04 December 2014

Second Week of "The Sisterhood"

Well, I must say, The Sisterhood continues to surprise in a favorable way. The Sisters themselves continue to be the real deal and the young women who have come for this "come and see" visit (an entirely informal step in a discernment process) are emerging as more than cookie cutter or stereotypical characters --- though in the main they are (unfortunately) very much products of the culture. It is this basic dynamic which seems to me to continue to drive the entire show: women religious live a mature and counter cultural life, one which is essentially generous and other-focused (first on Christ and then all those precious to Christ) and have taken in young women who are self-centered, immature, individualistic (as is our culture), and yet, who seem to desire to give themselves to Christ. The drama involved stems from the clash of these two worlds, and from the Sisters' ministry to those often-wounded women who have come to them purportedly "discerning" religious life.

Tuesday night's program was surprising because most of the women showed some unexpected depth. Both Stacey and Francesca struggled emotionally with the demands of the Sisters' apostolate though Stacey's struggle could be more easily transformed into the quieter and deep empathy and compassion required for pastoral ministry. Francesca has some personal healing to do first. Sister Peter ministered to her and it was refreshing to see her ask for and receive space from the camera persons so she could  deal privately with Francesca's needs. The glimpse into what Sisters do everyday in ministry and the way they live their lives is gratifying; much of what is shown of these things is done merely by implication but evenso I think folks are getting a good sense of what the day in and day out lives of religious are about, even with the great diversity that exists from institute to institute. One of the important lessons in all of this had to do with instruction on "employments" or chores (what many Sisters call "charges"). While Christie is bemoaning the fact that she "showed up and Jesus didn't" (more about that in a moment) the lesson being taught in doing daily tasks is "we expect Sisters to bring Jesus with them into their work!"

Sister Cyril Methodius, O Carm.
Christie's, perhaps sincere, but overly-romanticized and eroticized version of Jesus as flirting Bridegroom or spouse is not serving her well in a situation where one is expected to come to know and live Christ's love in more ordinary ways. It was a bit surprising to hear her suggest that Christ was not present or could not be found here in this convent. Even those Sisters who very specifically resonate with the spousal mysticism of Christ know full well that the everyday experience of Christ's presence and love is more mundane, reveals itself (for instance) in the Words of Scripture or the face of our neighbor rather than in erotically charged experiences like those Christie describes. We know on a profound level rooted in trust that he is present with us right here and right now. One cannot survive on an emotional bond alone nor is a specifically Charismatic prayer life enough to sustain us day in and day out. Neither is it always possible to find a time and place for solitary prayer (keenly aware of the irony now, I say this as one who got in trouble most often in initial formation for "being alone too much"), but when thirty-eight religious women drive a distance to share a last bit of community fun in honor of one's soon-to-occur departure, even a hermit like myself knows it is time to set solitary prayer or journaling aside. Here was one more place Sister Cyril's frustrated, "Get a grip! It's not all about you!" was also appropriate. So was St Teresa's classic observation that God is found amongst the pots and pans, or St Benedict's stress on seeking God in the ordinary.

Claire was definitely the character that got on my last nerve this week. Last week she was commenting on peoples' prayer lives and so forth and I noted that that made me wince, but this week she became more explicitly judgmental and open about what she thought to be her own "superiority" and "greater maturity". When Claire went to Sister Cyril to snitch on others while purportedly not knowing how to "think about" what offended her and couching stuff in the language of concern for these others, I found myself reminded of someone who had been in my own class in initial formation. Passive aggression doesn't work well in religious life and snitching under the pretense of caring is definitely not accepted. In any case Sister Cyril saw clearly what Claire was doing and not only allowed her to go through the process of explaining a highly sexually provocative dance move ("twerking" --- a new word for Cyril and for myself) without rescuing her from the task, but commented that as we grow in holiness we have to be very careful of judgmentalism. Her related comment that we must not allow a matter of conscience to become bias was excellent but I would argue a bit with Cyril on this one and say that when there is true growth in holiness judgmentalism, pretense, and a sense of superiority all go by the wayside; for sure though that doesn't happen right away. In any case, she handled the situation magnificently and folded several important lessons into a series of simple observations that began essentially, "What I think is not important; it is what you think that is important," and again, "Well, what I try to do is. . ."

One of the scenes which was most troubling was watching the girls deal with their tension from the day's exposure to the Sisters' apostolate among the elderly and dying by drinking and acting out. Let me be clear, these girls are not religious or anywhere near being religious. Further, religious do have drinks before dinner or wine with dinner, especially on special occasions, but we do not generally use drinking as an occasion of acting out nor of numbing emotions. This was one of the points made by implication in the program. At the end of the girls' stay at the Carmelite Motherhouse they were surprised by the entire community of Sisters joining them for ice cream at "Holy Cow Ice Cream" and were reminded that Sisters work hard, pray hard, but they also play hard. It is an intense life, but it is also balanced and healthy with prayer at the center of everything; numbing oneself to its challenges or acting out in the ways the girls felt were entirely normal are not a part of it.

Next episode the girls move to another convent with a different congregation of Sisters. I am personally pleased to have gotten a glimpse of these Carmelites and especially pleased at the intelligence and wisdom they showed. Sister Peter was terrific in working with Francesca and explaining about what memory is accessible when serious impairment is present as well. I am also grateful the entire community was protected from disruption during most of their everyday life. No novices or professed Sisters who were not directly engaged with the girls were used in the programming or filmed in their usual activities with the exception of the chapel scenes at the beginning and the end of the girls' stay. (In this regard I must say I felt more than a bit sorry for the novice who was paired in the pew with Christie and might have been distracted by the charismatic praying in tongues (?) and other gestures which Christie insisted on using during adoration.)

Sister Maria Therese, O Carm.
I continue to wonder how typical of young women entering religious life these days these girls are. I know that most would not pass the usual screening procedures and would at least be asked to wait. One cloistered nun said, however, that this is pretty typical of the kinds of girls who show up to the parlor for their initial contact with the community. What comes across very clearly is that the actual formation of a young (or older) woman into a religious or monastic is an intense and lengthy process. There are no short cuts. Here I recall again Sister Maria Therese's comment that she has been a Carmelite for thirty-four years and is "still trying". Transformation into a Religious who truly embodies a particular charism (like that of Teresa of Avila and the Carmelites, Francis and the Franciscans, or Romuald and the Camaldolese) is something that takes real time, commitment, and perseverance --- all of which are countercultural values in a world where relationships are self-serving and do not last, credentials can be bought, and life achievements must occur quickly and easily --- (cf Heald college's typical approach to education here: "Get in, get out, get ahead!").

My general impression at the end of two weeks? Well done Sisters! You are doing us all proud! I wonder if several of you shouldn't be getting a religious  equivalent of purple hearts or medals of valor!? Maybe all contemporary formation personnel should! It is demanding, intense, critically responsible work and this series has given a glimpse of what that means. Interestingly, I think that comes through even as questions remain for me regarding how real these "discerners" truly are; especially I wonder still how strictly cast they are each for a specific "character" approaching religious life and how cooperative each girl is in fostering this vs how truly herself she is being.