Friday, October 19, 2012

2012.10.21 Who Me.....a Nun?

    It's my 20th anniversary as a nun—sort of. 
    I became an Associate of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in October of 1992 not long after I learned that Roman Catholic women’s religious orders had an associateship program by which lay people could join them in prayer and commitment to works of mercy. 
    The charism of the Mercies seemed perfect to me. I’m always in favor of mercy since I need so much myself and can be quite merciless with myself and others, though I try to keep that impulse a secret when it arises—except toward my husband...he says.  But the specifics of the Mercy vision were the attraction: a lifelong commitment to contemplative prayer and ministry that connected the ignorant with educational resources, the ill and infirm with healing resources, and the impoverished with economic resources.
    Knowledge, health, money and Godde all wrapped up in the spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth my chief guru.  
    My fascination with Catholicism began when I was a young child and my Catholic aunt came to visit. I used to tiptoe up to her bedroom door which she left ajar and peek in. She knelt down next to her bed and began to mumble and rattle a chain of beads.  Then she put on a black sleeping mask like the Lone Ranger’s and crawled into bed for the night.  
    I was drawn into some kind of spell by what I thought was magic . My aunt called it “saying my prayers.” My mother said they were “Catholic” prayers.  My Presbyterian church had prayers of course but these “catholic” ones seemed mystical, and embodied at the same time.  I saw the same thing at Mass.  These worshipers were active. They moved their bodies, kneeling, standing, folding their hands, bowing and walking up the aisle together to eat a holy meal at the altar.  In my church we mostly just sat for everything. They even brought the communion meal to you on little trays.

    As a twenty-something I took instruction to become a Roman Catholic, a convert like my aunt had been. It seemed I could have the spirituality and the ritual, but not without just the right amount of too many rules—and a pretty clear sense that women were important to clean up and set up but not allowed to serve at the altar. 
    This church of my infatuation was too tight for me, so, with the help of a college chaplain,  I discovered the Episcopal Church where I could have the sacrament of the Mass with all its grandeur and grace— and fewer rules.  There was a chance for women to be priests in that tradition, so much smaller and more supple than the huge Roman Catholic behemoth of an institution.
    I was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1988 after a colossal struggle with that church’s institutional bias against the presence of women invading  the centuries old inner sanctum of an all-male priestly caste of male privilege and authority. My little “jihad” was worth it. Today I’m proud of my small and limber Episcopal church—Anglo-but-still-Catholic church, still wrestling with integrity and threats of schism over issues of inclusivity.  And I’m proud and happy to be an Episcopal priest.
    Experimenting recently with an online invitation to write a six-word memoir I jotted down quickly: Wannabe Catholic nun turns Episcopal priest.  Pretty good summation.
    Lingering longings, however, persisted, not strongly just small heart tugs. I never felt called to be a religious sister. The Episcopal church has monastic orders for women I might have joined if I  hadn’t also been dying to have kids.  It was the Catholic connection I got wistful about from time to time especially when I went on retreats at Mercy Center in Connecticut and received spiritual direction from a wise, witty, and utterly French Jesuit priest named Pierre Wolff who guided me so well in the ways of Jesus Christ that I became smitten, not with Pierre or even Jesus, but with the whole astonishing God-in-the-flesh thing.
    One of the Mercy sisters sniffed out my heart’s desires, as good nuns can do. She told me about associateship and I leapt at the chance.  In the Extended Mercy Handbook Admission Criteria, the first eligibility criterion for associates reads,”be practicing members of a Christian faith, ordinarily, the Roman Catholic faith.”  
    ORDINARILY jumped off the page. It didn’t mean necessarily or always; it meant usually.  So I could be unusual and quite ordinary.

     Mercy Foundress Catherine McAuley’s leadership style was refreshing. Though every ounce a leader, Catherine did not like the Mother Superior title; she insisted on the dignity and integrity of every single woman who joined the order—also each one’s need for freedom to develop fully as a sister and a daughter of God.  This was advanced thinking in her day and certainly didn’t match any traditional patriarchal church leadership models I’d known. 
    Freedom within authority best facilitates spiritual and emotional growth. Catherine believed  this truth, and governed accordingly.  I liked that a lot!  Catherine was also fond of saying “Mercy is justice in tears.” Not original to her, but what wisdom ever remains original? Mercy has no patents or copyrights. She begins in wonder, and never stays put for long. 
    Taking instructions, something ordinarily expected, I bristled when our teacher Sister Grace Mannion called God “the divine conniver.”  It was the Protestant in me, but it didn’t arrest my journey; later Grace, whom I’ve come to regard with admiration and affection, and I laughed about it.

    I was inducted in a Commitment Ceremony 20 years ago almost to this day at the chapel of the Mercy headquarters in West Hartford, Connecticut.  I was one of several inductees, mostly female with a couple of brave husbands in tow.  It was a simple ceremony of prayer and the presentation of a  Mercy pin and a handbook—more rules and expectations.  A reception with lovely and loving food followed, because every holy occasion must always have food to remind us of our humanity and keep us humbly grateful.
    That day I felt complete as if I’d come full circle. I belonged, sort of.  I’ve always been welcomed and embraced, and an anomaly at the same time. Guess that’s my lot, a religious mix.

    Isn’t this how we all are supposed to be in order to blend back into the whole community of Creation?