In 1948 (the same year my parents were first, refused, and subsequently, permitted to be married in the church) the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, sent out an urgent call to the Chicago monastery of Poor Clares. Clare of Assisi founded what were then called the Poor Ladies, with the help of her friend Francis, back in the 13th century, part of a great church renewal. They are an order of cloistered, contemplative nuns. That means that, once they take their vows, it is their firm intention never to leave their monastery again, but to live their whole lives there, lives of service to the world through their self-offering of prayer, work and contemplation. In 1948, apparently, the Archbishop felt that Roswell, New Mexico urgently needed the presence of such a group of women. And so nine Poor Clares, who had all thought they would live and die within the Chicago enclosure, boarded a train for Roswell, to meet their Mother Abbess and Novice Mistress (who had preceded them by several months) to found a new monastery there. This is the book I am reading, at thirteen.
I am absolutely gripped by this story. (And I didn’t even know the parts about the spaceship and the aliens, which only came together for me in the late nineties when I started catching up on “The X-Files.” Sister Mary Francis maintains a judicious silence about all that.) What was it that so enthralled me about this book? Was it the romance of the cloister—living as a bride of Christ? (Oh yes, at least partially.) Was it the promise of life close to the earth, reading about the nuns growing and canning all their own vegetables (no small feat in the desert climate of New Mexico)? Or was it this: The book is called “A Right to be Merry.” That title comes from a quote of someone referring to the anchoress Margery Kempe, who also lived a cloistered life: “These poor ladies have as great a right to be merry as any in the world!” [*Those of you who have read the sermon, here, know that I incorrectly attributed the quote, there, to Saint Francis. I had conflated the quotes and the fact that the Franciscan rule of silence permits laughter. In other words, I, evidently, made it up.]
Whatever it was, this book was so influential for me that I found myself, at a certain point, writing to the monastery in Roswell to ask whether I might have a pen pal from among its inhabitants. My letter was answered by Mother Mary Francis, herself the abbess. She said, yes. I could correspond for a time with a Postulant, Sister Mary Angela. Sister Mary Angela could write me exactly four letters per year. They also put me on the monastery newsletter mailing list. I was in heaven.
I remember the letters I wrote as being rather passionate and florid. I was on fire to be a Poor Clare. I could not wait. All this fervor had erotic overtones for me, I feel sure—as does religious fervor generally. Passion has a single source, and we experience every kind of passion in our bodies. I would probably cringe to read the letters now. Sister Mary Angela’s letters were, by contrast, kind, measured, chattily informative. Not passionate though.
Eventually the day came when Sister Mary Angela was to be invested as a novice and take her first vows. I wrote to Mother Mary Francis, inquiring what would be an appropriate gift. Poor Clares take a vow of poverty. According to the rule of Saint Clare, “The sisters shall not appropriate anything to themselves, neither a house nor a place nor anything, (but be) as strangers and pilgrims in this world.” So the question of an appropriate gift weighed on me: it wasn’t as if one could send a tchatchke or trinket or piece of jewelry. Mother Mary Francis wrote back: “Eighteen yards of unbleached muslin would be nice.” My long-suffering mother (no doubt reminding herself that she had promised to raise this girl Catholic) took me to an Atlantic City fabric store, where high on a shelf the clerk found a bolt of dusty but unbleached muslin. We bought it. I took it home and washed and dried and ironed it, then gift-wrapped and packaged it for the postal service to transport it from the East coast to Roswell.
On April 10 I was working on a sermon for “Holy Hilarity Sunday.” That phrase, “A right to be merry,” kept floating in and out of my mind. I thought, by now they surely have a website—and of course they do. They have a new abbess, too, Mother Mary Angela—unless I am mistaken, my old pen pal. As I scanned through the pages—detailing much of the monastery’s history—I found a page dedicated to Mother Mary Francis, whose book so affected me. It gave her dates—she was born in 1921 (my mother was born in 1920). She died on February 11, 2006, the day on which my mother died.
This odd little coincidence has been on my mind and heart ever since I learned of it. And I know why—I knew why a shiver went up my spine when I first saw that date. Mother Mary Francis was a spiritual mother to me, in ways my mother was unable to be. My mother did what a good parent should do. Teach your children all you can, and when you find there’s some area in which you are unable to teach, find someone else who is able. My mother struggled with her faith her whole life—she looked at me with a kind of awe, because she believed I had a “hotline” to God. This makes me so sad. I do not have a hotline. I am no mystic. My prayer discipline is spotty at best, though it fills me and nurtures me when I bother to take it seriously. I probably should have been clearer with my mother about how lacking my own spiritual disciplines were, about my own experiences of the deafening silence of God, and of my own very real doubts and questions. But I wasn’t. I let her think I was spiritually genius, partially, because it gave her such pleasure to think it. But also because I so very much wanted her to love and approve of me. (Which she did. She loved me.)
It is my intention to spend some time with my two mothers, with J., who loved and raised me, and found resources for me when she experienced herself as lacking them; and with Mother Mary Francis, as truly my spiritual mother as if I had entered the monastery for a time at age 13. I have purchased another copy of “A Right to Be Merry” (though I suspect there is one hanging around in my attic, I wanted to read the preface written when it was reprinted in 2000). I will be recording privately my thoughts and impressions and associations as I read, as I re-enter this sacred space of nearly forty years ago.