Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Prayer today seems old-fashioned and irrelevant – a fossil from an era when explorers risked sailing over the edge of the known world. For some, it intrudes where it does not belong and must be kept out of public schools and the halls of government. But for the intrepid few, prayer is a lifeline, necessary as the air we breathe and as hard to come by in its pure condition.
The blare and tempo of modern life and the stress most of us live with have all but rendered prayer impossible. Or at the very least unlikely. But the Missionaries of Charity Contemplatives at 3877 Boston Avenue consider prayer the motive force "at the still point of the turning world."
Mother Teresa in Tijuana, 1991
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
One of 15 such convents worldwide and a branch of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s order, the community observes essentially the same Rule as the “Actives,” but adapted to their more contemplative character. In fact, the sisters spend well over six hours a day in prayer and spiritual exercises, compared with two for external works. These latter, called “The Apostolate,” include visiting jails and calling on families in their neighborhood, one of the poorest in San Diego. The sisters joked about sharing the same set of initials as the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
The sisters’ lives are bound by silence, hard work under primitive conditions, 4:40 a.m. rising, and the absence of many conveniences and distractions some of us think important. Their Rule forbids radios, TVs, cameras, tape recorders, and projectors. They are allowed only a few books. Within their convents, the sisters go barefoot and always remove their shoes before entering the chapel, housed in a former garage. They kneel without support of any kind for long periods and rest only by sinking back on their heels in the Indian fashion.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
When I learned that it was possible to arrange a private retreat as a guest of the Missionaries of Charity (MCs), I called to schedule five days in February. I had already exceeded my allotted threescore years and ten on this planet. With friends, relatives, and fellow writers dying all around me, almost every day was a “near-death” experience. Maybe it was time to take stock, the unexamined life, as Plato reminds us, not worth living.
But I had an ulterior motive for the journey. I believed that a significant number of ordinary people feel some need for prayer — a hunger for God that reveals itself only in times of crisis but is genuine nonetheless. Otherwise, how explain the soldier’s conversion in battle, the alcoholic’s and the junkie’s reliance on a higher power in the fight against addiction, the bereaved parent’s sudden access of comfort from an unknown source? Perhaps a story about the Missionaries of Charity Contemplatives would let people know that a place exists to fulfill this inchoate longing.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
My decision not to tell the MCs about my past sprang from a desire to relate to them more freely. Some of Mother Teresa’s comments on priests and sisters who abandoned their calling seemed to me harsh. I believed that my own departure, made with prayer and forethought in the officially appropriate manner, was the right choice. The events that led to it are too complicated to detail here, but it may help to know that I had entered the convent at 16, largely as an attempt to live out my mother’s dream. Whether or not Mother Teresa would understand, I was convinced that God did.
Watching a local TV newscast one evening before leaving Seattle, I was surprised to find the screen filled with angels. The restless search for novelty had recently catapulted Betty J. Eadie’s Embraced by the Light to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The author’s account of a near-death experience had triggered an interest in celestial spirits. That and a callous indifference to literary merit. Lights up, to a background of unearthly music,
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
I watched cameras ransack the archives of art to amaze us: Chubby cherubs with wings no bigger than those of a large bird. Pastel-robed unisex figures with golden hair and wings discreetly folded at shoulder. White-clothed guardians hovering over a small boy and girl crossing a dangerous footbridge. Statues and sculptures of angels kneeling around an unseen throne.
We entered this space by traveling with the author down a long, dark tunnel and later, returned abruptly to the disbelieving real world to see a middle-aged woman with back-lighted, red-gold tresses and a resurrected smile.
Testimonials followed: other visionaries, other sightings. There is even an International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS). The Oxford Companion to the Mind treats near-death reports under “Out-of-the-Body Experience” (OBE) and mentions several theories to explain them. The discussion ends by suggesting that OBEs be treated as psychological events and concludes:
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
- What we need is a better understanding of subjective experience — including mystical experience and other altered states of consciousness — within which the experience of seeming to be outside one’s body makes sense.
Including mystical experience. Some readers will have an insight into this state from their understanding of the artistic vision. The late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, has written knowledgeably on the relation between natural and supernatural contemplation in an essay titled “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal.” Authenticating mystical experience can be difficult, but my own litmus test would include the quality of the language in which it is reported. Here, Blessed Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila, among others, would pass, and Eadie, notwithstanding the jacket blurbs and blessings, would not.
For several days before my departure, I call the San Diego weather line and find the temperatures at least ten degrees above Seattle’s. I decide to wear skirts out of respect for the sisters. Resisting all temptations to pack wool sweaters, I substitute cotton and, at the last minute, throw in a pair of ski socks and a blackwatch plaid wool scarf. I’ve packed a black cardigan and a lined, amethyst corduroy jacket. I’ve stuffed a not-so-brief case with writing and reading materials and assorted knickknacks. If I keep a journal during my retreat, it should be relatively easy to write an introduction and some expository connective passages.
Thursday, February 10, 1994: My friend Mary meets me at the airport and we telephone to arrange a suitable arrival time at the convent. When we find the white statue of the Sacred Heart and the professionally lettered sign MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY CONTEMPLATIVE above the address, we know we’re in the right place. We’re early, so we drive around to check out the neighborhood. Graffiti and broken glass everywhere. National Avenue seems to divide Hispanics and African-Americans. There’s a small park not far away with kids playing basketball. On the dot of 3:00 p.m., we park in front of the convent and pass through the open gate of the high cedar fence.
But not before I spot a crudely lettered red sign, DON'T BLOCK THE DRIVEWAY and another, BEWARE OF DOG.
“Look!” I say, making sure Mary hasn’t missed the third sign.
“That’s next door,” she says calmly. Ever since my early-morning walks to the place where I met my ride for the 18-mile commute to high school, I’ve been afraid of strange dogs.
After we knock at the wrong door, a voice from inside directs us to the second gate where someone opens to admit us to the garden enclosure.
Sister Imelda is an aspirant — young, heavyset, dark-haired, dressed in a navy blue skirt and a white blouse and sandals. Soon a professed sister appears, wearing the habit familiar from pictures of Mother Teresa: a white cotton tunic and a blue-bordered white cotton sari, draped so as to cover the head.
She introduces herself as Sister Ignatius Marie and says that the superior will be there in a minute.
Sister Margaret Joseph is obviously American (from New York, it turns out) — an attractive, 40ish woman with rosy cheeks and a welcoming smile. One of the requirements for admission to the MCs is a cheerful disposition, and the evidence is apparent at every turn.
Before Mary leaves, we need to settle the matter of my daily four-mile walk. She has volunteered to meet me for the exercise at any time I specify, so we ask about the schedule. But Sister Margaret Joseph says that two of the sisters enjoy walking, and it won’t be necessary for Mary to come back each day. They will take turns being my companion. How long will it take?
“An hour and 20 minutes,” I estimate.
“What time would you like to go?”
“Since you’re accommodating me, you choose the time.” We settle on three in the afternoon — the hour, I discover later, of their Apostolate. That makes me feel like a special project, even though I realize it’s the only period of that length when the sisters are not in the chapel. I begin to see myself as a prisoner, to ponder the many forms of my spiritual poverty.
We politely decline an offer of help with my luggage and are escorted to the quarters where I’ll be rooming. Entering the front door of a small building at the rear of the garden, we are in an unfurnished space, linoleum on the floor — perhaps the living room of the original house.
To our right, a small kitchenette is divided from the entry by a breakfast bar. We go to the back, jog left, and come to a small bathroom, which, I am told, is for my use. To the right of that, a tiny bedroom like several others from a dim convent past.
“It’s simple,” Sister Margaret Joseph says, and she’s right. I tell her that it seems to have everything necessary, and she leaves as we prepare to retrieve my luggage from the car.
“Oh, look!” Mary says. “You have an air filter.”
But the object in question — about the size of a Sony Dream Machine, my clock-radio at home — proves to be a space heater.
I know instantly that I’ll never plug it in.
When it comes to “Fire and Ice,” I part company with Robert Frost: I do not “hold with those who favor fire,” would rather freeze than burn. I avoid saying so to Mary, who’s already concerned about my spending nights here. But she has to agree that it doesn’t look too bad. Privately, I’ve already dug in for the full stretch, relieved as I am that the place is so clean. I bid a joyous goodbye to imaginary mice and roaches, a legacy from reading Mother Teresa’s account of lifting maggot-covered bodies of the dying from storm drains in Calcutta.
I take a quick inventory of my new apartment. About seven by nine feet — maybe eight by ten, with a single east window, hung with white cotton net curtains. A small cot with a blue-and-white plaid cotton spread. Limp white sheets (probably hand-laundered) and line-dried in a small outside enclosure that is always full. The blue blanket has been doubled to fit, and there’s a heavy, fringed wool extra folded at the foot of the bed. The spare blanket represents the only departure from the virginal blue and white. It’s red, white, yellow, and black — and thick enough to save a sleeper from hypothermia.
Against the south wall, a small walnut student desk boasts four small drawers on the left and a wider one in the middle. Someone has pasted a small picture of Our Lady on a piece of white paper, hand-lettered a vertical WELCOME beside the Virgin, and placed it at eye level above the desk to greet the visitor.
A small closet opposite the bed has several shelves stacked with spare sheets and towels and a second pillow. Beside the shelves, a wooden clothes rod, exactly nine inches long, with a few hangers, reproaches my excessive wardrobe. A small cotton rug beside the bed is the only concession to visitors with cold feet. Most of the closet space is taken up by a larger area rug, rolled and standing on end. I will ask the superior’s permission to use it for my back exercises. At the same time, it will cushion me from the linoleum-covered concrete and “zero at the bone.”
Reluctantly, I bid Mary goodbye and return to unpack. In a few seconds the room looks like the epicenter of the California quake. That bare ascetic space, which I find so attractive, is glutted with the evidence of my runaway consumerism. If I cannot restore the emptiness I prize, I can at least reduce the rubble to a semblance of order.
Below the window, I stash my luggage carrier against the wall. Next, my folded garment bag. On top of that, a squat brown softside carry-on with the really critical items: portable coffeemaker and Starbucks’ Ethiopia Sidamo; Pentax camera; travel kit with all the grooming tools and toiletries I find indispensable; underwear-and-to-spare for the duration; even a precautionary bath towel and matching blue washcloth. Over the duffel, I place a many-zippered-and-pocketed briefcase. It bulges with a tape recorder, half a dozen tapes, books and notebooks, and a missal to follow the daily Mass. Between layers, I hide a large Coach bag with a smaller, more portable purse inside. And on top of the bedside pyramid, my travel alarm.
Using skills developed by working jigsaw puzzles, I hang most of my skirts and blouses and outerwear on the nine-inch rod. Then I fit my boots and bedroom slippers and one pair of shoes in a single layer on the closet floor. One pair of footwear will always be in use, so I’m set. I crowd my books into the upper desk drawers and my underclothes into the lower. Then I carry the coffeemaker and gourmet brew to the kitchenette where a tray with a jar of Taster’s Choice vindicates the caution that makes me look like a moving van when I leave home for more than three days.
Before I’ve settled all the way in, someone taps at my door, and I open to Sister Imelda. She carries a second electric heater, an inch or two larger than the one in my room.
“Sister Margaret Joseph sent you this,” she says.
“I’m not going to take it,” I say. “It’s probably hers.”
“No,” the aspirant says. “I think it’s from Back House.”
Without knowing that Back House is the building I’m in, I conclude that one of the aspirants has been called upon to make this sacrifice. When water runs in the convent, it sounds very close, so I’m not sure who’s sleeping where. At least one door in my building is marked “Private,” and when someone leaves it ajar, I see a bare cot inside. Other closed doors suggest that I may not be alone here. In any case, either of the space heaters would have the effect of trying to warm an ice arena with a cigarette lighter.
I insist again that the blankets are of excellent quality. I do not need a heater. We exchange a few more words at my doorway. Sister Imelda is from Maryland — Baltimore, to be exact. In a short while, she will be leaving for New York to begin the postulancy.
Sister Margaret Joseph has told me that my noon meal will be delivered to the kitchenette each day. For breakfast and supper, I’m on my own. There is food in the refrigerator. If I have special needs, I should let them know.
Mary and I have had a late lunch at a cafe, and I’ve brought half of my sandwich from there: that will be my first supper, along with a cup of Starbucks’. I decide to wait until after the 6:30 Holy Hour because I’m not hungry yet. I read for a while in my room, make some notes, explore the garden, and show up in chapel five minutes before the bell rings for the 6:30 Holy Hour. A young woman I think is a third aspirant provides me with books. I’ve dusted off my departed father’s rosary and brought it along. When I was a young sister, my companions and I envied the worn rosary beads of the older sisters. We rubbed and rubbed the black beads, trying to hurry the process, to look holy. We scratched initials on the Hail Marys so that each bead would be for a special person. As if God needed our silly signals!
The Holy Hour is a journey back in time. Prayers and hymns I haven’t heard for decades are in daily use here. Most of the words come back gradually, but now and then, they’ve added an invocation here (“Blessed be Jesus in the poorest of the poor,” in the Divine Praises); or introduced a slight variation there from the text I memorized. I pray cautiously, unwilling to trip a land mine and trigger confusion.
Several women from the neighborhood come in at various times during the hour to pray with us. They do not hesitate to use the chairs at the back of the chapel. All of them park their shoes at the entrance, and they make the deep obeisance the sisters use when the Consecrated Host is exposed on the altar.
By the time we’ve recited the rosary and the “trimmings” aloud, nearly half an hour has passed. At intervals, Sister Margarita Maria starts a hymn after announcing the number in accents I find inscrutable. As soon as I recognize the words, I flip to the index and usually arrive at the right page after a stanza or two.
Back in my building, I turn on the light and go about the serious business of making coffee. The sandwich is a little soggy but nutritious: wholewheat bread, turkey, cheese, lettuce, and sprouts. After heating water in the teakettle to warm the mug, I arrange everything on the breakfast bar and realize that my only option is to stand. With the lights on and windows covered only by wrought-iron grilles, I feel like the exotic koi in a lighted aquarium. Oh well! The Japanese carp does symbolize strength and perseverance. Nevertheless, I flip the night-light on and turn off the overhead.
In my room I try to read for a while, but the mercury has plunged, and I’m very cold. At home, I keep the daytime thermostat at 65 degrees; at night, 58. When I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, the light switch turns on a ceiling fan that blasts cold air. The faucet is tricky, too. No matter which way I turn, only cold water flows. I decide to give up about 9:00 p.m. and go to bed to warm up. I’ve forewarned the sisters that I may not show up for morning prayer, as I’ve begun my day at 3:00 a.m.
Early on, the feline caterwaul of strays in their nightlife cuts the gloom. Remote traffic purrs or sputters along National Avenue. One or two human cries pierce the middle distance. Several car alarms, a siren or two, then silence. My residential neighborhood in North Seattle, quiet by city standards, regularly serves up more strident sounds than these. Sometime before dawn, Beware-of-Dog breaks into shrill warnings. Farther away, the deep-throated guttural of a German shepherd from the yard adjoining the neighbor’s. Antiphonal barking. It pleases me to note that man’s best friend has adopted the call-and-response format of the sisters’ prayer.
Briefly, I drift into a light sleep, then wake to a frenzy of barking. Beware is obviously defending his turf against the rival watchdog or, could it be, some two-legged intruder? Finally, exhaustion wins out over anxiety and I sleep. Hours later, I wake to a light that must come from the garden. Is this the signal for rising?
“How clever!” I think, “to rouse the community with lights instead of disturbing the neighbors with bells.” The depth of darkness prompts me to make a prudent check on the hour before I go to the trouble of washing and dressing. At home I’d have a clock-radio with lighted digits on the bedside table, along with a touch-and-glow lamp, a flashlight to guide me through midnight passages, and night-lights in every wall socket. Here, a single four-watt bulb glows in the entryway. Like a blind figure skater, I lower my feet to the ice, grope for my bedroom slippers, and feel my way along the wall to the only spot where I can read my watch: 2:30 a.m. I go back to bed and get up at 6:00, put on a sweater over my flannel nightgown, a flannel robe on top of that, ski socks, bedroom slippers, glasses. Thus insulated, I go to the kitchen for the coffee that will restore my circulation.
In the refrigerator, I find a loaf of whole-wheat bread and a bowl with four eggs. I make a quick search through the cupboards but find no sign of a toaster or a pan to boil eggs. I’m certainly not going to light the oven to make toast or risk trying it on a top burner, so I have a piece of fresh bread and a dab of applesauce with my coffee.
In mid-breakfast, Sister Ignatius Marie comes to the front door, carrying a large plastic bag of groceries.
“Oh, Sister! You shouldn’t....”
“These aren’t all for you,” she answers. “We use this building for storage.” She disappears into the door marked “Private” while I wish for a trap door to open and swallow me. If humiliation is good for the soul, especially during retreat, I owe her thanks. “Thank you, Sister, thanks for the soul food.”
Friday, February 11: The sisters have warned me that this is a day of strict silence. And “Adoration” (shorthand for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament) lasts all day. Outside of community prayer, the sisters take turns remaining in chapel, an hour at a time. After a little more than 24 hours, much of it spent praying on the chapel’s textured rug, the weave has made a deep impression: herringbone knees.
I’m heading for a jolt of java, the double pleasure of recharging drowsy brain cells and closing both hands around that steaming mug of Starbucks’ when Sister Ignatius Marie trips down the garden path barefoot. She’s lugging a plastic bucket of water. On her hands and knees in the chapel, she washes the floor of foreign matter. My guilty footsteps? I have not yet adopted the practice of shedding my shoes at the chapel door and will not until I read in the sisters’ Rule the admonition to remain barefoot at home as far as possible and always without shoes in the chapel as a sign of humility, nakedness before the Lord and also as walking on sacred ground. Other visitors routinely leave their footwear at the door, but I hold out, partly because I can’t slip in and out of my boots and buckled sandals easily, partly because I have a permanent case of cold feet. One day before departure and two before Lent, I will park my purple loafers on the porch and enter the chapel by the forward door, flaunting the red-footed socks that have thus far saved me from frostbite.
About eight o’clock, entering the parish church, a block from the convent, Sister Margaret Joseph whispers, “It’s a lively Mass. They sing even on weekdays.”
A middle-aged man with a small rectangular stringed instrument (some kind of guitar?) is surrounded by Hispanics, eager to break into song. The priest, also Hispanic, enters the sanctuary, and the familiar ritual of the Mass begins in an unfamiliar tongue. Even during the days when Latin was the official language of the liturgy, I followed easily along, having studied four years of Latin in high school and having been exposed to the usual texts during long years in Church and convent. Now I feel for the first time a vivid sense of how language marginalizes a non-speaker. I can’t even lip-synch during hymns, and the spirit of the congregation is so infectious that I want to. This group gives a whole new meaning to the expression celebrating the Mass. After a short homily in Spanish, the priest surprises me with an even briefer English summary. For the rest of the week, I find myself making garbled noises for most of the entrance hymn and coming out strong on the one word, senor, repeated often enough to give me some minor part in the festivity.
On the way home, the sisters recite their after-Communion prayers aloud as we walk two by two. We file into the back yard, pausing at each padlocked entrance as the sister portress unlocks it, and we pass through — seven of us, counting the young woman who is not an aspirant as I first thought. She must be a “fellow-traveler,” one of those the Rule allows to share the sisters’ life insofar as possible but who lives separately from the community. In the yard next door, Beware-of-Dog is making sure we do. I look through the low cyclone fence and am astonished to see a white Spitz or American Eskimo, all of 14 inches high at shoulder.
After completing their thanksgiving prayers at the open door of the chapel, the sisters disperse to do laundry and their share of the manual work.
All day, the promise to telephone Mary is an undercurrent to my thoughts. Maybe I can duck into a phone booth during the afternoon walk. I spend a quiet morning reading, writing, and praying, mostly in the garden and the chapel. As I’ve already learned at home, an unheated building can store more cold than the out-of-doors. I suspect that even in the convent proper, the only central heating is the sun. Or more likely, the Creator of the sun.
At 12:30, Sister Imelda appears at the front door carrying a large tray. When she sees me look towards the bedroom, she says, “You can take it in there if you want to.” It feels really strange to stand for meals — something we used to do only on certain seasonal days of penance and on Good Friday. Just this once, I take the tray to my bedroom. When I remove the covers, I find a very large bowl of ramen noodles with a few lima beans and bits of broccoli mixed in. On one plate, a generous helping of fresh asparagus loaded with cheddar cheese. There’s also a glass of strawberry Jell-O with fruit cocktail and an orange. I put away the fruit and Jell-O for evening and attack the noodles. Simple, nourishing food, lovingly prepared and served. I enjoy it inordinately, but when Sister Imelda returns I ask her from now on to cut the portions in half.
At three. I’m waiting in the garden when Sister Margaret Joseph shows up for the promised walk. I’ve resolved to come clean about my wish to write an article, but that doesn’t make it easy. Her first response is a little cool, but gradually, she seems to come round and later volunteers to “share our Constitution" with me. As things turn out, it’s a lucky decision on my part to confess so early.
Sister tells me the circumstances of her vocation to enter the MCs in 1974. She had considered Maryknoll when she found her mother reading Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God. She read the book and was drawn to Mother Teresa’s spirit. There were then only four MCs in the U.S. At some large gathering in the city. Sister Margaret Joseph met one of the sisters, and her mother met a second one on another part of the grounds. The daughter wanted to join the community, but her mother, a widow with 13 children, persuaded her to wait a year. At the end of that time, she joked, “I didn’t even finish my last year of college.”
The Rule allows for a transfer from Actives to Contemplatives and vice versa, with the approval of the superior general and her council. One of the sisters has already told me that Sister Margaret Joseph originally belonged to the Actives in the South Bronx. She had been a member of the MCs for two years before the Contemplative branch was founded in June of 1976.
When I ask whether there’s a place nearby to phone Mary, Sister Margaret Joseph says, “You can use our phone... if that’s all right.”
“I thought that I couldn’t go into the convent,” I explain.
“We can bring the phone to you,” she says, and we continue our walk past the rundown houses, the bleak yards where small children run out to greet the sister. Two or three young men are pushing a rusted-out, once-white pickup up a hill, trying to revive the dead engine. By another large lot, several men appear to be building a wall of cement tiles. Sister Margaret Joseph wonders aloud where the money for that project comes from.
Everywhere Mother Nature does her best to improve the prospects. Eucalyptus open their lace umbrellas. Tangerines stud the laurel-green of their host trees, and birds trill and weave among the branches. Even the lowly snail has left a tiny silver trail in sunlight.
The sisters walk without fear through the neighborhood. Not one among more than 3000 members has ever been attacked. Although trust in God is commendable, prudence is a cardinal virtue. Trust dictates the choice of neighborhood. Prudence bars the windows with wrought iron. When I ask Sister Margaret Joseph whether the grilles are a feature of Spanish architecture or an index of the danger quotient in the area, she says, “Probably a little of both.” Then she tells me that a well-to-do woman, hearing of the sisters’ impending move to a site near National Avenue, insisted on donating the grilles.
“They’re expensive,” she says. “But the woman considered them essential.”
At the convent, Sister Margaret Joseph goes immediately for the telephone, a beige touch-tone with a cord as long as the one on my lawn mower. She opens the door to a room I’ve not yet seen, places the phone on the table, and plugs it into the wall jack. “What shall I do with it when I finish?”
“Just unplug it. We usually leave it unplugged on Fridays. I’ll pick it up later.”
Mary’s machine answers. I leave word that everything is okay, ask whether she’s been able to arrange a meeting with my editor, and hang up. I’m nervous about the bother of an incoming call. What this community needs, I think, is a cordless phone.
For 10 or 20 minutes, I listen for the footsteps of someone coming to retrieve the phone. Then I decide to try again. Passing the kitchenette, I review the sign popular in convent refectories across the country; Christ is the Head of this family, the unseen Guest at every meal, the silent Listener to every conversation. I close the door, plug the phone in again, and dial Mary’s number. This time, she answers. I can’t remember what I said — something about borrowing the superior’s phone. I know I used the word swimmingly. Things are going swimmingly. It doesn’t even sound like me, and Mary catches on at once.
“Oh, you can’t talk?” I remember Sandra McPherson’s line, “The roof/ Will have no more temptation to eavesdrop...."
“That’s right. I’ll talk to you later.” We end our conversation like a couple of spies on a line that’s bugged.
Saturday, February 12: This morning the vigil lights on the altar are white with a single blue light in the center. Saturdays are regularly dedicated to the Blessed Mother, but today is also the feast of the Apparition at Lourdes. Sister Ignatius Marie explains that there’s a gathering at a nearby parish to recite the rosary continuously in honor of Our Lady of Fatima. She and another sister plan to attend. I am welcome to go with them.
Imagining the crowd, I decline. I’m intensely interested in two books I’ve been reading — the third volume of Thomas Merton’s letters, The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction and Mary Jo Leddy’s Reweaving the Religious Life. I’m beginning to find the intermittent bells and the constant vocal prayer annoying. Like Thomas Merton, alienated by the crowding in the monastery and the activity occasioned by expansion.
I’m longing for more privacy, a deeper stillness in which to reflect.
Yesterday I read Mary Jo Leddy’s account of a woman, dissatisfied with her own passivity in relating to God, who resolves to adopt a more active stance. “I cannot make the sun rise,” she tells herself, “but I can be there to greet it when it comes. "I am struck by the statement because I feel more keenly aware of natural rhythms than ever before, grateful to the Giver of Light. (And heat. Mixed motives dog the footsteps of the shod.) Each morning when the sun lifts over the horizon, I rush to my room to witness and give praise. Then I take my book to a bench in the garden and bask in the life-giving radiance.
This morning when we gather in the parish church for Mass, Sister Margaret Joseph leans over and taps my shoulder.
“Is the phone plugged in?” she asks.
“No, Sister,” I say with some alarm. “Didn’t you pick it up last night?”
“I forgot,” she admits, tilting towards me a note delivered from the rectory. It is a long-distance phone number with the single word URGENT. Instantly, I conjure up a dying parent — maybe a dying Mother Teresa.
“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling guilty and helpless.
“It’s my fault,” Sister Margaret Joseph says. Then, “Oh well! It’s probably good news.”
That statement opens a gulf between us: expecting the best, expecting the worst. Somewhere along the line, I’ve permanently adopted the latter, as if it might protect me and ward off disaster. At the same time, I realize that I feel uneasy when things go well for more than a week. Is this a lack of faith? Does it come from heredity or environment? Or both? I file the topic away for further exploration.
After breakfast I learn that Sister Margaret Joseph was right. She has been called to New York for a meeting with Mother Teresa.
And she hopes for a few private moments with the foundress. The 84-year-old recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in weakening health, is currently negotiating to extend her work into China.
Sister Ignatius Marie will be my partner for today’s walk. She will have to return in lime to accompany Sister Margaret Joseph to the airport. A friend with a car will call for them at 4:30.
Because I think that it will please her, I volunteer to say the rosary aloud as we walk. The Rule mentions that the sisters recite the rosary on the streets — a prayer of witness, rather than preaching prayer. When we finish, it’s time for me to ask a few questions.
My companion comes from southwest England. It’s becoming clear to me that this community, small as it is, has cosmopolitan flair. Sister Imelda is originally from Puerto Rico; Sister Margarita Maria, from Costa Rica. They speak Spanish, although Sister Imelda says that it was hard to go back to it. Sister Rita, the other aspirant, whose accent I’ve been trying in vain to identify, is a lifelong San Diegan. She appears every morning in a short-sleeved blouse when I’m freezing in gloves, boots, and scarf. Is it mind over matter? What if I were to become their little Eskimo sister — an Eskimo for Jesus?
Saturday Night Lively. Sleepers are out of luck in this sound-and-light show. Cars strip their gears, cough uphill, careen around corners. The motion sensor turns to a strobe light. On, off, on, off. Muffled conversation alternates with shrieks and shouts. The dogs do their best to make it all go away, and in my narrow cot, I toss and turn, wishing to read myself past insomnia but afraid of frostbite and the easy target I make when I turn on the light. My window, it happens, is one of the few without iron bars. About two hours before rising time, I sink into a fitful sleep and get up, half drugged, to stumble into Sunday morning.
Sunday, February 13: The optimal balance between social and solitary in any one life differs with individual history and temperament. I’ve always required long periods of solitude and silence. This may have begun with childhood efforts to move beyond range of my mother’s voice, that steady monologue designed to keep the world’s objects in place and her children in line.
“Solitude is the home of the contemplative, and silence is their language.” That sentence in the sisters’ Constitutions says it all. I want to lose myself in it, to find the point of absolute attention at which poetry and contemplation intersect. In Merton’s early reflections on the two states, he envisioned a time when the poet and the mystic must part company: the former, heading towards utterance; the latter, towards silence. Nearly 11 years after his initial essay, however, Merton revised his view, concluding that both poetry and contemplation are realizations of who one is. Aesthetic intuition, he now believed, heightens personal identity and being by the perception of its affinity with the Divine Being.
“Singing is an important part of our life of prayer. We shall keep our singing simple and use a minimum of musical instruments when necessary.” This passage from the Rule is instructive. At such necessary times, Sister Margarita Maria plays a few notes or bars on the Casio keyboard and launches a hymn. Song, thin and clear on the evening air, makes musical expertise irrelevant as every sister lifts her voice in the perfect pitch of the lover.
We do not sing “Amazing Grace,” which, ever since Vatican II, regularly saves a Catholic wretch like me, right along with the Lutherans. We return, instead, to hymns from the Church of my childhood, sing of guardian angels, tender and mild. We hail Mary in Latin with misplaced accents (Ah vay, ah-vay, ah-vay Ma-ree-yah) or in English, in the only voice we’ve been given, and, for the first time in my life, I can believe that mine makes a difference. Then, from my past, I hear again the ineffable yearning of Gregorian as the feast day motets rise to the vaulted chapel ceiling. The exquisite harmonies of part songs rehearsed to perfection. And I see how the totally different spirit of song in Mother Teresa’s communities contributes to the wider medley of praise that marks a pilgrim Church seeking out its Creator.
It’s hard to tell one day from the next in this timeless environment. The menus should be a way of keeping track, but already I can’t be sure whether we had bean soup and basmati rice on Saturday or later. I know that we had meat loaf and steamed potatoes, cauliflower, and carrots on Sunday. Ordinarily, I avoid red meat, but Sister Rita outdid herself on this main dish, and I gladly showed my appreciation.
When Sister Margarita gives me a schedule, painstakingly written out in longhand, I think that I’ll know exactly what is going on. But just as I’m looking forward to 90 minutes of free time, the bell rings, and I respond like Pavlov’s dog. In the chapel, I quickly realize that this is for aspirants only: Sister Margarita Maria is guiding them through the Divine Office. I decide that my voice is needed to make two to a side. It’s been a while since I made my way through the intricate page-turning required to get through the psalms and orations smoothly. Sometimes the aspirants get lost, and Sister Margarita patiently helps them to the correct place. At one point. Sister Imelda, who is anything but smug, prays to be delivered from “smudgness.” Somehow, the mispronunciation is more endearing than amusing.
Sometimes the choir is almost a solo. Sister Margaret Joseph is away. Someone else is preparing the meal. Sister Margarita Maria has stopped singing to concentrate on the removal of the consecrated Bread from the monstrance and its return to the tabernacle. The absolute reverence is persuasive. This must be the way the active sisters touch the afflicted bodies of the lepers, for in both instances, faith tells them that they are touching Christ Himself. It’s one thing to read of this in a book and quite another to see it in action.
The parish Mass this morning featured a contemporary nun in skirt, blouse, nylons, and heels, giving the homily. She works at the Chancery, hails from Cincinnati like the pastor.
Monday, February 14: This morning there is no true Mass, only distribution of the Eucharist. I think that I’m watching the sister who gave yesterday’s sermon on behalf of Catholic Community Services preside. Unlike the Missionaries of Charity, she represents the majority of contemporary American nuns. Under the long white alb of the acolyte, she’s wearing black slacks. Judging from her apparent age, her hair must be colored as well as permed, and she wears light makeup. Her Spanish is impressive to a non-speaker — no hesitation — but she does not provide an English gloss for the homily as the pastor has consistently done. Later when I ask one of the MCs about this woman, she assures me that the “sister” is a native Hispanic and a member of the laity.
“I know, she does look like a sister,” my informant says, “but she isn’t.” To the casual eye, this woman at the altar and the sister who spoke on Sunday could be twins. Same hair color. Same body build. Same slightly puffy, matronly face, and an approach to the liturgy compounded of assertiveness and hesitation.
My noon tray announces leftover Monday: a review of the past week’s diet in combinations not altogether happy. But Sister Imelda has left a tin of extra-fancy cookies on the counter of the kitchenette with a note urging me to enjoy the treats, so my coffee breaks are twice as tempting.
“Recollection” in the religious vocabulary means remembering the Presence of God, His omnipresence. It’s standard practice — at least in traditional communities — to aid this awareness with mottoes, holy pictures, quotations, posted on the walls as reminders. In the entry room to my building, besides the motto about the Silent Listener, there’s a full-length portrait of Jesus, robed in white, carrying a lantern, and coming, barefoot, like a true Missionary, to seek admittance at a closed door. He is, of course, asking that the door of the heart be opened to Him in love. I only wish that the quality of the art matched the nobility of the metaphor, but then my response might risk being merely aesthetic.
I find the picture above the oratory altar equally unsatisfactory, but the room itself is perfect. The floor is carpeted in a neutral color. The walls are paneled in walnut with simple crosses carved in the wood. A wide prie-dieu, upholstered in green, and a matching chair take up the center of the tiny room. Below the picture of Jesus, the carpenter has built a low, perfectly proportioned table where a tabernacle will eventually allow the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved in this prayer room. Then a retreatant will have the deep stillness that prepares the way for contemplation.
Sister Margaret Joseph told me the touching story of the Mexican carpenter asked to clean up what had been a storage shed. She expected him to paint the walls, as workers had done in the main chapel, converted from a garage. But the carpenter kept bringing wood, protesting that nothing was too good for the Lord. The oratory is a restful place, conducive to prayer and a testament to the faith of the carpenter.
But for now, I am in the main chapel — alone for once and glad to be. The door is open, and a small bird walks inside, hops about for a few seconds, then leaves when I glance his way. From a distant street, the discordant tinkle of “Pop Goes the Weasel” as the ice cream vendor circles the block. After four days without a newspaper or television, I feel cleansed of the world’s dross, closer to the center.
Tuesday, February 15: This morning I feel the old excitement that comes over me when I’m about to head home. Only one more night. And the temperature is climbing steadily. Maybe the doctors will be able to save my feet after all.
Today is Shrove Tuesday or “Mardi Gras,” that is, “Fat Tuesday.” I have timed my departure to be elsewhere as Lent begins. Mary will come to pick me up at 3:00 p.m.
As we enter the church for the morning Mass, the guitarist turns to make an announcement:
“This is the last day we will sing these songs this year,” he begins. “Well, not the last day of the year, but for a long time. Tomorrow it will be softer — more crying...sad.” The spirit of Lent in a few sentences.
I’ve been trying to find out if this is a mariachi Mass, something I’ve heard about from travelers to Mexico. None of the sisters seems to know. On the way out of the church, I interrupt the prayer of a Mexican woman in the back of the nave. She smiles with amusement at my question.
“No, not mariachi.” When I’m able to ask someone more articulate, I learn that a mariachi Mass is even more lively. It involves lavish decorations and many different musical instruments. What I’ve been witnessing here is a Mass attended by charismatics — one renewal movement among Christians, including Catholic Christians, and characterized by a more demonstrative style of worship, sometimes including speaking in tongues and other features common to old-time revival meetings.
Memory sometimes behaves like alphabet soup: assorted characters swirl and rise to the surface, assemble themselves into a sentence out of nowhere.
Today it is: “.. .More things are wrought by prayer/ Than this world dreams of...” For some reason, the words are invested with nostalgia, but what is their source? I’m reasonably sure it’s not a line my mother quoted. She hadn’t finished high school but once astonished me by writing lines from Shakespeare in my autograph album. When I get to Seattle, I’ll look up the line in Bartlett's Quotations. Meanwhile, my retrieval system remains stubborn. But so does the air of adolescent nostalgia, which clings like a subtle perfume.
Of course. The line comes from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which we studied in the senior year of high school. My English teacher marked passages for choral reading— five minutes at the beginning of every class. Soon we had committed long sections to memory. After the first look at my Tennyson Selected, the rest of the passage comes back:
- Wherefore let thy voice
- Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
- For what are men better than sheep or goats
- That nourish a blind life within the brain.
- If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
- Both for themselves and those who call them friend.
The whole aura of a time washes over me. The eagerness with which I followed the story, the beauty of the knightly ideal, the saga of love and infidelity: all cast in metrical lines that captured memory and imagination. I had always preferred Browning to Tennyson, but I was completely taken with the Idylls, whatever critics might say of them later. Happily, I memorized huge chunks of verse and entertained myself with them at any time I had to wait.
- For so the whole round earth is every way
- Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
King Arthur’s farewell words epitomize the Victorian spirit. As Browning phrases it in Pippa’s Song, “God’s in His heaven/ All’s right with the world.” Anyone who claimed that all’s right with the 20th-century world would have to be blind or hopelessly naive, but for the MCs and others of their persuasion, God is still in His heaven, and one of the most important things we can do is acknowledge that fact.
In the convent we used to speak of “humility with a hook.” The expression referred to a form of self-denigration: the denial of one’s talents and good works in a devious attempt to appear self-effacing. Early on, I had told Sister Margaret Joseph that the contemplative communities must be the powerhouse sustaining the heroic work of the active sisters with the unwanted poor.
“That’s what Mother calls us,” Sister Margaret Joseph said, “the Powerhouse.”