‘Helping people has a huge reward’: Sr Stan on the power of finding inner peace
Social campaigner Sr Stan used lockdown to compile a book in which she reaches out and explores how we can find inner peace. She shares some of her wisdom with Marjorie Brennan
Marjorie Brennan | December 26, 2021
Chatting to Sister Stanislaus Kennedy (fondly known to all as Sr Stan) is an immensely calming experience. A beacon of serenity, her soft and soothing voice radiates down the phone line from her home in Dublin’s inner city, where for years she has worked on behalf of the vulnerable in society and campaigned for the homeless as a member of the congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity, founding voluntary organisations such as Focus Ireland, The Immigrant Council of Ireland and Young Social Innovators. She is also a bestselling author and has recently compiled Finding Peace, sharing the contributions of people, from celebrities to politicians, writers, sportspeople and others, in an effort to understand how they find peace in their lives. It is a timely and insightful read, as we all struggle to achieve some sort of emotional equilibrium amid the uncertainty of Covid.
Sr Stan has long been an advocate of the benefits of contemplation and stillness, in 1998 founding The Sanctuary at her base in Stanhope St, to provide a space for reflection in a frantic and busy world.
Finding Peace was a lockdown project, sparked by the challenges of Covid and her own looking inwards.
“I thought about doing this book because as an older person, during Covid, we were locked down very much from the beginning. I gathered round me my favourite poems and writings and things like that. It drove me to ask, where do people find peace? So I wrote to people to ask them — I knew it was a difficult question but actually all the people I asked wrote a piece, except two and they said they were too busy.”
Sr Stan’s calm exterior belies a dynamic and driven character, as is obvious from all she has achieved. So much of her work involves being with people, was it hard to be removed from all of that during lockdown?
“Yes, I missed the contact with the people I work with who are homeless. That is not even back yet, really — we have to be really careful in how we deliver the services. I was lucky. I live in a house with another sister, Síle. At the back of the house, we have the Sanctuary and the Sanctuary garden. We also got a field from the Sisters of Charity on lease and that was converted into a biodiversity field with beautiful walks and a labyrinth. That was all done during Covid. As well as that, we have wonderful neighbours. The lodge I live in borders one of the Focus Ireland housing projects which means I was around with people, even though contact was hard. But listen, it was nothing compared to the way other people suffered. I thank God for what I have.”
There is a quote in the book from legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who says “peace may sound simple — one beautiful word — but it requires everything we have, every quality, every strength, every dream, every high ideal”. Sr Stan acknowledges that sometimes finding peace takes a lot of work and effort, and as a result, we can turn away from it.
“Absolutely — you can go through your life without thinking about it at all. Then you do discover places and people through whom you find peace. The question is important because it does throw us back on to ourselves — where do I find peace today, did I do anything to bring peace to anybody. It is a very basic question but very important and one we can through life and ignore. We all have a deep well of stillness and silence within us but we have to go there, just quieten down and go there. It is a wonderfully rewarding and beautiful experience, finding that inner peace,” she says.
The busyness of modern society and our constant connection to devices and social media can also make finding peace a difficult prospect.
“That constant social media is a huge intrusion into people’s lives, that can really deprive us of inner peace. We really have to make space for it. The busiest people in the book do find that opportunity… look at someone like [rugby player] Johnny Sexton who says in the book that he has a moment of peace just before he kicks the ball. Different people have their own way of finding it and that’s hugely important.” Neither do we need to be alone to find peace — if anyone should know the power and possibility of connecting with others, it is Sr Stan.
“People find peace with their family, in relationships… in a way it is all about relationships in some form, with ourselves, with each other, with a higher power or with God. In helping others, that sense of offertory, of giving does have a huge reward. It does bring a peace of a certain kind, that we realise, you know there is more to life than rushing around — spending time with people, helping them, has a huge reward for us.” In terms of her own work, she says, “I have received much more than I have given. I have no doubt about that.”.
The book contains contributions from the late John and Pat Hume, who were pivotal in Ireland’s own very real struggle for peace. As Pat Hume writes: “All peace must be underpinned by justice.” While that hard-won peace looks more fragile in the wake of Brexit, Sr Stan is hopeful that it will be maintained.
“John Hume was extraordinary — he held on to wanting peace, everything was by peaceful means. I think people will emerge who have that fire…. we are all together, things don’t happen in isolation. Everything is the cumulative effect of what we all do. Even in my small area, that has repercussions that I will never know of. I know if I send out peace it will go further and further. It is always together that we make peace and people like John Hume emerge. That is the cumulative effect of ordinary people making peace.”
As someone who sees the impact of social injustice on a daily basis in her work, Sr Stan is more than aware of how inequality can make the pursuit of peace difficult, especially with so many people struggling with the impact of Covid, economically and psychologically.
“Where there is great injustice and suffering, if you think of the countless situations around the world, it is really difficult… I would say, look out for anything that gives you peace, even if it is just looking at a flower or a blade of grass, anything that can stir your heart with peace. Just to be angry and infuriated about things, that can eat us up. There is a good anger, we have to be angry about some things but letting anger eat us up, that is not a good idea.” She says that finding something to be grateful for is important.
“That is where I go myself if I am struggling in any way — I come back to gratefulness. It is the most wonderful thing in the world. We think we will be grateful if we are happy but the opposite is true — when we are grateful, we are always happy. It is just one breath away from peace.” While she says faith and prayer are sources of comfort for many, she says you don’t have to be religious to find peace in a church, for example.
“That is one of the things that is mentioned by a few people. The Taoiseach (Mícheál Martin) writes about going into a quiet chapel and sitting down. So many people mention nature, and walking — Liam Ó Maonlaí has a piece about walking and just being present for the opening of the day. We have to try different things. Absolutely you don’t need religion to find peace but it can be a help if you do have faith.”
As we wind down the interview, there is the sound of barking on the other end of the line. It is Sr Stan’s golden labrador, Coco, making her presence felt, a reminder of how peace can sometimes be noisy — and of many people found comfort in canine company over lockdown.
“The way they look at you — they are soulful. And rubbing a dog can be such a peaceful experience.”