The Other I

October 9, 2007

A Protestant solution to Maryknoll

During the last weeks, I have heard many stories from the Maryknollers who were in the convent during the same turbulent time I was also there.  One which delighted and surprised me more than most came from someone in our group.  At the age of 17, contemplating her future in the Midwest, Karen learned about the Maryknoll Sisters.  They spent their lives working among the poor in foreign lands, learning the language and participating in their culture –  a kind of life-time  dedication to the Peace Corps.  This sounded exactly like the kind of life she wanted to lead.

So she came home one day and told her family:  I’ve found my life’s career:  I want to be a Maryknoll Sister.  That’s fine, her father told her, but you have just one small problem:  we’re not Catholics.  Well, then, said Karen, I’ll become one.  So she went to the local Catholic church, took instructions,  was baptized as a Roman Catholic and was almost immediately accepted by the Maryknoll Sisters.  Maryknoll actually has a rule that new converts must wait at least two years after converting before entering, but somehow no one asked, and Karen entered Maryknoll at Valley Park, Missouri in 1958.

Only someone who has lived in a completely different culture than the one in which they were raised can begin to appreciate the magnitude of change this must have involved.  It was shock enough for those of us raised as Catholic girls in the 1950’s to be faced with the monastic practices of even modern convent life.  But Karen came from a family with a single sibling;  all the other Catholic entrants came from families of six to twelve. She had not said the family rosary almost every evening of her life, received Holy Communion in a white dress at the age of six, worried about going to hell for eating meat on Friday, or learned to distinguish the fine minutiae between sins that were venial (which earned time in purgatory before making it to heaven), and mortal (which sent one irredeemably and permanently to hell if one didn’t manage to get it wiped off ones soul by going to confession before death).

The culture of Catholicism is deeply ingrained and mostly unconscious and inevitably outlasts belief or religious practice.  It’s the impulse to bow ones head on speaking the name of Jesus even if one no longer accepts his unique divinity.  It’s the automatic response of genuflecting on entering a Catholic church.  I heard it in my voice when I phoned the local priest recently to inquire the times of Sunday Mass so our guests could attend.  “Thank you, Father,” I said after I had been given the information.  And I heard in my own voice the years of acculturation.  Only a woman who had learned to say “Father,” to priests since she could walk and talk could say it with quite that inflection.

When we were nuns together, I always enjoyed Karen’s slightly iconclastic attitudes suggesting just a shade of not taking it all with the profound seriousness to which the rest of us had been born and bred.  I had no idea then where it had risen from.  Now that I do, I remember it with even greater delight, and her fortitude with even greater admiration.

1 Comment »

  1. while it is true that being immersed into a culture, not your own, can lead one to being more cavalier, less sensitive or burdened about its credo, i am wondering if another factor is e o wilson’s concept of “hardwiring.” if we, in fact, can accept his argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that we, as humans, are born without any mental/emotional content and that culture and learning are key to how we behave, then we believe, as i do, that the mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture, if not more. i remember when i was 6 or 7, arguing with a cousin of my same age, the merits of a politician running for office. my father, later and apart from my cousin, called me aside and asked me why i embraced that particular candidate. i was stunned. “well, because you are”, I said. my father shook his head and softly said, “you best have your own reasons, you cannot use someone else’s bones to grow tall.” so, what i ask – was it because i came from a different religious background (actually, my family was rather agnostic and not protestant) or was it that i have always asked why, even as a child, and then had the imprimatur from my father (culture) to go with my hardwiring? as for me, i have drifted away from catholicism, not agnostic nor atheist, just simply trying to figure out why and how it all fits in.


    Comment by karen — October 9, 2007 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

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