Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sister Barbara: An Ever-Present Blessing in My Life


The convent itself has changed greatly since I lived there between June 1958 and December 1966. But I suspect that human nature changes ever so slowly over years, decades, centuries, and millenniums. The limbic system, which controls our basic emotions, remains part of our brains.
         So nuns living in community still find themselves human in their response to what can be the tedium of the day and the intractable personalities of other nuns. After all, the convent is a small universe populated by women who do not slough off their flaws, strengths, foibles, and gifts when they enter.
         I’ve written about some of those foibles before. Today I’d like to write about Sister Barbara, who epitomized for me what living the five Benedictine vows could mean.
         With the vow “conversion of morals,” a nun challenges herself to smooth the sharp edges of her own being. She commits herself to embracing the wholeness of human personality. She champions the Gospel mandate to love even when loving demands patience and perseverance.         
         Most of the nuns with whom I lived tried hard to live that vow, no one more so than Sister Barbara who oversaw the laundry. Each week for the first eighteen months I spent in the convent I got to work under her patient supervision.
         She was, as the saying goes, as old as dirt. She had seen countless postulants and novices come and go. She knew that often we were lonely for our families. That learning to live in community was difficult. That trying to still the rebellious voice within ourselves took years of self-tolerance.
         Deep wrinkles scored her face, mapping the peace that came from centering her life in hope and gratitude. Her voice, cracked with age and gentled by prayer, accepted everyone who crossed her path, whether we be fickle or devout, silly or serious. Her eyes were as freshly blue as the first rain shower. Her smile reflected the still voice of Oneness that dwelt in the deep center of her being.
         There was in her a gleeful joy, a simplicity, a peace that had no axe to grind, no complaint to lament, no sorrow or shame to glower the day.
         In her presence I felt that she’d come to the laundry after having sat under an apple tree with her God, drinking a mug of dark, hot coffee; munching on the crusty heel of bread still warm from the oven; and chuckling over the ups and downs of life.
         Together, they wondered about simple things—the pure voice of a postulant during choir practice, the blush of a winter sun setting, the laughter of children who lived just down the hill from the convent, the scent of beeswax candles in the sanctuary, the nourishing taste of prayer, the worrisome news of a nun whose cancer had been diagnosed the day before.
         For me, Sister Barbara walked in beauty. She had looked upon the face of Jesus and rested within the deep wellspring of his love. And so, whenever I returned to the Mount after being out on mission, I sought out Sister Barbara.                                                                                                                 I wanted to gaze upon her face because it held for me the promise that if I followed the mandate of Micah 6:8,  “ . . . to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God,” I, too, would embrace my humanity and open my arms and my heart to the pain and joy that resides in each of us. She gave me hope that I, too, could become authentically human.   

The lyrics of John Denver’s Perhaps Love
always remind me of those convent days
when Sister Barbara’s love encouraged me to embrace my vows
and to walk, as she did, the trail of beauty.

38 comments:

  1. Someone so at peace is sure a rarity indeed

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    1. Dear Pat, yes, Sister Barbara wore an aura, a halo, of peace. And that is rare. Peace.

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  2. Hi Dee, It's great that you had some good role models... We all need them in our lives, ones we can trust and who live a godly life ALL of the time. I used to think that Christians would go to church on Sunday and act high and mighty in their faith, YET during the week, they did not live the type of lifestyle which God expects us to live.... People that 'walk the walk and talk the talk' 24-7 are rare but very special.

    Hugs,
    Betsy

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    1. Dear Betsy, she was a role model who has stayed with me all these years. All I need do to find peace is to visualize her standing before the Mount carriage house, which had been converted into the laundry. Peace.

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  3. It is not easy to find nice people. You must be nice yourself and you see good in people.

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    1. Dear Munir, my mom always said, "Dolores, you find what you look for. If you look for good, you will find it. And if you look for bad, you will surely find that also." And so it disturbs me that so many of the stories I tell about the convent are about hard, difficult things that happened to me. There was so much beauty and good there and I'm trying to remember and recount that along with the hard parts of convent life. Peace.

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  4. We all need people like this in our lives - the ones who remind us what it is like to be comfortable in our own skin. I am so pleased you found her and she, you.

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    1. Dear Kari, I'm still working on becoming comfortable in my own skin. The journey to authenticity takes our lifetime I think. Sister Barbara taught all of us by simply being who she was--a woman of deep faith and commitment. Peace.

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  5. This touched me deeply. Perhaps it is because your description of Sister Barbara matches what I try to hone in myself, although too often I fall short. What a blessing she was to all in her orbit. Thank you for sharing her so beautifully with us. (And I haven't been able to start my much anticipated reading of your novel yet because our puppy had a serious eye injury, and is requiring much care. He may still lose the eye, but we want to do our very best by him. I can't wait though, to start reading it- in fact, I'm getting pretty antsy about it! Hopefully in the next couple of days I will have a sustained block of time to relax and read.)

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    1. Dear Shelly, I believe that everyone who passed under Sister Barbara's tutelage in the convent laundry saw the living reality of being a vowed Benedictine.

      And don't worry about reading the manuscript. It's there when you have time. Peace.

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  6. I'm so glad you had Sister Barbara in your life. The song is beautiful. I'd never heard it before.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, I, too, will be forever grateful that she was in my life. I cherish her memory.

      The song is one that John Denver wrote and sang often. But he said in an interview that he'd never sung it so well as when he listened to how Placido Domingo sang with him. It is, for me, the quintessential love song. Peace.

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  7. You drew a beautiful word picture of Sister Barbara. I feel as if I too have gazed into her eyes and drunk in her rich faith. Thank you so much for sharing her with me. I am feeling very blessed.

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    1. Dear DJan, I so wish that I had a photograph of Sister Barbara to share with you. I struggled trying to find the words to picture her in this posting and so I'm relieved that you felt her presence and her deep faith. Peace.

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  8. You really managed with your thoughtful,beautiful prose to let us clearly see such a pure soul. How lucky you were to inhabit her space and thank you for introducing her to us.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, yes, the words you used "pure soul" absolutely describe Sister Barbara. Peace.

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  9. THANK YOU for giving me a beautiful song & a beautiful soul--neither of which I had met before!!

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    1. Dear Fishducky, you're welcome! "Perhaps Love" is one of my favorite songs of all time. Peace.

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  10. I have known people who were a comfort. Why were they so much older that now I only can know them in memory.

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    1. Dear Joanne, I am blessed with several friends who are a great comfort to me. Just today I experienced the troubling symptoms of Meniere's Disease and a dear friend in Minnesota expressed her concern and love for me over the phone. She is a blessing and her response today to my need is now part of my "memory bank." Peace.

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  11. It is nice to know there was a sister Barbara. A rare bird indeed.
    Glad to see you are writing again.

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    1. Dear Mimi, a "rare bird" indeed and you may be another one! Peace.

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  12. What a beautiful song, Dee. I just love the arrangement and the unexpected combination of Placido Dominto and John Denver. Sister Barbara is the kind of person I would also seek out. There is a quiet confidence that comes through the actions of someone with such a clear purpose. She sounds just amazing! And that you can still feel such a kinship and closeness to her after all the intervening years tells me so much about how important she was in your development and life within the convent. I'm so glad you've shared about her, Dee

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    1. Dear Debra, I'm so glad you liked the song. I still remember the recent posting you wrote in which we exchanged comments about singers we enjoyed. I don't know whether I mentioned John Denver as a favorite of mine, but he is. As to Sister Barbara, her presence in the convent was a daily blessing to me. A gift from the Universe. Peace.

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  13. Dee, as ever your writing is beautifully poetic. Sister Barbara was a great blessing in your life and reading about her is a blessing for all of us. I do believe that there are people in our lives who are sent to us by God -- to me they are real saints and angels.

    I've been away from blogging for a while and have a lot of reading to catch up and am looking forward to your blog in particular!

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    1. Dear Broad, like you, I believe that daily we meet saints and angels and are unaware of this. And also like you, I was away from blogging for several weeks and so you have probably missed only one other posting I did about the convent years. Peace.

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  14. Oh, dear Dee, what a joy this was to read, and to hear, on this awfully cold winter's day. While I can't clearly say that I've had a Sister Barbara in my life, I know I have had people in my life that walk in such beauty. I've met them in casual conversation in a coffee shop or a table mate at a luncheon. People who come into a lives for a brief moment in time and show us what beauty and grace is, just by their simply "being".

    I want to thank you for posting this beautiful version of "Perhaps Love" by two of my favorite singers. I was not aware of this version.

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    1. Dear Penny, I'm so pleased that you found this posting a joy to read. Whenever and wherever we meet people who are at peace in the deep center of their beings we are blessed.

      I'm glad also that you liked this version of "Perhaps Love." It and the one done by Mary O'Hara are my two favorite versions. Peace.

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  15. What a wonderful soul!! It's a blessing when people like that cross our paths for years or for a moment. There are certain people you never forget.

    I had never heard that song before. Thanks for sharing it. Beautiful. :)

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    1. Dear Rita, I'll surely never forget Sister Barbara who helps--by her very presence--to put things into perspective for me. I'm glad you liked John Denver's song. It's always been a favorite of mine. Peace.

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  16. Beautifully written Dee, you've added a glow to my morning.

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    1. Dear Annie, you're welcome!!! Peace.

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  17. What a dear gift Sister Barbara was to someone as young as you. I've watched peace come to people as they age..... it's as if they are ready to fulfill their bargain. You must have eaten healthy food..... as fresh bread right out of the oven. That alone, brings peace to the soul. :)

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    1. Dear Manzanita, yes, the food was so fresh, much of it during the summer and fall from the convent garden and orchard. All the bread was baked there in the convent also. The meals truly were delicious.

      And yes, Sister Barbara was a gift, one I've appreciated more and more as I've aged. From your postings, I'd say that as you've aged, peace has come to you. Peace.

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  18. There is real warmth in your words about Sister Barbara. She must have been an extraordinary woman.

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    1. Dear Friko, I do feel real warmth your Sister Barbara who helped me, not through her words, but through her actions and the peace that emanated from her, to put convent life in perspective. Peace.

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  19. A beautifully-written tribute to a woman with a beautiful soul, Dee. Your affection and respect for Sister Barbara and what her life of prayer and discipline had made her shines through every word. You've reminded me of a nun I knew many years ago, who radiated this same sense of loving clarity and strength, honed by long and dedicated service.

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  20. Dear Perpetua, how blessed we've both been to have known women of such peace and of such "loving clarity and strength, honed by long and dedicated service." Those words of your exactly sum up Sister Barbara. Thank you. Peace.

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