old school nuns

One of the most clicked on posts on this blog is nun`s veils, simply a habit?  Thanks to the magic of Google, folks come to the blog while searching articles on traditional nuns. The image of cloistered nuns in full regalia is part of our Catholic psyche – at least for baby boomers and older. And the fascination continues.

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong`s  Through the Narrow Gate – A Memoir of Life in and Out of the Convent. Armstrong is a respected religious historian and prolific author of best-sellers such as A History of God (1993), The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000) and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2004). She is also the moving force behind the Charter for Compassion. (More on that in an upcoming post!)

Armstrong entered a strict, religious order at the age of seventeen. Through the Narrow Gate describes her convent experiences and the struggles of re-entering the world. She entered as Vatican II was beginning, and left in the heady days of the late 1960`s. Her class was one of the last to be formed according to a firm rule of obedience and self-emptying humility.

Armstrong`s writing is very personal and intimate. She draws you into her mind and heart as she tried to live a life of complete self-denial and perfect obedience– even when obedience seemed absurd. Her spiritual life is opened up and laid bare on the pages for us to see. She clung to her vision and aspirations of being a perfect nun, while slowly realizing that this version of religious life was neither life-giving nor reflective of basic Christian charity.  A turning point came when a fellow student from Oxford made an unannounced visit to the convent to see Sr. Martha (Karen). The Superiors were furious and made a big fuss behind the closed doors. The young woman later told Karen that she was considering becoming a Christian, and thought the convent was a good place to find someone to talk to. She had never been greeted more uncharitably!

Armstrong writes lovingly of some compassionate Sisters, women able to find the balance between giving it all to God and having some left over for others. But this is no romanticized `Nun`s Story`. She is brutally honest about the cruelty of some of her Superiors. And, sadly, there`s a lecherous priest in the story as well.

Despite her experience, she still believes that the ideal of the religious life is a beautiful one. And she does not regret her seven years of convent life.

I`m a better nun now than I ever was in the Cloister. You can be so fearful of loving other people more than God that you can be downright uncharitable. Surely it`s better to love others, however messy and imperfect the involvement, than to allow one`s capacity for love to harden. 

Through the Narrow Gate is one woman`s carefully pondered and reflective experience of religious life prior to Vatican II. Her religious order followed others into the spirit of renewal promoted by the Council.   Today, there is a movement in our Church to go back to the `good old days` of cloistered, fully habited, and perfectly obedient and docile women. After reading this book, all I can say is God help us!

New form of religious life offers laity a Benedictine pathway | National Catholic Reporter

The Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., have launched what they describe as a lay monastic movement for seekers of God and a meaningful life, calling it “our gift to the next generation.”

Monasteries of the Heart: A New Movement for a New World” offers an opportunity for anyone — regardless, or even in the absence, of faith tradition — to live Benedictine spirituality and values with online communities or in face-to-face groups of family, friends, neighbors or fellow churchgoers, they said.

Members create their own “monastery” by supporting each other in shaping their spiritual lives around Benedictine values of community, prayer, meaningful work, peace and care of creation. They can gather around a table or in an online “monastery without walls” for prayer, discussion and reflection.

via New form of religious life offers laity a Benedictine pathway | National Catholic Reporter.

When our own online faith community began, there were many naysayers and skeptics. You can`t have a real community unless you gather face to face, they said. What you have is nice, but you really shouldn`t call yourself a community in the traditional sense.

The defense of online communities was a personal issue for me. I was an online student for many years. With five children, office responsibilities, and the geographical reality of rural life it was the only option for me to continue my studies. My blood boiled anytime someone insinuated that my courses and programs were of less quality than an in-class situation.

Whether online or in-person, the quality of learning depends on the instructor and the students. But, online discussion boards are a great equalizer compared to in-class discussions. Everyone has a chance to speak. In my classes, participation was compulsory and carried high expectations of critical reading and thinking. With online discussions, you have the chance to ponder before you speak – so words are chosen carefully. And if there is a verbose know-it-all, and there always is, you can quickly scroll through their pontificating rather than sit through a long-winded dissertation. The quality of discussion allowed for a more intimate interaction than is usually found in a large lecture hall.

The asynchronous nature of online discussion boards also allow participants to post or read on their own schedule. This is a major bonus in our over-scheduled, busy lives. It also allows us to communicate across many miles and cultures, regardless of time zones. An online faith community can have these same benefits of equality, inclusivity and intimacy.

According to some of the comments on the NCR article, Monasteries of the Heart already has its share of naysayers. Some question the orthodoxy of what the Sisters are doing. Sadly, they miss the point. A major goal of this project is to reach out to those who are hungering for spirituality, but are not finding it in traditional places. And this is what the Benedictine Sisters are offering. They are taking the centuries old tradition of Benedictine spirituality, wrapping it up in a new package, and offering it in the form of online or in-person monasteries. Members can gather around a kitchen table, or their computer screens. What a creative reading and responding to the signs of the times!

lectio divina – a dialogue with a prayer partner

St. Benedict`s Monastery, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Sr. Grace Kowalski, OSB, of St. Benedict`s Monastery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, introduced me to lectio divina prayer many years ago. She was always extolling its simple method, its personal dialogue with God, and the need for a regular, daily practise. An excellent teacher, her enthusiasm and passion was contagious. I quickly fell in love with this prayer form. But, discipline and I are pathetic partners. As with Lenten penances, I start out with good intentions but my energy fizzles a short distance from the start line.

But Grace had an idea. Why don`t we share our daily lectio reflections and prayers via email? I was intrigued. I was already using the computer for studies and communicating around the world. I knew the power of the internet for sharing ideas and forming friendships. Why not use it for sharing prayer?

And so it began. Grace sent an email with a simple line or phrase from the daily readings. Sometimes she explained her reflection in a sentence or two. And then she shared a prayer. This was simple. I could do this! The daily prayer sharing began. Our styles were different. Too often, I rambled on at length. Grace had a poet`s heart and economy of words. She loved the Psalms, and her prayer often focused on a single word or image. In a few lines, she unpacked the ordinary and showed the deep wisdom within.

I slowly began settling into the daily routine. I likened it to having a jogging partner. If you run by yourself, it`s easy to roll over in bed and grab a few extra winks. One missed day turns into another. And, before you know it the discipline is lost.  But, if you know that a friend is waiting at the door with her sneakers on, there`s an extra incentive to get up and going. I knew that when I turned on my computer, Grace`s email would be the first message in my inbox. And, I better have a prayer to respond with!

Grace died almost two years ago. I still miss her terribly. For many weeks, I dreaded turning on my computer – knowing that her daily emails were no longer coming. Yet, I know that her prayers continue. I was asked to prepare the Intercessory Prayers for her funeral. I didn`t know how I could do this -so, I didn`t. I let Grace pray for us. I went back to the computer and collected some of her prayers, and together we prayed her words…simple words that soared from a listening heart.

(tomorrow – lectio divina – a dialogue in community)