The Best Among Us

Given that I considered the Roman Catholic Church to be a place of fascinating mystery, it is not surprising that I felt similarly about nuns.

I saw these women walking in twos or more along the strip mall that was a standard feature around suburbia in the 50’s and 60’s.

All were dressed in some version of long black dresses with white bibs. Long black veils also with white head bands accompanied. No makeup, decidedly old-fashioned eyeglass wear, granny type shoes. What is not to like?

I stared as a young girl, wondering what and who these women were.

After my confirmation in the Church, it did not take me long to feel drawn. For as all converts are, I was zealous in my faith. And being a rather reluctant attorney, I guess I saw this as a perfect way to turn my life.

I won’t bore you with details, for in large part they are not important. I was deeply drawn to the contemplative life. I was disabused of that notion quickly. Women of my age (43) were not candidates for such strict lifestyles. Too hard to adapt after too many years of secular living. (I now know that there may be an exception or two in the US where older women are accepted.)

All went well in my pursuit. I switched from my initial choice, the Sisters of St. Joseph, to the Dominicans, a much better fit for me. I was busy with spiritual direction and weekends were often spent at meetings and Mother House activities. All was going very well, until. . . .

Until I went to New Mexico to help out at a bible camp for Navajo kids. To say that I had never worked so hard would be an understatement. From dawn to dusk and then some. And watching Sister go about her duties simply depressed me. There was little time for prayer or meditation. Her days were always full, the camp preparation was merely more.

When I returned I started to see more of this. Women who were stretched to the limit of their capacity. Shrinking numbers and pressure to make money to support large houses kept these women working day and night. Full time jobs were followed by board meetings most nights of the week. Weekends often meant long drives to spent a few precious hours with fellow sisters in more meetings and hopefully some retreat time.

But always on the move. Rosaries and morning prayer was often said in cars, on the way to somewhere. Parishes were increasingly being run by women, with a priest popping in on Sunday for the Mass. Parish administrations don’t work 9-5, but are “on call.” Other women were superintendents  or principles of schools, highly placed hospital administrators, professors.

I saw women near tears at the thought of yet another commitment, begging to not be placed in nomination for yet another committee. And I started to realize that I could not do this.

Lazy me was not fit for such work. I would break quickly, resent it, hurt these beautiful women who had spent so much time and energy on me. I would leave. Indeed, the draw of the contemplative life seemed clear to me–I loved the quiet and peaceful existence it offered. I was made for long hours of meditation and prayer. I was not made for all this running to and fro trying to do the jobs of three people.

And yet, I can say unequivocally that these women were some of the happiest I had ever known. To those not afraid of the long hours, their faith was more than enough to sustain them. They might have little time for formal prayer, but in their hearts and minds, they knew they were praying through their work each day, doing the work that Jesus would have them do–feeding, clothing, tending, listening, counseling, housing, all those in need.

It is humbling and painful to realize you are not cut of this cloth. It is better to acknowledge that you are not than to try and fail, disturbing a now quite fragile existence.

And the Pope and his assistants are now traveling America and poking their noses into these houses of women religious and questioning their obedience. Questioning whether they have become too liberal. Threatening in their mere presence to tighten up these congregations.

And yet these women stoically, calmly, quietly, welcome, offer hospitality, and continue to do what they know they must. For God calls women as He calls men. The Spirit dwells as lively and actively in them as in their brothers. And they, being true to God, must respond as they are called upon to do. If that does not please Rome, than so be it.

I have talked to many a self-proclaimed “conservative” Catholic, though they would define themselves as more like “real” Catholics. They have little good to say of nuns these days. They are the ones to accuse them of failing to teach “proper” doctrine to the last generation. Nuns, they claim,  are liberal, and awfully educated.

And it shocks me, and appalls me. Having spent so much time with nuns, I know them to be the most caring, the most thoughtful, the most painfully torn by the divisive issues that present to all of us. They seek only to do as Jesus would have them do.

And I think perhaps that they might do it just about the best of all of us.


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