Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Jan. 31
- Community Blog
The Church Embraces the Crone: Becoming a Nun at 50
A wealthy Hollywood socialite once said, “Many women in mid life or later find themselves longing for something more in their lives. While the heart is searching, listening for a call, the head is saying, ‘I want to do something good, something important with the rest of my years.’ ”
Like the woman pictured above, she too found herself in midlife contemplation. Yet, unlike the woman above, at fifty years old and after raising seven children through two marriages, the socialite's calling landed her on the doorsteps of what is undeniably considered the most violent prison in Latin America.
Raised a Catholic, Mary Clarke had been involved with charitable activities throughout her childhood. As old habits sometimes die hard, she found herself continually drawn to selfless service in her adulthood as well. But, it wasn’t enough and in the post empty nest quietude of midlife she made a phenomenal decision.
Since the Church would not accept an older divorcee as a novice, she took matters into her own hands. Shedding herself of all possessions, she bound her hair, strapped on a pair of "sensible" shoes and took to the halls of La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana ministering to the imprisoned and condemned.
Within a few years, her work gained the recognition of the Bishops of Tijuana and San Diego and she was permitted to take vows. In 2003, twenty years later, Clarke, now known as Mother Antonia Brenner, formed a new religious order specifically for women called to an ecclesiastical vocation later in their lives. It’s named Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour and accepts matrons between the ages of 45 and 65, divorcees and widows, spinsters and grandmothers alike.
I can’ tell you how many times my grandfather threatened to send me to the Dominicans when I was a talkative child (they take a vow of contemplation often misinterpreted as a vow of silence) or how disappointed my grandmother was when I took a man rather than Christ as husband. I also can’t explain how—or why-- I’ve seriously considered adopting a monastic lifestyle last few years since my own fledglings flew the coop. I even went to visit the cloistered Dominicans at the Monastery of the Angels in LA for good measure. I left with my hair intact and a loaf of their infamous pumpkin bread and box of chocolates tucked under my arm. Jumping the fence, I even pondered the zen Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddha. A twenty year veteran vegetarian, I figured I was half way there—but nope. I can’t seem to wrap my mind around the self imposed celibacy part.
Obviously, I have yet to hear precisely what it is my heart is calling me to do at this stage in the game. I do know my life from here forth is all about “The Love” and that a life of quiet contemplation and selfless servitude definitely attracts me. But, I’m not so sure I’m being called to take the Robes of Chastity, of any creed or denomination. Hard to pay the bills on a career of selfless servitude at any rate and I’m not a wealthy divorcee so my transition may take a bit more time.
For this very reason Mother Antonia invites candidates to live at Casa Corazon de Maria in Mexico for a year prior acceptance into the order. Once vows are taken, they are renewed annually and the sisters continue within the community by mutual consent. Makes perfect sense coming from a twice divorced woman who knows all too well the temporal nature of things. I can identify completely. Not because I’m a cynic or hopeless commitment phobe—I’m neither. I just believe there is power in choice. In fact, because I think that what we say and what we don’t say holds importance, I’m in favor of making vows a daily thing, whatever those vows may be.
Having been raised by the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (I know, right), there are several distinct differences I notice about this newly established order. Firstly, along with vows of poverty, chastity and servitude, the sisters also vow to practice “divine agape”.
The first time I heard the word was during the 1988 televised Power of Myth interview between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. I was unaware that the word was actually in the bible as it certainly never came up in any of my catechism classes. Given the fact that Greek was commonly spoken throughout the Middle East during Jesus’ life, however, it is logical that a Greek word like agape would have made it into one of the scribed scrolls.
My ignorance aside, I like that she selected to include that phrase in her vows as they are absolutely what my life is now about. Agape, unconditional love. A love that exceeds forgiveness or detachment. It is all those things as well as a profound and unbound compassion. To love with all you’ve got in every way imaginable and expect nothing in return ever. Tough lesson for our wounded inner children who want their cookie, and want it NOW but a lesson that most of us have had bashed into our consciousness in some manner way or form by the continuity of life’s School of Hard Knocks.
A second surprising aspect is that candidates must be self supporting, in that they must come to Christ with a dowry, so to speak. Whether that’s a pile of pennies squirreled away over the years, alimony or a 401K, the Church does not support these cloaked gals. Many live on their own all across the country and arrive at their ministries in prisons, hospitals and senior centers as they would any other day job. The Church does, however, provide them with their headquarters, Casa Corazon, and Casa Campos de San Miguel, a halfway house created by Mother Antonia for released female inmates.
There is a third thing of note: her cross. Designed by an inmate, now an ex-con and sole artisan of the Order’s crosses, it consists of three bound nails, symbolic of course of those that were used to pin Jesus to the cross. On top is the Star of David, a reminder—in part-- of the lives lost in the holocaust. It hangs not on a chain or cord but on a shoe lace, reminding the sisters of their choice to serve convicts, (metaphorically washing their feet). Interesting woman.
Given her busy public speaking calendar, it is apparent that others think so as well. The comparison to the Nobel Laureate Sister of the Slums and Mother to the Poor, the revered Mother Teresa, is understandable in that Madre Antonia is spurred by the same spirit to embody loving compassion through actions of devotion. Not surprisingly then that she is the subject of a recently published book written by Pulitzer-Prize winners, Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan entitled The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills o a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail.
It matters little to me personally whether she leaves behind her half the legacy Mother Teresa did. That she ditched the comforts of her posh and protected upper crust existence to live the later part of her life in a cement prison cell administering to the roughest toughest criminals south for the border is inspiration enough for this aspiring crone. Few others would follow suit and yet that she has done so reminds me that not much else matters in this life other than love.
I’ve always preferred sunsets, mainly because it seemed to matter more how the day went out than how it came in. Similarly, over the years I’ve come to understand the love we receive is insignificant compared to the love we have to give. In truth, it’s all we’ve really got and, really, it’s more than enough.
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