Saturday, April 24, 2010

Link to A Wonderful Book

You can purchase "A Right to Be Merry" from Amazon here, or, of course, you could ask your locally owned bookstore to get it for you!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading "A Right to Be Merry"

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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mothers I Have Known: The Beginning of a Long and Meandering and Private Journey

I was born and raised Roman Catholic. Let me be more precise: I was born to an unmarried Catholic college-girl, whose only wish for her daughter (whose face she never saw: the anxious nurses in the Philadelphia hospital had placed a washcloth over my face when she was “permitted” to hold me, just once) was that she go to a good Catholic family.

My mother and father but slenderly matched that profile. My dad was the son of Russian and Latvian immigrants, who had been Catholic until a priest refused to bury a stillborn child in consecrated ground; then they all went Pentecostal. Dad was the next baby born; to this day he has not been baptized. My mom was “lace curtain” Irish Catholic, raised in the church but somehow always existing in a vaguely alienated state with regard to its teachings. She attended Catholic school, grades one through twelve. Still, more than once a puzzled nun, on hearing my mom ask a question (usually the gist of which was, Why should we believe that?), queried, “Are you a convert, dear?” My parents were married by a Justice of the Peace because my mother was insulted that my dad would not be permitted to darken the door of the church because of his non-baptized status. An angry phone call from her mother, and the priest let my dad into the church. They always celebrated the first date as their anniversary.

But oh they wanted a baby. A second baby. They had adopted my brother two and a half years earlier, and their pediatrician, in observing the hyper-attentive anxiety with which they parented him had urged, “Why don’t you two adopt another baby?” And so my parents had their good friend, an Ob/Gyn, on the lookout for young unmarried girls who might want to surrender their babies for adoption (which, in 1961, they just about all did).

In late April 1961 I was born, and five days later my mother and my Aunt Natasha went to the hospital to collect me. Mom carried a bag of baby clothes they had bought (all white: my mother dressed me in white exclusively for about three years). My birth mother, Nell, held me in her arms, washcloth and all, and wept. At a certain point Aunt Natasha became fearful that this transaction was not going to happen. She grabbed me and made a run for it, leaving my mother patting Nell on the back. Mom said the sound of Nell’s wailing haunted her dreams for years.

About a month after my birth I was baptized, and my mother and father proceeded to hold up their end of the bargain. I was raised Roman Catholic. During my childhood my mother made various attempts to deepen her own faith, but my sense of her was always that it was a struggle. When I was very young—Kindergarten perhaps?—my mom presented me with three little books, “The Lives of the Saints,” which she had picked up in a retreat center gift shop. I sensed a sorrow in my mom—I think those little books were all she brought home with her. It is not an exaggeration to say that those little books sparked something, started something in me, that is still unfolding. They set me on my spiritual path.

Here’s what I remember of them (I could actually consult them: they are in a bookshelf in my dining room as I type this). Romantic, rather insipid watercolors of the various saints (two of the books were of women saints, the other of men), accompanied by a single page description of each life, complete with Feast Day. I remember reading about Saint Agatha, whose breasts were torn off, and Saint Cecilia, who was the patron saint of musicians. Refusing to marry was a common theme: many of the women had consecrated themselves to Christ, and were willing to endure torture (burning, cutting, ripping, beheading) rather than submit to marriage. I remember reading about Saint Clare, whose story was, somehow, different. There was no torture, but much joy. There was a life consecrated to Christ, to be sure. The thread that ran through all these mini-biographies caused me to wonder, Who is this Jesus, that these women want to be married to him? Who is he, that they are willing to be tortured and die for him?

Before long, as a friend in high school reminded me long after I’d forgotten, I was, annoyingly, wearing a rosary on my belt and dreaming of life as a nun. My first role models for this were the nuns in the parochial school I attended. The next was Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which I saw no fewer than 13 times in the theater. The next was Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. (Fascinating that several of these role models eventually left the convent, either for love or out of alienation.)

Fast forward to 1973. I am a bored seventh grader who is roaming the house, in the days before computers and iPods and text-messaging and DVD’s. I have not yet heard the music from “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar,” both of which will be powerfully formational for me. I am disgruntled, and in need of something—anything!—to read. My mother picks up a book by one Sister Mary Francis, a cloistered Poor Clare Nun, and places it in my hand. And I can’t put it down.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Plus One

I'm going to add my voice to the chorus of blogging pastors saying "I'm so tiiiiiiiirrrrrrrred." 'Cause I am.

Easter was glorious. Our church was full, the choir sang lustily. A brass quintet augmented our usual forces, and gave the morning both festivity and the heft of the sublime. We "flowered the cross" again, it having been so wildly successful last year. That is to say, we have a kind of classic "old rugged cross" in the sanctuary throughout Lent. For Easter we "cage" it with chicken wire, and have buckets of cut flowers at its base. During the prelude all are encouraged to come forward to flower the cross, so that by the time worship begins it looks as if it has simply burst into bloom. It is simple, it is effective, it smells great, it looks lovely, and the congregation loves it!

Here is a great joy for me from this Lent just past. We tried tons of "new stuff" at church. And the congregation loved all of it, and threw themselves into each first-time activity with openness and gusto. How cool is that?

Still. It's the day after Easter. I have to do some scrambling to be ready for Holy Hilarity Sunday this week, and also to take off the two days I've promised myself. But I need some Sabbath, and I need it badly. All work and no play makes Cecilia a cranky girl with back troubles.

That's all for now.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Dear friends, I am still here. As one of you suggested, Lent simply swallowed me whole.

I overbooked myself. (That is the kindest characterization of the outcome of a rather serious character flaw, vanity. More on that another day. Today is the day on which I am forgiven that, and all the others.)

It was Lent, see, and so we had a Lenten Series (a rather awesome one involving depictions of Jesus in film including "Life of Brian" and "Jesus of Montreal).

And the local university extension program asked whether I might teach a class on Women of the Hebrew Scriptures-- which, since I did it just two years ago, was part 2, and so-- no repeats. All new women! And it was wonderful and so very time consuming-- I found myself delving into the Hebrew and loving, loving, loving it. And being stressed out of my mind over it.

And the local Christian counseling center (which is affiliated with my church) offered me an opportunity to create a grief group with one of their MSW interns. So, we did that. Tomorrow is the 6th of seven sessions. Verdict: intense, wonderful, something I'd love to do again.

But perhaps not in Lent!

And then, there was the Confirmation Class, which owing to everyone's scheduling nightmares, is just getting off the ground next weekend. So yay for that, it will be wonderful.

And then, there were the regular responsibilities of Sunday mornings. Preaching. Presiding. And the regular responsibilities of every day-- administration. Newsletter articles. Home communions. Pastoral visits, emergency and otherwise.

Yesterday there were two funerals.

I ended up re-hashing or simply re-purposing sermons for three of the Sundays in Lent, as well as for today. Sermons preached at other churches, mind you, no repeats for my people. And all good sermons, sermons of which I am proud. But... it feels a little like cheating.

Still, it is my understanding that John Wesley considered a sermon legitimate only after it had been preached about 20 times. And he considered it exceedingly poor stewardship to preach a sermon only once. (No doubt John Calvin considered reusing sermons the final nail in the coffin proving total depravity.) She tells herself.

I walked out my door on Friday morning and breathed in that God's Friday air, and you know what? That day really is different than all other days. This morning I awakened before the alarm went off, and was able to listen to the different voices of the bird chorus as they joined in. Beautiful, holy.

A blessed Easter to you, friends. I have risen from the tomb of my own foolish belief that I can do it all two times over. And it is not of my doing; it is the Lord's work. It is marvelous in my eyes.