The Other I

November 2, 2017

Me too’ism gone viral

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:08 pm

Image result for sex pestsIn several of my Life as a Nun posts on this blog, I have described my experiences as an attractive, intelligent, and above all incredibly naive 27-year old emerging from convent life to the “real world” of hippie New York City.  I am remembering what I learned during those days as I try to understand the “Me too’ism” unleashed by the galley of allegations of sexual abuse against Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein.  It is hitting the headlines here in England, displacing terrorism, Brexit, and many other international events of global significance.  Already a highly placed political figure in Parliament and cabinet has been displaced, and accusations of many others are rampant, some potentially serious, many unsubstantiated.

Before going further,  I want to make it clear that I consider sexual abuse to be a profound violation of human rights, often deeply and permanently damaging, and also, unfortunately, widespread throughout many different cultures around the world.  I give my total support to the view that we should do everything we can to stop it.

But I am convinced that the problem is not nearly as black-and-white as some people seem to think.  Many of the accusations surfacing seem to be serious.  Others are appallingly trivial.  The senior politician who was displaced was accused of putting his hand on a young woman’s knee thirty years ago.  Nothing more.  Even the journalist who made the accusation has been explicit that it was nothing more.

I have my own Me too-ism stories.  After leaving the convent I had to learn that I was sending out signals of apparent acquiescence that I meant to be understood merely as acts of kindness and friendship.  Following on that, I had no idea how to say “no.”  Consequently, I ended up on my back when, in truth, I had no wish whatsoever for a sexual encounter.  But as I look back, I think that most often the man involved in our encounter was as naive as I was, but in a different way.

I had been socialized as a girl to do what I could to support men whom I was taught to believe placed me as a female on a virginal pedestal.   Men were socialized that they had responsibilities to care for the women in their family by taking a leadership position.  As these assumptions began to break down in the 1960’s, members of both sexes were unaware that females might send messages differently than males’.  As premarital and extra-marital sex became acceptable, men often assumed that an hour of sexual pleasure was as rewarding for women as it was for them.  It didn’t matter if they were priests, university professors, workers, fellow students, or friends with whom one participated in civil rights or anti-war demonstrations.  In my experience, for men sexual intercourse typically did not involve a commitment any more serious than enjoying a good meal together.

But I didn’t think that.  I didn’t expect an offer of marriage, but I did expect an ongoing relationship.  I did not expect to become a one-night stand.  Or less.  I gradually became angry, and bitter, and mistrusting of men when I discovered more than once that that is exactly what I was.  One of the best things that has ever happened to me was that I met a man whom I found sexually attractive, intelligent, educated, and who did not think of me as a one-night stand.  He saved me from becoming locked into permanent hostility against men.  We have been living together for close to half a century now.

In the context of this relationship with my husband, I learned how to become more discriminating.  And I learned how to say no without making too much of a fuss to men who come on inappropriately.  I know that as a university professor I was respected, I was influential, and my colleagues understood that I was, as one described it,  “very married.”

Image result for sex pestsI see now that sexual abuse and misunderstandings are often a two-way street.  Learning to send and also to read signals from members of the opposite sex is not simple.  A pat on the knee, an arm around the shoulder, a particular facial expression may or may not be a come-on.  How close people are physically, whether sitting or standing, is particularly cultural.  Both men and women may deliberately or unconsciously, send signals through the clothes we wear, the way we walk, our behavior when we are in a bar or disco.  And the meaning of those signals often changes in the context within which they occur.

Image result for sex pestsYes! some behaviors in any culture, whether by men or women, are serious and abusive and should be condemned.  Outright rape, use of over-powering physical or financial control, by either men or women, threat to one’s career prospects if one does not acquiesce to sexual demands, all are examples of down right, unforgivable abuse in my book.  But every apparently sexual innuendo experienced by a woman is not, in my strong opinion, an  example of serious sexual abuse.

And it is not always obviously uniquely a male problem.

September 21, 2017

A vocation of love

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:30 pm
Tags: ,

When I entered the convent of Maryknoll nuns in 1958, about 70 of us spent our first three years in training at the Motherhouse in Ossining, New York.  Another 25 or so were trained for that time in Valley Park, Missouri.  The two groups met each other for the first time when most of us were assigned to the Motherhouse after taking our first temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The two groups were very different.  We from the Motherhouse group mostly felt that the Valley Parkers were too rigid, too rule oriented.  We, on the other hand, were more rebellious, many of us having immersed ourselves in the encyclicals and theological writings surrounding Vatican II.

It was during this time that I met  Jean Pruitt by the name of Sister Raymond Claire.  In those days, nuns were expected to leave their families and all our past behind us.  The Maryknoll Sisters have since changed this mandate, on the grounds that we were not dedicating our lives to cutting out loved ones but rather to broaden our love to all humanity.  With the change in rules, many Maryknollers, including Jean, returned to their family names.

Jean was a Valley Parker and although we got along well enough, we never became close friends.  I always assumed that she believed that holiness required doing what our superiors told us to do without dissent.  She was, I thought, someone who honoured obedience above all else.

Sister Jean with the children of Dogodogo

Jean, was finally sent to the missions in Tanzania, Africa, in 1968 and I pretty much lost touch with her activities until about ten years ago.  By that time, not only the Roman Catholic Church, but even more so, the Maryknoll Sisters had changed dramatically.  I learned that Jean was supporting not only herself as an artist but had legally adopted four African boys and was caring for many more as, for years she fought to defend children’s rights.  Today, at least two of those adoptees have earned college degrees and made Jean a grandmother.

I have been deeply saddened to learn that Jean died suddenly and unexpectedly last week.  It is a small consolation that she will not be forced to return to the Motherhouse in New York for retirement.  She had made Tanzania and its people her home, and felt more like a foreigner in the States.  Her funeral is being celebrated by the African bishop of Bukoba, Tanzania, with whom Jean had become good friends.  She will be missed by many.

Since my day, the Maryknoll sisters have changed substantially.  But in some ways, I think Jean was more tolerated by the institution than encouraged.  For me, Jean became my ideal of a Maryknoller.  What mattered was not slavishly obeying the rules.  What she did was to see orphaned children in need of care, and she gave it to them.  She didn’t ask if this was what other Maryknoll Sisters were doing.  She saw what she could do, and used all her love and creativity and ingenuity and energy to do it.


November 19, 2015

Does religion make us feel superior?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

For the first 6 years when I was a nun, we dressed in traditional habits, covering everything except our faces and hands.  Obviously, no one would mistake us for anything but nuns, Christians dedicating our virginity to a higher calling.  We younger nuns eventually received permission to wear habits that were a little less traditional, but the mark of our “chosen way” of life was still pretty clear.  Everybody with whom we worked knew who and what we were.MM%2520group%25202

(FYI, I am in the middle of the bottom row)

When I left the convent after nine years and began life as a student in New York City, I realized that I’d been divested of a cloak of sanctity.  Strangers on the streets no longer held doors open for me, for instance, or offered me a seat in place of theirs on the subway.

But the bigger change was in myself.  I no longer thought of myself as holier than a mere  lay person.  And I realized that just putting on that habit had made me feel morally superior to the layman who did not aspire to the level of sainthood which I sought for myself.  Indeed, which to some extent I assumed I had already achieved for myself.

That insight was close to half a century ago and I have tended to reflect on it occasionally with some embarrassment at my arrogant egocentrism.

But I read a research review in the Economist this month, Matthew 22:39, that has made me wonder if my personal experience is not far more significant and widespread than I realized.  Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago has studied more than a thousand children between 5 and 12 years of age in America, Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey from many different religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. Decety and his colleagues played a game with each of the children in which they had a chance to share their winnings with other children who had not had a chance to win anything.

Children of families of non-believers were willing to share significantly more of their winnings than were children of families who said they were religious.  Not only that, but religious parents predicted with a fair amount of confidence that their children would be more generous than children of families that practiced no religion.  Their predictions were wrong.  Children raised in religious families were less generous than children with no religious background.  Significantly so.

As the world today is facing repeated murderous onslaughts from young people who believe they are killing and dying for the One and Only True Religion, I am beginning to wonder in a way I have not done before if the problem is not one religion or another, but the underlying message, whatever version it may be.  Does teaching a child that they belong to the One and Only True Church – whether it is Roman Catholicism or extreme Islam or all those True Religions in between convince us by that very fact that we are intrinsically morally superior?  Is it equivalent to donning that nun’s habit which somehow transformed me into someone wiser, holier, more righteous than everybody else?

Wars, as we know, are often fought flying religious banners, often on both sides.  This has led some thinkers to argue that religion causes war.  I’ve always tended to think that if there is a causal link between the two that it is not religion that causes wars but rather that religion was a potent force for energizing those who were fighting for their own people, their values, their identity, and most especially, for greater wealth.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.  Does religion itself make us feel superior?  is it in the very nature of religion to convince us that we are right, that we deserve everything that is given to us and that anybody who opposes us are on the side of the devil whom we must fight with all our strength and energy?  Obviously, that fight does not necessarily manifest itself in war.  But I wonder if, even in our charitable activities,  it does not manifest itself in an attitude of moral superiority.


December 18, 2014

The Peacock Question


I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching.  This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research:  are men and women the same?  are there cultural or religious differences?  does age have an influence?  what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?

Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience:  the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe.  I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service.  When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things.  People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit.  That might not be too surprising.

But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit.  I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice.  I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue.  I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception.  Or self-deception.

The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots.  The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose.  It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.”  “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.”  For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.

As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.”  I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.

But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic?  I’ll dress for it, of course.

January 27, 2014

The first level below godliness

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:23 pm

We had a strange fishy smell in our refrigerator yesterday.  I couldn’t see any cause for the offending order, so I gave it a deep clean this morning.  This is not my usual procedure, which may be why, as I was trying to make the 20-year-fridge look like new, I was remembering that it was nuns who set my much-abused standard for “really clean.”

Image from e-How:  How to Mop a Floor

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” was the motto of the nun who directed my scrubbing the convent pantry floor every afternoon for several years.   The unambiguous implication of Sister Teresita’s daily repetition of her motto was that I was unfortunately lacking in sufficient godliness.

By that standard I’m still not going to make it to the top celestial tiers.

But these days I’m more inclined to think that kindness is closer to godliness than cleanliness.

Unfortunately, compared to some of the acts of kindness I’ve seen in others, I doubt I’m going to make it to the top tiers on that score either.

August 13, 2013

The unfinished story

More than one thoughtful person who guessed rightly that I would be interested have sent me the link to the Sunday New York Times editorial and video about the Maryknoll Sisters, the group of nuns of which I was a member for nine years.  Sister Mary Joseph, originally Mollie Rogers of Boston, Mass. will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.  along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi and others.

Mostly over the years I have looked back at that time I spent as a Maryknoller rather the way one reviews  a long education.  It was often difficult, it was often traumatic, and  I was keenly aware that the Maryknoll Sisters were profoundly conflicted about their mission, and about what kind of women we wanted to be.  Should we be submissive, blindly obedient, unquestioning of our superiors?  Or were we an order that was creative, responsive, innovative, finding new ways to be among the poor?  Mollie Rogers had the latter in mind.  Those who took their cues from Rome thought the former.

As a result of this conflict, over several decades hundreds of sisters were either forced to leave Maryknoll or left voluntarily.   I’ve just learned that my friend Pat Logan, about whom I wrote earlier this year, was told to leave because she was “too creative.”  Others were told to leave because they were too questioning, or resistant to spending years at the Motherhouse in Westchester County, New York, when Maryknoll had said that they would be missioners in underdeveloped countries.  A few simply broke under the strain.  In 1969 there were 1169 Maryknoll Sisters, and hundreds of young women asking to be admitted every year.  Today there are 471 Maryknoll Sisters, and many of them are old.  Young women are no longer banging on the door to join.

I learned a lot during those years, though, and have not regretted the time I was there.

Summer in the City 1967What I had forgotten was why I had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in the first place.  But when I read the editorial and listened to the video, it came back like a flash of lightning.  Yes, that was why I’d entered the convent!  I wasn’t wrong.  The choices that had been offered to me as I was growing up on a midwest farm in America was to become a nurse, but not a doctor,  to teach grade school, but not in university, to be a secretary but not a lawyer, to choose social work but not psychiatry or psychology.  But nuns did all those things not open to me as a mere lay person.  And Maryknoll Sisters, above all, went to other peoples, other cultures, and lived there.  They made a difference.  I saw it as a kind of life-time Peace Corp.

As I have said before, the Maryknoll Sisters have changed a lot.  They took Vatican II on board, and in many ways are today among the most active and innovative group of nuns I know.  The hundreds of sisters who were forced or decided to leave were, I believe, a necessary part of bringing about that change.  It became apparent to those still there that Maryknoll itself had been in part responsible for betraying the promises made to those who thought that Maryknoll Sisters were different.

But on some level, Maryknoll is still conflicted, and I am not sure whether they can survive within the straight-jacket imposed by the ruling hierarchy of bishops.  The Roman Catholic Church is itself now engaged in the kind of conflict that characterized us at  Maryknoll.  Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the RC Church and not returning.  Pope Francis knows that change is called for, but I’m not sure at this point how fully he understands what needs to be done, or indeed how to do it.  My fear is that he will be loved by the people and eventually be canonized as a humble unpretentious pope who cared for the poor and who is held up as an example to the faithful.  But the Vatican power structure may remain, perhaps a little battered but fundamentally unscathed.

Perhaps I am wrong and real change is coming.  I think since 9/11 something similar may be happening in America.

Perhaps the tectonic plates really are shifting.

March 4, 2013

The gift

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:56 pm

I have just heard that Pat Logan died recently.  Pat, along with perhaps three or four other people during my years as a Maryknoll sister,  changed my world view as well as my view of myself.  We worked together in the Publicity Department at the Motherhouse, and Pat is the one who wrote the scripts for the Maryknoll Sisters’ weekly television show, “Let’s Talk About God,” on NBC in New York, in which I held conversations with children- well, puppets – who freely expressed their questions and opinions about whatever topic seemed relevant at the time.

Pat herself was as questioning as the puppets she created.  She was dedicated, energetic, and unorthodox.  She was born in Scotland, and came to the States when her Scottish father immigrated as part of his work during World War II.  Now that I’m living in Britain, I’m not sure Pat was quite as unorthodox as I thought then.  Part of her was Scottish.  But however much of her presentation was cultural, Pat had a liberating independence of spirit that was beyond culture.

It may be that the Maryknoll superiors knew something that I didn’t when they refused her permission to make final vows.  But I’ve often thought it was that independence that was the basic problem.  The RC Church was reeling with the shake-up begun by Vatican II, as well as the changes taking place in American society reflected in the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Corps.  Our superiors were as shaken as most of the older generation by the seemingly insubordinate attitudes of the young who thought we were going to create a great new world.  Hundreds of women were either told or chose to leave Maryknoll during this upheaval.

Pat did not want to leave Maryknoll – she thought she had a vocation.  I think she did.  But she belonged to a Maryknoll that has emerged from the tormented crisis of the 1960’s and 70’s.  The Maryknoll Sisters, unlike the Vatican, did not try to obliterate the teachings of Vatican II, but has done a great deal to understand and live by them.

Pat and I were not permitted to be in contact after she left Maryknoll, and when I left myself several years later, I had no idea for many years where she was.  We finally contacted each other just before my husband and I returned to Europe.  By that time, I’d had a university career, married, lost a child.  But learning that I was not bitter or angry about my time in Maryknoll seemed to give Pat the greatest joy.

We talked again several times over the years, but living on two different continents in those days made communication expensive.

Pat is another one of those people to whom I never thought to say thank you.  She quite possibly wouldn’t have even known what I was talking about, and still being Scottish in some deep recess of her American self, she might have found it embarrassing if I’d tried.  She would have said she was just being herself.

And she was.  There was a no-nonsense down-to-earth quality about her, undisturbed by her significant gifts.  She cared about people.  She wanted to make a contribution.  But she didn’t think one should make a big show of it.  You just did your best, which in Pat’s case was often quite outstanding.

That’s why she gave me so much.

January 18, 2013

The stripping of shelf

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:11 pm

In my continued effort not to leave too much detritus for my heirs to trash, yesterday I resumed my attack on my book shelves, and  tackled my three bibles, one hymn book, and four volumes of the Divine Office which I took with me when I left the convent.  That they have travelled through six homes and three continents is not an indicator of their use for the last 50 years or so.  It always just seemed easier to pack them than to decide what to do with them.

We have a copy of the King James translation of the bible which is so incredibly beautiful it’s almost possible to turn me back into a True Believer.  In the rare times when I would like to consult the bible, the King James is my choice.  So my Jerusalem, the Knox,  and the Standard translations are going to Oxfam.  Perhaps they will spend their last days in a hotel drawer.

Before engaging in this generous donation, though, I thought it best to remove the holy cards which I’d collected as book marks during my Maryknoll years.  Reading them I was a little embarrassed by the intensity and naiveté of most of us during that time.  Oh how seriously we took ourselves, how utterly sincere we were.  And in fairness, how dedicated.

But the holy card I love best and that did not join the other missives in the trash came from my irreverent little sister.

Botanical - Banana plant - Italian

“The stripping of self leads to plenty”

On the front is a quote from G. Thibon who Wikipedia says was a French philosopher-farmer who died at the age of 98 about ten years ago.  On the back is my sister’s cheeky note:  “Since you won’t be wearing it anymore, can I have your blue skirt?”

January 12, 2013

Poor me

I’ve just been given an insight that is so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t understood it before.  It’s about the Christian message to serve the poor.

Even as a young Maryknoller committed to working with the poor in undeveloped countries, I had a problem with this teaching.  It felt too much like bribery to me – this idea that we care for the needs of others and in return convert them to our religious beliefs.  Shouldn’t we, I thought, separate the two?  shouldn’t we either say we were trying to convert others or serve others, but make sure the two things were not associated together?  If we didn’t, wouldn’t people reasonably conclude that the Christian God offered both good fortune in this world, as well as in heaven?

What I have just realized is that “the poor” is all of us.  Serving the poor isn’t about economic poverty – it’s about noticing and caring and giving and sharing in relation to any need.  “The poor” aren’t just the sick or the disabled or the elderly.  They aren’t just children or those suffering grief or misfortune.  It’s not just those displaced by a tsunami or fire, not just the starving or refugees from war.

It’s also the well-off, the competent, the pillars of society too, people with full-time jobs with responsibility, who are in decent housing they can afford.  Because we all need kindness and compassion.  We all need companionship and appreciation for what we do.   We all get ourselves into messes and confusions and attacks of loneliness and regret and need help.

I find this idea liberating.  Even as I sit in front of my computer too expensive for many people in the world to afford, living in my centrally heated house with running hot and cold water, I too am among the poor.

Whatever kindness, however trivial, any of us engages in, is not less significant because we aren’t among the economically deprived.  We are each incomplete in many ways and we need others, perhaps not for money, but for love, for understanding, for respect, we need forgiveness,  to learn almost everything.  Even to want to live at all.

I’ve called this a Christian message, because that is the form in which I was introduced to it.  But it’s a human message.  It spans all religions and non-religions, in every human community that has ever existed.

We’re all poor in some critical way.  We all need each other.  Like it or not – and sometimes I admit I don’t – we’re all in this together.

September 27, 2012

When the convent represented liberation

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

Last week I watched an interview with Mary Robinson, the former president of the Ireland and later a UN commissioner for human rights.  She has just published her autobiography Everybody Matters.  Listening to her describe her life choices was like listening to a description of myself at the age of 18.

Robinson was born to a Catholic family in Ireland in 1944.  She said she had decided to join the convent because it was the only way she could see that she could use her full abilities to help build a better world.  Only nuns, as far as she could see, were not enclosed in a world in which they could not really be anything but secondary citizens, always following someone else’s directions, never being truly creative leaders in their own right.  (There are my words, by the way, not Robinsons’s, but I think I am not distorting her meaning.)

In Mary Robinson’s case, she went to Paris before entering the convent, where she discovered that she did not have to be a nun to make the contribution to the world which she wanted to try to make.  So she never did become a nun, but became a lawyer instead.

The interview made me ask just how many women entered the convent in the past with hopes and views like this.  How many young women went into the convent not to run away, not because they were afraid, not because they wanted somebody else to tell them what to do.  But because it was the most liberated path open to them.

And for many it was.  In America, nuns were among the first female doctors, the first female heads of hospitals and schools, the first female university professors, effectively the first female CEO’s.  Even today, this spirit is evident in the “nuns in the bus.”

But today, not nearly as many young women are entering the convent as they used to.

But perhaps it is not because so many women can’t imagine a life without sex, or because there are not as many young women who want to help build a better world.

It might just be that there are more ways to do it without entering a convent.

May 10, 2012

My sisters after all

I doubt that I share a single Catholic doctrine with 99.9% of American nuns.  And so I have assumed that I simply do not belong to that community by any definition of the term.

But I’m somewhat surprised to discover that I do.  Faith among the early Christian communities did not mean doctrinal agreement as it has come to be taught by the Roman Catholic church today.  It meant faithfulness to each other, it meant helping when the other was in need, it meant respecting each other.  It meant the Good Samaritan not the hypocritical Pharisees presiding over the temple.

And by that definition, I find that I am absolutely still part of that community of which so many American nuns are such a heart-stopping example.

There is a gathering in support of American nuns being held outside New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral next Tuesday at 4:30.  If it didn’t involve my having to book an international air flight, I’d be there.

It might be that I am far too separated from American Catholicism to make a valid judgement.  But I just can’t see the Vatican winning this fight against American nuns.  I don’t give donations to the Catholic church.  But I would contribute to the pensions of nuns rather than see them out on the street like so many millions of people they have helped.

I’m surprised to discover just how roused I am capable of becoming over this issue.  But the thing is I don’t think I’m unusual.  The following letter to Cardinal Dolan in Rome rather catches the spirit, I think.

Posted: 05/08/2012 4:46 pm

 Dear Cardinal Dolan,

Because “60 Minutes” names you Our Man in Rome (as the most likely to become the first American Pope), I’m writing to ask about the Vatican’s investigation of American nuns — presumably for not being “Catholic enough.” Can you find out: What is the Pope thinking? Can you influence this disastrous endeavor?

Let’s assume the Vatican lacks knowledge of the role of nuns in American history: those women who pioneered health treatments, of cancer and hospice (Sister Rose Hawthorne Lathrop), of alcoholics (Sister Mary Ignatia) and of lepers (Mother Marianne Cope); who built schools –through college — to educate African- and Native-Americans more than 80 years before our Civil Rights movement began (St. Katharine Drexel); and the colonist who founded the first American religious order (St. Elizabeth Seton) to care for poor children. Does the Pope know that American nuns developed the first infant incubator, built and ran the hospital that became Mayo Clinic and founded the world’s largest private school system? That nuns were once THE educated working women in our country, establishing orphanages, hospitals and social service agencies with creativity, grit and perseverance (and sometimes being silenced by their bishops for their innovations).

If the Pope does not consider this history significant to today’s nuns, please appeal to the Vatican’s self-interest. I’m aware that public relations is not a Vatican concern (nor even a concept) and that our hierarchy responds globally to crises with advice only from its lawyers. But isn’t it time to ask the Pope: How’s that been working out for you? It’s time to suggest firing the lawyers and hiring a public relations consultant.

Please don’t forget to quote those adjectives the U. S. media use to describe this “insulting” “immoral” “abusive” “sexist” “hostile” investigation. Newspapers claim the nuns are “being bullied” by the Vatican, and speculating that the underlying motive of this “inquisition” is for the Vatican to raid the assets of female religious orders to help pay claims from the pedophile lawsuits. Note that this is just what our Catholic media is saying!

Please also warn the Pope about repercussions in terms of branding and image. These elderly women — their average age is 70 — who’ve spent their lives as poorly paid servants in parishes and communities, are still working because they were given no pensions or health care benefits. They cannot afford to retire. Their only rest will come in their coffins, when each sister is buried with the letter she wrote when she entered her convent decades ago, telling why she chose to serve God by serving others. Common decency aside, common sense dictates that sympathy will be for these women, rather than for the powerful men investigating them.

It’s also been reported that because the Vatican suspects our nuns of disregarding Catholic teaching on certain hot-button issues, it needs to determine if these sisters are verifiably Catholic. No doubt birth control is one of these issues. But why pick on our nuns? More than 77 percent of American Catholics consider using birth control morally acceptable. None of us can recall the last time we heard a priest support the Vatican’s birth control ban from the pulpit; even our pastors — looking into parishes with two-child families — know that that ship has sailed. It left way back in 1963, when the pill was prescribed by Catholic doctors for the health and welfare of mothers and families. Our nuns should be the last to be interrogated on this issue, and at this late date.

Our Catholic media also speculates that the investigation is an attempt by the Vatican to influence American politics, specifically to oust President Obama. Has anyone pointed out to the Pope that even Catholic Republicans did not vote for the Catholic, Rick Santorum, who championed the Church’s birth control ban? GOP Catholics support the Mormon!

Perhaps the sisters have been discussing the ordination of women and married people, though open discussion of this is forbidden by the Vatican. Please inform the Holy Father that we’ve all been discussing that, for decades. Tell him about the doctrines we cherish, the First Amendment to our Constitution, and Article 6, #1782 in the Catechism on “Moral Conscience”: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

OK, let’s admit that the “f-word” has surfaced in coverage of this nightmare, as the most damning charge of all. U.S. bishops reportedly alerted the Vatican that many of our nuns are … Feminists. That may be because our American sisters took Vatican II and Pope John XXIII seriously 50 years ago, when they were challenged to rethink their vocations, “to make the truth of the Gospel shine,” and to “dedicate [them]selves without fear to that work which our era demands of us.” The nuns quit wearing the medieval habits that separated them from others, and many moved from convents into a larger community to serve in new ways. They also embraced the Council’s call for dialogue, by not only talking with but listening to those they serve, many of whom are poor women. Would that our hierarchy could seek and get such an education!

These questions remain: Does the Pope really want to force American Catholics to choose between standing with our nuns or with a male hierarchy interrogating them for nebulous infractions, with a stated agenda of keeping their findings secret? Where could we find Jesus in all this — among our nuns, whose life of service is based on the Gospels’ call to justice and charity, or in the Vatican, whose concerns appear to be power and secrecy? At the very least, let the investigators ask those who know our nuns best — the homeless, prisoners, battered women and their children, immigrants, inner-city students, the disabled, the bereaved and the bullied — if these elderly women are “Catholic enough.” And if not, then who is? Is even the Pope “Catholic enough”?

Carol DeChant founded the public relations firm DeChant-Hughes & Associates, Inc. Her recent book is “Great American Catholic Eulogies” (ACTA Publishers).

March 22, 2011

A different road

Several years ago I returned to Maryknoll, the motherhouse of the order of nuns to which I belonged for nine years.  I was there to give a talk to current and former Maryknollers about my book The Big Bang to Now.   It’s a book based on current scientific thought and research, including most significantly, Darwin’s theory of evolution.

There were some listening to what I had to say who were made extremely uncomfortable:  Where was the Garden of Eden in all of this?  where, even, was God?

But what, in retrospect, impressed me most was not their confusion.  It was their ability to put it aside.  It was their ability not to dismiss me as a faithless sinner probably careening down the road to hell.  There was a split between what I would now call faith and belief.  The teachings of the Catholic Church did not inform my world view.  But somehow the women there were able to dismiss this.

And I think that has been a characteristic of many Maryknollers from the very beginning.  I myself cannot live as a participant in a community that is overtly committed to a view of the world with which I am fundamentally at odds.  But many of these men and women can.  And do.

I came away after that weekend at Maryknoll feeling that, although it was not my way, there is something there of deep and profound value.  And something that, to some extent, I was perhaps missing.  They trust what they know.  The contradictions between this and standard doctrine may have been a concern, but if something was going to take second place, it was the doctrine, not their conviction that people have a universal right to love and respect.  Whatever the Church’s dogma might say, what drives so many of them is that children should not have to live on the street, that mothers should not have to die giving birth because there is no medical help, that people should not be starving, that young women should not be driven to prostitution because they are bringing in the only income in the family, that learning how to read makes a difference to people’s lives that matters.

I don’t want to turn all Maryknollers into saints.  They aren’t.

But it is often too easy for me to see the flaws and limitations, and to miss the obvious:  that somehow so many of these women seem to have quietly been able to hold onto the most basic of Christian messages.  And that is a message of love and hope and peace.

If one has that, everything else is optional.  And if you don’t have that, one is not a christian.

September 18, 2010

Coming home again

As I have said several times before in this blog, it was my husband who first suggested to me more than 35 years ago that “not being a Catholic anymore” involved a lot more than just not believing in the various doctrines of Catholicism or not going to Mass on Sundays.

My insights into just how broadly and deeply and profoundly my early religious upbringing shaped the whole structure of my world and the depths of my personality have never stopped.  I reached what I thought was a culmination several months ago with the huge liberation I felt when I realized I’d rejected absolutely the existence of another world of spirits, of heaven or hell, that somehow is supposed to transcend this universe.  I belong here, not somewhere else, I evolved within this universe, when I die all what is me will remain a part of this universe.  I’m not going anywhere else.  I’m already home.

I’ve just come to understand, though, in another way just how alienating the metaphysics underlying Catholic teaching has been for me.  To some extent this is probably true for all Catholics, but it has been especially so for me, I think, because I was quicker than most to grasp the theological and philosophical issues to which I was exposed even as a child listening to the erudite discussions that took place around our dinner table.

What Catholic doctrine did for me was far more than teach me some critical  dogmas like the teaching that Jesus was both God and man, that he physically rose from the dead after his crucifixion, and that his disciples watched him ascend to heaven some time after that.  Those beliefs I gave up long ago.

The much longer struggle has been for me first to recognize and then to change my tendency to ignore my personal experiences as inferior to reasoning.  Far too often, I have looked first for the “right” answer.  If my own intuitions or experiences don’t match that right answer, then it was my feelings that were wrong.  In fact, my feelings were completely unimportant, were irrelevant to assessing the situation.

Now there is nothing wrong with not trusting one’s intuitions without reservation.  In fact, it is an extremely important thing to do.  But there is something terribly askew if one never questions the “right” answers either, if one never really says to oneself “what do I think?  what do I want?  how do I feel about this?”  And that is what I have done far more often than I would had I not been such an accomplished Catholic thinker.

For example, when I decided to enter the convent, I never asked myself if I wanted to be a nun.  I asked myself if God had called me to be a nun.  The decision, in other words, was not mine but God’s.  Once I decided God had called me, I had to answer it whether or not I wanted to.  I do not remember ever once asking myself what I wanted to do with my life.  The “right” answer to that question lay somewhere else:  what did God want me to do with the life he’d given me?

In the same way, after I entered the convent, we were each asked by our superiors when they were considering whether we should be accepted to take our vows, if we’d been happy since we had come there.  A good friend of mine answered “no.”  I was appalled.  “No” was absolutely the wrong answer!  If you said no, you wouldn’t be accepted.  And she wasn’t.

But my own error was even greater.  I said yes, I had been happy.  But I said it because I knew it was the right answer.  I wasn’t aware of this.  But I did not even ask myself if I’d been happy.  Referring to my own feelings was irrelevant.  If I was going to stay in the convent, I was supposed to be happy, and so the right answer was that I was.

Yesterday I was reading Tony Equale’s newest book The Mystery of Matter in which he discusses the difference in Greek philosophy of existence and essence.  Essence, he points out, is what really matters;  existence is somehow secondary.  And I suddenly realized how profoundly this apparently esoteric distinction going back 4,000 years has influenced my own thinking processes all my life.

And in a matter of minutes, I understood something about myself I have been puzzling about for decades.  Why do I like modern art and feel so constricted by renaissance artists?  Why do I find such delight in discovering that even the strongest scientific theories have cracks in them?  Why do I feel so constrained by rigidly laid out gardens and so liberated by naturalistic plantings?  Or why do I remember so vividly the student who did not have the capacity to analyze the problem but who looked at me and said stubbornly “The data is wrong:  blacks aren’t less smart than white people.  It’s just wrong.  I can’t explain it.  But it’s wrong.”  And why did I know she was right, and why did I spend the next decade of my career analyzing that data which looked so convincing but which somehow I too knew was wrong?

It’s as if something in me has always been saying “smash the damn right answers;  right answers are never absolute;  right answers aren’t everything.”  But I never knew before what it was that I wanted to put in the place of those right answers.

And I realized as I was reading a the recent post on Equale’s blogthat what I want to put in place of those right answers is myself, is the validity of my own experience.  I feel as if until now part of me hasn’t ever let the other part of me actually live.

I’m an old woman now.  But I’m dancing.

I’ve come home again.

June 13, 2010

The genetics of intelligence

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:21 pm

I was reminded yesterday by a friend from my Maryknoll days of an event that occurred at the girls’ school I attended during adolescence.  We’d all taken IQ tests and one of the students whose conscience was less overly-socialized than my own good-girl sense of right and wrong got a hold of the scores.

She told me my score although at that time I had little idea what it meant.  I think I thought 100 was the best possible grade one could get, and had no idea what to make of a number that was higher than that.  I did hope that 1000 was not the high-water mark.

I also had no appreciation of just how limited a part of human abilities are encompassed by the standard intelligence test.  It does not include creativity, interpersonal skills, musical or artistic talent, or athletic skill.  So it is possible for a very intelligent person by standards of an IQ test to be severely limited.

At the time, I mentioned my apparent IQ score to Father Basil, my father’s best friend from high school days and a wonderful Catholic academic priest whose weekly visits greatly enriched our family dinner.

“That’s impossible,” he said.  “If that were your IQ, you would be as smart as your father.”

And even at the age of 15, I accepted his conclusion without doubt.  Of course I could not possibly be as smart as my dad, because women are genetically incapable of being as smart as men.

It was a Maryknoll sister whom I’ve written about before who smashed this icon.  I took philosophy and history classes with her and sat there amazed.  It was not true that women were incapable of advanced analytic, incisive thought!

I’d always enjoyed thinking – quite possibly more than any other single activity I could name even now.  But Sister Edith opened that door for me.  It was, I think, the greatest gift I received during my nine years in Maryknoll.

It is obvious to me now that, admirable as many Maryknollers are, Maryknoll was the wrong choice for me.  If I’d not been kept in the motherhouse for so long working in the kitchen and bakery, the sewing room, and the pantry but been selected earlier to go to university, I might have stayed in the convent.  In retrospect, it is fortuitous that I was not.  Because I did ultimately end up in academia where I had a lot more to contribute than I might ever have been able to contribute working among the poor in a foreign country.

And perhaps it is not a total coincidence that I ended up being a cognitive psychologist asking “how is it that we know what we know?”

February 23, 2010

Utopia for all

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:32 pm

I was thinking today of my youthful ambition to transform the world in my likeness.  I am profoundly grateful that the vision collapsed in nine years.

With the best will in the world, I entered Maryknoll to make the world a better place.  But the problem wasn’t that I hadn’t any idea what a better world should be like.  The problem was that I did.  Like so many other men and women – some egomaniacs, some truly loving selfless and dedicated men and women – I was convinced that I knew what better was.

As we trawl our way through this second millenium of the common era, we have the ruins of hundreds of utopias to study.  Yet the dream doesn’t die.  With globalization, we are reducing our diversity, our cultural differences, our various ways of making our institutions from families to economies to governments, work.

Wouldn’t it be absolutely awful if we managed to make every society in the world in our image?

Wouldn’t the loss be beyond measure?

And wouldn’t it be boring!

January 28, 2010

48 hours

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:26 pm

When my husband and I gave up our university jobs and moved to Spain in 1986, we were told it would take 17 days to get a telephone.  We thought that was a rather long time, but decided we could survive the wait.

In fact, it took four years and $4,000.  Even then we didn’t get a land line phone but were able to buy a mobile phone at an exorbitant price.  Not that it was a mobile phone anyone would recognize today.  It was about the size and weight of a medium-size brick, and was mobile only insofar as it had to be positioned to access a satellite signal because there were still no telephone lines for miles around.

Two days ago, a telephone engineer switched the cables controlling our home telephone and internet service in a central control box several blocks away.  By unhappy chance, our mobile phone also stopped working, apparently blown out by an electrical surge through the charger.

For 48 hours we have been in the middle of England in a communications black-out.  48 hours was bad enough.  How we ever survived four years in Spain like this is more than I can fathom.  I do recall feeling then as if I might, quite seriously, go mad.

But 48 hours hasn’t been all bad.  These two days has made me aware of just how much time and energy I spend on email, reading papers and books online, posting this blog, and keeping abreast of current affairs.

I found myself almost without thought crafting a schedule for myself not too dissimilar from the one I lived as a Maryknoll nun.  I divided the day into segments with various tasks given only an allotted time.  I am amazed to discover how productive I have been.  I’ve been much more focused and wasted a lot less time on trivia.

I am now, however, dead tired.

September 26, 2009

An innocent question

Filed under: Life as a Nun,The English — theotheri @ 4:11 pm

England is strewn with abbeys closed by Henry VIII in the 16th century.  They were methodically stripped of their roofs and any valuables, and today they stand as haunting historic ruins, a reminder that even power seemingly backed up by the unassailable authority of God will not last forever.

What struck me about these abbeys when we were visiting one with our guests last week wasn’t this loss of power and prestige, however, so much as the process of globalization that has taken place for the last millenium.  Today it might be Walmarts and Tyotas that mark worldwide globalization.  Then it was Christianity.  By the 7th century, this included monastic life of the abbeys and convents which are now spread all over Europe and the Americas.  I recognize their layouts and the life styles they represent immediately.

They may be ruins, they may still be occupied and used for their original purpose,  or even converted into apartments or hotels.  But the monastic life around which they were originally built is unmissable.  I recognize them like the streets of my hometown, because I lived for nine years as a nun and the fundamental structure has not changed for more than a thousand years.

There is the church, of course, the cells, the refectory and kitchens.  And there is the chapter room where the community met.  Usually it was to deal with questions of regular discipline and where the Chapter of Faults took place.  I explained to my husband and guests how it operated.  One by one, each individual stood before the community and accused herself of the faults she had committed since the last chapter.  After the recitation, she lay prostate on the floor and received the penance from the superior.  Then the next sister stood up and accused herself until every individual had confessed their faults before the community.

“What did you do if you hadn’t committed any faults?” my husband asked.

That could not happen.  To pronounce oneself to be blameless would of itself be an exhibition of the great sin of pride.  Far far better to make a sin up than to stand in speechless innocence.

However, there was always several fall back positions.  One was to confess to breaking “custody of the eyes.”  Breaking custody of the eyes meant that one had looked around, had displayed interest or curiosity in the people or events around you.  In my time, there was also always the potential of confessing to “recreating in two’s.”  As young nuns we were never permitted to have a conversation involving less than three people.  Although this was never said, the obvious purpose of this rule was to reduce the possibility of homosexual attachments but confessing to breaking this rule did not seem to suggest that the sinner was a lesbian, so it was a useful fall-back in case of need.

Neither of these rules are extant among Maryknollers today.  But there are still many convents – including in America – where they are still taken with deadly seriousness.

July 24, 2009

A problem with heaven

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:09 pm

I realized again today my problem with heaven as a perfect place.  It occurred just when I thought I’d eliminated the blockage in our kitchen sink with about $30 worth of Drano.  It backed up again into the conservatory.

It’s not that in my ideal heaven, drains would routinely back up anywhere, and certainly not into one of our favourite rooms.

In fact, my first thought wasn’t heaven at all, but something more like its opposite.

I’d already determine that the blockage was not between the sink and the conservatory outlet, but somewhere under the floor in the pipe that leads to the outside sewer.  So I opened up the pipe cap on the floor and removed about two feet of smelly dirty water.  I tried to syphon it out with an old piece of hose, but getting it started by sucking the water through the hose was more than I could contemplate.  So I bailed it out using a six-ounce bottle.  I eventually hit something white and soft.

Since the stuff was white and this was at the bottom of the drain, I thought at first that some previous owner had tried to block off the drain and whatever they had used had corroded.  But as I began to pull it out, I realized it was an accumulation of years of fat which must have been poured down the sink.  It was two feet under the floor and probably about six inches deep.

I was lying on the floor digging it out in handfuls when Peter walked in.  He was appalled, and said I’d not earned my Ph.D. to clean sewage pipes.  I told him to go away.

It took about an hour, and when I was finished I put every stitch of clothing I’d been wearing into a 90 degree wash, and stepped into the shower that was almost as hot.

And I did it.  I solved the problem, and the water has been running out of the sink with a speed it’s not had since we moved in.

And that’s my problem with a perfect heaven.  It’s not that I would like to have a career cleaning sewers.  But I do enjoy solving problems.

In heaven, I might even find myself tempted to break up the boredom by collaborating with Lucifer to create a little havoc that I could then go in and organize.

The problem of boring is not, I admit, quite up to the standard of the problem of evil.  But it probably illustrates see why I didn’t last all that long in the convent.

July 5, 2009

From a young age

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:07 pm

In the Cambridge Botanical Gardens this morning, I saw a girl probably about six years old walking with her parents.  She was wearing an academic gown.  It was a miniature version (or was made for a very short professor) but she wore it with the casual aplomb of an experienced member of faculty.

It reminded me, when I was just about her age, that I used to go to my bedroom and dress up in my self-designed nun’s habit.  As I recall, I wasn’t concerned about becoming a a holy person.  I spent too much time looking in the mirror reaching the conclusion that I might make quite a fetching nun.

Unfortunately, the first time I put on the authentic nun’s habit as a Maryknoll novice, my priorities had not altered much.  I remember heading for the nearest mirror and evaluating my image.  I thought then, too, that I looked quite attractive, seeing as I had to do without any make up.

At least I eventually decided that I did not belong in the convent.  Though it was not with a great deal of self-knowledge even then.  I left saying that I could not live the life I’d entered Maryknoll to live.  That may have been true, but my deeper motives at that point were still pretty well buried.

Yet, it is often possible in retrospect to see in children the directions that their lives will take.

I wonder about the girl in the garden today.  Will she become an academic?  or merely a clothes horse with a great sense of style?

June 22, 2008

Re-assessing celibacy in the Catholic Church

Since the documentary last week about Father Cleary, I have been re-evaluating my thoughts about clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.  Despite the fact that recent popes have adamantly refused to consider a married clergy, it is worth remembering that even in the RC Church, clerical celibacy did not become a requirement until the 13th century, when it was imposed in an attempt to control wide-spread abuse.  Additionally, it is a practice which has never been introduced by the Orthodox Catholic Church, and a requirement which is not being universally imposed on some converts from among the Anglican clergy who are already married.  So clerical celibacy is not in that circle of doctrinal beliefs like the divinity of Christ, for instance, or the Trinity of God, which Rome believes could not be changed.

The traditional argument in favour of clerical celibacy with which I grew up, and which is still the principle defence used by the Church, is that celibacy frees the priest from the demands of a wife and family, giving him greater freedom to respond without limits to the needs of the Catholic community which he serves.  I pretty much accepted this view as I was growing up, including the corollary that celibacy was a higher calling demanding greater sacrifice than marriage.  This puts the celibate on just a little higher level than the ordinary laity who have succumbed to the more basic needs of human life.

Examining this view in the light of nine years experience as a nun, and thirty-five years of marriage, I humbly suggest that this view of celibacy is a little off the mark.  Marriage is not easier than celibacy.  It is not a series of riotous romps in bed night after night.  On the contrary, living full time with another adult with opinions, evaluations, goals, and traditions different from ones own is one of the most demanding experiences life can offer.  Raising children together makes the task doubly demanding.  In my view, there is no other circumstance in life that puts greater demands on one’s personal egocentrism.  You just cannot make a marriage last without being willing to re-examine and frequently to relinquish many of your pet practices, assumptions, even, on occasion, convictions.

Sex can bring great pleasure.  But it often does not.  The divorce rate makes it clear that sex in itself does not hold a marriage together.  In any case, making a marriage work sometimes is simply impossible.  But even in the most successful marriages, there are days when it seems unachievable at any cost, or at least more difficult than is worth it.  I like being married.  It is one of the best things that I have ever done, and my husband is one of the most wonderful things in my life.  But it has not always been easy, and it is I who have made it difficult as often as my partner, as we each attempt to stretch and grow and reach across that great space that exists between the human consciousness of two separate human beings.

So I think is marriage potentially one of the most maturing and rewarding of all human endeavours.  At the same time, I think celibacy is frequently a dangerous state in which the self-centered egocentrism of childhood remains unchallenged throughout adulthood.  As a result a tremendous number of celibate priests remain immature, cursed with the arrogance that comes with a life-time of never being challenged, lacking the courage that comes when one enters into a close enduring relationship with an equal adult.

I fear this childish arrogance and unexamined self-satisfaction often reaches deep into the  Roman Catholic hierarchy itself.  Many in the hierarchy also strike me as incredibly naive about sexual matters, placing all sexual indiscretions in the same shameful category.  Homosexuality between consenting adults is just as sinful as paedophilia, which is equally as perverted as transvestism or having an affair with a woman, married or not.  An underlying assumption is that these problems occur because some men simply do not have the strength of character and self-control to maintain their vow of celibacy.  Sexual indiscretions have been treated with such cowardice and secrecy and their discovery the source of such shame that serious help for the errant priest to face and deal with his problems has often been effectively unavailable.

Of course, just as marriage is not a fail-safe map for growth and maturity, celibacy is not an inescapable curse of immaturity.  But having lived both life styles, it’s going to take a lot to convince me that celibacy is the higher road.

Thinking it over, I think the Roman Catholic Church would benefit a great deal more from a married clergy than a celibate one. 

May 11, 2008

A quick PS and a small retraction

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:11 pm

At least half a dozen people have responded privately to my saying in a post last week that, after my visit to Maryknoll, I would never give another homily.  Consequently, I have been unable to let my comment go without re-thinking it.  First, it was perhaps a rather self-centered thing to say, based as it was on the view that people were seeing me as a source of spiritual direction as I stood up there during the liturgy.  So my horror at being perceived as a preacher (instead of a teacher) was at the very least a little Over The Top. 

And I must confess that I myself learned more about hope in the process of preparing this homily, or self-reflection.  And it seems that other people did too.  One person came close to reprimanding me for not accepting the gifts that I have and the obligation to use them. 

So I take it back.  I think it unlikely that another situation will arise in my lifetime when I will actually be asked to give a reflection during a liturgy.   But if I were, I would do my best to do so.  I think I might even look forward to the unlikely opportunity, and approach it with a little less self-importance.

In any case, the whole Maryknoll visit was a significant learning experience for me, which I enjoyed way beyond the bounds of most run-of-the-mill enjoyments.

May 8, 2008

In opposition

I’ve just emptied my email trash box filled with panting assurances that “bigger is better.”  This and “younger is more beautiful,” are among the modern advertisements I find most annoying.

I’ve only recently developed an annoyance with the association of young with beautiful.  It is no such thing.  Just today in the supermarket I saw a stunning grey-haired woman probably in her seventies, and the most attractive airline stewardess on American flight I took last week was at least in her mid-fifties.  And look around.  It’s not hard to find young people who are not beautiful by any standard.

However, the “Bigger is Better” mantra is the deeper of my annoyances, probably because I’ve been getting over it for longer.  I was named after St. Therese, the Little Flower, which annoyed me as soon as I was old enough to understand the import of it.  I had no desire or intention to be little anything, and thought at the very least, my parents could have had the foresight to name be after Teresa of Avila who was adviser to Popes and Kings.  By middle age, though, I’d begun to get an inkling that bigger was possibly overdone.  Great people were not always so great, nor, as I wandered through grave yards and cast my eyes upon famous effigies, did greatness really seem to have a long half-life.  Then I began to read about quantum mechanics, where little and big, top and bottom, existing and nonexistent, before and after, are muddled completely. 

It gradually dawned on me that Bigger is perhaps antithetical to the constrains of human-ness.  Needing to be immensely important, terribly powerful, overwhelmingly effective, or hugely influential as I was conceiving them for myself are pretty much beyond the potential of human limitations of time and space.  We cannot hope, or be expected, to do more than fill that small modicum of time and space given to us in one life time.  And so I find great contentment today in being immensely unimportant, ineffective, and of very little influence.  And big, whether it is in political ambition or sexual prowess, holds no allure for me or for anyone whom I love.

Which is probably why I found the story in Maryknoll Sister Jean Pruitt’s brochure about the home she founded in Tanzania for street children so wonderful.  The story is about an old woman who walked each day along the beach as the ocean tide receded to return stranded star fish to the sea.  A young man laughed at her saying there were hundreds of star fish and she couldn’t possibly make a difference.  “It makes a difference to this one,” she said, as she returned another to the water.


May 5, 2008

Bee colony collapse disorder

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

When I was at Maryknoll last weekend, someone asked me what I knew about bee colony collapse and its relationship to genetically modified crops.  She said she’d read that first generation bees seemed to show no effect, but second generation bees suffered from serious immune deficiencies that made them vulnerable to the viruses and diseases that seemed to be wiping them out.

I had not heard about this possibility before, although I was aware that the sudden and unexplained collapse of bee colonies was becoming a serious concern to American farmers who depend on the bees to pollinate their crops.  So I did a search on Google to see what I could learn.  I appreciate that using the internet as a source of reliable information much be approached with great caution and belief should be suspended until one is sure of the reliability of the source. 

Nonetheless, what I read is leading me to follow this question up with some serious concern.  I think it is not hysterical hype to believe that the collapse of bee colonies and other pollinating insects (which are also declining, but not as the same rate as bees) is potentially catastrophic.  Unlike global warming which could gradually squeeze essential water and food supplies over the next half century or so, bee colony collapse could lead to a devastating loss of almost all the world’s entire food supply in less than a decade.

So how bad, really, is the problem, and what is causing it?  I’m fairly certain that it is reliable information that 1/2 of  all American states are affected, most badly on the east and west coasts where 60-70%  of the bee colonies have collapsed without apparent cause, and that the disorder has now begun to spread to Europe.  I don’t know at this point how fast it is spreading, nor how much of our food supply is actually imminently under threat.  I am going to try to find out.

The cause or causes of the disorder are equally problematic.  Some scientists say we simply do not know at this point.  Some think the radiation generated by mobile phones is contributing to the problem, while others are looking for some toxin or chemical fertilizer, as well as at some types of GM crops.  There are reports that when the colonies collapse, other insects do not raid them for their honey, which is usually the case, and that the dead and dying bees show unusually high levels of viral infection.  I have been aware that the US government has put some money into research toward solving this problem, but I haven’t had bee colony collapse disorder high enough on my worry list to keep abreast of current developments.

However, the problem has just made a giant leap up my Priority List of Mega Concerns.   

May 4, 2008

Good will isn’t enough

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:22 pm

Since I returned from my visit to Maryknoll, I have been thinking about Sister Mary Edith who was the first person I remember suggesting that good intentions are not enough.  We were studying the Greek tragedies, and she said their basic message is that it isn’t sufficient to want to do the right thing.  If we do the wrong thing, there will be consequences that are often as disastrous as they would be if we had deliberately chosen to do evil or even innocently made a mistake.

This has become an important principle, and I’ve reflected on it in hundreds of different situations big and small.  If I mean to give my child an aspirin but give him a capsule of something less benign – Viagra, perhaps, or Valium – the consequences will be as bad as they would be if I had done it deliberately.  If a workman doesn’t close the cargo door before a plane takes off, it is as destructive whether it was on purpose or not.

I had this same nagging worry when I left Maryknoll last Sunday too.   Maryknollers are intelligent, educated, outstandingly caring and hard working.  But the majority I think, like most workers in developing countries, are not by nature analytic thinkers.  They are doers.  I’m not sure why this is so.  Is it a reflection of the basic attitudes of Christianity with the Pauline emphasis on conversion?  Is it the fundamentally doctrinaire approach of Roman Catholicism with its insistence on papal infallibility and its doctrinal rigidity?  Does it grow out of a conviction that however much we might strive to help the poor, material well-being is less important than obedience to God’s will and his commandments?  It may be all or some or none of these.  Whatever they may or may not be, I found myself wondering if Maryknoll’s outstanding capacities and dedication could be more effective if it were founded on a broader foundation of economics and social and political theory.

For myself, I had reached the conclusion even before leaving Maryknoll that striving to convert others was an assault on their dignity and culture.  I still believe that the only worthwhile thing to do is to live with as much integrity and love as one can, to be responsible for oneself in the service of others, and to let that speak for itself. 

I know now I never belonged at Maryknoll for the longer term, and it wasn’t because Maryknoll hadn’t changed fast enough or had left me to work in the kitchen and sewing room for almost nine years with decreasing hope of ever going to the missions.  I do not have the talents to be an activist.  I’m an academic.  I can think about social problems, understand economic theory, and explore the complexity of solving problems of poverty and education and injustice.  I can compare the effectiveness of different programs, and discuss their relative potential versus possible limitations.  But when it comes to putting these theories into practice, I am far less talented and lack the perseverence that is so outstanding among so many Maryknollers.

And I live with the terror of believing that simply wanting to do the right thing isn’t enough.  Hard-working, dedicated, intelligent people of immense good will don’t always achieve the good they hope for.  They We can also do terrible damage.

May 3, 2008

How young is being old

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:11 pm

During the four days at Maryknoll, a group of us who had entered there fifty years ago gathered together and took turns telling our stories.  We were mostly in our late teens and twenties when we first met, but in those days we were expected to cut ourselves off from the life “in the world” we had lived previously, and so few of us knew anything about each other except for the few years we had spent together in Maryknoll.  Many of the stories were riveting.

One was told by a woman who is still a Maryknoll sister about falling in love.  In some ways it was not remarkable.  But falling in love is always remarkable.  When it’s happening to you, it’s earth-shaking, it’s unique, it’s something without comparison.  And the dignity and humour with which she told her story was remarkable.  She met someone, she fell in love with him, and her world exploded. 

Ultimately, she stayed in Maryknoll and returned to the missions.   But I think few of us felt anything but gladness for her that she had known what falling in love is like.  As I listened, I thought of the three times I have been in love with an all-consuming passion.  Twice I walked away.  Like this nun, I cannot regret the loss.  It is often part of the price that has to be paid to preserve the love and life one has.  But I could never wish I had never known it, and neither did she.

There is something else too.  It is how young one feels in an old body.  We were a group of women, the youngest of whom are approaching 70 years of age.  But what it feels like to be in love feels as fresh as it did at 20.      

May 2, 2008

My revisit to Maryknoll

Filed under: Life as a Nun,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:37 pm

I returned yesterday to England after my return to a Maryknoll reunion at the motherhouse of the missionery order of nuns I joined 50 years ago and left 9 years later.  It wasn’t the first time I’d been back, but it was the first time I hadn’t just slipped in quietly to visit a friend for a few hours.  This was different.  This was meals in the convent refrectory – or perhaps it is now called a dining room.  We stayed in rooms very like those we inhabited as nuns, and there were no cloistered areas from which we were quietly excluded.  Differences between those of us who were no longer Maryknoll sisters but there only for the weekend and those still official members of the community were often indiscernible.

The weekend was a complex experience which I haven’t fully processed yet.  So I will probably write more than one post as I think it through.  The most outstanding, unmissable thing that has survived and even blossomed for me at the Maryknoll I saw this weekend is a generosity of spirit that permeates everything.  The overwhelming spirit is one of tolerance, a non-judgemental acceptance of life styles, with a great compassion and interest people of every persuasion and belief.  Everyone there had, at one time or other, decided to dedicate their lives as Maryknoll sisters to work and live with the poor in foreign countries.  Most of us hadn’t stayed the exact course, but in the face of a huge diversity, hardly anyone seems to have lost the essence of that first impulse that was just a little out of the ordinary, always just a little close to the edge.   The variety of religious belief or lack there of and the tolerance of sexual orientation and relationships that would have been considered at least unconventional four decades ago were -liberating.   For everyone, there was that concern for people, for earth, for giving something back for what we’d been given, to try to make some difference for the better.

For myself,  I was amazed by the enthusiasm and warmth with which I was both received and remembered.  So many women wanted to share so much with me, I was taken aback.  My first temptation was to wonder if I was actually quite such an extraordinary presence.  On second thought, I brought myself down to a more sober reality, but it was, nonetheless, an experience I ponder with some considerable pleasure, and possibly a modicum of confused humility. 

My presentation on the history of all of time and the subsequent discussion on science and religion were a delight to give.  There was the kind of interest and questions that most teachers would kill for.  One friend kept asking me if I was nervous about the upcoming presentation and afternoon discussion, and did not seem to believe me when I said I wasn’t.  But I was unprepared for my response to giving the homily during our closing liturgy.  Teaching is one thing;  preaching is quite another, and I was hugely uncomfortable. 

It isn’t that it wasn’t a good homily or that I offended anyone.  But I realized as I stood there in front of what had turned from a group of learners into a congregation of worshippers that exorting is profoundly different from teaching.  I am willing – perhaps some would say even exasperatingly eager – to express my opinion on any subject whatsoever about which I may or may not be informed.  But giving spiritual direction fills me with apprehension.  I will never again agree to giving a homily.

Which may explain why, as I left Maryknoll Sunday morning, I knew I did not belong there. 

About which more on another day.

April 21, 2008

Forward to the past

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:02 pm

Tomorrow I am flying to the States to return to the Maryknoll Motherhouse from which I left the convent 41 years ago.  I have been back to visit friends several times since, but during this visit I am making the keynote presentation to the annual reunion to which all Maryknoll sisters, past and present, are invited.  It is also the 50th anniversary reunion of the group of women who entered Maryknoll the same year as I.  I’m presenting a brief overview of (get ready for this) the history of the universe, which was the topic of my latest book.  I’m also giving a homily about hope (as in Faith, Hope, and Charity) at the liturgy.  I feel rather honoured, to tell the truth.

If anyone had suggested 41 years ago that Maryknoll would ever have me back under circumstances like this, I would have laughed at the fantasy.  It is quite astonishing how much Maryknoll has changed.  I think the nuns are expected to behave much more like responsible adults now than as submissive servants.  So I’m immensely eager to talk both to those who have remained and the much greater number who left Maryknoll but who, like me, are returning to touch base with old friends.

This will be my last posting for 12 days or so when I return to the UK. 

April 4, 2008

30 and counting

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:18 pm
Tags: ,

You may not have noticed, but my story which I have been blogging about in fitful stops and starts includes a fairly sizable gap between the night I walked out of the convent and the beginning of my relationship with Peter, who is my husband.  The gap is sex.

I left the convent in 1967, the era of hippies and the civil rights movement, of anti-war protests, drugs, free sex, and communes.   I was in terms of sexual experience still a naive 18-year-old from the mid-west, completely unprepared to understand the “liberated” world into which I waded in New York City.  I never got into serious drugs, but apart from that, I tried pretty much everything else on the list.  I discarded any sense that premarital or even extra-marital sex was immoral.  What was wrong with it, as long as one did not become pregnant and bring a child into the world without a functional father?

But I thought that for most people, sex was at least personal commitment.  Not necessarily marriage, but certainly that it represented some kind of  serious caring.  Oh wow, was I wrong.  And oh wow, was I cynical by the time I met Peter.  He was serious, but I dragged him through the mill, behaving with as much carelessness toward him as others had treated me.   

It’s not a time I remember with guilt, but I do remember it with some embarrassment at my simplicity, and with profound gratitude that I met someone like Peter.   It’s not a period I find any delight at recounting in any detail. 

With maturity and many years of marriage, I am still of the view that premarital and under some circumstances extra-marital sex is not de facto wrong.  But I now respect other women enough to feel that their partners are not free for the picking, whatever justification for wandering is proposed by the male half.  Even more importantly, perhaps, I do now appreciate that being faithful to ones partner creates a relationship of a depth and richness that is most unlikely in a situation of “free love.” 

In that context, I was somewhat appalled when the leader of the Liberal Democrat party here in Britain volunteered quite candidly that he had slept with “no more” than 30  women in his life.  The journalist reporting the story said they’d had a whip round the office, and it was agreed that this is about par for the course for a man today in his early 40’s.

My response is not that I’m an old fogey who is out of contact with the “real world” of the younger generation.  My response is that this is a middle-aged man who has not grown beyond the egocentric selfishness of childhood. 

It’s not 30 that I find so appalling, but the fact that in middle age he’s still counting, and doesn’t seem to think that this casual promiscuity is something he perhaps should have grown beyond.  The 17-year-old who reported recently that he was the father of five children by five different women seems irresponsible, but at least he’s not 40. 

Though come to think of it, the mind boggles if he follows the same stunted path as the Liberal Democrats’ leader.  Whose name, by the way, is Nick Clegg.  The press are referring to him as “Clegg-over.”

March 21, 2008

Geraldine and John

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:02 pm

I’m sitting here looking at a snap shot taken in the early 1970’s.  I’m sitting on a couch with Geraldine and John in their apartment in Paterson, New Jersey.

I’m dressed in a nun’s habit, with a medal around my neck, and wearing a veil that allowed a fringe of hair to show, the convent’s concession to modernization at that point.   Geraldine and John are in their early twenties.  Geraldine worked in the local hospital, John did odd jobs in the community.  They were quiet, retiring, kind people.  Geraldine tended to do the talking for both of them.  We became friends insofar as a Catholic nun living only temporarily in the community and a young Black couple can become friends.  I attended their church services on occasion and shared a meal at their table.

Tragedy struck when John was arrested for rape.  Geraldine was distraught, and it was an allegation which struck me as ludicrous.  Geraldine and I worked together to find some kind of legal representation, and eventually John was released without trial.

We stayed in touch, and several months after I’d left Maryknoll, Geraldine called me again in desperation to ask for help.  John had been arrested for armed robbery, something Geraldine said was absolutely impossible because they were having a party in their home during the time of the alleged robbery, and John had been out of the house for less than fifteen minutes when he went out for more wine for the guests.  At that time, I was living in a one-room apartment in New York City on a very small income as I was trying to finish my degree.

I told her I didn’t think I could help. 

Later I tried to telephone, but her number was disconnected.  I wrote a brief, helpless note but that too was returned as undeliverable.

I’ve never talked to her again.

March 19, 2008

The strange story of Cain and Abel

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 10:29 pm

I got out my Jerusalem bible today, the one I read in the convent once, after years of agitation, we were no longer forbidden to read it privately.  The last time I opened it I was looking for the story of Mary Magdalen when she washed the feet of Jesus to be read at my sister Mary’s memorial service in 1995.  I was looking for this particular story because it was apparent that my sister had an ample supply of perfumes, a good heart, and was not even acquainted with the inside of her local church.  So her sisters thought Mary Magdalen might be a fitting reading.

Today I got it out because I wanted to re-read the story of Cain and Abel.  I wanted to study it as a result of a trailer for a television programme in which biblical academics try to make sense of the story.  The bible doesn’t actually say why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice of grain while accepting Abel’s lamb, and it is unclear from the bible how to recognize the”mark of Cain” which is supposed to identify all Cain’s descendants. 

Most intrigueing – and I wonder why I never asked this obvious question before – who, in a world with a population of four, are the “people” Cain feared in the desert?

None of these questions poses a real conundrum for me, because I think many biblical stories are meant to be symbolic, a kind of story that is much more exalted and capable of communicating a much higher truth than a merely historical, literally accurate recounting of events.  So historical errors and impossibilities do not seem to me to reduce the legitimacy of biblical stories.  On the contrary.

I also found in my bible a picture of a young Black couple I had come to know well when I was working as a nun in Paterson, New Jersey.  I have thought of them more than once with pain and regret, and wonder what became of them.  I will write about Geraldine and John in my post tomorrow.  

March 4, 2008

The problem of evil

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:16 pm

“I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.”  Jules Renard (19th-century French author)

I do have relatives and acquaintances who would consider it irreverent, and I suppose the fact that I think the above is marvellously funny explains why I never exactly fit in as a nun.

But you have to admit it one of the most succinct summaries on record of the difficulties posed by the problem of evil for the existence of God.

February 10, 2008

Growing up after the convent

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:10 pm

The apartment on 86th Street where I first moved with three other ex-Maryknollers after I left the convent served as a sort of half-way house.  By the spring, I’d been accepted for the Ph.D. program at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, and was vastly lucky at the same time to be given an NHS fellowship that covered both my tuition and modest living costs.

I found a studio on West 13th Street within walking distance of the university.  It was about 10 x 14 foot with a small stove, sink, and refrigerator and bathroom.  I bought a fold-out couch on which I slept, and a fold-out chair on which guests could sit and sleep.  A friend gave me access to the miscellaneous furniture used as back drops for TV shows and commercials, where I liberated a used table and several chairs and what I needed to make the kitchen functional.  Dad gave me a small black and white TV, a radio, and electric typewriter.

I didn’t need much else.  The grant meant I could afford the books and food I needed and I was embarked on an academic career where I thrived.  I loved the university, and loved the work.

I did, however, have some glimmer of an insight that perhaps I needed to understand a little better why I’d gone into the convent in the first place.  My fear was that if I didn’t get it, I’d repeat the whole process again in some hidden form.  I tried a variety of different kinds of psychotherapies, and finally settled on psychoanalysis, with three sessions a week which I paid for at a vastly reduced rate of about $9.00 a week.

I was eminently successful in my academic life, achieving my Ph.D. in three years with highest honors, and landing an academic position in the psychology department at Montclair University.  But for five years after I’d left Maryknoll, my sexual relationships were chaotic, neurotic, and immature.

Then I met Peter.     

February 9, 2008

A short life of an ex-nun

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

I left the convent with what, in retrospect, was a sense of vindicating victory.  I’d won.  I’d been accepted, and it was I who had decided to reject the convent, not the superiors who decided I wasn’t good enough.  So I didn’t have to deal with the bitterness of having been rejected.  On the contrary, my sense of self was that I possessed a superior moral vision.  I thought of myself as leaving Maryknoll because it was Maryknoll that had lost sight of its mission.  I, on the other hand, thought that I could best carry on my lofty purpose outside the convent enclosure.  In fact, I had no idea how much I needed to learn – fast.

I left Maryknoll and moved into New York City in the upheaval of the 1960’s when the younger generation was taking over the universities, dying for civil rights, and marching against the war in VietNam.  Hippies and flower children had begun to live in communes, experimenting with drugs, music, and sex.  We all thought we knew how to transform the world into a place of peace and love.

Into this caldron I came at the technical age of 27.  I did not suspect just how naive I was.  I’d left the farm where I grew up in the midwest at the age of 18.  I’d had no sexual experience whatsoever for nine years.  I knew little about using make-up, buying appropriate clothes, or styling my hair.  I presented myself with what I later came to recognize as an “ex-nun look,” more evident on the streets today on actual nuns wearing civilian clothes. 

Nor had I any idea how tantalizing I was, a young, innocent, frighteningly trusting, not unattractive virgin in New York.  Professors, priests, men from the TV studios where we’d broadcast the Maryknoll Sisters weekly program, fellow students, lawyers, workers from Summer in the City, friends and mere acquaintances vied to relieve me of this burden.  And I missed all the signals.  I rode the crowded New York subway in skirts that were too short and tops that were too revealing, and did not understand why men grabbed my bottom.  I ended up in parked cars and hotel rooms, truly mistaking the purpose my male companion had for our being there.   On one occasion a man followed me to my apartment where he stood outside the door for two hours trying every strategy he could to get inside, including a request to use the bathroom.  His last attempt was to disappear and reappear with what he claimed was dinner for us both.  Secure behind my locked door I did not relent.  I was too inexperienced at the time to fear he might develop into a stalker.  If he had, I would not have had any idea how to deal with him effectively. 

In truth, I was fortunate never to have been raped.  Well, in part it was good fortune.  In part it was because I didn’t always say no when that is what I would have preferred.  But my socialization in which I’d learn to believe that it was a virtue in a woman to strive to please was critically distorted and left me with a grave weakness – I’d never learned to say no effectively. 

Initially, I had moved into an apartment near Broadway on 86th Street with three other ex-Maryknollers.  It is a racially mixed apartment block that was fairly inexpensive but safe.  A middle-aged Black couple invited us over for drinks one evening.  It was years before the obvious occurred to me.  We were being interviewed to make sure we were not four street workers.  What else were three young women doing with a single older woman along? 

It was a short transition period, though, and within months, all of us had moved into our separate apartments, moving away from the security of our convent acquaintances and into our new lives. 

Gradually I began to stop telling people I was an ex-nun.  Because gradually that was no longer how I saw myself. 

February 5, 2008

The disappearing world of Catholic nuns

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:24 pm

I did know that the world in which I had grown up had changed, but was astonished to read a summary of a report from the Vatican that today there are fewer than 750,000 Catholic nuns in the world, and less than 200,000 priests. 

And people living what the Vatican calls “a consecrated life” are continuing to disappear at an accelerating rate.  There are 25% fewer nuns now than when John Paul II became pope, and there was a jaw-dropping decline of 10% in the year 2005 alone.

I’m beginning to think that my past is a little more interesting than I realized.   

February 2, 2008

The night before I took final vows at Maryknoll

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:29 pm

I took my final vows as a nun in June 1968.  My father and his wife came from Ohio for the ceremony in the chapel, and I knew the night before that they had arrived at the hotel in Tarrytown where they were staying.  For my part, although I didn’t know it, I was keeping my options open.

Those of us making final vows spent the preceding days in retreat, theoretically in prayer and meditation to prepare ourselves for this momentous step.  What I remember most clearly was my meeting with Father Fox, a priest from the New York archdiocese who was active in the Hispanic community and whom many of us worked with in the Summer in the City program.  Most people when they make final vows mean that they are vowing to spend the rest of their lives committed to the cause to which they are vowed.  I can’t do that, I told him.  I can’t promise I will never leave Maryknoll.  Can I still take my final vows tomorrow? 

My parents had driven from Ohio to be there.  I had fought like a wild cat to be accepted by the community.  I had waited until the 11th hour to ask this question.  But I was prepared to leave Maryknoll that night if Father Fox had said that I could not legitimately take final vows if I wasn’t sure I could keep them.  But he didn’t say that.  He said nobody who knows themselves well can ever be sure they will never see things differently in the future.

So the next morning, amid the pomp and circumstance of the day, I took my final vows.  Within two months I did see things differently and petitioned Rome to be released from my life’s commitment.  Nothing spectacular happened during those two months that I can recall.  In retrospect, I can only think that I was so oriented to success that I could not make up my own mind that I didn’t want to be there until I had succeeded in being accepted.

Last year, another ex-Maryknoller told me about a friend of hers who took final vows, and the next morning said “Good.  Now I can make up my own mind.”  She too left Maryknoll soon afterwards.

Leaving the convent, though, is not as simple as walking out the door.  Psychologically I remained an “ex-nun” for some time.

January 29, 2008

A nun’s final vows

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 5:28 pm

It’s a little embarrassing to look back and see what was so obviously going on when I made my final vows as a Maryknoll nun.  Final vows are supposed to mean final commitment, no going back, no changing your mind, no breaking the promise.  So it takes some fancy footwork to explain how I managed to take final vows, and why I am sitting here now a very married and thoroughly non-nun for more than 40 years.

I will start  with the more ego-enhancing part of the explanation which, I admit, I’ve only recently thought up.  It is that the Catholic Church itself sees final vows as less irrevocable than getting married or becoming a priest.  In fact, women outside of marriage don’t have a commitment that the Church sees as irreversible.  Men do but not women.  I think it makes it just that little less significant, that little less binding.

Baptism, and marriage, and ordination to the priesthood can’t be undone, even by the Pope.  I can’t go to Rome and say I want my original sin back, that it was removed from my soul when I was baptized and before I was old enough to give my consent and that it’s not good enough to say I can easily produce many more sins of my own.  This was my first sin and it was an original. 

I can’t go to Rome and say I don’t want to be married to X anymore either.  If I have enough money, I might be able to convince the powers in Rome that it was never a valid marriage in the first place, but if I can’t achieve that, I’m irrevocably married until one of us dies.  Likewise, priests can be unfrocked and relieved of their priestly responsibilities, but they can’t be un-ordained.  Being made a priest is a permanent state for life.

Becoming a nun, even taking final vows after many years on probation, never becomes irreversibly permanent in that way.  Rome reserves the power to release nuns from their vows. 

So perhaps the fact that I took my relationship with Peter more seriously from the start than in retrospect I took my final vows at Maryknoll was in part the result of a subtle socialization.  I always knew it didn’t really have to be for keeps.

But there are other explanations, too, for which I must take a greater share of personal responsibility.  About which, more on another post.

January 14, 2008

Diet progress

Filed under: Diet,Life as a Nun,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:14 pm

For those not interested in the progress of my diet – which is probably everybody who is reading this – please look away now.

Since I began this diet caper several weeks before Christmas, I have lost three pounds.  Unfortunately, it’s the same pound which I’ve lost three times.  Obviously, I am not onto a winning strategy here.

So for the last three days I’ve lowered my sites with the hope I will actually reach my goal by going in smaller steps.  I have been concentrating on two things.  The first is on exercise – 30 minutes a day circuit training. 

My second concentration is an adaptation of religious practice.  At Maryknoll we said the Divine Office – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.  In their strict observance, they have been recited for centuries by monks and nuns about every three hours throughout the day.  Similarly, the Muslim call to prayer occurs five times a day.  The psychology of these rituals is to keep the presence of God constantly in mind, and in both cases, the intervals between prayers is about three hours.  My goal, I fear, is a little less exalted, since what I am trying to do is keep in my consciousness why I am trying to stick to my diet.   But I think a specific reminder every three hours has a solid history of accomplishment to recommend it.  I am truly a reprobate, by almost any standard badly in need of reformation.  Between 5 and 8 pm is the worst which is invariably when I consume more calories than I can burn.  It’s when I eat out of nervous energy, and when I’m most apt to abandon even the semblance of reason.  I have even, on occasion, grabbed one of my favourite chocolate nut cookies saying to myself “I’ll think up a reason later about why I’m justified in eating this.” 

It’s so ridiculous I can’t believe I fall for it.

My new strategy is to put half-minute reminder breaks in every three hours during the day, with a double break at 5:00 when I concentrate on being calm.  I know these breaks are a mere 30 seconds, but they are so short it’s easy to overcome the temptation to skip them.  My back-up strategy is to walk out of the kitchen when I begin that inner dialogue with myself about those cookies. 

So far, so good.  Although do note that “so far” is thus far a mere three days.

I’ll keep you posted.  I’m sure you can’t wait.

January 12, 2008

Predicting the past

Filed under: Life as a Nun,Osteoporosis — theotheri @ 5:25 pm

Yogi Berra once said that prediction was difficult, especially when you are talking about the future.  I’ve often thought that, although we think predictions are more uncertain the further into the future we go, it is often events about two seconds in the future that hold the most unexpected surprise.

Today Peter and I were walking in London on our way back to Kings Cross to catch the train to Cambridge.  Without any warning whatsoever, I tripped.  I tripped over absolutely nothing visible for no identifiable reason, but went careening across the sidewalk, dizzily trying to avoid running into pedestrians coming in the opposite direction and pushing them into the traffic.  I almost caught myself, but failed and the first part of me to hit the concrete was – my cheekbone.

Two men got to me before Peter, and helped me up with great solicitations.  I was mostly embarrassed, but it must have looked absolutely awful, and it was difficult to assure either my husband or the two strangers that apart from what was rapidly becoming a black eye, I was fine.  During the five seconds or so in which I was crashing to the ground, Peter thought I was having a stroke or heart attack, and it must have felt like one of those moments when the future changes totally in a two second segment.  We are now home, and he is still in shock, I think.  I myself am no longer in shock, but I am concerned that I did not catch myself with my hands instead of falling on my face.  With my osteoporosis, a fall like that could indeed short-circuit my future quite substantially.

Predicting the past, on the other hand, is somewhat easier.  Someone has just sent me a story about a play three of us put on as young professed sisters at Maryknoll, and as Yogi Berra also said, it’s like deja vu all over again.

The author, G, describes herself as a dreamer, supremely confident that we could carry it off with aplomb.  T was a doer – she procured copies of the play, the props, and somehow a huge selection of costumes from which we fashioned our stage outfits.  “Bernadette Mary,” G says, “was the most practical.”  I was also the most sceptical, and a perfectionist.  Most of all I realized the danger in the serious possibility that we could all make fools of ourselves.  Yes, that would have been me.  More concerned to avoid ridicule than to produce a flawed but creative entertainment.  I asked how I looked in my selection of costumes and managed apparently to look quite fetching.  Yes, I would have been sure to manage that.  (I didn’t get over an almost obsessional concern about how I looked until I met Peter, who paradoxically convinced me that I was indeed quite physically attractive, and that he would love me even if I weren’t.)

We three were young and energetic with a lot of good will.  We complemented each other more than we knew then, each contributing our strengths and talents, and doing for the other what we could not do for ourselves.

How good the play actually was, though, I can’t remember.

To see additional posts on osteoporosis, click on “Select Category” in the right-hand column, and select Osteoporosis.

December 31, 2007

The forbidden farewell

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 11:03 pm

The paradox of my work in the publicity department at Maryknoll is that it was the best and the worst of events that happened there that were most significant in my finally leaving Maryknoll.  It is the only work to which I was assigned as a Maryknoller that I found stimulating and challenging.  Sister Francis Louise was a creative writer with talents and a character quite different from my own.  It was the first time in my life, I think, that I was ever challenged to be creative instead of being merely right.  It was the other half of the world I grasped so eagerly in courses with Sister Mary Edith.  Despite – or perhaps because of – our differences we were compatible and made a good team. 

Sister Francis Louise and Sister Maria del Rey, the veteran journalist and department head, were not so compatible.  In fact, they constantly trampled on what each considered their own patch.  Sister Maria del Rey, I think, was threatened by the talent of this young sister who did not show the traditional deference to her superior accomplishments.  Sister Francis Louise, for her part, was sharp, incisive, and educated.  Although I would not describe her as a natural trouble-maker, I also would not list her as a talented peacemaker either.  The individual friction between these two was exacerbated by the overall atmosphere in the Motherhouse where more than 300 of us were living in close quarters with few outlets beyond the Maryknoll compound.  The older and younger nuns were in constant conflict about changes in the Church, and  Sister Maria del Rey said unambiguously that we young ones should “shape up or ship out.” 

Both Sister Francis Louise and I were scheduled to renew our vows in June.  I was accepted for a further three years.  Sister Francis Louise was asked to leave Maryknoll.  I was distraught by the decision and went to Mother Mary Coleman to ask them to reconsider their rejection, but failed.  Leaving Maryknoll in those days was a pretty secret affair, and women were spirited out the door and into a waiting car without any farewells.  One day they were there;  the next they were gone.  Sister Francis Louise left on the day before I was scheduled to renew my vows.

I was already in bed the evening before we were to renew our vows, when someone shook the curtains of my cell and said that Sister Mercy, acting for Mother Mother Mary Coleman in her absence,  wanted to see me in her office.  I dressed and went upstairs.  Sister Mercy may have given the gentle impression of a kindly mother, but she was tough.  She told me that because I had attended a forbidden farewell party for Sister Francis Louise that afternoon, the ruling Council had decided that I should be permitted to renew my vows the next morning not for three but for one year.  “But I didn’t go to the party,” I objected.  Well, Sister Mercy replied, the Council had decided anyway.

It is a reflection of my naivete that rather than argue about the injustice of this kangaroo court decision, I said I would accept it but that I wanted to tell her what was really happening with the younger nuns at Maryknoll.  I said she needed to know the attitude of those in authority was alienating many of us, and that if they did not change, very few young nuns would be left in Maryknoll at all.  She said she would pray for me.

It doesn’t give me a great deal of joy – no, in truth maybe it does – to look back and see how right my prediction proved to be. 

Of the 64 original women who entered Maryknoll in my group, two are today still Maryknoll Sisters. 

December 30, 2007

The Maryknoll publicity department

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:08 pm

For anyone reading this blog who may be trying to make coherent sense out of it, I apologize.  It isn’t coherent.  Occasionally I am obsessed with an impulse to organize it into some rational form, but right now it would create too much of a strait jacket for me.  I don’t know what – if anything – might eventually result from this thinking out loud, but right now I know it’s a hodge podge.  All of which is my explanation for why I am now returning, without logic, to describing one of the seminal times I had at Maryknoll, and which I remember with energized delight.

After the three years of probation in the novitiate, I took the traditional temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Poverty didn’t mean being poor, but rather that I would not legally own anything.  By any standards I was not poor.  Chastity meant renouncing sexual relationships.  It would not have been possible to establish a viable heterosexual relationship in those particular circumstances, in any case, but I entered into the covenant voluntarily.  Obedience obliged me to obey the wishes of superiors.  These wishes sent me for several years to work in the Motherhouse bakery, pantry, sewing room, and promotions.   Promotions was even more brainless than the pantry, and I hated the boredom of mindlessly filling out multiple copies of forms for hours a day.

But then I was assigned to the Publicity Department.  The department was headed by Sister Maria del Rey, a published journalist, and author of the book, Bernadette Becomes a Nun,  that had influenced many of us to enter Maryknoll in the first place.  In publicity, we actually wrote articles to be published in the Maryknoll magazine, and I developed darkroom skills, spending hours developing photographs sent in from the missions to accompany the stories they illustrated.  But the most exciting thing we did was to put together a weekly television show for children recorded in NBC studios in New York City.   The show was written by Sister Frances Louise, a talented nun who also had professional writing experience before coming to Maryknoll.  The show consisted of several puppets who carried on conversations about events of the day with a Maryknoll sister.  I was the Maryknoll sister.  We might talk about why we hide Easter eggs or decorate Christmas trees, or discuss a recent news event like the Watts riots by angry and disenfranchised Blacks in Los Angeles.   

Every week we drove to the NBC studios to record the show for transmission on Sunday mornings.  The show was made to meet the law requiring a certain number of television hours every week dedicated to religious programming but we were young, innocent, dedicated, fresh, and enthusiastic, and thought NBC was running the show because of its intrinsic worthiness.  The NBC staff adopted a protective stance toward us, and never suggested that what we were doing was anything but something of great moral worth.

Inevitably we got to know the director and producer and the cameramen and the people behind the scenes.  They told us about their families, and sometimes told us about their own family rituals.  Many of the staff were Jewish, and their stories were my first introduction to Judaism in New York.  The rituals were different from those I was familiar with, but the roles of special food, and candles and prayers and fasting were ones I knew well.  I was fascinated with the whole process, with the people, with the drive and creativity of this media world.  I felt an affinity with them, as if in some way I came from their world, and was returning home. 

It was the New York to which I had thought to escape at the age of seven.  And it was, in the end, to world to which I did escape when I left Maryknoll.

December 4, 2007

Astrology and psychotherapy

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:55 pm

Someone recently posted a comment on my November 27th post about Sister Mary Edith.  I was eager to read it because I thought it might have some new information about Sister Mary Edith that I hadn’t known.  But alas, it was not. 

When I left Maryknoll, I knew it would be to my advantage to understand a little bit about the motives I’d kept hidden from myself about why I’d entered the convent in the first place.  It was the 1970’s, I was a graduate psychology student, and lived in New York, so the royal road to self-knowledge seemed quite obviously through psychotherapy.  I spent several years at that time analyzing my life thus far, and I cannot say it was a total waste of time and money. 

However, I gradually began to see an eerie resemblance between invitations to bare ones soul in therapy and seductions from men who ultimately were interested in a sexual relationship with minimal personal commitment.  By the time I had my doctorate in psychology, I thoroughly distrusted a good number of men and most therapists who seemed to try to seduce people with little self-knowledge with apparently insightful analyses of their abilities and problems.  I say apparently insightful because they were, in truth, about as accurate as astrologists, who are careful to say things that are general enough to apply to anyone gullible enough to think the prophecy applied personally to them. 

It’s been a long time since I worried about faux therapy for myself or anyone else.  But when I read the comment, giving me an analysis of my relationship with my father that was wide of the mark and inviting me to get in contact if I would “like to talk”, I was reminded of the conclusions I had reached about offers to talk decades ago.

Perhaps I misunderstand the intentions of the woman leaving the comment as fully as she misunderstood me.  Perhaps she doesn’t really think she has some special insight into my relationship with my father, as her comment suggested.  Perhaps she is actually describing her relationship with her own father, and her proscriptions to me those that she has given to herself.

In any case, I could not agree more that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and as a university professor, it was not unusual for me to call a gifted student into my office to make sure they appreciated just what a treasure – and responsibility – they possessed. 

And although I think there are few truly gifted psychotherapists, they too are treasures that can be invaluable when one does not understand what is happening in a life that feels like it’s falling apart.

November 27, 2007

Sister Mary Edith, MM

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:52 pm

Sister Mary Edith was the Maryknoll sister whose courses in philosophy and history opened up a world to me that was the most exciting thing I’d ever known.  She was very frail, thin, almost translucent.  I think she might have been ill or in constant pain, but no one ever talked about it.  I don’t know very much about her background because in those days when we entered the convent, the idea was that we left our old selves behind.  So we took new names and rarely talked about our previous lives in the world before Maryknoll.  I heard once she had her graduate degree from Oxford University in England, which is quite credible.

During our second year as novices, we had classes several afternoons a week when Sister Edith taught us philosophy and history.  Encompassing everything I remember about them is the amazement I felt when I realized that women could be just as smart, just as incisive, as analytical and far-sighted as men. 

What an old fashioned thought this seems even to me as I write it at the end of my academic career.  But although from first grade at the age of six to high school graduation at eighteen, I was always the first in my class, I never thought of myself as smart.  I was just an older sister, which was why I always knew more.  And besides I was a girl.  My father was the one who could think;  my mother was supportive and loving, but didn’t even try to analyze things the way my dad could.  In a traditional Catholic family, it was made clear to me that I was expected to be differential though cheerful and not obsequiously subservient, which would have been considered in poor taste.   It was suggested that I might be a nurse but not a doctor, a teacher but not a leader.  Girls could be nuns but not priests.  In fact, a priest once told me that I could not possibly have an IQ of 150 because if I did “I would be as smart as my father.”  I accepted that possibility as patently impossible.

Although I entered an order where I thought I could be independent, I did not go in with the attitudes of feminism we take for granted today.  I had no idea I had anything but quite acceptable intellectual abilities.   But here was Sister Edith, a nun who was smart the way I thought only men could be smart.  And what’s more, I understood what she was saying.  I grasped almost immediately the difference between Aristotle’s essence and existence.  I understood when she said a lesson of Greek mythology is that behavior has irrevocable consequences, that wanting to do the right thing wasn’t enough.  If it was the wrong thing, the result would be wrong too.  That is probably when the core first formed of a contrariness which is with me still.  In the face of the great tragedies played out on our global stage every day, I know that just because something is desperately wrong, it doesn’t mean any good hearted person knows how to make it right.

After I’d been in Maryknoll for six years, I was assigned to take courses at Mary Rogers College to train to be an elementary school teacher.  Mary Rogers was a Maryknoll college, staffed principally by Maryknollers themselves.  I thought it was a secondary place providing a sub-standard education until I went to New York University where I was shocked to find so little to challenge me.  Some of the best and most committed teachers I would ever have in my life had been at Maryknoll.

In psychology, logic, and anthropology, the teachers were brilliant women who knew their subject as well as their students and I learned a great deal from them.  But for me, Sister Mary Edith was unique. 

Many years after leaving Maryknoll, I asked about Sister Mary Edith in the hopes that I might tell her how her classes had so profoundly shaped my life.  But I was too late;  she had died.  And as I write this now, I wish I knew more about this beautiful woman who gave me so much, and I am sure, never suspected the magntitude of her gift.

November 26, 2007

Compensation for my senior moment

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 10:40 pm

My Plan A for today was to write about the academic Maryknoll nun who influenced me so profoundly.  In fact, there is probably no other woman, even my mother, who so clearly gave me a vision of what I could be.  And what, in the end, I became.  Unfortunately, however, Plan A was replaced by Plan B today, so Sister Mary Edith is now Plan A for tomorrow. 

I did, however, finally get the DVD recorder wired up to the TV and satellite receiver and even tested the various modes we want to use.  The unit also does a lot of other things – hooking up to a PC or camcorder or additional speakers for amplified sound – that we don’t want to do, so I was hugely relieved to be able to skip those pages in the instructions manual.

I did walk around for about an hour frantically trying to remember the word “crepe” to describe the thin pancakes Peter made for a cannelloni dish this evening.  Figuring out the DVD recorder system helps to calm a rising panic when I experience these senior moments.

November 23, 2007

Sister Anne Cecilia

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:00 pm

Earlier I wrote about the four men whom I have loved most.  This Thanksgiving, though, I have been remembering two Maryknoll sisters who have left me with an enduring legacy.  They were very different – one was an academic, the other was in charge of the bakery at the Motherhouse. 

My first introduction to Sister Anne Cecilia was as a postulant when I was assigned to work in the bakery for three hours each morning.  The bakery made all the bread, cakes, pies, cookies, rolls, and other bakery goods required for the daily needs and festive celebrations of 350 nuns.  Sister Anne Cecilia ran the bakery with a professional brilliance that we never questioned.  But that is not what really made her special.

She was born on a farm in upstate New York to an Eastern European immigrant family, and brought with her to Maryknoll a common sense, good cheer and capacity for hard work that made her a treasure and that over the years we often came to take for granted.   I liked working with her, partly because my mother had already taught me how to bake and I liked working with someone who did not waste time in vain rituals that would have gotten in the way of literally getting the bread on the tables.  She did insist that we use our finger to swipe round the inside of every shell as we broke eggs into a bowl for our cake batter or sweet dough, but this did not seem a finicky conceit to me, and I know more than one ex-Maryknoller who still does it to make sure nothing goes to waste.

I was assigned to the bakery again as a second-year novice and several times as a young professed nun was put in charge when Sister Anne Cecilia took an annual two-week vacation.  The job was not quite as easy as she had made it look.  I remember once spending an entire afternoon when the bakery was usually closed getting 40 loaves into the oven that were needed for the next morning because somehow the yeast had inexplicably failed to rise in the first batch of dough.  I also left Sister Anne Cecilia with a very large bowl of salt, butter and eggs.  It should have been frosting, but a young postulant had used salt instead of sugar.  We added the salty mixture for months to anything that could absorb it, but in the end, most of it had to be thrown away.  I think it violated Sister Anne Cecilia’s deepest principles, but she bore it stoically.  I don’t think she herself ever presided over a disaster of such magnitude.

My full appreciation of what was special about Sister Anne Cecilia, though, took many years to develop.  Because it took many years for me to become mature enough to  glimpse how extraordinary her ordinary virtues were.  She was content to be nothing more than a baker, spending most of her working life in a room no bigger than the kitchen in my house today.  She never bragged about herself, never suggested she deserved a higher status than we accorded her, did not lose her temper, did not gripe or resent or sulk or blame others if something went wrong.  She was always interested in hearing about what someone else was doing, and her eyes would easily fill when someone told her about the orphans, the battered and starved bodies, the weeping mothers, the anguished men in the worn-torn or desperately poor areas where many Maryknollers worked.  You might think this is standard fare for nuns dedicated to lives of service, but it is often a goal to be hoped for more than it is achieved.

I have not taken the opportunity to say thank you to many of the people who have made my life so much richer.  Most often, they have died or disappeared from my orbit before I understood how much they had given me.  I did, though, make a rare trip back to Maryknoll several years ago, and visited for several hours with this feisty, down-to-earth, humble, and practical woman.  I did say thank you, and she promised to keep me in her prayers.  When she died several months later, hundreds of people from all over the world mourned her dying.  And a lot of women went into their kitchens and baked a “Sister Anne Cecilia” recipe in honour of what she had given them.  An ex-Maryknoll friend sent me a grey apron worn almost threadbare by Sister Anne Cecilia because she knew I had come to love her. 

As a young nun, I thought of Sister Anne Cecilia as only a baker.  Today I think of her as someone who lived her life needing only to meet the most basic needs of those who themselves lived only to serve others.  She didn’t need to be noticed, but she left behind a lot of goodness.

November 14, 2007

Maryknoll in the “sacrifice group”

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 7:24 am

I stayed in Maryknoll for six more years after I took my first vows in 1961.  That was the year our superiors, without telling us, decided to change the training schedule for young nuns.  To implement the new strategy, however, they decided to hold back members of one group indefinitely from going to the missions.  Instead, we were assigned to work at the Motherhouse or at Bethany, the rest home at the other end of the compound where the elderly nuns were cared for.  The superiors called us the “sacrifice group.”

During those six years, like many of my contemporaries, I was assigned to a variety of different tasks, most of them requiring little time or talent.  There were about 300 of us in the Motherhouse at the time, some of us in our twenties, other reaching the end of their lives in their seventies and eighties.   Although we lived together, ate in a common refectory, and prayed together, the generations barely spoke to one another.  We were living in a hot house, frustrated and often angry, and looking back, I think many of us began rather quietly to go a little mad.  We certainly became more and more neurotic. 

The least challenging, and so for me the worst, jobs I was given were running the pantry, and filling out forms in the promotion department.  Before me, the pantry had been the fiefdom of an older nun who filled up her hours making sure that if cleanliness was next to godliness, she would at least make it to the top of the second tier.  I, on the other hand, did not think cups needed to be bleached of coffee stains on a weekly basis, and mopping the floor once a day, rather than three, seemed sufficient.  So I had a lot of time on my hands which I used roaming the halls or reading.  I suppose the older nuns would have used such leisure to pray, but the possibility never entered my head. 

The work in the promotion department was possibly worse than the pantry.  I was put under the authority of a sick nun who was suffering the excruciating pain of advanced rheumatoid arthritis.  In a surfeit of youthful ignorance and a dearth of charity, I had little sympathy for her.  Instead, I chafed at the inefficient work methods and continuously tried to suggest faster ways of completing the same work.  I thought she was driving me crazy, but I regret now the threat I must have been with my new methods and not-so-subtle suggestion that she was out of date.  When she died suddenly, I was hugely relieved.  Truthfully, I was even glad.

But then I was assigned to the publicity department where I was introduced to the world to which I eventually escaped when I left Maryknoll.

November 4, 2007


I lived as a Maryknoll nun in a Black community of Paterson, New Jersey, for about six months in 1967.  I remember the first night we moved into our apartment.  I took my guitar, and three of us went out onto the street and began to sing folk songs on the street corner.  Timothy was one of the first children to come to see what was going on.

Timothy was about 8, with huge brown eyes and a smile that cracked across his face like the summer sun.  He was short for his age, fast on his feet, and I fell in love with him on first sight.  For all the months of the summer, Timothy was there the minute any of us stepped out the door.  He learned all the songs I could play on the guitar, and often joined our group with his impromptu dance.

One evening, he grabbed my hand and dragged two of us up to the second floor apartment where he lived with his family.  There were eight children between the ages of 3 and 15, two bedrooms, and four beds.  His mother and father slept in one of the beds, and the other three were shared by whoever got there first.  There was a sofa in the living room and the last one in usually made use of a rug on the floor.  That first evening Timothy and I and his father worked on a jig saw puzzle together.  I remember Timothy was better at it than his dad.  One of his sisters said that Black was ugly, not beautiful, as I said it was, beginning an exchange that we repeated almost every time we met for the next four months.

Once school started, I tried to help Timothy with his homework, but I lacked anything but some sisterly intuition about how to go about this task, and Timothy, alas, lacked application.  By the end of September, Timothy had been suspended from school for fighting.  Two of us went to see the principle to plead his case, but failed.  We had not been in the neighbourhood long enough and lacked credibility.

One day in late October we were told to close the apartment in Paterson and return to the Motherhouse in New York.  There was no sense that we needed to say farewell to the people in whose community we had lived uninvited for six months.  I didn’t even say good bye to Timothy.  One day we were just gone.

That was almost exactly forty years ago, and I am wondering tonight what happened to Timothy.  My worst fear is that he ended up in prison, or on the street dealing drugs or engaged in some criminal activity.  My hope is that he ended up in the army or in some organization where his infectious charm and good spirits brought him success and happiness.

I would like to think that against the odds we managed to give something back to the community that, even for so short a time, made a huge impression on me, and whom I remember with so much affection.  Mostly though, I fear we came and went too quickly.  My only small hope is that somehow in the giving, the givers were enriched by their gifts to us.  I remember especially the worn wisdom of many of the women. 

And I remember Timothy.  I do remember you, Timothy.

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.

October 7, 2007

Summer in the City 1967

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:40 pm

Summer in the City 1967An ex-Maryknoller has just sent me the most marvellous photo* from 1967.   We had finally been assigned to something besides work at the Motherhouse, and thought we knew how the world went round.  During the summer, we lived in apartments in mostly Black areas of the Bronx in New York and Paterson, New Jersey, going out into the streets and homes of the people who lived there. 

We bustled around the community thinking we were making a contribution.  I remember playing the guitar surrounded by children on the street, and knocking on doors where we were made welcome with amazing warmth.  In the fashion of untrained social workers, we visited the school, and tried to help some of the problem children.  In return, one family threw a surprise birthday party for me, while others invited us in to share a family game putting a jigsaw puzzle together. We attended the local Protestant church services where I was invited to play the piano.  I declined.  When I saw the talent of the man who did play, I knew I had been saved an excruciating embarrassment.

In truth, we gained more than we ever gave from the wisdom and strength and tolerance of the people we thought we were helping.  Looking at the photograph now, I shudder at what I see – seven young, vibrant, attractive, smiling, innocent women who wanted to make the world a better place, and thought we had all the answers about how to accomplish this momentous feat.  We are piled in or around a sports car with a man my friend remembers as being “obsessed with nuns and drugs.”  I don’t recall the drugs, but his fascination with nuns should have sparked warning lights.  It didn’t.  We thought people were drawn to us because we were moral beacons.

How we avoided being raped I do not know.  Well, perhaps I do.  There was a respect for our innocence.  I remember saying quite simply to a young Black man that he could not “have his way” with me because I was a nun, and he accepted it.  One evening, two of us went unaccompanied to the apartment of two young Black men who had invited us over to “talk.”  And that’s what we did. 

Still, I can see now why some of the older nuns were horrified by our forays into the world.  The gap between the generations was almost total.  What the older nuns knew we would not listen to, and what we understood about the world they had left behind years before,  they could not hear.  And we all thought we knew best.

*Click on the picture to enlarge it.

October 6, 2007

Trip to the past

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:34 pm
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I’m back in England after quite an extraordinary double visit to my past.  In New York, we had a reunion of about 25 of the 64 women who entered the Maryknoll sisters when I did, and the following week, we had a family reunion celebrating my brother Bob’s 60th birthday.  We don’t routinely have family reunions to celebrate birthdays, but decided this was a chance to gather for something less traumatic than a funeral, or even wedding.

More on both of the above in days to come.  Right now I am recovering from high-powered jet lag.  Travel these days seems to be in gridlock.  The Amtrak train between the Adirondacks and New York City was an hour late.  Then the American flight between NYC and Chicago kept us on the tarmac for three hours.  The trip home from Chicago lasted a full 25 hours, culminating with an over-heated bus to Cambridge from which we were all dislodged with our multiple bags and bundles. 

I met some extraordinarily interesting people on the way, though, which helps to compensate for the ghastly cough and cold I am now trying to dispense with.

September 17, 2007

Visit to my past

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

I’m off for a two-week visit to my past so this is my last post until October.  First I am attending a reunion of about a third of the women who,  like me, joined the Maryknoll Sisters in the fall of 1958.  Then I am visiting my sister Bernadette, and joining in a three-generation family birthday roast,  a “Bob Blast” to celebrate his 60th birthday.  I think it’s been sold to him as merely a family get-together, so he may be a little non-plussed to discover that he’s the centre of the table.

September 15, 2007

Convent life: trying to get out

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

I think, in truth, I spent most of my years in Maryknoll trying to get out.  This might seem like a simple process for most rational people since all I had to do was literally walk out the door.  But I was convinced that I had a vocation.  And a vocation isn’t something one chooses for oneself.  A vocation is a calling from God that comes only to a selected few, and as I saw it, I could say either yes or no to God.  So getting out of the convent meant finding some way of getting a message from God that He didn’t want me there any longer.

During the Novitiate, my strategies were pretty transparent to everybody but myself.  I found strange lumps that I hopefully took to the nurse.  It was a normal breast bone.  I developed headaches.  The infirmary gave me an anti-depressant that had the atypical effect of turning me into a hyperactive wreck unable to sleep at night.  I came down with a suspected case of appendicitis (or I thought perhaps stomach cancer) that was cured with a laxative. 

Throughout these exhibitions, the novice mistress remained unimpressed.  “You want to go home,” she said with total clarity, “because you want to take care of your younger brothers and sisters.  But your father is remarried.  They do not need you.”  She was right, of course.  Obviously the ill-health strategy was not going to work.  I would have to think of something else.

Before we were accepted to take our first vows we were asked to fill out a questionnaire.  I don’t remember what was on it, except for one question which asked “Have you been happy while you have been at Maryknoll?”  My best friend told me she’d answered no.  “Phyllis!”  I said in as much sincere surprise as I would have felt had she announced that 2+2=3, “That’s the wrong answer.  They won’t accept you.”  Her response was quite reasonable:  I don’t think being happy is the point.

I was right though.  Phyllis was not accepted to take vows.  And I remember thinking that if only I had said that I wasn’t happy, instead of giving what I knew was the right answer without any reference at all to how I really felt, I would have been sent home too.  Instead, I resigned myself to answering God’s call to be a missionary nun.

But it was going to be a bumpy ride.  The 1960’s had started.  We had Pope John XXIII and the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War for starters. 

September 14, 2007

Preparing to be a nun: the novitiate

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 7:37 pm

The process of becoming a nun usually involves four stages.  The first, when one is a postulant, lasts for about nine months.  The second stage, known as the novitiate, generally lasts for two years.  If one survives these two hurdles, the community permits you to take vows – sacred promises of obedience, chastity, and poverty.  At first these vows are for temporary periods, one or two or three years.  At Maryknoll, it was a full nine years after first entering the convent before women were allowed to take permanent vows.

The novitiate is a time when aspiring women are socialized into the intricacies of convent living.  During the first year of my novitiate, our group was sent to Topsfield, Massachusettes where we were isolated from any outside contacts, and were introduced to the monastic side of convent life.  We marked  the hours of the day by reciting the Divine Office – the morning hours of Matins, Lauds, and Prime, during the day Terce, Sect, and None, and at the end of the day Vespers and Compline .  It is an ancient rhythm of prayer, a changing ritual of psalms, readings and hymns that marks the feasts and seasons of the year.  We were required to ask permission for anything we wanted to read, including the Bible, which under ordinary circumstances we were not permitted to study privately.  We were not Protestants, after all, but were told that only the Pope and Bishops could be relied on to interpret the Divine Word without heresy.  We convened weekly to confess our faults in a public display of self-accusation called Chapter of Faults and were required to ask permission for any deviation from the daily routine.  If we needed new clothes, we took our shoes or underwear or worn stockings to the superior who would either require us to mend the item again, or permit us to requisition a replacement. 

At the end of our year of separation, we were returned to the Motherhouse in Ossining  for the second year of our novitiate before taking our first vows.

The year was undoubtedly an initiation ceremony.  The world was changing, though, and I think there was an unresolved contradiction in the training we received.  On the one hand, there was the monastic tradition of almost a thousand years of withdrawing from the world, of silence and prayer and self-abnegation.  On the other hand, from the very beginning, the Maryknoll Sisters were an American order dedicated to living among and with the poor in foreign countries where they were expected to learn the language, and understand local customs.  One was not going to do this effectively in demure silence and by keeping ones eyes cast down. 

In fact, I think many young sisters went into the missions with unbounded good will, immense generosity and fortitude – and in what I now consider rather terrifying states of naivete and innocence.   

September 12, 2007

Maryknollers after 50 years

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:37 pm

Early next week I am flying to the US for a reunion of about a third of the women who entered Maryknoll the same year I did.  Most of us left Maryknoll years ago, and hold an amazingly diverse array of current beliefs.   The group includes doctors, psychologists, nurses, writers, social workers, lingists  and everything from practicising Buddhists,  Christian fundamentalists and serious non-believers in most religious doctrine.  I’m looking forward to the weekend with a mixture of apprehension and interest.  More after the event.

Before leaving I must fit in a dentist appointment.  I lost a gold filling, which I swallowed before I realized I wasn’t crunching on a nut.  If the dentist I’m seeing Monday is half as good as the ophthalmological consultant who transformed my eyesight, I will consider myself undeservedly doubly fortunate.

September 11, 2007

Becoming a Maryknoll novice

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:44 pm

After Mom died I returned to Maryknoll, and four weeks later was accepted into the Novitiate.  For the uninitiated, this means we were novices, admitted to the next stage in the process of becoming full-fledged Maryknollers.  We were given new names and began to wear the full Maryknoll habit, covering us from head to foot, but were distinguished from nuns who had already taken vows by a white instead of black veil.   My new name was Sister Bernadette Mary.  It was a day of celebration, but it was going to be several years containing some surprising revelations about what life in this convent was really like.

The ceremony admitting us to the Novitiate was attended by our families, and my Dad brought my brothers and sisters to New York to be there.  We had several hours to visit afterwards, and that is when he told me he and Aunt Mary were getting married.  Aunt Mary had been my mother’s best friend since college, and she had been married to mom’s brother who had died severl years earlier.  He had also been my father’s law partner. She had four daughters, the youngest of which was my age and we were friends.  I used to love to stay over night there and listen to the wonderful stories Aunt Mary told us.  

So Aunt Mary was not a stranger.  And clearly my family needed a new mother.  What I didn’t understand then was that Dad needed a wife just as much as his children needed a mother, and that, paradoxically, was a problem.  My two oldest brothers, Tom and Dick, had both seen what I had seen over the years when Mom was still alive.  Aunt Mary fascinated my father.  There was some electricity between them for years that none of us ever saw between our parents.

So the fact that the marriage was announced and took place within months after  Mom had died made it feel like a betrayal.  In retrospect, I do not believe it was.  In fact, I am now convinced that Mom knew, even approved, the marriage.  She was an extraordinarily generous woman who would have cared most of all that her husband and children were cared for.  It also explains to me how she could have told me so clearly that I was not to return home for them.

From this day onward I embarked on a double life.  One was in Maryknoll where I tried hard to be the nun I believed I had been called to be.  The other was with my younger brothers and especially my sisters who wrote me anguished letters of pain and conflict.  I wanted desperately to go home to help them, but it took eight more years before I finally found a way to convince myself that God did not want me in Maryknoll. 

For better or worse, by that time, my brothers and sisters no longer needed an older sister to be there with them, and I did not return to live in my family home.

September 9, 2007

Mom’s funeral

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:35 pm

On May 19, 1959, our postulant mistress, Sister Edmund Damien, called me into her office.  When I arrived she said “I guess you know why you’re here.”  “No,” I said honestly.  She told me my mother had died that morning, and that, accompanied by an older Maryknoll novice, I had permission to go home for the funeral.  I didn’t cry.  I don’t remember feeling anything.

That evening I was in my cell – the curtained area around our bed and locker each of us called our own in the large dormintory – packing the few things I would need.  Kathy Rossworn, a fellow postulant, came to say how hard it must be for me and how sorry she was.  I remember her expression of kindness as she sort of half laughed and half cried and asked if there was anything she could do –  “polish your shoes or something?”  I’m sure it is not so, but it is my only memory of anyone suggesting to me that my loss might have been profound. 

I took a plane to Ohio with Sister Bernice Marie, whose maturity my superior trusted.  I was expected to wear my postulant outfit during the entire visit, and was not permitted to take my younger and brothers swimming because that would have meant putting on a swim suit.  After all, it was clear by the mere presence of my Maryknoll chaperone that I now belonged to Maryknoll, not to my family.  And there was the recent mandate from my mother herself.  I had a vocation to be a nun, not to care for her children.  I remember sitting on their beds before they went to sleep talking to my younger sisters who wanted to know what would happen if Dad died too.  And saying to Dorothy, the youngest as we stood in the church “be brave.”  She was seven.  Cathy was ten, the twins two years older, Bernadette fourteen.  They were so vulnerable and courageous.

Hundreds of people, of course, came to the wake and to the funeral.  Many people wept openly, but I thought I was grown up enough not to need a mother anymore.  I was aware that I desperately wanted to be there for my younger brothers and sisters, and found leaving home this time far harder than it was when I left for Maryknoll the first time.   But I returned to Maryknoll thinking I had been responsible and mature.  

It would be years before I finally faced the devastation caused by my mother’s death and sobbed without restraint. 

September 7, 2007

Mom’s last six weeks

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 10:00 am

Although I didn’t know she had been told that she had about six weeks to live, my mother knew.   I now look back at the selfless, undramatic courage she showed during those last remarkable weeks with amazed admiration.  At the time, though, I took it for granted.

She did not look for pity or attention or stage dramatic scenes.  She had six weeks to finish a job that needed years.  Her oldest son was just twenty, her youngest daughter seven.  She spoke to each of us individually – what we should do, how we should carry on, and that she would be there looking down from above.  With the older ones she told us openly that she was dying, and we talked about it freely.  Mom was dying.

This openness has had a profound effect on our family.  We talk about dying far more often than most families, and when my Dad, and my younger sister Mary learned they were dying, we all knew.  We never pretended that everything was really all right, that the medical treatments were working, that somehow we were immune from death.

Mom and Dad came to visit me at Maryknoll, and I was given special permission to have dinner with them in the guest dining room.  We spent two days together.  She told me about the challenges she thought each of us would face as we grew into adulthood, our strengths and vulnerabilities.  Her message to me was that she and Dad did not want me to leave Maryknoll after she died.  I had a vocation and I was not to return home to take care of my younger brothers and sisters.  I did not argue, thinking she probably had several years to live, and although she was dying, it was still sufficiently distant to disregard.

 Two days later she was dead.

September 3, 2007

My nine months as a Marknoll postulant

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 6:51 am

During the first nine months in the convent, we were kept in a separate group as we were socialized into Maryknoll customs.  We were called “postulants,” a word derived from the Latin word meaning “to ask,” not, as the word might suggest, “posturing.” 

Though there is some truth in the latter.  We were trying it on, just as Maryknoll was trying us out.  During those nine months,  some decided to leave.  It wasn’t always clear whether the departures were voluntary or “assisted” by the non-negotiable counselling of the superiors who could inform you at any time that you would serve God better outside Maryknoll. 

 The regime was monastic.  We rose at 5:30, and gathered in the chapel for half hour meditation, which in reaity was more a struggle to stay awake than it was to draw closer to God.  We attended Mass, and gathered in the refrectory for breakfast.  We kept silence during meals, listening instead to readings, usually from edifying sources, to enrich our spirits.  The reading was done by one of the postulants.  When my turn came, I broke down into uncontrollable gigles which spread throughout all eight tables.  I was never asked again.

But I fit in.  Like an ernest aspiring saint, I worried about keeping the rules, some of which I now find seriously flawed.  The two strangest that stand out in my memory are the strong stricture against what was called “recreating in two’s”  and the other which was called “custody of the eyes.”

Recreating in two’s –  getting into a conversation with anyone except a superior in a group of less than three – was strictly and repeatedly forbidden.  I took it seriously, and was scandalized by some postulants who thought it was silly and fundamentally ignored it.  Phyllis, one of my best friends, was included in that number, which created something of a conflict for me.

Keeping custody of the eyes meant not looking around, but keeping ones eyes demurely cast down, somewhat reminiscent of Princess Diana in her shy phase.  This did not cause me much concern because I have always been seriously near-sighted, and looking around never yielded much information.  It was, however, a rule that, rightly or wrongly, helped induce subservience and an attitude of female passivity which I find destructive and repressive.

Despite these few irritations, I thought I was happy, and I’m sure my superiors thought so as well.  Then in March, after I’d been in Maryknoll for six months, our superior called me into her office.  My father had telephoned to say that my mother’s cancer had resurfaced, and that her condition was terminal. 

I was not told then that she’d been given only six weeks to live.

August 31, 2007

The day I entered the convent

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 7:59 pm

I entered the convent to join the Maryknoll sisters on September 2nd, 1958.  My parents and I were met at the front entrance by Sister Miriam Therese, a middle-aged woman with an earth-mother figure and a face of non-nonsense kindness.  I was taken to a room where I changed my civilian clothes for a postulant’s outfit – black, dowdy everything from short head veil to sturdy black shoes and stockings.  I was then returned to the front rooms of the convent, now officially belonging to Maryknoll, to bid farewell to my parents.

I did not find it difficult.  I was setting out on an exciting adventure and I loved it.  Getting up at 5:30 am, hours of silence and a disciplined routine did not strain me.  It was akin to a honeymoon, I think.  As with a honeymoon, I saw everything through a glow, a positive perspective of naive trust.  I thought I would soon be sent to the missions as part of the commitment made between Maryknoll and me.  I would offer obedience in exchange for the chance to serve the poor in the developing world. 

Only gradually did I realize that Maryknoll and I did not share that perspective.  After nine years, I had been sent no further than Paterson, New Jersey, where I spent three months one summer.  I felt Maryknoll had betrayed its unspoken promise, and, as with a honeymoon that has run into cold reality, the Maryknoll superiors felt that many of us younger sisters were self-willed and rebellious.  In the end it was very much like a divorce. 

But there are many stories about what happened in those nine years between September 1958 and September 1967 when I walked back out that same front door I’d first come in no longer a Maryknoll Sister.

August 29, 2007

My interview to enter the convent

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

My application to enter the convent went hand in hand with my university applications, and psychologically they felt quite similar.  It didn’t occur to me that I might not be accepted to wherever I applied, and I simply concentrated on filling in the blanks on all the forms.  Maryknoll responded and arranged for an interview at their Motherhouse in Ossining, New York as soon as I had graduated in June.

For me, the trip to New York – my first visit to what had for years been a magical place in my imagination – had all the excitement of an astronaut’s first blast off to the moon.  I was tremendously excited, and it didn’t seem like anything of an irony that I bought an entirely new outfit which I conceivably would not wear more than once.  My mother and father took me around the city, to central park, the theatre, and restaurants, and night clubs.  I loved it.  And yet, two days later, without a twinge, I sat in the parlor at Maryknoll explaining to Sister Francis Assisi, the slightly nervous middle-aged nun who interviewed me, that I had a vocation.

We talked for about an hour, during which I said all the things that were expected of me.  She explained that if I took the vow of obedience I would be expected to do what I was told even if I disagreed.  I thought I understood because I thought what she meant really was “Maryknoll is a very modern, sensible order.  You might not understand everything you are told to do, but we won’t ask you to do stupid or meaningless things like planting a tree upsidedown or washing the same dishes three times to make sure they are clean.”  I said I understood.

Then she put her face in her hands and said “I think you should wait a year.”  “Oh, no,” I said without so much as a pause, “I know already I have a vocation.”  It was the “right” answer.  The first of many right answers I was to give over the subsequent years and that kept me in Maryknoll for longer than some others who were quite possibly more suited to a convent life than I.  It wasn’t that I was lying.  It was just that it never occurred to me to ask what I really thought or felt.  I knew what I was supposed to think and feel, and that was the answer I gave. 

I’ve thought more than once how different my life would have been had I been told to wait for that one year.  Many applicants were.  It may even have been the norm.  My mother would have died when I was a college freshman, and I would not have entered the convent at all.  Would that have been better?

No.  Knowing what I now know about my self and life, I think that the “right” answer I gave then was the right answer after all.

August 28, 2007

Leaving home for the convent

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

A friend who entered the convent months before I did has been sharing with me her poignant insightful descriptions of her large Catholic family and her decision to enter Maryknoll.  Today I was reading about the day she left her mother and father and nine younger brothers and sisters, and I found myself saying “Oh, don’t do it!  Don’t go!”

Of course, I was really saying it about the day I myself left my home in Ohio for New York and Maryknoll.  My little sister Cathy, my favourite, who was nine, came into my bedroom hours before I was leaving.  “I don’t want you to go,” was all she said.  I know she has no idea that it almost broke my heart.  But then she still had Mom and three other sisters, along with the five brothers. 

Eight months later she didn’t have Mom anymore.   And I was convinced that God wanted me in the convent.  Worse yet, so was Dad, and my superiors at Maryknoll.  I spent the next three years manufacturing headaches and strange lumps along with a display of neuroses that should have got me sent home.  I tried everything I could think of to get myself out of there by any way short of my having to face the fact that it was I who decided to leave.  If only they would send me, then I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not doing God’s will.

It would have been a disaster at home had I returned from the convent.  I would no longer have had the authority of being the oldest that was taken for granted when Mom was alive.  Dad’s new wife had four daughters of her own and  I would not have been special.  Nor did I have the maturity to raise my younger brothers and sisters that I thought I did, and I certainly had no insight at all into my father’s need for a wife, not a daughter posing as one.  And had I actually been needed, I would eventually have resented having to finish the job begun by my mother before I could live a life of my own choosing.

So I know it was better that I was not living at home when my mother died, and that I did not return from the convent.  But Cathy – now Catherine – I am sure has no idea that not being there for her during those years is still one of the hardest things I have ever chosen to do.

August 15, 2007

The family on the farm: Mary

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 5:54 am

My second sister and Bob’s twin was Mary.  Despite her position in the family where a lesser person may have been squashed, Mary was not a lesser person.  When Mary made up her mind, which she did regularly, she held on with tenacity. 

You couldn’t miss the fact that Mary had class and there was always an energy and exuberance in her life style.  From childhood she danced with  elegance, and excelled at sports.  By the time she was two, she was coordinating her clothes and shoes to match.  When her funds were limited, she chose beauty rather than food. 

What I still love best about Mary is her proud delight for the people she loved passionately and single-mindedly.  Despite our affection for each other, we were a  deadly competitive family in some ways, striving to excel in our own unique niches.  Mary stood out with her extravagant hopes for the rest of us.  Her most magnificent hopes were for Bob, her twin to whom she was fiercely loyal, and all her life she was a mother hen toward Dorothy, our youngest sister who was six when Mom died.

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who thought I was so wonderful, who thought my gifts should propel me to the top of the world, and who so delighted in anything I accomplished.  She was implaccably opposed to my being a nun, because she thought I would be suffocated in a convent.  She reached that conclusion when she was ten.  She said she herself felt liberated when I left nine years later.

Mary died of breast cancer when she was 46.  I still miss her.  In fact, as I get older and appreciate her unique brand of caring more, I think I miss her more.

August 6, 2007

Convent life: resilence vs adaptation

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

I can see this blog is never going to metamorph into a coherent story of my life because I write about the past mostly when it, usually unexpectedly, pops its head up in the present.  Yesterday I talked for more than an hour to an ex-Maryknoll friend whom I have not seen in more than 40 years.  We took up where we’d left off without a break.  It happens like that, sometimes.  It is inevitably surprising for me, because my default setting is that lost friends have gone on different paths and we have little in common.

One of the many things we discussed was the difference between the two groups of women who entered the Maryknoll convent in 1958.  The main group of 64 to which I belonged entered at the Motherhouse in Ossining, New York.  A smaller group joined several months later and spent their first three years in Valley Park, Missouri.    When the two groups were brought together at the Motherhouse in 1961, our sense was that the Valley Parkers were a good deal more pious than we were.  I am sure something happened in those three years to change us differently.

We were a bigger group situated at the Motherhouse with several hundred other nuns.  So I think it was more difficult to keep track of us than it was to monitor the much smaller numbers at Valley Park.  A second and possibly more important difference was that our superiors at the Motherhouse may have been more concerned to identify those who might not have the psychological resilence to withstand the stress of living for years with the poor in a foreign culture.  After all, the shadowy presence of sisters who had been broken walked the halls of the Motherhouse with haunted eyes, unable to sleep.  The Valley Parker superiors, on the other hand, were more concerned with winnowing out those whose self-will would not ultimately bend to the demands of obedience and community control.

So the rebellious, independent sisters whose conscience was less troubled by infractions of the rule often survived the first three years at the Motherhouse, while they were asked to leave if they had entered at Valley Park.  The next six years, though were different.  The Vietnam War and Vatican II were shaking the foundations of the country and the church, and Maryknoll shook with them.  Ultimately, Valley Parkers were better adapted to a Maryknoll life.  60 of the original Motherhouse group of 64 left Maryknoll, either voluntarily or at the request of the Maryknoll superiors.

To the outsider, leaving the convent may seem comparable to graduating from college, or leaving one job for another.  In actuality, for most of us it was far more like a divorce, with the anger and blame and sense of failure and rejection that so often goes with it.  But that is for another post.

July 29, 2007

We didn’t have Opus Dei in the convent I was in

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:19 pm

My husband and I were watching the film, The DaVinci Code, this evening, which includes some graphic demonstrations of neurotic – possibly even psychotic – practices of masochism by an Opus Dei fanatic.  Peter asked me, given my nine years in the convent, what I knew about activities like these which the popular media suggests are not fanciful.

Initially it seems the answer was obvious:  Maryknoll, the order of nuns to which I belonged did not inflict or ever to my knowledge encourage or even condone any kind of physical punishments like flagellations or hidden instruments by which one might experience pain.  I know myself well enough to know I would have walked out the door immediately had there been even a whiff of that kind of thing.

And yet – and yet – and yet… there was something.  There was an attitude that in some ways reflects the acceptance of a male-dominated, domineering bullying that suggested us mere lowly women should be subservient to higher authority.  That said we were not worthy to stand as equals to priests, and certainly not to the exclusively male hierarchy of bishops and cardinals and the pope.  And there were practices that were deliberately created to remind us of our sinfulness, of our unworthiness, of our self-pride that must be destroyed.

The Chapter of Faults, for instance, was a weekly gathering in which we sat in two rows facing each other with our Superior seated at the head beneath a crucifix displayed overhead.  One by one we each stood up and accused ourselves of our indiscretions of the past week, and then prostated ourselves at full stretch on the floor asking for forgiveness.  The sins we most often accused ourselves of were trivial and would be laughable if the purpose of the self-accusations were not, in retrospect, so destructive.  Things like “talking in two’s.”  Talking to another nun when a third person was not present was forbidden – presumably to avoid any possibility of a developing a lesbian relationship.  Another frequent sin one could always rely on should one be casting around for something of sufficient weight to report was breaking “custody of the eyes.”  This meant raising one’s eyes from the floor and looking around when it was, strictly speaking, done out of sheer interest in one’s surroundings and not out of necessity to avoid actually running into someone or something.

We were assigned a penance, usually a few prayers, and admonished to do better in the future.  Today, the whole process sounds eerily similar to the brainwashing techniques used by the Communists to change the views of the unreconstructed.

So though I’ve never seen it, I’m pretty sure there are people today in the Catholic Church who take these attitudes to their logical extremes and engage in most of the practices attributed to the followers of Opus Dei.  I do suspect they are a minority, rather like the Islamic terrorists who don’t represent mainstream Islamic attitudes. 

But in both religions, a small virulent minority can have a disproportionate and vicious influence.  I do not dismiss them lightly.

July 24, 2007

Dick: the brother who still wants to be a saint

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

A good friend from my Maryknoll days has just recognized me after stumbling on this blog.  We still seem to have a lot in common – not least of which is trying to trace our decision as children to become saints and the convoluted path to our each becoming what we are now.

I don’t remember talking to any other adult who as a child decided to be a saint, although it was an ideal held up to us in our family.  My brother Tom fell into despair by the time he was six at the thought of having to go to heaven when he died.  It sounded like the worst sort of hell he could imagine to sit on clouds all day singing with the angels,  worshiping God, and occasionally hobnobbing with various saintly figures who’d made it to the higher regions.  Before he was mature enough to ditch the entire theology on which this bland eternity was based, I think he set out to do whatever was necessary to avoid heaven.

My brother Dick, a year and a half younger than I am, took the idea of being a saint more seriously than any of the rest of us, and is the only one of my sibs who I think would still consider it a privilege to be a martyr. 

In a large family, sibs have to fight particularly hard for a unique niche that distinguishes them from the rest.  Tom and I were the oldest, which gave us securely unassailable roles for life.  Dick did not have the mechanical skills Tom had or my academic skills.  But he was immensely strong willed, determined, and intense, perfect strengths for becoming an old-fashioned saint.  As it became apparent, he also has significant skills as a community organizer.  Dick did go into the minor seminary at the age of 12, but left before he was 20.  He then joined the Peace Corp and spent time organizing and supporting community groups in the Phillippines until he was diagnosed with TB and sent home to recover.

Although he did not return overseas, Dick has maintained his undiminished commitment to sainthood.  He began and still heads a religious community called Servants of the Cross for lay people including both married couples and single people.  He and his wife have raised a family of eight children and have spent most of their lives in Mexico, working with the poor and spreading the gospel.  I asked Dick why he called his community Servants of the Cross, instead of the Resurrection, which to me represents the essence of Christian faith, hope, and charity.  He said it was because too many people thought you could escape suffering.

I was very close to Dick as we were growing up, but now I find his faith too near to religious bigotry to be comfortable with him.  For his part, I know he believes I am on a merry road to hell. 

It is hard to love someone as much as I love Dick, and to find myself living in  a world so incompatible with his.  We are kind to each other and are on speaking terms.  But I know we don’t comprehend how the other got to such a different place. 

July 22, 2007

Convent life 50 years ago

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 10:01 pm

About 50 years ago a woman published a book about her leaving the convent entitled “I leap over the wall.”  That just about summed up the attitude of the day:  when nuns went into the convent, they severed relationships with the outside world.  And conversely if a nun left the convent, there was never any communication with anyone still inside.

I was thinking today how much that has changed.  I had an email from a nun who is still in Maryknoll about the deluge currently flooding Britain.  And then I spent almost an hour talking to a close friend who now lives in New York but who stayed in the convent 30 years longer than I did.  We two outsiders are both pretty completely disaffected with the Roman Catholic Church, but we still have friends who are committed nuns. 

There are subjects, though, that I at least avoid discussing with nuns.  I even have a little trouble with avoiding the hypocrisy of saying I’m keeping someone in my prayers.  Prayer as hope, prayer as caring, yes.  Prayer as begging God to intervene or to do His best for someone I love – no.  Illogically, I do occasionally ask my sister who died of cancer 12 years ago to help me with everything from finding wisdom to a lost pair of glasses.  Maybe some people have that kind of relationship with their image of God.

July 20, 2007

The family on the farm: my brother Tom

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 7:46 pm

Despite my original plan devised at the age of seven to escape to New York City, at the age of eighteen I went into the convent instead, joining the Maryknoll missionary sisters.  Before I explain how such a drastic redirection occurred, I will describe my brothers and sisters.  There were ten of us altogether, so it will take a few postings to accomplish this.

Tom is my older brother by a year.  Mostly that made us equals.  I respected his areas of male competence and I was granted superiority in everything else.  He loved the fields and was intrinsically a much more gifted farmer than my father.  He was also a good mechanic.  At about the age of 12 he had the tractor apart in the garage.  I was appalled at what looked to me like an act of methodical terrorism, but Tom, unperturbed, bit by bit put it back together, and to my astonishment it worked.  After that, it never occurred to me to try to fix things for myself.  If something was broken, Tom would be able to figure out how to fix it if anyone other than God could make it work again. 

Tom and I were acknowledged authorities in the family after Mom and Dad, and our word was law with our younger brothers and sisters.  The defense “Terry said I could do it,” worked just as well as “Mom said…”  Tom says he knows women are as smart as men because I was smarter than he was.  That make him a pretty fantastic brother for a sister to have, though I might not have fully appreciated it at the time.  I didn’t know I was smart;  I just thought I knew more than most everybody else because, along with Tom, I was the oldest.  But I did know we worked together to try to raise parents fit for the modern world.  It was a tough battle, but things were working out pretty well until I entered the convent, and then Mom died and the whole project fell tragically apart. 

If I wanted to go to New York, Tom wanted to buy a farm in Alaska.  In the end, he became an mechanical engineer rather than a farmer, and worked for General Motors until he retired.  Now he and his wife hike, and kayak, and bicycle around the world.  They are on the road more often than they are at home.  His children are the most important things in the world to him, but we still discuss the philosphical issues of life and love.  Is there a God, does the Roman Catholic Church more harm or good, what’s the purpose of life, and all the other imponderables and unanswerables we spent so many hours discussing as children around the dinner table.

July 13, 2007

My first grown-up love

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:21 pm

I was still in the convent the first time I fell in love with an adult passion – that all-consuming, 24-hour-a-day passion when you can think of no one else, and being with him is the goal of every hour.  It was not a one-sided affair.  Marc was as fascinated with me as I was with him, and there was an electricity between us that was probably evident to anyone with anything but my most virginal naivete.  He was married with a French wife who seemed unthreatened and tolerant in a European kind of way of her husband’s wanderings.  Nor did it bother me that Marc liked a lot of women and that I was sure his moral code did not forbid his sleeping with many of them.

We met at a time when the old disciplines of convent life were breaking down, and new disciplines more appropriate to working in the modern world had not yet taken hold.  Marc and his family lived adjacent to the Maryknoll grounds, and many of us often walked over there to spend our weekly free afternoon there.  We accepted their drinks and cigarettes and carried on hours of philosphical and religious debates.  At that time I was also going into New York City every week to record a children’s religious television show.  Marc was a television producer, and we often rode to or from the City with him instead of driving ourselves.  One day – I can’t imagine how this was permitted – I was in the car with him alone, and in broad daylight he leaned over and kissed me.  Not a chaste kiss, but one whose meaning even I could not possibly have misunderstood.  It was not the last moment of passion we had together.

I did not leave the convent for the sake of this love.  When it was strongest, I had not yet taken my final vows and I could have left with little fuss.  What tortured me, and what remains a value for me to this day, was his wife.  He had married her, not me.   I did not see how I could take him away from her without feeling I had betrayed a fundamental human trust.   After I did leave the convent, I slept with him once. 

The next time I saw him I was with my husband, and the old passion had been replaced with affection and a memory of a man who held a special place in my heart until his death.

July 11, 2007

Men whom I have loved

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:43 pm

Although in retrospect, I can see that I have always been pretty independent, I have never shared the anger of so many feminists against men.   Despite society’s inequalities and unfairness, in general, I enjoy men.  They have been my brothers, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbours.  I don’t walk around resenting them.  (I am not talking about men who think they own their women and have a right to punish them as if they were lesser beings.  That is an injustice of such magnitutde that I am left gagging in revulsion and rage.) 

There are four men, in particular, whom I have loved with passion.  Not all with an explicit sexual passion but with a depth of feeling that reached to the core of my being.  The first was my father.  I adored him and I was his favourite.  He was an exceptionally intelligent, educated, highly-principled man who also suffered from depression.  He made depression look so reasonable, and became depressed about such truly great issues, that I was in my twenties before I realized that depression was not the only intelligent response to life, and that my father actually suffered from a clinical disease.  Although he loved us without question, Dad more or less communicated that he thought his children were failures.  I see now that was part of his depression and his inability to believe he could ever accomplish anything of great value, including raising children who were successful. 

I felt an immense burden to make him happy.  Although he never said so, I knew Dad would be terribly proud if I became a nun, and that was certainly one of the reasons why I entered the convent.  By the same token, leaving the convent and then getting married to a divorced man were steps out of childhood and into an independent adulthood. 

My father’s last request to me when we both knew he was dying was that I ask my husband to seek an annullment from the Roman Catholic Church for his first marriage so that we could be married by a Catholic priest.  I said no, that it had been a real marriage for my husband, and I would not ask him to pretend that it wasn’t.  Besides, at that point I had already left the church and most of its doctrine behind.

I was a nun when I met – and fell passionately in love with  – the second man whom I loved with what felt like my whole being.  His story is for tomorrow’s post.

July 9, 2007

A nun’s very Catholic family

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:13 pm

We grew up in a very very Catholic family.  In fact, we were super-Catholics, and were burdened with the belief that we were each chosen to do something very great with our lives.  So we thought pretty highly of ourselves, and thought we were a moral cut above the average sinner.  My father believed that the greatest thing any of his children could achieve was to become saints.  Sanctity became our highest goal.

 On the wall of the kitchen was a Christian calendar listing the feast being celebrated on each particular day.  Each one of us were named after a Catholic saint who was held up as our special example, and whose feast day was celebrated on the par with birthdays.  I was named after St. Therese of Liseaux, the “Little Flower” who became a cloistered nun and died in her early twenties, having celebrated the value of “little things.”  I never liked being named after her.  My plans for myself were never little. 

Every night the family gathered after dinner to say the family rosary together.  Mom was often pregnant and was the only one permitted to sit during this ritual.  The rest of us sprawled in what we called kneeling, positions that were rather surprisingly tolerated by a otherwise pretty strict parenting code.  During the forty days of Lent preceeding Easter, we each engaged in a series of public resolutions like abstaining from candy or parties or listening to our favourite loud music.  At Easter, Dad hid what he called an Alleluia Egg, pure white with Alleluia printed across its face in yellow food coloring.  Whoever found it earned a prize.  Mostly it was hard to find.  Once it was in the telephone (it was eventually found by the telephone repairman who was called in when the phone wouldn’t work), another time in the dust bag of the vacuum.  And there were first Communions and Confirmations, baptisms, and all the rituals of the Catholic year.

I thought all Catholic families were more or less like us.   But there was one critical difference between us and most other Catholic families.  For all his commitment, Dad wasn’t afraid to teach us how to ask questions, and to challenge religious authority.  I was an expert on the fine nuances of papal infallibility, and on just when the pope couldn’t be wrong, and the much larger arena when his view should merely be respected if not accepted.  This unsubmissive attitude, this default setting of disbelief, if you will,  which I learned at home, was not at all what most Catholics were like.  It certainly was not what was expected of me in the convent.   

June 30, 2007

Favourites for a Life

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:01 pm

I’ve started to listen to music for fifteen or twenty minutes each night just before shutting down.  Until now I’ve usually listened to music  doing something else – sewing, cooking, exercising – unless I was attending a concert.  It always seemed like a waste of time to just sit there.  But I’m finding now that I can get carried so much more deeply into where ever it is that music uniquely takes me if I just listen. 

I probably could not have done this when I was younger, however much I may have valued the idea in theory, and however much they may have tried to teach us meditation in the convent.  I was too driven, too organized, too concerned to be getting somewhere.  Now I don’t need to be as important as I used to, and that leaves more time for living. 

I think that making music is a wonderful thing to do with one’s life.  No doubt because of my own eye surgery, I am also thinking how wonderful it is to be an ophthalmologist and to give other people the gift of sight.  Great teachers, too, are on my Favourites for a Life list, and cooks.  I used to think cooking was a pretty drab occupation, but now I think it is noble.  It is close to loving, because food, like love, is something that every one of us needs every single day. 

June 29, 2007

Gordon Brown and conviction politics

Within several years after leaving the convent, I drifted into a state of disbelief.  Not outright aetheism, which looked too much like a reverse version of Catholicism to me, but a kind of amorphous secular agnosticism, a feeling that we simply can’t know anything beyond what we can see and figure out for ourselves.  My best self remains today suffocated by institutionalized religion of any persuasion, but I recognize now that although I may have completely discarded any allegience to doctrine, the influence of my earliest socialization, for better and for worst, is not so easily displaced.

And so it is with particular personal interest that I look at Gordon Brown, the new prime minister, in Britain.  He is what he calls a conviction politician.  He is greatly influenced by the values he learned from his father, a vicar in the church where he grew up in Scotland, and whom he deeply reveres.  Brown does not have the kind of personality – or at least public persona – to which I am attracted.  He has a commitment to eliminate global poverty, to increase equal opportunity, and make education available to all who seek it.  Yet he impresses me as authoritarian, sanctimonious, and essentially unable to listen.

I am wondering therefore how I feel about conviction politics.  Some of my own best and strongest convictions stem from my childhood.  But they have sometimes given me a sense that I am morally superior, a view which I am sad to say even I can no longer sustain with integrity.  And I rile against Gordon Brown preaching his personal convictions to a nation that may not share them. 

The question I’m wrestling with is whether it is possible for whole societies to espouse those values that we need to live together without some substrata of religious belief.  Of course, there will always be individuals who are non-believers.  But can whole societies survive without something that social scientists would call religion?  Values on which we agree but which may not be “provable” in some scientific sense?  I know many parents who themselves are no longer committed Christians but who are raising their children as Christians because they know of no other way to inculcate those values they think are essential for their children and for society.

June 28, 2007

Why did I ever become a nun?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

In retrospect, I have found it a good deal easier to explain to people why I left the convent than why I went into it.  That’s partly because people are usually delighted that I left, but somewhere between appalled and baffled that I ever decided to become a nun in the first place.

I spent some years after leaving the convent trying to understand myself why I went in.  One of the reasons it’s such a difficult question is because the full answer is multi-faceted. 

Was it the influence of my father whom I adored?  yes.  Was it the kind of Catholic world in which I spent my childhood?  yes.  Was it growing up in a rural community in Ohio instead of in a city like New York?  yes.  Was it the narrow options I thought were available for intelligent, independent women in the 1950’s and 60’s?   yes.  Was it the belief that imbued the civil rights movement and John Kennedy’s Peace Corp that we could build a better world?  yes.  Was it Pope John Paul who made so many of us believe that the Roman Catholic Church was changing?  yes.  All of the above.

I will try to convey in future posts just how dynamic each of these influences were, how they could make a life in a missionary order of American Catholic sisters sound like one of the most exciting things one could possibly do with one’s entire life.  And of course, ultimately not only why I changed my mind, but which ideas and values and beliefs I had then have been discarded, and which I think are still pretty fundamental to the way I live today.

June 20, 2007

The convent I left

I was a nun for nine years, so it will take a few more postings to describe my life there.   I do want to correct the impression that the convent I was in was the traditional, closed, stuffy uptight place so many people think convents are.  Orders of nuns and the rules under which they live are varied, and there was much about Maryknoll, even fifty years ago, that was a breath of fresh air. 

Part of the problem then was the often unbridgeable disconnect between the young sisters and the older nuns in charge.  Many of the young nuns came to Maryknoll with educational levels years beyond those of the older nuns.  And the world was changing faster than almost anybody in authority could cope with.  In universities and schools, in politics, in churches and families, traditions were in upheaval.  If the Maryknoll superiors sometimes tripped up, so did thousands of professors, presidents, politicians and parents.  The Maryknoll superiors were trying, but often they could not understand what was happening, and even when they understood, they rarely knew how to communicate with us.  Nor often were we listening, because we thought we had more to tell them than they had to tell us.

After Princess Diana died, the Queen, who had been socialized by the Second World War where people kept a stoic facade in public and mourned in private, was stunned by the response of hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in anguished mourning.  To her, this display of emotion no doubt looked self-indulgent and vulgar.  It is extraordinary to me how quickly she grasped that society had changed.  For several days she remained holed up in Scotland, looking as if she would never budge from a self-satisfied puritanism.  But I doubt very much self-satisfied is what she felt.  Looking at the subjects in her kingdom in a totally new way is closer to what I think now.

Many of the nuns in positions of authority at Maryknoll were like that, though the learning curve was less apparent at the time, and lasted for years.  Actually, it probably never stopped, because it was an order that engaged with the world, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian, and continues to struggle to understand.  Today, hundreds of nuns and ex-nuns remain friends, and return to the center Motherhouse in Ossining New York regularly.

But what was it like?  We usually rose with a bell at 5:30 am, had an hour of silent meditation before saying the Office in the chapel together and attending Mass.  Then we gathered for breakfast before beginning our assigned work for the day.  All of this was done in silence, and even during meals, we listened to reading, sometimes religious, sometime educational or inspirational.  Work was sometimes manual, sometimes study, and was punctuated with periods of prayer.  Music was an important part of the liturgy, and choir practice a significant part of the weekly schedule.  In the evening we had an hour of “recreation” when we talked and played games.  The discipline of the routine suited me well, but I chaffed against the constant oversight of authority.    

No, I didn’t belong there, even under the most modern of rules, and am very glad events did not construe to keep me there any longer.  But it wasn’t the way most people think of convents, and there is a lot about my experiences there that stood me in good stead when I returned to what we used to call “the real world.”

June 19, 2007

The night I left the convent

I left the convent nine years after I had entered as an 18-year-old, and three months after I had taken my final vows.  Yes, final vows does mean final, and just ninety days before leaving for good I had taken a solemn vow to live the rest of my life as a nun.  The life I led in the convent, and how I got to the office of the Mother Superior that night to sign the papers releasing me from this ill-fitting promise I will describe in more detail some other day.  This is a short version.  Actually, there are two versions of this story.  One is the story I would have told in all sincerity at the time.  The other is the one I think now is informed with a modicum at least of somewhat rueful self-knowledge.

I had joined the Maryknoll Sisters, an American missionery order, with the idea that it was a kind of life-time Catholic Peace Corp.  In the world outside the walls of our idyllic retreat in Westchester in upstate New York, Pope John XXIII was creating havoc with what so many had assumed was the unchangeable tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.  Out went the Latin Mass, and in we came with our guitars and folk songs.  I avidly read the pope’s encyclicals, along with the writings of intellectual rebel theologicans.  Consequently, I spent most of my time as a Maryknoll sister with a coterie of other young sisters fighting the Establishment.  The Establishment fought back by assigning me to the bakery, the sewing room, the pantry, to clerical work, and for two exciting years to the publicity department where I was the chief presenter on a weekly children’s religious show on NBC.  After six years, I was sent to earn a degree to equip me as a primary school teacher.  I was not asked.  Just told.  It was an ill-suited choice for me, but I was too much of a trouble-maker to be trained as a doctor or sent to study a dangerous subject like psychology or philosophy.   And I was kept safely in New York, rather than sent to work in an underdeveloped country, which is what I had come to Maryknoll for.

But the outside world was beginning to intrude.  In America, Martin Luther King was galvinizing the civil rights movement, and the protests against the Vietnam war were beginning.  Drugs and hippies and free sex had not yet penetrated our walls but many of us were convinced that we of the younger generation were at the cutting edge of world-wide renewal.  The older generations, both inside and outside the convent, feared we were at the cutting edge of outright revolution. 

The young sisters agitated to get out of our old-fashioned habits that covered us from head to toe, and inch by inch our garments were shortened, our arms and heads uncovered, a discrete calf and ankle shown to the world.  We were sent to live in houses in the slums of the Bronx in New York, and Paterson and Hoboken in New Jersey.  The regular trips into New York City to record the TV show introduced me to a dynamic world of committed people who often were not even Christian, let along practicing Catholics.  Most of the NBC television staff were New York Jewish intellectual types who could not fathom what a group of young, intelligent, vibrant young women were doing locked away as nuns, however modern we thought we were.

The speed of change was either too fast or too slow, but by the score, young sisters began to leave.  I convinced myself that if I were to continue the true work to which Maryknoll was dedicated, I too had to leave the convent.  I did not think I was rebelling against a life without sex, a life of poverty, or of daily unrelenting discipline.  I was rebelling against what I thought – and still think – was the demand for idiotic obedience.  But I gave myself high marks for moral integrity, and thought all my own motives were selfless.

Which is how one day in September I went to the Mother Superior’s office and asked her to petition Rome on my behalf to be released from my vows.  She had no choice but to do so, but not saying a word, she closed her face and turned her back on me.  I left the room. 

Three weeks later the permission had come through.  Later, Rome began to deny these requests.  How long I would have stayed if I had not been given permission to leave is a matter of conjecture.  Maryknoll or the Church had no legal right to demand that anyone remain, but for many, the moral authority of the Church was so great that they would never have considered going against it.  I do know I would not have remained there forever.

In the event, I was in the Mother Superior’s office at eight o’clock that September evening.  She placed the papers in front of me to sign.  Inexplicably, I broke down in violent sobs.  I fled the office and sat in the back of the choir stall of the chapel.   I guess I was saying good bye to an impossible dream.  Whatever I was doing through my tears, I wasn’t considering changing my mind.  Eventually I regained my composure, returned to the office and signed my departure papers.  Then I walked downstairs, caught a taxi to the train station, and went back to New York City.

I thought I had left the convent, and indeed I had.  But psychologically I thought of myself as an ex-nun for several years.  I was 27 years old but terrifyingly naive and innocent. Gradually Maryknoll receded and become a part of my childhood.  Today I rarely tell people I used to be a nun.  Not because it is something of which I am ashamed or embarrassed, but because it is misunderstood by so many, and I am no longer the compliant, believing, innocent young woman who left the convent that night more than 40 years ago.

May 8, 2007

Doing good impresses me as a bad idea

A friend from my Maryknoll convent days close to 50 years ago is visiting this week from the States.  We were talking about how our values have changed since then, and she said that she has given up on theology and all the beliefs that so drove our lives.  What she has instead is an intuition of a benign force moving the universe toward something meaningful.

I have abandoned all the paraphernalia of belief as well, even revolting against the idea that there’s a God out there with a Plan into which we fit.  I don’t want to live according to somebody else’s plan, even God’s.  And I’m certainly not interested in playing a kind of hide-and-seek to try to figure out what it is that God supposedly has in mind.  It is my life, and my responsibility.  I think it is up to us to create meaning and to make something of this universe.  Somebody else out there isn’t going to make everything all right if we don’t do it ourselves.

On the other hand, I’m not at all sure anymore about going out there “doing good.”  Doing good assumes I know what is best for everybody else, and since I do not want governments or churches or my family telling me what’s best for me, I don’t think I should try being Lucy to everybody else’s Charlie either.  I think kindness matters and integrity, not because it benefits other people but because it reflects the respect I want to show for the life that is mine.

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