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Sunday, December 21, 2014

If nuns ruled the world

Convent St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ
An unplanned trip to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a dear friend and colleague who died suddenly and unexpectedly brought with it an equally unplanned and unexpected reconnection with everything I love about nuns.

In my frenetic attempts to move my schedule around so I could attend the funeral, I called a few friends to ask for lodging only to find that they were out of town or otherwise unavailable. At the very last minute, I placed a called to my friends who are Sisters of Convent St. John Baptist in Mendham, NJ, and was, of course, provided with unconditional welcome and genuine hospitality.

Note: For a history of CSJB in pictures and Anglican Chant, visit this page.

I've spent a fair amount of time as a child and an adult in convents and monasteries. Several of my aunts were Roman Catholic nuns. My longest running anamchara ("spiritual director /adviser") have been with nuns and monks. Convents and monasteries are my natural default place for retreats.

What I saw and experienced during that overnight stay at CSJB reminded me of what the world would be like if nuns ran the world.

First, there would be signs everywhere. In a convent, one doesn't ever have to wonder where to find what. Just look for a sign - most likely it will be impeccably lettered in Old English Script - and, lest there be any doubt or confusion, accompanied by an arrow drawn in bold, black ink.

If one of the conference rooms is in use, there will be a sign on the door that informs you of that status. However, do not look for a sign that says "Do Not Disturb" or "Room in Use". Rather, the sign will read, "Engaged." Well, it will in an Anglican convent, anyway.

The Cloister Walk - CSJB
Which brings me to the second thing you might expect if nuns ruled the world: Subtlety.

Yes, a room will be "engaged," but that will be the first of several encounters with moments when you'll find yourself scratching your head and asking yourself, "Wait. What?"

Like, the sign that greets you as you enter the building. It goes on for a few short paragraphs about welcoming you to this "quiet space" of "prayer" and "spirituality". About half way through reading it, you suddenly get its real message: "This is a convent, bozo. Quiet."

Actually, except in Rare circumstances - during a special occasion or feast day -  the normal "conversational" level requires you not only to use your "inside voice" but to use it at a level which is just a notch below conversation and about half a notch above a whisper.

Which, at one point, makes you wonder what the world would be like if everyone talked to each other in this way. Because, you know, it requires a conscious shift and an investment of a bit of energy. So, you find yourself actually THINKING before you speak.

Not a bad discipline, all in all.

There are also signs which tell you about "The Great Silence". These, too, are beautifully lettered with a picture of a monk sitting in contemplation. The Great Silence begins just after Compline - the final Office of the Day - and ends at around 10 AM.

This means that, every day, day in and day out, one eats one's breakfast in silence. Which is an experience one absolutely must have before one dies.

No, seriously. Put it on your bucket list. One can have some pretty amazing thoughts surrounded by the "silence" of toasters popping and milk being poured, cereal being crunched and plates and utensils being selected and/or dropped on the table or floor.

There are also no "unnecessary conversations" which take place during The Great Silence.

Unless, of course, you pull someone into a conference room, slap a sign on the door that says, "Engaged" and then speak at The Decibel of Nun.

I particularly loved the sign on the bed in my "cell". Stop. Wait a minute. Let me say this first:

Everywhere else, one might have a "room" for the night. In a convent, one has a "cell". Which is numbered. And, contains all things necessary for a life of simplicity and contemplation and prayer: A single bed. A bedside table. A lamp. A set of towels. A single bureau - the bottom drawer of which contains an extra set of bed linens and towels. A chair. A side table. A small glass for water. A BCP and a Bible.

Who could ask for anything more?

Bathroom and showers? Down the hall to your left. Communal, of course.

So, the sign on the bed was a prayer. Well, that's what it seemed, anyway. It actually called on the reader to ask God to bless the hands that had prepared the bed for me and to bless my hands as I made the bed for the next person, just as God had prepared a manger for His Son . . .. ".

And, then, I burst out in a bona fide muffled nun's giggle as the thought slowly crept into my brain that I was being asked to strip the bed linens in the morning and remake the bed with the bed linens in the bottom drawer of the bureau and replace the towels. All in the form of a prayer.

Isn't that just the BEST?!?!

Where to put the "dirty bed linen"? Not to worry. There's a sign for that. In the communal bathroom. Down the hall and to the left. It's on the wall. With an arrow. At the end of the bathroom, near the window. Clearly marked: Dirty laundry.

Winter at CSJB
That's the only place one will find the airing of 'dirty laundry' at the convent.

In a convent, there are things for sale, of course. Religious tchotchke. Mostly work of the nun's hands and hearts, minds and missions.

There's a book of reflections on religious pilgrimage written by one of the nuns and a collection of recipes from the convent kitchen. There's also the "Nun Better" shop with all sorts and manner of craft items like refrigerator magnets and T-shirts and prayer cards, etc.

The thing of it is, everything operates on the honor system. There's a little wooden box where one can place one's cash or checks for the item purchased. I suppose one could also just help oneself and not leave any money. As my Grandmother would say, "That's on your soul."

Time in a convent is different than any place else. It follows the rhythm of prayer and is measured by the sound of a bell which calls the community to prayer.

The monastic Daily Office - specifically, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Vesters and Compline - is offered along with Daily Eucharist.  I confess that I love the sound of monastic women's voices in prayer: high, thin, humble, intentional and yet strong and clear.  The feathery light sound of the voices of nuns singing a capella or in proper Anglican Chant always brings an inexplicable measure of solace into my heart and soul, mind and body. 

There is something about the way that Anglican nuns and monks pass The Peace that just makes me want to giggle and break their rules.  You'd have to have experienced it to understand - I know I'm not going to explain it so you can get the correct visual, but here goes:

The arms are extended and somewhat locked at the elbows. The palms of the hands are turned slightly outward to receive your hands into them.  You smile and say, "The Peace of God" or, if that is said unto you, you respond with a smile and say, "And also with you."

The message is clear: No unnecessary or unseemly body contact here. This is the Peace of God we're passing here. Not a heathen love fest, for goodness sake! And, no unnecessary conversation because, well, there are no 'particular friendships' either.

It's The Celebration of Eucharistic, not Intermission. Time to give thanks to God. Be in the moment. Fully present. Not about what happened last week or will happen next week.

That said, I could barely contain my joy in seeing some of the sisters again in what has to have been four or five years. I did fairly well until I saw one of the nuns whose presence always makes me smile. So, what was to be done except to break rank, run past the barricade of proper prayer stalls, and run over to her open arms and smiling face for a warm, long hug? I was vaguely aware of some soft giggles around me, and I knew it was all alright.

I soon realized, however, that the proper time of The Passing of the Peace had come to an end and I started a 'quick-walk-almost-run' back to my seat when I heard the Sister who was officiating say the Offertory Sentence - in a tone and volume well above The Decibel of Nun:  "WALK.... WALK... WALK . . . in love as Christ loved us . . . .".

As I froze dead in my tracts I simultaneously heard the soft giggle of the nuns in response.

Jenny - The CSJB Dog
Nun humor.  It's subtle and thoroughly authentic, sounding for all the world as if coming from a place that has struggled with the absurdities of life and come out on the other side with a full intact and operational sense of humor that passes all human understanding. 

So much about Convent life doesn't ever seem to change, and yet, of course, it does. Some of the sisters have left the order while others have passed on to greater glory.

So, too, have some of the pets, like Petie, the beloved Convent Boarder Collie. Pony is still there, however, and Jenny, the Blessed Wonder Mutt has taken up residence with the sisters, and is winning hearts if not souls for Christ in her own delightful way.  Yes, she, like Petie, is also black and white. Just like the habits of the nuns.

I notice that none of the nuns wears her veil these days. When I first started going to CSJB in the early 90s, not one of them dared not wear her veil. No, not one.

That was mostly due to then Mother Superior, Margaret Helena, who was fairly strict, no nonsense, old school kinda nun. I remember once, presiding and preaching at the chapel one day, mid week. Mother, who was ancient of days, very ill and confined to wheelchair at the time, said she really enjoyed my sermon and asked if I would please return. I thanked her and said I would be coming back on the Feast of St. David.

"The first of March, is it, then?" she asked.

"Yes," said I all young and full of myself, adding, "Well done."

"Yes," said Mother Margaret Helena, who looked up at me from her crumpled self in the wheelchair, her veil slipped down to her eyebrows. She fixed her steely gray ancient eyes on a spot in the middle of my eyes which went straight to my soul and said, "and, never test me like that again."

I never did.  I knew what was good for me.

I also remember one of the younger nuns advocating for the optional use of the veil. She screwed up her courage one day after supper and asked, "Mother, what would you think if the sisters came to chapel and were not wearing their veil?"

Mother thought for a long moment and said, "I would think something had changed."

Thus commenced The Gradual Dispensation of the Wearing of the Veil. 

Nuns. If they ruled the world there would be more order. Our days would be marked by the call to and  rhythm of prayer.  Voices would be lower, conversations more pleasant, and everything would have a place and there would be a place for everything, and a sign would help you find it.

If nuns ruled the world, an appreciation for subtlety would be the characteristic, defining feature of life.  That and subtle, authentic humor which would find appreciative expression in the art of the giggle. The Decibel of Nun would mark the sounds of life.

If nuns ruled the world no one would be bored or exclaim, "But, there' s nothing for me to do!" Everyone would be expected to contribute to the life of the community - baking, cleaning, sewing, leading retreats, teaching, evangelizing, making music, visiting the sick, working in a parish or community agency, making arts and crafts for sale, etc, etc, etc. 

If nuns ruled the world, one would actually have to think before one speaks. You know. Engage the brain before opening the mouth. How great would THAT be?

If nuns ruled the world the contemplative life would not be a luxury for the elite which provides introspection as a place to camouflage neurosis or self-absorption or narcissism. Not for long, anyway. Every nun is expected to have an apostolate - a way to offer her life in mission.

One does not join a convent to escape from the world but to be prepared to more fully engage the world.

I was once privileged to preside over a week- long retreat during Holy Week for the sisters of CSJB. At the end of it I thought to make a T-Shirt that read: "Convent life at CSJB. Do not try this at home."

It ain't for sissies, that's for sure. 

Change does not come easily for nuns but when it does come it is fully embraced and becomes part of the seamless fabric of life.

If nuns ruled the world, the world would be a better place.

Not perfect, God knows.

Because then, we wouldn't need nuns.


Elizabeth R said...

Thank you. What a wonderful description of life in the convent. I haven't been in Mendham for years and this brings back a lot of good memories.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

My pleasure. Do go visit again. Soon.

Norma B said...

It was nice and funny to read about your stay. I attended a Catholic university with a convent attached and would from time to time cross over to visit. I often found even from the shortest of my visits the calming and thoughtful atmosphere.