“Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual. Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven. Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing.” ~ Pope Francis
Publishing a book at age 90!
Sr Eithne MacDevitt is an unassuming woman, with a pin sharp attention to detail and a warm and welcoming countenance. I first had the privilege of meeting her in 2018 when I began working for the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles and, spending some time with her one afternoon as I was getting to know my way around, I was both humbled and fascinated by her rich recollections of missionary life. I am delighted that she has put those layered and wonderfully textured experiences to paper to share with the world.
The Uncharted Road was published a few months ago and spans nine decades. It is as much a history of mission as a memoire of Eithne’s life.
It tells the story of a young woman born in Limerick in 1931, in a world that was very different to the one we inhabit today, and setting sail from Cork to the African continent in 1956 at the age of 25. The Ireland she left behind and the Africa she emerged herself in were very different places some seventy odd years ago.
Writing of her journey, she paints a picture of excitement and hope:
“And so on 19 September, Catherine O’Farrell and I boarded the Inishfallen and sailed down the Lee on our way to mission in Nigeria. At that time, the boats for England and probably other places, left from the city and passed down the River Lee below Ardfoyle. Habitually, when Sisters were travelling and the boat sounded the three hoots that signalled its departure, those in Ardfoyle hurried to the upstairs windows and waved sheets and towels to say a last goodbye. There were fewer trees then and no bushy ones along the glen wall, so the river was clearly visible. In our particular case the novices were permitted to line the lower wall of the glen which was even nearer the river.”
Sr Eithne is a gifted storyteller, both in the written word and the spoken. Her students over the years recount her teaching style as “immersive” and this is one of the many gifts she brought to mission.
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” she said when I meet with her on Zoom to talk about her book. “Why would anyone want to read it,” she continued, insisting with a smile that she only wrote an account of her life for the OLA archives. She was later persuaded by OLA Provincial Leader, Kathleen McGarvey, to turn it into a book, however she remains sceptical that anybody would want to read it.
Talking about the process of writing, she said that she really enjoyed the experience as it opened up a space that enabled her to relive the different events and many encounters of her life. She confessed that she found the writing of her story to be therapeutic. “Of course there are many omissions,” she said, laughing softly. I assured her that that is to be expected when one tries to encapsulate ninety years into 106 pages!
Eithne shared that there were many lessons to be learned, and indeed she is still learning. The writing of her story made her acutely aware of her failures and omissions. She explained further, saying that while she had very strong relationships with members of the laity over the years, in retrospect, she would have liked to involve them more in her work.
She shared that one of her biggest regrets was that she had not gained fluency in any of the languages, but conceded that she did what she could at the time.
“When I entered into religious live, I learned to appreciate the fact that the mission that I had expected would have to be lived in religious life. That it wasn’t the centre, it wasn’t the real cause of my entering. I thought it was of course,” she said with a chuckle, “I learned that it was for Christ, and that my mission would follow from that.”
God’s story is one of love
Our stories are inextricably linked to mission, for which we are all called. Whether that calling is to enter into Religious life or live our mission as lay people. We weave God’s story with our own and the result is transformational. This layering and weaving of God’s story with our own life stories changes who we are and how we live or lives.
Mission is not about imposing upon, but rather living within our principles, and leading with the example of our own lives. It is telling God’s story, which in essence is love, through our actions and interactions with all living creatures, and also with the earth. The overflowing of God’s love, through us, is mission.
If we allow God’s story, God’s love, to shape us, we cannot help but be missionary. The embodied love of God will naturally spill forth, forever changing how we love, how we serve and how we show up in the world.
Mission is a profound journey. It is both simple, in that the requirement is simple obedience to God’s call, and complex, in that it can involve either great adventure into an unknown world, or remaining exactly where we are in the mundanity of the reality we inhabit. What is certain is that answering the call will inevitably and irrevocably change us, from the inside.
In closing Sr Eithne shared the following words for young people, “Young people today are so different. They have different values and a different culture altogether from what we had. I would certainly encourage them to answer if they felt that God was really calling them. They would find great fulfilment and happiness in answering the call.”
“I thank God for the gift of life, for the little good I may have done by His grace, and I leave my many failures to His mercy.”
First published in the Irish Catholic, 21 October 2021