In the ‘50s I listened as Nat King Cole sang “Smile.”
That song influenced my whole way of looking at life
when I was young and wanted to please everyone.
In the fall of this year, I posted a series of stories about my introductory teaching assignment after making first vows as a scholastic in January 1960. The memories of that Omaha classroom are unclouded in my mind. I’ve never forgotten those seventh graders who challenged both my mind and my heart.
But the years after that—in Seneca, Kansas City, and Baileyville—are not as memorable because not as challenging. I have little memory of the students I taught from the fall of 1960 through the spring of 1966 because the truth really is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and almost all the students in my subsequent classes were eager to learn and to please. The seventh graders in Omaha had been “squeaky wheels.” As such, they were unforgettable.
In the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission. My memories of the students and the classroom there are dim. What I do remember clearly, however, is my surprise at the discovery of just how human nuns could be and were. I remember that and also how hard I worked to shape my negative impressions into a positive image.
In the ‘40s I’d heard Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters sing this song.
Its emphasis on the positive influenced my outlook on life
until I found myself falling apart when I was in my forties.
At that time, the Mount convent housed more than six hundred nuns. I knew only a few of them from my college days and from my eighteen months in the novitiate. Still, I habitually refused to acknowledge any evidence that didn’t support the romantic, unrealistic, and erroneous view I had of the convent and of religious vocations. For Sister Innocence of the Order of Saint Benedict, nuns were called to be saints and so they were. They had to be or my carefully constructed view of life would come tumbling down.
The nuns in Omaha had not dissuaded me from that view. Sister Brendan, the superior there, was everything I thought a superior should be. But a handful of nuns and the superior in Seneca were an entirely different matter. I judged them, rather harshly.
I judged rather than simply accept that any group of people is going to be mixed in every way. There will be healers, peacemakers, gossips, malingers. There will be the compassionate, joyous, generous, kind, helpful, brilliant, gleeful, curious, prayerful, gentle, shy, and unassuming. There will also be the vengeful, obsequious, gossipy, ashamed, guilt-ridden, embittered, nosy, domineering, self-serving, gregarious, judgmental, imperious, selfish, mean, self-centered, self-absorbed, and depressed.
There will be, that is, all the human traits that we meet everywhere, in every group. Those traits might be muted by the life of service the nuns have chosen, but the traits—whether admirable or not—are ingrained and do not disappear with the making of vows.
In the first weeks of my life in Seneca, I knew I was judging others. That wasn’t, I thought, the way a nun should act. And so in an attempt to mend and reverse the judgments in my mind, I found all sorts of reasons for why the superior and the nuns would act the way they did. Rather then accept their humanity, I twisted my thoughts into a skein of knots. I made my own reality.
In the ‘50s Nat King Cole encouraged all of us to “Pretend.”
I learned to do that very well when I was young.
Next Thursday I hope to share with you some of the very human traits I found on that mission. Traits I refused to accept. Instead I concentrated on my own judgmental attitude and found myself despicable.
Thus I began to travel the path that led to my leaving on Christmas Eve of 1966. I left broken, not so much by the convent but by my own struggle to create nirvana in the midst of the gathering of humanity in which I found myself.
It wasn’t so much that I found the nuns and the convent wanting. It was that I found myself so far short of perfection. And that, my friends, was my undoing—the belief that to be loved one must be perfect.