering from the years of communist rule. But now, into the twenty-first century unemployment remains a serious problem; crime, corruption, broken homes are all on the increase. Without a change in moral outlook the future still looks bleak indeed. With regard to the churches, the early 1990s was a period of religious revival in Romania. Although this was primarily a matter of return to Orthodoxy, it also saw the revival of the Catholic Church. Religious persecution had been highly organised and pursued without interruption for many years under communism. The Catholic community has suffered intensely but the faith of the people is deep, vocations are now abundant andthere is a great witness to the love of Christ, with the churches full for daily Mass.
On the edge
But the Catholic community in Romania is living on the edge of both moral as well as physical disintegration in a predominantly Orthodox country. The fear of proselytising drives a wedge continually between the majority who are Orthodox and the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II said: 'We must build new bridges so that with one heart and mind Christians may together proclaim the gospel for the world.' He added that Catholics and Orthodox should both mend whatever differences still remain between them and that where there is pain, suffering and division we must make our contribution of peace and reconciliation. So, we try to work jointly with the two communities. In the early days I was very naive, trying to pass through doors which, I discovered, cannot be opened with complete freedom and sincerity for they are a part of a history of much deep division. A sense of humour is something very much needed. On one occasion the Orthodox Archbishop turned to me and said:' I never want to see another Catholic, but you are all right as you are English.' However, we continue to dialogue in a growing unity based, hopefully, on love, prayer and respect for one another's traditions.
Carmel builds bridges
Carmel, too, is now in Romania. I recently visited a monastery of the Eastern rite at Stanceni. It is situated in a beautiful forest clearing where a central building stands, containing a chapel. It is surrounded by ten hermitages constructed in a semi-circle. The monastery owes its origins to a French woman who 'wished to burn a candle in the cause of Christian unity'.This is a very new Carmel with a mission to be a centre of reconciliation and peace between Christian traditions of east and west. The small community of Greek Catholic sisters (in communion with Rome, but retaining some Orthodox practices) live a simple life of prayer offered for Christian unity. It was here that I spent a few days last year, joining the Sisters in prayer and liturgy. It was very different to what I am familiar with as prayer, divine office and Mass together last about three and a half hours. I found it a very uplifting experience - truly Carmelite. There was a great sense of community and depth of silence.
I believe Carmel has a great role to play as a bridge between east and west; a meeting point where the waters of two spiritual rivers can be united. It combines the riches of the east where the order took its origin and the teaching of St John of the Cross and St Teresa coming from the West. Also, the great sense of the presence of God in the Romanian people is a further point of contact between Carmel and Orthodoxy.
Challenge for the future
Perhaps, then, it is my commitment as a Secular Carmelite and my training as a nurse that are the gifts I have to offer in Romania. I try to keep a daily discipline which allows me to dedicate time solely to prayer. This prayer helps to answer my deepest needs and so supports me in my work. For me, prayer is a way of life. It helps me realise that the Christian life is a journey; is truth; is joy and communion. Being a Carmelite gives me what I need, especially on my particular journey. Those of us who are called to Romania - to bring Carmel there and to bring active help - will be confronted with many destructive forces such as corruption, immorality, child abuse and the disunity of the churches. But we feel drawn to offer our presence, a witness of love, prayer and a desire for unity. I look to the future in the firm belief that Carmel has much to offer Romania. Thanks to the love, prayer and material support given by so many friends, benefactors and our own Carmelite communities, our mission continues to grow. I thank God for the gifts I have received to fulfil this vision for the suffering people of Romania.