Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Poem about Pope Francis

Hello All. If the Olympics gave medals for blogging the least number of times each year, I'd probably win the gold. Why? Because I took several weeks off in December and early January. Now, it’s Thursday again and I find myself unable to find the three hours I generally spend crafting the memoir story that serves as my posting. This week’s been hectic with the illness of a friend who needed help and with my own problems with Meniere’s. So I also haven’t been able to read any of your blogs.
         I’m hoping that next week life will permit me to get back to a routine that includes reading/commenting on blogs and writing a story for this blog. For now, I simply want to share two things.

1)         As you know, Time magazine chose Pope Francis as their person of the year. Below is a poem about the pope. A friend of mine, whom I’ve known for sixty years, wrote it. The two of us attended college together and we both entered Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery. I left; she stayed and I’m so thankful that she’s been able to pursue her love of writing there.

Pope Francis

He looked out at our world
and saw that it was good,
not wicked or lurking in alleys,
waiting to pounce on prey,
but wounded and scarred from battlefields
of controversy, dissention, and mistrust.

He calls for the Church to be
a “field hospital” doing triage
to stop the hemorrhaging, to bandage
the broken, to comfort the mournful,
not condemning or alienating.

Open-armed and open-hearted
Francis embraces those teetering
on the brink of poverty, trampled
by war and greed, lost
in disillusionment and darkness.

Throwing off the ermine and silk
and red shoes, abandoning
the papal palace, he reaches out
to ordinary folk with candor
and common language.

He makes the gospel speak
again to all those hungering
for the simple bread of compassion
and understanding, yearning
for a place to call home.

Barbara Mayer, OSB
October 2013

This is the second poem of Barb’s that I’ve shared with you. The first was one about the return of a number of ex-nuns, myself included, to the Mount in May 2013 to celebrate the monastery’s sesquicentennial. Click here if you’d like to read that poem.

2)         On January 26, I posted for the first time in fourteen weeks on my Sunday writing blog: Word-Crafting: a Writer’s Blog. For that posting, I reviewed Return to Canterbury, written by a fellow blogger. It is a sequel to her first book, The Christmas Village. If you have time, I hope you’ll visit my Sunday blog and read the review. Melissa Goodwin’s novel for 10-to-14-year-olds is so well written that it appeals not only to young readers, but also to those of us who’ve enjoyed a lengthy number of years!
         If all goes well with the weather and the barometer and my friend, whose health is not so good right now, I’ll return next Monday to reading blogs and next Thursday to sharing with you another convent story. Peace.

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.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Judgment in Seneca

It’s been six weeks since I last posted a story about the convent. Back on December 6, I wrote that in the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission where I discovered “just how human nuns could be and were.”
         On that mission, even as I rebelled against a superior whom I was unable to respect, I castigated myself for being judgmental. Ultimately, I despised myself for my own flaws and left the convent. But that’s in the future. For now let’s spend some time in Seneca.
         As background, you need to know that at the Mount, or motherhouse, in Atchison, Kansas, I’d worked in the laundry each Monday and Tuesday. As novices and postulants, we young nuns not only washed the bed sheets but also the undergarments of the nuns. Each garment was labeled with the initials of the nun to whom it belonged. My initials were DR3. That is, I was the third living nun with the initials DR.
         Nuns wore two undergarments: a half-slip and a torso muslin. The voluminous blue or khaki cotton half-slip buttoned at the waistband. The one-piece, muslin torso garment went from shoulders to mid-thighs. It buttoned up the front and was separated at the bottom for easy use of the toilet. The garment was unbleached, loose-fitting, and short-sleeved. 
         On an enormous industrial mangle, four novices ironed the sheets. In another room, three novices worked at smaller, individual mangles or ironing boxes. Each lifted a five-feet-long, handled, rectangular cover; placed a half-slip on the padded ironing table; and then brought down the cover to press the slip.

         Thus, the nuns wore ironed slips. But the one-piece torso garment remained un-ironed and wrinkled. That garment was ironed only for the mother superior. Doing so was a sign of the respect in which the nuns held her.
         As the youngest scholastic in Seneca, I did the mission laundry. The first time I descended to the basement, the scholastic who’d done the laundry the year before followed me downstairs.
         “Sister Innocence,” she said, “be sure and iron Sister Mary’s muslin.”
         “Why would I do that?” I asked.
         “She likes all her underwear ironed. So I did them for her last year.”
         “But that’s done only for Mother Alfred.”
         “Well, Sister Mary wants her muslin ironed so you do it.”
         “No. I don’t.”
         My words flummoxed Sister Mary Jude. “But you have to. She expects it,” she stammered.
         “She not our mother superior and I’m not doing it.”
         In the weeks and months ahead, I discovered that the Seneca superior considered herself the grande dame of the convent. During recreation each evening as we all gathered around a large rectangular table, she sat at its end with two other nuns—one who taught English in high school and one who taught seventh and eighth grade. The superior seemed to think that these two matched her in intelligence and learning. They formed a formidable clique.
         The three of them spent recreation talking about books and history as the rest of us—I think there were about thirteen nuns at Seneca that year—chatted, crocheted, knitted, and played chess or tic-tac-toe. Periodically, when I’d hear one of the three laugh derisively, I’d glance toward the head of the table and note their condescending smiles and superior airs.        
         That’s when I really began to judge and that was truly the beginning of the end for even then I chastised myself. Yet I still continued to rebel. 
         Next week, we'll return to Seneca and I'll share the soft-boiled-egg battle-of-wills with you.