The Best of Times, The Worst of Times & Covid One Nine

by Paul Beirne, Director of Heart of Life Centre for Spiritual & Pastoral Formation

Some years ago, I attended a Higher Education conference in Canberra at which the key-note speaker—The Federal Minister for Education– began his presentation by posing a question to the assembly:

“Can anyone name the Three Chinese Curses?”, he inquired.

He paused for approximately half a minute, and as no one had responded, he named them himself:

  • May you live in interesting times
  • May you come to the attention of your superiors
  • May you receive all that your heart desires

I do not recall why the Minister introduced his presentation in this way, but I suggest that, to a Western mind, these may not appear to be curses at all. They may even appear rather benign. That said, however, to a person born into a huge and historically unpredictable juggernaut of a culture such as China, monotonous regularity and discreet anonymity may very well be treasured values, and getting everything that one yearns for may be considered a very mixed bag indeed.

I also suggest that, with the term ‘COVID-19’ being dropped into our vocabulary, and our lives like a time bomb, we may be well on our way to accepting No 1) above as a very real curse. Putting the two other curses aside for the moment, how are we to approach these ‘interesting times’? Obviously, there is an almost palpable fear of contracting the disease, but more than that, there is a sudden and gripping fear of the unknown which leads to panic at the sheer randomness of a disease that can be transmitted by such simple transactions as the touch of a hand or a wayward cough. And this non-discriminatory virus continues to grow exponentially and spread its mischief every second and every minute of every day.

Yet this is also a time of real heroism and great courage shown towards humanity, evidenced, among others, by the medical and paramedical fraternity, and the first receivers, who every day and night put other’s needs before their own and that of their families. ‘Greater love than this no one has . . . .’

How would we describe this time, and times similar to it? Charles Dickens had a red-hot go in Book 1, Chapter 1 of his classic A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

I suggest that we are now experiencing ‘the best of times and the worst of times’.

Under the ‘’best’ category, I would offer the example of the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, and his words of wisdom at a recent daily press briefing, as reported in The Age newspaper on 28th March this year, by the newspaper’s United States correspondent, Matthew Knott. Knott writes:

“The briefings invariably end on a philosophical note, with Governor Cuomo urging New Yorkers to stay socially and spiritually connected, reminding them they have survived past disasters. ‘This is going to form a new generation and transform who we are. You are not alone. Nobody is alone’, said Cuomo”. He concluded the briefing by stating: ‘If someone is unhappy, somebody wants to blame someone, people (want to) complain about someone, blame me.’”

What caught my eye in Governor Cuomo’s briefing was his urging to New Yorkers, and to everyone by extension, ‘to stay socially and spiritually connected’. It is this advice that I recommend each of us to embrace and follow with all our hearts. It is an aspiration, and a reality, that the Heart of Life Centre for Spiritual and Pastoral Formation has embraced for nigh on 40 years, and does so even more whole-heartedly in the troubling, challenging times each of us is experiencing.

How do we stay connected socially and spiritually? It is not easy, but we can do so. Let me give you an example.

In the past four months, Heart of Life, on very short notice, closed up shop in the premises it had occupied for 12 years, and found a new home in The Vicarage of St Georges Anglican Church, Malvern. Then, in the space of two weeks, we moved our entire operation to this site, including our library, before the academic year began on February 8.

In the midst of this move, on 23 January, we organized a Heart of Life Summit with representatives from the Provincial Council of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSCs), members of the MSC Formation Team and the faculty and staff of Heart of Life, to discuss the future of Heart of Life. Thankfully, the Summit gave resounding approval to continuing and expanding Heart of Life into the future.

Then, just when it looked safe to go back into the water (so to speak), an infinitesimally small bug was adapting and growing in a land far, far away…

In a move inconceivable even a month before, and in response to the rapidly spreading COVID-19, Heart of Life closed the doors of the Vicarage on the 23rd March 2020, until further notice.

But we certainly did not shut down. We just opened our hearts that little bit more.

Now the students in our all our programs—Siloam, Spiritual Leaders, Let the Heart Listen etc—and all those who come to us ‘to stay socially and spiritually connected’, do this through the services of Zoom and other similar on-line programs. Importantly, Heart of Life continues to offer spiritual direction and pastoral supervision to anyone who comes to us seeking spiritual assistance and understanding in these unpredictable and troubled times. (In this respect, anyone who is reading this missive is invited to explore the Heart of Life website to see what we can offer you, and how we can support you in your spiritual search.)

Considering all that has happened in the last four months as recounted above, I suggest that Heart of Life is nothing if not creative and adaptable. We are a small institution, but an important one, as we have committed ourselves to connecting people—to themselves, to others, and to the Lord, who has an infinite and intimate understanding of tribulation, suffering, sacrificial love and resurrection. God is always waiting to walk with you and with me, as was done with the two disciples on their way to Emmaus. This is particularly comforting in this time of uncertainty and COVID-19.

Ultimately, it is through God and in God and with God that we stay socially and spiritually connected by:

  • Opening our hearts to God’s heart and listening in contemplative silence
  • Taking to God, respectfully, the fears, anxieties and frailties of those who are unable to do so
  • Fulfilling the Vision and Mission and embracing the Values of Heart of Life as outlined below (where Values is a verb to be actively celebrated):


To be attuned to the mysterious Other in the heart of all creation


To enliven the divine spark in people’s hearts through contemplative formation.

(Heart of Life) Values

The symphony of silence in each graced encounter

The harmony of the universe in the divine and human embrace

The contemplative capacity of the heart nestled within life’s experience.


In other words, to adopt the commitment of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart:

To be on Earth the Heart of God’


As I was writing this missive (and who knows the why of it) a story from my childhood kept coming back to me over and over again, until I could not ignore it.

I share a summary of this story with you now.


The Story of the Little Red Engine

By Diana Ross

A little railroad engine was employed in a station yard for such work as it was built for, that is, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill.

“I can’t; that is too much a pull for me”, said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to pull it up the grade and down on the other side.

“I think I can”, puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train.

As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly and slowly. However, it still kept saying,

“I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can, I—-think—-I—-can”

The little red engine finally reached the top of the hill by drawing on reserves of bravery and inner strength it did not know it possessed. Then it went down the grade on the other side, congratulating itself by saying:

“I knew I could!

I knew I Could!

I Knew I Could!”


Heart of Life is ‘The Little Red Engine That Could’.

That train is about to leave the station.

Come and join us for the ride!!