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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sisters, Sisters . . .

In my travels the other day, I ran into a group of nuns I used to work with in The City, when I was Director of Pastoral Care for Hospice.

I was picking up a friend who was arriving at Newark Penn Station and they were waiting there to catch a train to D.C.

I hadn't realized how much I miss them and had forgotten just how much I enjoyed working with them.

You know how that happens, sometimes? Gosh, it was good to be with them again.

Ever since, I've had the lyrics to this song running around in my head.

Irving Berlin wrote it, of course, for the film "White Christmas". I sometimes wonder what he was really thinking when he penned the lyrics.
Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters
- Never had to have a chaperone, "No sir"
- I'm here to keep my eye on her

Caring, sharing ev'ry little thing that we are wearing
- When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome
- She wore the dress and I stayed home
There, now that that's out of my system, perhaps that song will leave me alone and go haunt someone else.

The Sisters and I chatted for oh, 15, maybe 20 minutes. They were heading out to a conference on the whole kerfuffle about Rome's "investigation" of their orders. They were, predictably, disgusted.

One of them said it felt like a one-two punch to the heart. Last December, the Vatican announced an "apostolic visitation of the 340 religious women's orders to see how well they are "living in fidelity" to the church's guidelines for religious life.

As if that weren't insulting enough, the second probe, initiated in February, moved from 'evaluation' to 'investigation'. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — which enforces theological purity — is investigating the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents about 90 percent of women's orders.

"This is about Vatican II," said one, "Absolutely."

"They want to reverse it - bring the church back into the 'traditional line'," said another, "And they know the best, most efficient way to do that is to try to rein in the women religious."

"Fat chance!" said another. "Look what we were able to do in helping to promote the Health Care Reform Bill. That," she sniffed proudly, "despite the displeasure of the Catholic Bishops. We may be shrinking in numbers but we are still mighty," she laughed as several of her Sisters joked about "The Incredible Shrinking Women."

As they all shared the silly joke, I felt myself instantly caught up in the music of their laughter.

It was the thing I loved about the nuns of my youth - the fact that they could wear those ridiculous habits that pinched at their face and neck and endure the oppressive of the RC institutional church and the patronizing, dismissive, often disrespectful treatment by the RC priests, and still be joyful.

It seemed to me the best revenge.

One of the nuns, realizing that our time was limited, quickly got 'round to the recent scandal, now reaching the highest levels of the Vatican - even to the Pope himself.

Each one, to a person, covered her eyes momentarily in shame at the mere mention of the issue. "Hey, wait, wait," I said, reaching out to them, "You don't have to do that with me. I get it. I know the same stories you do."

One of them flew right into my arms, giving me a grateful hug. When I looked up again, I realized that I was not the only woman with tears in her eyes.

"What is shameful," said one sister, "is that the institution is still blind to their complicity in the abuse. This is not about the 'rebellious American Church'. It's a worldwide scandal. And, it's not about celibacy. It's not about homosexuality. This is RAPE and RAPE is not about sexuality - it's about using sex as a vehicle of power. Corrupt power. The shame is on them. Not us."

There were silent nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

I asked what they thought of the Archbishops in Newark and New York.

"Oh, they are not going to help this. At. All," said one. "We know one clergy who has been very helpful with the victims. He's doing holy, blessed, sacred work, but he's being treated like a pariah by his brothers as well as his bishops. It's disgraceful. He comes to our house all the time, just for spiritual respite and replenishment."

"He's doing God's work, for God's sake!," said another, "And this is the way they treat him? Disgusting!"

"Oh, I'm sure we'll be 'investigated' for that!" said the first. And, they all giggled and snorted again and chimed in with their own jokes so quickly I could hardly keep up.

"Special space on the Official Vatican Report Card . . . ."

"Harbors priests who help victims? CHECK!"

"Still uses music from St. Louie Jesuits? CHECK"

"Uses Gregorian Chant? NOOOOOOOOO.. . ."

They were cracking themselves up with their own special brand of "nun humor".

"Oh," said my one of my absolute favorite nuns - intelligent, well educated, a heart of absolute, pure gold - "and if we have to endure one more patronizing 'God-bless-you, Sister-verbal-pat-on-the-head' I swear I'm going to say something!"

"No, you won't," said another. "We won't let you. That won't help anything."

"Well, then," she said defiantly but with a definite twinkle of mischief in her eye, "You'll just have to make sure to keep some tissues around. When 'Father' starts with that dismissive, patronizing 'God Bless you, Sister' stuff, it always makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit."

That set off peals of absolutely delightful laughter. I found myself riding the sound of it back to the memories of my youth. But this time, I was on the inside of the joke being told. It was a pretty heady experience.

All too soon their boarding time was announced and it was time to bid them adieu. We promised to meet for coffee soon. I'm already planning to take some time in June and spend an overnight retreat with them at the convent.

We'll have a chance to do some talking, catch up with each other, and maybe one of them will hear my confession. I'll pray the office with them and sing with them.

Some St. Louie Jesuit stuff, fer sure. "City of God" by Dan Schutte. John Foley's, "Come to the Water." And almost anything by Marty Haugen.

It will be like Dick Clark's American Bandstand Top 40 for former Roman Catholics.

Later, after dinner, I might even sing "Sisters, sisters" for them - especially the last line: "God help the mister who comes between me and my sister. And God help the sister, who comes between me and my man."

Of course, we'll all understand that 'man' as Jesus. I'll have made a 'nun joke' of my own. And, we'll all laugh and laugh and laugh.

Just like we used to.

And, need to.

More than we might know.


Fran said...

Brava- about some of my favorite women, by one of my favorite women.

I am really reminded of what theologian Nathan Mitchell says about post-modern liturgy and culture... We are like rhizomes, seeking each other out at the roots and not taking top-down orders strictly from authority figures.

That is why we find each other on blogs, FB, train stations and more. I had dinner with a TEC priest the other night; she and I were at the table for 3 hours and were only pried away because the restaurant was closing.

This *is* how unity will spring up and we will"re-member" the Body, as we gather at our roots, with love and great intention. (Ahhh... now I am hearing "Remember Your Love" in my head, a hymn very much of that era and one I still do love very much!)

Geeklet said...

We have a "campus nun". Her name is Sister Catherine. God help ANYONE who messes with Sister, because all the students - RC, Protestant or otherwise will stand up for her in hot-fast second of Firey Passionate Rage!

She has more kids and grandkids than anyone who ever really had kids. :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fran - I think you're absolutely right. This is the way the church has been built up for centuries. On relationships that know no 'man-made' boundaries (pun absolutely intended).

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Geeklet - I do believe I know Sr. Catherine. Or, at least, the baptismal cloth she was made out of. The BEST.

whiteycat said...

Ninety nine percent of the men in the RC church just "don't get it" as opposed to the majority of the Sisters who "do get it."

It will be interesting to see how this so called investigation turns out. I hope that these women will not back down. They have been and continue to be the life of the RC church.

Lerewayah said...

Here's my confession: I have "Wood Hath Hope" on my iPod. So, there.

susankay said...

Lerewaya -- I LOVE "Wood Hath Hope" -- I can't find it on I-Tunes where did you find it?

susankay said...

And -- on past the music: I fondly remember a nun who came to talk to our "section" on Dante when I was in college. She explained that she was working on a PhD on Dante and that the fact that she looked so darn medieval also qualified her. I'm not sure the word was "darn".

Attacked by free thinking and pretty snotty college kids on the issue of how she could believe in a God who would invent "Hell" (we'd just finished the Inferno), she calmly replied that her committment to her church required belief in Hell but did not require her to believe God sent anyone there.

it's margaret said...

Interestingly --when in Berkeley, the RC nuns who taught me were quite emphatic that they were in 'lay' communities and therefor under no direct obedience to the bishops... Their 'orders' were not like clergy orders, and they were only responsible to their community.

Has that changed?

Even then, a decade ago, they could see the 'wagons being circled.' Sigh....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Not all religious communities are ordered the same way.

Priscilla said...

I offer a prayer for my own instructor in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), Sr. Suzanne. She totally knocked me off my chair one day when we were discussing the sacraments and we got to Holy Orders.

“I’ll never understand,” she said quite nonchalantly, “why the Church requires one to have a penis in order to be a priest and then denies one the natural use of that penis.” I was so taken aback I was speechless for the rest of the lesson. I loved her dearly and will never forget how close to God I felt in the Chapter House as she and the other sisters prepared me for my Confirmation that lovely Easter weekend so many years ago.

She was a beacon of light and helped usher me into the RC church. I have since left and joined TEC due to many disagreements but I miss the RC church with all my heart and I still sneak into a mass every now and then and revel in the rite and feeding on the Body and Blood that sustains me so.

Scandalous, I know, and endangering my very soul, some would argue. I also love with all my heart the Episcopal rite and the Prayer Book. Both are parts of the same Body to me.

Nuns are indeed God’s hands and feet and faces here on Earth. Bless them all!

Fr Craig said...

thanks, EK - now i have 'sisters' in my head endlessly! that is my daughter's favorite movie, and we watch it every Christmas. their favorite - 'God help the mister who gets between me and my sister, but God help the sister, who gets between me and my man!' we tried to raise them as feminists...

Muthah+ said...

Just a reminder: Marty Haugen is a Lutheran.

Having been one of these good sisters and having followed a little of the tremendous disrespect that has been heaped upon religious women by lay folks and clerics a like, I have to say that my time with a religious community made me very respectful of the women who emptied themselves to serve the Gospel. What the RC heirarchy has done and is doing to them and how many bishops have denigrated them IS a scandal. But it has always been the religious orders that have brought balance back to the Church when it has heeled over to assault of the secular world.

The women I lived with were intelligent, well-educated, concerned about their vocations to teach young women. They taught me about feminism long before the feminist movement ever raised its head. They taught me to pray and to protect and covet that time for meditation and prayer for each day. They taught me how to appreciate the gifts God had given me and how to search scripture and tradition for TRUTH.

The heirarchy may try to compell these women to conform, but the Spirit of holiness will prevail. There is still too many of them who have honed their hearts by listening to the voice of God to be conformed by such reactive pilpul. And such conformity to the voice of God will trump the silencing by boys in skirts. It won't matter if they wear habits or not. Their voices will not be silenced because their lives are lived in TRUTH.

Anonymous said...

Susankay - please God, there is a hell. Where else would the likes of Adolf Hitler go?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, if he repented before he died, we are taught that he would be given access through the Gates of St. Peter.