Sunday, June 24, 2018

A marriage made in ???


The back of the monastery, outside of the chapel
 NOTE: You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.

A friend and I made a “retreat” trip last year to Our Lady of the Mississippi Benedictine monastery, a cloistered (little contact with the outside world) convent in Iowa, and we decided to do it again this year. So we recently returned from a few days at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Missouri. There are 24 sisters at the monastery, down from about 200 at its most active point (attracting young people to the “vocation” is increasingly hard). Most monasteries try to be as self-sustaining as possible, so the Missouri sisters have businesses making and selling altar bread, soap, and candles. They produce much of their own food, and they receive donations from guests and others.

Part of the Benedictine mission is hospitality, so both places provide apartments in guest houses. When we arrived, we were greeted by a sister in charge of guests. We were given simple staple food for our stay—bread, cheese, milk, fruit, etc.—and towels, bedding; really, everything we needed. In Iowa, we remained “apart” from the sisters, though we could attend offices (times of prayer) with a wall separating us from seeing, but not from hearing, the sisters. In Missouri, we could join the sisters for offices, and even for a meal or two during their daily routine. Our lodging and provisions at both monasteries were simple, but we were definitely NOT roughing it.

Back of monastery, one of the sisters' gardens.
 
Our guest kitchen

Our living room...never turned that TV on.

Inside the chapel. We sat in the stalls with the sisters for Vespers.
Statue of Mary inside the chapel.
Monastery cemetery.
Cemetery centerpiece.
The Relic Chapel. Each cubby along the walls holds relics (bone, fabric, hair) of saints.
That dot in the middle is bone, size of the head of a pin. I wrote a poem about St. Dymphna, and now I got to meet her.

My friend, a retired Methodist pastor who makes frequent retreats, likes to visit and eat with the sisters, walk and photograph the picturesque settings, architecture, and art. The silence and solitude provides time and space for contemplation and prayer. I do some of those things too, but I also spend a lot of time alone, writing. This year, we went to Vespers (evening prayer, which is sung verses from Psalms and a canticle to Mary) every day. There’s something about the singing/chanting voices of 24 women in a giant echo chamber (the chapel) that moves me beyond words.

I’ve always had a strange sort of marriage to the Catholic Church. We love each other, fight, make up, fight some more, make up again, and go on vacation. Like any fraught marriage, it’s a mystery why we stay/split/come back together.


I should have said up front that I’m not Catholic. I was raised (loosely) Presbyterian, though I no longer consider myself a Christian. I do consider myself a spiritual person, much to the chagrin of my atheist friends, who would like me to be yea/nay, just as my “religious” friends would. 
 
My odd relationship with the Catholic church goes waaaaay back. When I was growing up, our neighborhood Catholic church and Presbyterian church were ½-block apart. My best friend was Catholic. So I would often go to mass with her then go to the Presbyterian service (and sing in the choir) with my grandma, who lived with us, and who was the only “religious” member of our family. I did this so often that I learned to be a good Catholic: to genuflect & kneel, bless myself with holy water, recite the mass, make my friend go to confession when she picked flowers in the cemetery (the sign clearly said DO NOT PICK THE FLOWERS), etc. I even took communion until I was finally “caught”—I didn't understand catechism and the “rules” about who could and couldn’t take communion, and at that age, I was sure God would be happy I did it.

Neighboring Conception Abbey chapel.
For my junior year of high school, due to racial tensions and upheaval in my public school in those days (we had armed police stationed outside the bathrooms in my sophomore year), I transferred to a Catholic girls’ school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. I felt right at home with the sisters, the religion classes, the uniforms, the prayer services. My senior year of high school was one religion class and five literature classes at a Jesuit high school.

Conception Abbey pipe organ. The big pipes were 10" across and 17' tall.
Conception Abbey 15th-century Italian marble Madonna with child.
It’s a chicken-egg conundrum: Do I love the Catholic church because of my youthful introductions, or did I gravitate toward those youthful experiences because of some innate love of the church or some need it fulfilled? Pretty sure I’ll never know which. But I do know I love the ritual of Catholicism, which I find soothing, comforting. The smell of frankincense and myrrh can still make me swoon. A shadowy, echo-y chapel, with its smells, its silence, its vaulted ceilings, dark woods and stone, and breathy, haunting pipe organs, can bring me to tears and make my heart ache. And I’m both fascinated and inspired by a group of sisters or brothers completely devoting their lives to a common cause.

HOWEVER...the church and I occasionally hit the skids when I think about the amassed wealth of a church whose sisters and brothers take as one of their most sacred vows the vow of poverty. Or when I think about the poor—a primary focus of most monastic orders—and how much less poor they could be if the church cashed in some of their hidden and not-so-hidden cache. Or when I think about the Inquisition. Or the “conversion” of indigenous people around the world. Or the church’s historical and continuing suppression of women. Or the sexual abuse of children. Or what happened (and is still happening, if one includes the church's refusal to contribute to a reparations fund) to the Magdelene girls under the sisters’ “care” (www.gofundme.com/magdalenes). Or so many other hypocrisies. Gha.

As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” So yeah, I’ll continue to examine my strange relationship with the Catholic church, because I know somehow we’re stuck together for life. Maybe we need a good (non-Catholic) marriage counselor...

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