Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Kindness of the Mount Community: Part II

Today’s posting is the last one I’ll write for this blog or my writing blog for the next several weeks. However, I plan, except for a few vacation days in July, to continue what I began yesterday: reading and commenting on your blogs.
            Why relinquish posting until sometime in August?
            Because I’m storied out. Writing, editing, and polishing stories about my life has lost some of its urgency for me. I’ve mulled and found meaning in so much of my early life and your comments have helped me put everything in context. Now I need to move on to the convent years again.  So when I begin again—in August, I’ve let go of my first twenty-two years.            
            Instead, I’ll share with you my Scholastica years in the convent. That is, the three years—1960, ’61, and ’62—for which I made temporary vows. During those years, which are a tapestry of color woven with both dark and light thread, I began to teach.            
            Today’s posting will also be about the convent, specifically the recent sesquicentennial. 

          Five members, including myself, from our class of eighteen returned to the Mount for its celebration of being home in Kansas for 150 years. I didn’t get to visit at any length with any of them because the entire day and a half was taken up with meeting and greeting and hugging and laughing with so many nuns who are still in the convent and so many who have gone on to other lives.

            We ate and prayed together and took tours of the cemetery—where so many friends of my youth are buried, nuns who taught me in college and enriched my life in the convent—and also the fourth floor of the monastery where we used to sleep in large dorms. Now these dorms have been converted into rooms for individual nuns along with recreation rooms for viewing movies and television.
            One of the things I missed in the convent was stretching out on a couch or putting my feet on a hassock and snuggling down into the comfort of an easy chair. Now the fourth floor nuns have all of that: couches, easy chairs, hassocks. O joy in the morning!
            So many changes: a large library, eating at whatever table one chooses, a nursing-home section that ranks as one of the top ten in the nation, talking in the halls, a cafeteria instead of a refectory with novices trundling in the food on carts and then later washing the dishes in the scullery. So many changes from the life I knew.
            But one thing hasn’t changed: the hospitality of the Benedictine nuns. St. Benedict, some 1,500 years ago, wrote in his Rule that we are to welcome the stranger as we would Yeshua/Jesus. And so the nuns, who are steeped in graciousness, did all they could to embrace our return to roots.

            I’m ending today’s posting with a poem about what being back at the Mount monastery was like. The poem, written by Sister Barbara Ann Mayer, OSB (Order of Saint Benedict), conveys the celebration much better than I can. She has spent more than fifty years as a nun and has witnessed many changes. One of these is that she can now pursue her love of writing. Barb’s poem captures the joy we all felt—both the nuns who have stayed at the Mount and those of us who have journeyed elsewhere.

Coming Home

We hugged, laughed, cried,
to see faces from long ago
etched with wrinkles and lines,
strong, intelligent women who
faced their uncertain future
with courage and hope. They
came to share their lives, their
stories, their memories, and
we felt blessed by their coming.

As they placed flowers at graves
of those they had loved, prayed
the psalms with joyful voices, we
felt a bond never really broken
by distance and time, a sister bond
of friendship that survived the years.

“It was like coming home,” one said,
“I feel like I left part of my heart here.”

Barbara Mayer, OSB
June 2013

Have a lovely summer. I hope to see you back here in August. I’ll be visiting your blogs in the days and weeks ahead. Peace.

PS: The Mount has published Shadowboxing,  Sister Barbara Ann Mayer’s first book of poems, and it is available at the monastery gift shop. Please click here if you’d like to contact the gift shop about Barbara’s poetry or about other books written by the nuns as well as their crafts—from iconography to embroidered tablecloths to place mats to pottery.

All the photographs are from the Mount web site. They are used with the permission of the prioress, Sister Anne Shepherd, OSB. Click here for the web site.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

An Unexpected Letter of Kindness

My last random-act-of-kindness posting tells how Sister Madonna reached out to me a few weeks after I left the convent on December 24, 1966. It will make more sense if you’ve already read the following three stories, which I posted in August 2011. They explain my leaving and the confusion that swirled within me.

         I know that, like me, most of you are too busy to read so many postings, so I’ll briefly summarize why I left the convent: During the eight and one half years I lived there, I became more and more depressed. By the end of that time, I was hallucinating three nagging personalities; I quaked under the expectations I thought others had of me; I felt like a fake because my inner thoughts weren’t consistent with my outer actions.
         I knew I was experiencing a nervous breakdown but I was such a fine actress that I faked being normal. No one seemed to realize just how emotionally bruised and mentally ill I was. Yet I knew I couldn’t keep up the act infinitely. I was sure that if I stayed I’d end up in the mental institution in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where “crazy” nuns spent the rest of their lives.
         My letter to the Mount community asking for permission to leave was, I think now, probably rambling and disjointed. But I remember that one of the things I stressed was that Mount nuns taught and I was a poor teacher.
         In January 1967, I began working at a publishing house in Dayton, Ohio. Faking normalcy took its toil, and I’d fallen into a deep malaise. But once again, no one realized this because of my acting ability. I knew what normal looked like and I feigned it. My one certainty was that I’d failed in everything I set out to be as a nun. 
         Several weeks after I left the convent, Sister Madonna, who taught in the psychology department of Mount Saint Scholastica College, sent me a letter. She was older than I and I’d never taught with her. In fact, I knew only her name and her reputation as a woman of great graciousness, wholeness, and learning.
         In her letter, Madonna explained that she’d recently interviewed all the seniors—about 70 students—at the Mount Academy because she was writing a paper for a psychology journal. The fall of 1966, I’d taught English literature and religion to these seniors.
         Madonna wanted me to know that each and every one of them had said I was the finest teacher they’d ever had. She went on to tell me some of the things they’d shared about me and about my teaching.
         Her letter, an unexpected act of kindness, was water in the wilderness in which I wandered lonely and lost.         
         Madonna wanted to assure me, she said, that if I left because I didn’t teach well I could put that reasoning aside. I was an outstanding teacher.
         I shall never, ever, forget the kindness of this woman. She was the Good Samaritan who came upon the beaten and bruised wayfarer and cared for her. I remember taking a deep, gulping breath when I read her letter. I hadn’t totally failed. My life hadn’t been a wasteland. I’d done something well. I felt . . . peace.

PS: Next Wednesday I’ll post Part 2 of the sesquicentennial reunion. Then I’ll return to my convent postings that ended in December 2011. Also, tomorrow—Sunday—I’ll post news about my manuscript entitled “The Reluctant Spy” on my other blog—wordcrafting: a writer’s blog.