Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Showdown at the O.K. Corral

A panoramic view of Cincinnati.

Last Thursday’s posting related how in the fall of 1967, nearly a year after I moved to Dayton on a leave of absence from the convent, I sent a letter to Rome asking to be released from my final—solemn—vows. The Roman prelate refused my request because of its vacillation. Then, in the spring of 1968, the archbishop of Cincinnati set up a meeting for the following Saturday morning.
A friend picked me up in his Volkswagen beetle. George had studied for the priesthood, but had left before ordination. So he and I shared a mutual interest in the religious life as well as the arts. Our conversation never lagged as he drove the fifty miles from Dayton to the larger city.  

The cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in downtown Cincinnati.

After entering the downtown area of Cincinnati and passing the cathedral, which occupied the corner of 8th and Plum, we came to the chancery. George waited in the car as I went inside. Upon entering the bishop’s office, I kissed his ring and then, at his request, sat on the sofa while he stood in front of his desk. I do not remember the exact words exchanged between us. Thus, the dialogue that follows gives you only the gist of our conversation.
To begin he asked, “How did you get here today? By bus?”
“A friend brought me.”
“Male or female.”
“You’re dating?”
“I have but I’m not dating now.”
“What about your vow of chastity?”
That startled me. This will be hard to believe, but in the fifteen months I’d been out of the convent on a leave of absence I hadn’t once thought about my vows and about the fact that I hadn’t been released from them. Even when I wrote the letter asking to be released from my vows it didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to be living them. And yet that’s what a leave of absence was: I was away from the convent, but I hadn’t left my vows behind.
I spent a moment berating myself: How could I have been so dense? But then my common sense took hold and I said, “How can I decide if I want to return to the convent if I don’t date and enjoy a normal life outside?”
“You don’t need to date to lead a normal life. Stop dating until you’ve been released from your vows.”
He continued his interrogation. “Do you have a job?”
“I worked for Pflaum Publishing for a year and now I’m teaching religion at Julianne Academy.” (Julianne was a Catholic high school for girls in Dayton.)
“So why haven’t we received your paychecks all this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your paychecks should be sent here to the chancery.”
“Why?” I asked. “I need money for clothes. Rent. Utilities. Transportation around Dayton. All kinds of things.”
“I remind you again—you are under vows. You made a vow of poverty. Have Julianne send your paychecks here and we will give you a stipend to live on.”
Something within me rebelled. Abruptly I rose from the sofa and moved a step closer. “No. I’m saving for grad school. I will not ask Julianne to send you my checks.”
“You will. You’ve broken your vows of chastity and poverty already. And now you’re refusing to follow my orders. This is a serious breach of your vow of obedience.”
I simply stared at him. What he said was true: I’d forgotten I was still under vows. Yet I’d done nothing wrong. In many ways I was still living both the vows of chastity and poverty because deep down I had long ago, even before entering the convent, found contentment in living simply. Once again, however, the vow of obedience was proving difficult. 

Cassock worn by Roman Catholic bishops.

When I didn’t respond to his command, the bishop pointed his right index finger at the floor in front of where he stood and said, “Kneel. I want you to recommit to your vows. Your checks will come here. You will do no more dating or driving in cars with men. You will obey my dictates. And you will come back here every month and report to me.”
I didn’t move. I could feel myself crossing the Rubicon.
“Kneel!” he said, his voice rising.
I picked up my purse and walked toward the door.
“Come back here and kneel down,” he commanded.
I turned toward him and said, “I’m never coming here again. And if you have trouble with that then get in touch with the prelate for Benedictine convents in Rome and denounce me. Maybe then I’ll be released from my vows.”
With those parting words, I left the chancery. George drove me back to my apartment in Dayton. I cried; he sympathized. I never again heard from the bishop. But it took two more years to finalize my decision. That’s next week’s post.

A 1966 Volkswagen Beetle.

Photographs from Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Need to Be Resolute

Dayton, Ohio

In January 1967 I moved to Dayton. Two and a half years later—in August 1969—I left Ohio to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. During those thirty-two months, I mostly enjoyed life: I made many new friends and was “adopted” by a young couple who had two children with whom I played lightheartedly.
I also dated, learned how to manage money, took a literature course at the University of Dayton, explored my emotional immaturity with an astute psychiatrist, flew home to visit my parents, lived through the death of my mother, worked at Pflaum Publishing Company, taught at two schools, attended concerts and musicals, became a frequent visitor at the local library, shopped for clothes, reveled in movies, and moved several times.
My life seemed full and rich. However, there was also the difficulty of becoming fully released from my final vows.
Last week I explained why I’d taken only a year’s leave of absence from the convent. During that time, I hoped to discover why the religious life overwhelmed me emotionally and why I found the vow of obedience so oppressive.
To my way of thinking, I’d been a total failure as a nun. All those other women with whom I’d lived for eight and a half years were able to remain faithful to their vows. They seemed content with their lives. What was wrong with me?
And yet, deep down in my psyche was the thought—one I didn’t want to embrace then or even now—that something was amiss in the convent. That it failed to help people like myself, who’d entered immature, to grow emotionally and spiritually. And yet. And yet. All those other nuns seemed fine. So I was the ugly duckling.
Throughout 1967, I became aware that I’d felt stifled in the convent. That I was unwilling—deep down—to suppress my need to be independent and to follow my own will as to what was good for me.
In early autumn of that year, the prioress contacted me, asking what I’d decided: Did I want to return or be released from my vows?
I wrote to say I wanted to stay “in the world.” She then explained that I needed to write a letter asking for permission to be released from final vows. She would forward the letter to the Roman prelate who oversaw this process at the Vatican.
Writing that letter proved difficult. I was still confused. I felt hamstrung when living the monastic life. Yet, the idea of monasticism continued to appeal deeply to my romantic and idealistic nature. The letter I wrote revealed a conflicted person.
The prelate’s reply came via the prioress. Concerned, he thought I needed more surety in my life before walking steadfastly away from monasticism. And so I was given another year’s leave of absence to think through what I really wanted to do. During that year I was to report to the archbishop of the Cincinnati archdiocese, which took in the western and southwest corner of Ohio and included both the Cincinnati and the Dayton metropolitan area. 
My independent streak rebelled. “I don’t need to see the archbishop. I just need to write a more resolute letter next October,” I thought, putting off the Cincinnati visit. Then, in the spring of 1968, I received notification from the archbishop’s office: I was to report there on the following Saturday morning.
That meeting, my friends, did not go well.

Dayton panorama from Wikipedia.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Seesawing in the Convent

St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

When last I posted a story from my life in Dayton back in the late ‘60s, I shared with you several perceptive comments that Dr. C., a psychiatrist, said to me as he discerned the patterns of my life. During that time I also tried to officially leave the convent.
When I’d asked to leave in early December of 1966, the Mother Superior thought that my taking a leave of absence rather than being released from my vows would be best for me. I can’t remember exactly how she proposed this, but she must have been thinking that I often acted impulsively and that I’d changed my mind more than once about leaving.
In June of 1965, after teaching high school students in Baileyville, Kansas, for a year, I’d arrived home at the Mount and immediately asked to leave the convent. The Prioress called and asked my mom to come and persuade me otherwise. Mom came, talked about how she’d stayed married to Dad despite his drinking, and said, “Dolores, when you put your hand to the plow, you never look back.” I stayed.

But a year later, in June of 1966, after teaching another nine months in Baileyville, I’d once again entered the Prioress’ office, knelt down, and asked to leave. My second request startled her even more than the first. After all, only a handful of professed nuns had left the convent in its previous one hundred years and so my persistence was historically atypical.
Vatican Two, an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, had taken place in Rome between October 1962 and December 1965. Pope John XXIII had encouraged the prelates to open up the Church to renewal. I knew little about the council, nor what this renewal implied. Nor did I know any professed nuns who’d left the convent. To leave after making final vows just wasn’t done at that time.
But I had become so desperate that leaving seemed my only recourse. I can’t remember how or when that drastic option—actually leaving the convent—occurred to me. I can’t stress enough how in December 1966 that was a radical idea. A year later leaving became more widespread.
I attribute my decision to that deep down survival instinct in me. It was leave or endure a breakdown. At the time, nuns who suffered from extreme mental illness were sent to a hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa. My fear was that I’d be sent there and would spend the rest of my life sitting by a window, facing the sun’s warmth, totally incoherent.
The Prioress suggested that I take part in the convent’s June retreat and then make my decision. I did this, and sure enough, because at heart I love the idea of monasticism, I went into her office afterward and said, in my usual dramatic and grandiose way, “I’m staying. And if I ever again ask to leave, remind me of this. I’m committed to staying.”

St. John’s Abbey Church at Saint John’s University in Collegeville

Within a day or two, I traveled to Collegeville, Minnesota, where I had been pursuing for two previous summers a graduate degree in Benedictine Spirituality. When I returned to the Mount in August 1969, I began teaching religion and English literature in the Mount Academy attached to the convent.
But summer school had only bandaged the woundedness of my spirit. Once again, it began to fester. Once again I seemed to shatter into shards of myself. And so late one evening in early December 1966 I walked down the shadowed halls, entered the Prioress’ office, and asked to leave.
Next week I’ll explain a leave of absence and how that worked out in the two and a half years I lived in Dayton. Peace.

Postscript: This past Monday I completed the first rough draft of my convent memoir. I’m putting it aside for several weeks. Then I’ll read it to discover exactly what I’ve written. Editing and polishing will follow, through probably two or so more drafts, until I have a final manuscript. I’m feeling a real sense of accomplishment.

Photographs from Wikipedia. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Two Uncommon Cats and Therapy

My human, who’s huge on manners, suggests that I begin this purfect review by introducing myself. I’m dismayed that you don’t already have an appreciation of my ability to discern unspeakable nuggets from delectable tidbits.                                                                                                      
But such is the perfidy of a human who chooses to write about her past life. What’s interesting in that!?!?! It’s the present that matters. Yet, I’ve had to accept such cavalier treatment. Why? Quite simple—I enjoy the cushiness of her lap.                                                                                          
That’s settled then. Let us begin.                                                               
My name is Ellie. I wear brindle fur and, like my human, a little extra poundage. I remain up close and personal when she reads. I delight in sprawling—gracefully of course—on open books. Thus, when the time came to write this book review, I was the perfect fur person to do so.                                                                             
The book I’m encouraging you to read—with my most melodic yowls—is Purr Therapy by Dr. Kathy McCoy. A psychotherapist, she is the author of the popular and helpful blog “Dr. Kathy McCoy: Living Fully in Midlife.”                                   
As an objective reviewer, I may assure you that she is a true lover of felines and their foibles. She appreciates us, unlike some I could mention.                                                                                  
Observing us closely, she found, entirely by chance, two of us who were—trust me on this—quite exceptional: Timmy and Marina. Their names are in the subtitle to the book: What Timmy and Marina Taught Me About Life, Love, and Loss.                                                        
Why are these two so unusual? Because they refuse to exhibit those supposed traits that have sullied the reputation of felines. That is, being: Aloof. Destructive. Disdainful. Naughty. Picky. Sneaky. Stingy with our canned tuna.                                                       
Ever so delicately, Timmy and Marina shred those malicious rumors into mincemeat. That’s what makes McCoy’s book about them so appetizing.                                                                        
The following excerpt begins Purr Therapy. It provides an overview of just how uncommon those two cats were as they helped their human in her work of counseling others. Believe me it takes a peerless cat to know one and I tell you that they make me proud to be a feline.

Timmy and Marina never knew each other. But they were both rescue animals, both coming into my life when I wasn’t looking for a cat. And they both unexpectedly demonstrated traits that cats don’t often have—most notable an affinity for family, friends, and strangers. . . .
Cats aren’t frequently used in animal-assisted psychotherapy. This type of therapy cat, after all, needs to be friendly with strangers, willing to be touched, petted, and held by a variety of people unfamiliar to it. Therapy cats have to be tolerant of loud voices and angry shouting, emotional distress, and sudden movements. It’s a tall order for any creature, but it is a particular challenge for a cat. . . .
Knowing, loving, and working with both of these therapy cats was an incredible pleasure. Timmy and Marina brought comfort to my patients and joy to my home,
They had something else in common: they both died tragically, quite early in life, like angels lent for just a limited time. And yet, in their sweet, short lives, they made such a difference.
This is their story—and mine as I worked with, lived with, and loved these two very special cats, learning lessons in life, loss, and love along the way.

 In Purr Therapy you will learn how Timmy and Marina helped Dr. McCoy’s patients. I know my purrs comfort my human. I’m her “purr therapy.” But never could I cheer or console strangers—especially if they raised their voices.                                            
With the wisdom with which my race has endowed me, I encourage you to read about these two extraordinary felines and the human who recognized their gifts. That trio—Timmy, Marina, and Dr. McCoy—have been a gift from the Universe to all their patients and now to me and my human and . . . to you.                 
As that human of mine would say, “Peace.” 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Day in the Life Of

This morning I’ve been here in my office lined with bookshelves that provide background reading on Bronze-Age Greece, theology, felines, and the Judaism of ancient Palestine. In the past few years, I’ve studied these books, trying to absorb their information, as I’ve worked on several manuscripts.
         Most of what I write about my life needs little research. The memories and the feelings I experienced are part of who I am now. Each Thursday, I usually sit here, remember a happening, place myself back in the time and place in which it happened, and simply write.
         Today, I was prepared to write about the bishop of the Cincinnati, Ohio, diocese back in 1968; George, an ex-priest and friend with whom I worked in Dayton; and the tedium, frustration, and confusion of writing letters to Rome. But, as rain splattered the windowpanes I found myself thinking, “Not today. It’s too dreary to be writing that!” And so I considered other stories. Then the phone rang.
         The call came from the nurse/tech who works with the ophthalmologist I see about glaucoma. I take two different drops each day to keep its pressure in check. The second drop is new for me, and because of burning in my eyes, I became concerned that I might be allergic to it. About 8:30 a.m. this morning, I called the doctor’s office. The tech just told me that I’m to stop taking that drop. Instead, I’m to come in this morning and get a sample of another drop to try. Having shared this with you, I’d best grab the car keys and drive to Liberty, Missouri, where the office is located.
         So no writing this week because of commitments for today and tomorrow. Next week I hope to review an exceptional book—Purr Therapy—by Dr. Kathy McCoy. Well, either I’ll review it or Ellie, one of the cats with whom I live, will. She’s being somewhat insistent that she knows more about purr therapy than I do.