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Here’s my favorite anecdote concerning Sr. Jeanne Knoerle, former President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, my alma mater: It was the day that Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated. Someone at the college heard the news, and various students were sent to dispatch it to the outlying campus buildings. One student ran into the gymnasium shouting, “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!”

“Oh my God!” a senior cried. “Someone shot Sister Jeanne!”

That’s how central she was to our lives, then and now. Sr. Jeanne died this week of a heart attack. It was sudden, as heart attacks so often are, but particularly jarring to those of us who knew and loved her. I can practically hear people saying to themselves, “But I just saw her, and she looked the same as ever.” And she did. Though well into her 80s, she could have passed for 65. She was active, trim, always whip-smart and incredibly present.

It was during her tenure that the college began its distance-learning program, one of the earliest of its kind — practically ubiquitous today, but back then, unheard of. After her retirement, she continued teaching a rare class here and there. I was lucky enough to be a member of her Critical Writing class. For our final critique, she took us out to a wonderfully posh French restaurant, and told us to order anything we wanted, on her.

When dessert rolled around, the junior next to me exchanged a meaningful glance with me. We both wanted to order a cappuccino with our dessert, she because she’d just spent a semester in Europe, me because it sounded so grown-up and exotic. Now, nuns as a rule don’t have a lot of money. Theirs is not exactly a lucrative calling. But Sr. Jeanne generously nudged us to indulge. That’s how she was.

Jeanne was a leader, and her presence will be missed at the college, even though she hasn’t been its president for nearly 30 years. In a way, an era has ended. I try to console myself by thinking that she would have wanted her death to be this way. She wouldn’t have wanted to fade out, losing her memory and her independence. But it’s small comfort.

I sometimes worry about who will mourn me when I die, as I don’t have any children. However, I fully expect Jeanne’s funeral to boast an overflow crowd. We, all of us who attended St. Mary-of-the-Woods, were her children. Her influence was far-reaching. Because of her, many working women earned degrees they never thought they’d have. That’s not just a boon for education; it’s a boon for feminism.

Perhaps this blog is not the proper place for an elegy. But my alma mater is hard-wired into my faith; it is part and parcel of my spiritual life. As was Sr. Jeanne, and all of the Sisters of Providence. And while her loss will be felt and mourned, I can almost imagine her meeting up with our founder, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, up in the heaven where they most assuredly are. Now that’s a conversation I’d give anything to hear.

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Prayer is a choice. For us to pray to give thanks, or to voice our questions and doubts shows that we are choosing to leave an opening in our spirits. Without this opening, there is no vessel, no place into which God can breathe.
Joanna Laufer

I’ve often wondered if expressing doubt to God in prayer is an oxymoron.  Or even sacrilege.  The whole premise behind praying is that God exists and that He is sovereign. Who am I to throw pebbles at Him and question his ways?

A month ago, I had an exacerbation of MS and came home from the hospital ready to heal. Then last week, I fell down in the hallway and had a setback. I was frustrated, distraught, even hopeless.

As I look back over my life, this is, unfortunately, the way I’ve lived my faith-walk at times as well.

It’s as if I see each challenge as the end of the road.  That’s it!  I’ve had it.  As we say in Jersey, I’m too through. I mean, how can I possibly contribute anything to the world lying here in bed, feet wrapped in Ace bandages, barely able to hobble on crutches?  Even writing a blog post takes forever for me now due to dexterity and visual issues.

The reality is that these are speed bumps.  I’m not able to drive right now, but I’ll drive again at some point.  When I was driving, I wouldn’t throw up my hands in disgust if I had to stop for a red light.  I’d know the light would turn green again. It’s just a matter of time.

Some of the most important discoveries in history came from people who questioned the status quo. The world is flat?  Somebody said, “Doubtful.”  The earth is the center of the universe?  Somebody said, “Are you sure about that?”

Lori is active in the Catholic church, and she’s written about voicing dissent within her faith community. In the news today, Catholic nuns are speaking up, even if the hierarchy doesn’t always listen.

During an intense time a few years ago, I wrote about coming to terms with doubt. I decided that it doesn’t negate my faith in God if I express confusion or doubt.  In the end, it strengthens it, reminding me exactly what I believe and why. Once I’ve worked it out in prayer and in my mind, I can move forward with a measure of peace that I didn’t have when my doubts were unexpressed.

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. John 14:27

It also helps to know that we’re part of a faith community, and that we hold each other up in prayer, as SueBE said in her moving post last week.  “Simply knowing that people are praying for us is a weight off my shoulders.  I’m not going it alone.”

And that – no doubt –  is the gospel truth.

So there I was, standing in line, waiting to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation (known in some circles as “Confession”). I was cogitating on my sins of course, but also regurgitating a conversation I’d had on the drive over, one filled with angry questions for my otherwise beloved Church: Why doesn’t the Church seem to care that the third largest religious affiliation in the country is “lapsed Catholic”? Why have priests been excommunicated for supporting the notion of women priests or married priests, or even simply for blessing gay people, while bishops that protected known pedophiles for decades have not been? Why are nuns being chided for their work with the poor and desire for social justice?

And then I looked up. I was standing under Station Eight of the Stations of the Cross: Jesus speaks to the women. Five words. And I realized my true sin. I have not trusted God to work through His Church, to bring change and healing. How did I get from Station Eight to recognition of sin? Easy. Jesus spoke to women. That doesn’t seem all that revolutionary now, but it sure was then. Women were considered chattel, property. For a man to speak to a woman — well, it was tantamount to speaking to a cow. The Jewish word for widow literally means “unable to speak.” Not due to grief or anything, but because a widow has no husband, no man, to speak for her. Yet Jesus spoke to the women. And He listened to them, too.

And if that is true, then anything is. Maybe things need to get to crisis levels before the Church changes its views on homosexuality, birth control and the like. Maybe this time of waiting — this Advent — is necessary to effect change. Who knows? Certainly not me. But what I can do is trust that God will work His will through the Church. It is not up to me to worry about it; it is for me to trust. So trust I will.

I guess the women of Station Eight weren’t the only women Jesus spoke to, huh?

My friends expect me to have something to say about the recent Vatican report on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Something, perhaps, about the hierarchical Church’s obsessive need for power and control. Or maybe a few words about the incessant infantilization of women. Even a cheap jab about how a German world leader droning on and on about conformity and obedience makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…but no. I just can’t.

This is not to say that I’ve been worn down. Not at all. There is no human on Earth who could — even with an official excommunication — tear me away from my faith. I am a Catholic because I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, because I need the sacraments in my life, because it makes sense to me. But the Church of my faith and the Church as the body of Christ are not, and never have been, synonymous with the hierarchical Church, who are simply men — mortal, imperfect, struggling men.

I would not like to be in their shoes. Their “crucial” issues are, for the most part, “crotchal” issues: abortion, contraception, homosexuality. It seems a weird area to concentrate on in light of larger issues, like war, injustice, and poverty. Moreover, it feels like just another way to exert control over personal, private bodily functions. There are things that ought to be left up one’s own sense of right and wrong. Whatever happened to primacy of conscience?

It must be sad to be so bound up in the maintenance of an aging, obsolete power structure that you have to pick on nuns. All I can find in my heart is pity. It’s too bad. I could have written a really terrific post about this mess.

After reading about SueBe’s latest endeavor, I was emboldened to talk about my own. Not that I’m ashamed of it. I’m thrilled, actually. I’ve been accepted into the Providence Associate program with the Sisters of Providence. With vocations at an unsettling low, the Sisters have instituted a program whereby ordinary folk like me engage in intense study and contemplation in order to become associates of the order. This means that one day, if my studies go well, I will be a part of spreading the mission and charism of the S.P.s.

I can’t wait to begin the journey; my companion in this endeavor will be my dear friend and mentor Sr. Rosemary Nudd, English professor extraordinaire from my college days. She will guide me along the way, provoking me to get and give the most that I can.

So why am I not shouting my news from the rooftops? To certain people, I am. My mother, for instance, understands my calling and shares my joy. Others don’t quite get it. “Will you have to wear the costume?” one well-meaning friend asked. (Just for the record, the Sisters of Providence haven’t worn a “costume” in many, many years. They dress just like you and me.) “Does this mean you’re leaving your husband?” someone else inquired. No, it doesn’t. I won’t take vows. I won’t be obligated financially to the order. I’ve simply expressed my desire to have an ongoing, formal relationship with them, to help them with their work in the world.

Unfortunately, what nuns are and what they do is still largely misunderstood in this world, so of course, my calling is something of a mystery to some. But it is my calling, after all. No one has to understand it but me. And I couldn’t be happier.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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