10 good things we learned in 2020 - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Sunset over the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh

2020 has certainly been an “interesting” year. It was an important year. It was a reckoning. A reawakening. A gift.

Here are 10 good things I think we learned or were reminded of in 2020. We learned…

humility in the face of nature. Regardless of our wealth and power, we cannot entirely control nature. We must live in harmony, recognizing that our sustenance requires caretaking, not extracting. Nature has no conscience but it will be “nice” to us if we are nice to it.

… the benefits of technology used rightly. Despite isolation, we were able to continue our studies and, for many, our work. We maintained our relationships and marked the passing of time through celebrations creatively reconfigured to fit on rectangular screens. We made do.

Buddhist monks giving a blessing.

… there are various ways we experience spiritual nourishment. I, a Catholic, could not enjoy the blessing of the sacraments while others, too, lost the opportunity for communal expressions of faith. But we took responsibility for our connection to our spiritual community and to the Divine.

… the importance of physical human contact. A Cambodian sampeah. A handshake. An embrace.

… about generosity through seeing people respond to hardship. We saw first-hand evidence of kindness, sacrifice, of the work of God’s athletes among us.

… we are one global community, connected in ways unseen. We join together for the enrichment of all.

… how we can use our time well. We can change our habits and slow down and, in so doing, we may choose to use our time better—to take a walk or a ride, to fix a drip or build a shed, to read a book, to learn to bake, to write a letter or make a call, to experience nature.

Maria with the children of Phnom Penh’s waste pickers

… something about ourselves. Perhaps we had defined ourselves through our busy-ness, our activities. During this time, we had to take a hard look at ourselves and ask: “Who am I really?” And perhaps answer, “I am not a ‘producer’, a ‘value-adder’. I am a nurturer.” “I am not a consumer. A customer. A ‘user’. Rather, I am a creator.” “I am not a god, powerful and in control of my fate. I am broken. But, and: I am a child—of the most loved and cared for kind—a child of God.

… to look with new eyes at those others we live with, who we spent more time with. Perhaps it was a deepening, a rediscovery that we are all gifts to one another. To some we said, “Hello and who are you?” To others we said, “Goodbye.” To all we asked, “Who are we?” This is good.

… what is most important and what we really need. Perhaps, as a result, we might right our ship, set a new course.

So in this new year, …

Might we move into a new time with eyes open,
having learned what we learned.
Might we put one foot in front of the other
more deliberately, more consciously.
Might we walk hand in hand
with our sisters and brothers, from all corners,
with a commitment to solidarity.
Might we forge a new relationship with nature,
one of mutual care-taking.
Might we cling to the Divine
amidst the noise and the silence.


Incense smoke rises as a Cambodian woman with her baby look out from the wat (Buddhist temple) during the Pchem Ben holiday, a time when the deceased are remembered.

All photos by JK Reimer


Maria Montello
A Maryknoll lay missioner since 2011, Maria Montello teaches philosophy and critical thinking at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the Catholic Major Seminary there.