Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ursuline memories

Thirty-eight years ago today I entered the convent. Most people who know me look at me and say “YOU were a nun?” Not exactly, I entered and stayed through my noviciate until I realized that the religious life was not my vocation and left. But I am so thankful for those years and those women who helped me to know Christ and God’s love.

I came to know Christ through one of those sisters when religious were just coming out of their enclosures in the ‘60’s. I was teaching in an extremely poor section of Dallas in a junior high school that was deeply involved with the school district’s attempts at integrating Blacks, Hispanic and Whites. If there was anything that radicalized me, it was those years in that school.

I was also a professional musician. I supplemented my income with playing with a civic symphony in the area. At the beginning of a new season, a nun with full habit and carrying a French horn showed up at rehearsal. We became good friends. Often I provided transportation to rehearsals and it was not uncommon to have a drink together afterwards. Of course conversation turned to religion and faith. I was not an unbeliever, but I had never met someone for whom faith was so clear. As problems in my own teaching situation began to rise, I asked her to pray for me. She asked me if I prayed. I said,” no, that was her job.” She made sure that I knew that wasn’t how it worked and helped me begin to pray.

That introduction to prayer and the gradual invitation to prayer with the community was the beginning of a relationship with the Holy that has guided my life ever since. I entered three years later on the Feast of the Assumption.

The community that I joined was a well-established teaching order whose Postulancy was in New Orleans. It was an incredible culture change from my less that 7% Catholic environment in Ft. Worth. New Orleans was intensely Roman Catholic with the same kind of ethnic diversity of many of the major cities in the Midwest. I was unfamiliar with the kind of “Irish parish”, “Italian parish”, “French parish” mentality that permeated Roman Catholic society. Ursuline, my community, was deeply established as old French in a city that traded on old French for its identity. Such institutions as Mardi Gras, even many of the religious practices were centered in our convent. For the first time in my life, I belonged among some of the shakers and movers of society who did the shaking and moving by praying. It was humbling.

I was also learning about solitude. For such an extrovert as I, this was a totally new experience. The Ursulines guaranteed their sisters at least an hour for mental prayer a day. They also expected you to be a part of the liturgical day, praying the daily Morning, Evening and Night as a community. There is something about a whole chapel of women singing the psalms that eases the loneliness of life. Community life was not difficult for me. I loved having meals with these well-educated women whose table talk concerned the events of the day, theology, liturgy, things that I was interested in. I am sure that there were many of the sisters who found ME difficult because I was an awkward colt and a “pushy broad” to boot. But I was always treated with respect.

We were moved from New Orleans to outside of St. Louis for our novitiate. There I learned to rely on Christ alone. We were on the banks of the Mississippi seemingly cut off from everything and everyone. As I delved deeper into my own vocation I was quite undetermined about what God was calling me to. I knew that my life was to be centered in the Church. My life had been turned over to the Holy much earlier before I entered. But HOW was I supposed to the serve the Church was still vague. Then the first women’s ordinations in the Episcopal Church were publicized and my world shifted. It wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t clear for some time. But I knew that there was a possibility that priesthood was where it led.

My three years in the convent are still dear to me. I have lost some contact with that community of women but there are still individuals I contact when I have the chance. Following Katrina, I visited my novice mistress while they were decamped in Dallas. She had been in the hospital at the time the levees broke and had harrowing tales of being carried out on a stretcher. Her community didn’t know where she was for some days, I think. The influence that these women, women who had gone against society’s convention of marriage, women who were educated and could think for themselves were far more important to my formation as a woman than the feminists I met in Cambridge or Berkeley. They were women who deeply understood God in their lives. Not all thought the way I did. Not all lived out their vows the way I did. I learned to live and love them because they were my sisters even though some of them were not always “nice.” It was a microcosm of what life today has become. It was a microcosm of what life in the Church is.

And so today I give thanks to God for the Order of St. Ursula of the Roman Union. May they continue to share their lives with those who have no knowledge of God. I pray that God will prosper their witness to the world and among the lives of women who will lead and shape tomorrow.


Fran said...

Thank you for sharing this- what a beautiful recollection of a particular time in your life.

Although I knew you had discerned with nuns, I did not realize that it was the Ursulines, from New Orleans no less. Our Lady of Prompt Succor, pray for us! (I have a story about that!)

In any event, your words were beautiful and evocative and I got teared up reading along. God led you to where God wanted you to go, but God always reminds us that each moment of life is part of that leading.

Thank you!

Thomas Squiers said...

Beautiful. These connections sustain us and carry us through on the journey. And what a journey you have had, my friend. And the journey continues (in Fort Worth even)!!

Jan said...

This is beautiful. The only Ursuline I've known is a professor at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio; she was our leader for our month in Zambia in 2006. She is an amazing woman.