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Does faith help people cope better with Covid-19 crisis?

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Shoshana Appleton (top left), Dr Satyavir Singhal (top right),  Jonny Hanson with wife Paula (bottom left) and Gen Chitta (bottom right)

Shoshana Appleton (top left), Dr Satyavir Singhal (top right), Jonny Hanson with wife Paula (bottom left) and Gen Chitta (bottom right)

Shoshana Appleton (top left), Dr Satyavir Singhal (top right), Jonny Hanson with wife Paula (bottom left) and Gen Chitta (bottom right)

Following a report suggesting that the devout are more likely to be satisfied with their physical and mental wellbeing than non-believers, Linda Stewart asks four locals of various religious persuasions if they agree, and asks how their beliefs are helping them during the Covid-19 crisis.

Shoshana Appleton (76), who is Jewish and originally from Israel, is married to retired QC Ronnie (92) and has five children and three grandchildren. She met Ronnie when he was on holiday in Israel in 1962. She says:

I was talking to the rabbi this morning and I said our week has lost its structure every day [since the start of lockdown]. It wasn't just the service, it was meeting all our friends, our community - we miss seeing them and talking to them and having tea and coffee.

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Shoshana Appleton pictured at her Helens bay home. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Presseye.com

Shoshana Appleton pictured at her Helens bay home. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Presseye.com

Shoshana Appleton pictured at her Helens bay home. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Presseye.com

It's tough for us because we've had Passover when you had Easter and it was hard to get the special foods we need and not to have the usual services. It's been challenging.

I said to the rabbi I think what we need now is a miracle, it's been a while since we had a miracle and it's high time we had a miracle.

Apart from the dietary laws, and before lockdown, we'd have our regular Saturday morning synagogue from 9am to 12.30pm. It's a long service. We'd have Sabbath at home on Friday evening. My daughter and my grandchildren would come, we'd light a candle, bless the wine and bread and have the traditional food of chicken soup. It's known as 'Jewish penicillin' and it's supposed to be very healthy for you.

I suppose we've always had faith. My parents came from Europe and their parents died in the Holocaust. In Israel it's not so important to keep all these rules, but my parents kept kosher with strict separation of cooking and eating utensils. When they came to Israel they had nothing, they were lucky to have two plates and a knife and fork, and it was not as important there because you were in Israel.

But my husband said when I came here I would have to keep a kosher home because that is the only way the children will know.

We pray twice every morning and every night to thank God for all we have. We thank God before we eat and after we eat.

If you're not well, what do you do? The first thing you do is pray to God, whether you believe or not. It gives you a feeling of security. If you believe, you believe that God will make you better if you pray to him. I suppose faith does help with your overall wellbeing.

Dr Satyavir Singhal (60) is a Hindu from Delhi who lives in Newtownabbey. He is a consultant anaesthetist with the Belfast Trust. Dr Singhal is married to Madhi, has three children, Manvi, Garima and Kunal, and is chairman of the Indian Community Centre. He is working seven-day weeks as the NHS deals with the coronavirus threat. He says:

The real name of the Hindu religion is Sanatan Dharma and it is basically principle-oriented. In a nutshell, it talks about how to live together not only as human beings but as a whole universe, and to respect both the living and the non-living, which includes the environment.

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Dr Satyavir Singhal

Dr Satyavir Singhal

Dr Satyavir Singhal

We have a phrase, 'Vasundhara Kutumb Kumbh', which literally means 'the whole Earth is your family'. It does not divide into countries and continents, it is for us to live together.

Basically, the religion says you do not outsource your health to the doctors. Your health should be part of your overall daily living. For example, wake up early, never sleep too late, shower, do your prayers and do some yoga.

It also talks about the food that you should eat and what you should not eat, that probably makes us more healthy. It's basically a general principle that you don't overeat. I am vegetarian, my wife is vegetarian, my son is not, and my daughter used to eat chicken but she's turned vegetarian. The religion does not prohibit you; if somebody eats meat it's your personal choice.

I've always had faith since I was born. Most Hindus will have a small temple in a corner of the house and everybody prays in the morning and in the evening. Then we have the centre at Carlisle Circus, where we have organised prayers once a month for the community (before lockdown).

You have probably heard that Hindus worship multiple gods, but that is an oversimplification. It's not many gods, but there are many ways to God.

In everybody's life you will have ups and downs and your faith gives you strength when something wrong has happened. It holds your hand in the bad times.

As I work for the NHS, I'm in work every day now. There's no Saturday or Sunday, every day is the same day. When you called me earlier I was in PPE and I couldn't lift the phone.

The faith of our dharma is you should do your work, but the result is not in your hand. Do your work sincerely and properly, taking the utmost care, and leave it to the god. I think probably every faith will say that.

Christian Jonny Hanson (32) runs Jubilee Farm in Glynn, Co Antrim, which is Northern Ireland's first community-owned farm. He is married to trainee counsellor Paula and they have three children, Josh (9), Bethany (8) and Sophia (4). Jonny says:

My father was a Presbyterian minister and I grew up surrounded by Christianity. I made the decision to become a Christian when I was six. I suppose it was a childlike faith at that stage, but it matured and developed over the years. It has brought me through many good times, but also many challenging times as well.

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Paula and Jonny Hanson on Jubilee Farm at Carnduff, Glynn, Larne. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Paula and Jonny Hanson on Jubilee Farm at Carnduff, Glynn, Larne. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Paula and Jonny Hanson on Jubilee Farm at Carnduff, Glynn, Larne. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

I've always been part of the church, but for me my faith is not just something that happens on Sunday - it's the foundation that is built into what we do on Jubilee Farm. What it gives me is a sense of purpose, that life is more than just random chance and therefore there is purpose. That purpose helps you through good times but, most crucially, it is beneficial in difficult times. Paula is also a Christian and [before lockdown] we'd go to church together with our three kids. They'd go to Sunday School and creche.

One of the big defining issues in our family and our marriage has been the issue of chronic health. Paula has had ME since she was 16, and on a particular level that has defined our lives since then. I worked part-time so that I could be a carer.

There were some phenomenally difficult times, especially with trying to raise three small children and have a bit of a career as well. As that was a really difficult period in my life and Paula's, too, it keeps coming back to a sense of purpose, God's presence in those difficult times, but there are lessons to be learned through hardship. Now that Paula is better I've found a better work-life balance. I walk once a week along the beautiful Antrim coast and that is a way of practising wellbeing and keeping myself healthy and happy.

This time last year Paula was taken into hospital for eight weeks with an eating disorder. I had experienced chronic and mild mental health issues before, but acute mental health issues were on a different level. The difference this time was that, having learned from the first time round about balancing work and mental wellbeing, I felt more resilient. There was a huge amount of help from our church, our family and our colleagues in the organisation who stepped in to share the load.

During lockdown we are keeping busy here, keeping as many of our farm operations running as we can, although the community aspects are on hold for the time being. We had new baby goats and goslings this week and there are piglets coming next week - life is springing up all around us.

We're very fortunate during lockdown to be on a farm instead of a garden the size of a bathtub. I suppose it comes back to going through difficult times. My faith is a sense of purpose and of hope in the midst of challenge and through all the seasons of the soul.

Buddhist nun Gen Chitta (40) is originally from Tyrone and teaches at the Potala Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Belfast. She says:

When I was at university in Dublin I studied philosophy at Trinity and came across some things about Buddhism through that course. It was around Buddhist ideas being used in a therapeutic setting, and when I finished that course I looked up the Yellow Pages and found some lovely meditation classes in the Kadampa Buddhism tradition.

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Buddhist Chitta Gen at Ormeau Park on March 4th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Buddhist Chitta Gen at Ormeau Park on March 4th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Buddhist Chitta Gen at Ormeau Park on March 4th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

I just really enjoyed those classes from the beginning, learning to meditate and change your thinking and be kinder and take other people's happiness and feelings into account. It was quite transformational right from the beginning for me. My daily routine would include fitting in a bit of meditation and some chanted prayers; they almost function as a guided meditation, with the words guiding you through various visualisations and practices.

There is a good bit of study and reading, trying to integrate those meditations and trying to stay calm and peaceful, trying to cherish others, and be patient and accepting of the difficulties that arise.

Buddhism has helped me to make more positive lifestyle choices and it was meditation that enabled me to do that. You are more contemplative and peaceful in yourself, you're not so much needing other things to change how you feel, not using intoxicants and those kinds of health choices. In terms of your health, you are more motivated to take care of your health as much as you want to be of benefit to others.

We have a lot of practises around acceptance, and being more accepting of suffering. We might have a different approach to thinking about health problems. For example, to just really work on not fighting pain, being relaxed with it and experiencing it without that tension in the mind. The tension in your body is a big cause of many health problems, and all those factors are playing into the relationship between the practice of meditation and your health.

My family are not Buddhist, some of them are not practising any religion and some are practising Christians. But they are interested to a degree in that they can see it had a very positive effect on me and for me. These ideas about acceptance and letting go of anger are very valid, no matter what faith you practise.

I am in lockdown on my own and we've moved our meditation classes online. That has been interesting, getting used to teaching via computer. It's actually been really helpful.

It's been great for me in terms of keeping my mind focused on the process and connecting with people and thinking about what people are dealing with at the moment. It's been good for me to stay doing that, it gives me a kind of real focus. It's quite like retreat conditions, in a way.

As lockdown goes on it's more challenging. In a way it's nice that I live alone, but it's challenging not to have the same amount of interaction with people. It makes you value that. But apart from less travelling and less social interaction, it's not that much different to my usual life.

Belfast Telegraph