Monday, 2 December 2013

More on Turning Points

Sister Winifred in the snow outside the convent on Louisburg Square.
May we all know that kind of joy some day.
I've waited to write again for two reasons. 

Firstly: a friend asked me why I do this, and put it on the internet for so many to see. My response: my journey is simply a human journey. Others connect with aspects of my journey - and their own stories. I used to be desperate to be 'special' - because at the time to be 'special' in my unconscious mind would have meant to be safe. More on that theme later. Now - well, we're all special. I haven't made perfect, so old stories linger on - but to be special has quite different tones now.

Secondly: I've hesitated to continue with the turning points theme and my sojourn as a Sister of St. Margaret, wondering if it's my story to tell. Well, duh, I say to myself ... yes of course it's my story. Just as my family story is my story as well. Both involve other people - specifically, in this case, the SSM Sisters and community life in the late 1960's to 1976.

It also fits in with my dread of telling 'secrets' - family 'secrets'. A very old story - and one many, many of us have lived with or through. Every family has secrets. Some of us hold onto the secrets to the detriment of our souls and even bodies out of a false sense of protecting those whom we loved and may still  love. Stories sometimes of abuse. 

For our family, there were two main secrets (though there are plenty of others) :-)  : 

1. We are descended from slaves of African and Native American origin. This has meant that not only are we extremely interesting, :-) but we have new relatives and new friends of all colours - from pink (not white, for goodness sakes!) to Black. Who ever starting calling fair-skinned people white, anyhow?? 

2. Grandpa Macgregor from whom I gained my wonderful Scottish last name, was said to have died in a construction accident in Uruguay in 1923, when in fact he died in 1954 in Richmond, England, and even - joy! - had three more children. And MORE JOY - one of them is still living and I've met my Aunt Margaret twice! We've had great fun together. And she is the only living person who knew my grandpa.

The truth truly does set us free.  

Back to the convent. I long ago decided that I had two choices - to deny my life and experiences and love of convent life at SSM, or to gradually integrate it into my life story - body, mind, spirit. I was First Professed on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, 1971 and Life Professed on St. Joseph's Day 1974. St. Joseph's Day is still special to me.

I'm not going to tell other people's stories except some of the ways in which different ones changed my life.

Sister CM (who later left the community) taught me the intricacies of sacristy life. She was buoyant, fun, and thorough and called me her handmaid. I learned to ring the huge chapel bell - counting carefully according to the service and whether it was the five minute warning bell calling us all to pray or the bell to begin worship. This teaching led to my being sacristan at Trinity Mountain Camp, CT and at the convent and cathedral in Haiti. Do you know the correct way to fold a corporal so it always opens properly on the altar?

We dusted in chapel way more than anyone in her right mind would do now. I was 45 years more flexible than I am now, so the up and down wasn't quite as demanding. I loved to dust the  panels behind the Sisters stalls, connecting to the Sisters who had died and whose names and dates were carved there. Faithful servants who lived the religious life and died in community. The sanctuary - what a privilege. Words fail. The altar and reredos were exquisite. Joy. And lighting the lamps for festivals. We pulled them down on their brass chains, lit the candles, and pushed them high again. Kneeling in the silence, candles glowing in the dark, peace - reminds me that there is a contemplative hidden still inside - and after the years of high activity as a priest, I'm learning to re-connect to that aspect.  

Once I was clothed as a novice, I was sent for a bit to work at St. Margaret's Home in Montreal. Sister Felicitas was in charge still, Sister Juliana, Sister Jane and ... memory's gone... oh right - I was the fourth Sister :-) We lived in the old Notman house at the corner of Clark and Sherbrooke. I remember visiting old ladies - and in those days, the third floor of the large building was two large dormitories. No such thing permitted now, of course. And I remember Mrs. Thomas. And that one of our priests, Peter Blunt (who may have been a theology student at the time) used to visit her regularly. Hilda Penk, a former parishioner of St. Mark's, Longueuil (my home parish). Miss Penk, one of the most joyful people I have known, was born with cerebral palsy. It didn't stop her, except to limit her physically. 

Sister Mary Eleanor with Brian, Liz and Abbie by the Boston convent creche c1980
Abbie is holding the sleeping Baby Jesus. There is an 'awake' one, too.

Canon Bonathan presided at the eucharist once a week in the tiny chapel. Jeno Kohner was the Sisters' chaplain and confessor. I wish I'd realized then what sin really is and what it isn't. Good grief! 

All of the houses had Christmas crèches from the Wantage Sisters in England. Never, ever have I seen more moving and  exquisite crèches. There was a mouse crouched by the manger, a blind shepherd who sees ... (see below for details)

Displaying Christmas Creche 2.jpg
Convent creche in its new home at the convent in Duxbury - awake baby
(Photo by Sister Grace 2012)
In Haiti, we only had Baby Jesus, but he was near to baby size and could be cradled in one's arms. And poinsettias growing wild in the mountains across from Kenscoff.

I did a little cooking at home before heading south to Boston, and made a little recipe book to take. It wasn't long before I found hidden talents. Amazing what obedience can lead to - and, I add, other people recognizing gifts that are hidden from us. I loved the sacristy. I loved the kitchen (St. Margaret's Home, Trinity Mountain Camp, St. Monica's Home, and the convent - planning meals, ordering and buying food, baking hundreds and hundreds of loaves of bread. Sister Mary Eleanor taught me bread-making. SME sits on my shoulder and I still feel connected when I make rolls - kneading and baking - and Christmas stollen as gifts for friends. I was what they called 'dry' housekeeper as well at various time. Besides dusting rooms (in whatever order of mopping and dusting), it involved putting laundry away and distributing it. I still fold towels in three, and Sandi, my sister-in-law, liked the style and has taken it on, too. 

I worked one summer as a novice at St. Margaret's Camp, but immaturity in theological terms meant it wasn't the best fit in some ways at that time. I'd been a counsellor in the summers of '66 and '67. Using boxes and labels with caution, it has taken many years and a breakdown to grow into a flexible, feminist, liberal who isn't clinging to the lie that if we just pray hard enough, God will DO whatever we ask. Like keep our parents from divorcing, or children from dying. Control. Who's in control? Is anyone?

The work - the life of prayer - the discipline of getting up when you didn't feel like it - of working in the altar bread department (not my favourite) all changed me. Not as dramatically as Haiti did, but still real.

We had morning and afternoon snacks in the lunch room. I'm afraid I especially appreciated those breaks when I was in the altar bread department. Sometimes there were leftover desserts. Always milk - or coffee for those who wished - and a favourite still - graham crackers and peanut butter. I recently found (in one of my sorting and clean-up attacks) a tiny match box with teeny white buttons, and old name tags Sr Roslyn Marie. What, you may ask, am I still doing with this? I could throw it out.  I will some day. Or someone else will if they find it after I die. ;-)

I also have a tiny mouse made by one of the Sisters, other mice dressed in habit, cassock or choir robes belonging to Sister Rhoda and that she gave me. I had a thing for mice - and being little - not having discovered my inner tiger yet. Other people saw hints of her, though. I treasure a tiny St Margaret's cross glued on a gold-wrapped piece of cardboard - given to me by Sister Rosemary for my profession. Concrete reminders. Nothing like memories and the people and experiences that play an enormous part in who I have become.

There's more. Much, much more. Sister Winifred, who is dancing in the snow in the photo - who was deaf. It's been said that deafness can be even more isolating than blindness, because one can be in a group of people and not able to participate in conversation. Sister Winifred was joyful, kind - and what might have led another to become bitter, only seemed to deepen her. I have a card she sent me when I was hospitalized, with a tiny black kitten on it. A cat person, too.

Sister Rhoda and I had our differences of opinion - and I had not yet learned that ego-strength comes not from being able to do things we believe are right - but from a learned flexibility that listens. I struggled - especially I know now, once I had 'arrived' at being professed, and therefore 'safe'. Haiti had undone me in the best possible ways. Life was REAL. Desperate poverty. Courageous and resilient people. And I was living afraid, but didn't know it.

When Sister Rhoda was dying, and I was working and away from the convent, I used to come afternoons to visit her in the infirmary. We had long since patched up our hurts. We chatted or were silent. When I asked once what I could do for her, she said, 'Remember me." That I do. What is to remember but to take into oneself. And her request has echoes - "Do this to remember me." 

Sister Rhoda died June 7, 1983 shortly before I realized I couldn't return to convent life, and moved back to Montreal to continue my studies.  I was ordained priest on Pentecost, June 7, 1992.  Sister Eleanora's profession anniversary was Pentecost. Sister Anne Marie sent me the lead and stained glass Holy Spirit window hanging that used to be in the Mother's office window. I treasure it.

I was, in one sense, a breakdown waiting to happen - from my earliest years. I walked the edge of cliffs, clung to a theology that helped me feel safe when I wasn't, imagined that I was responsible for others' lives and safety. A child imagines this level of responsibility for the universe because to acknowledge that the adults around us aren't able to protect us from death and lesser? evils would be to face the impossible. So, we blame ourselves. Hmmm... methinks I no longer want even to imagine that kind of power, never mind to have it.

People sometimes say childhood is golden. It is NOT. At least not for most. Childhood can be terrifying. And we are powerless. Yes, there are wonder-full times, too. 

So - while there are other memories of SSM - p'raps one of the most important gifts of convent life was: it prepared me to survive the breakdown that began in earnest in 1975. Cracks were appearing, but the Pit opened up and swallowed me in the spring, summer, fall of 1975. And as I look back on what I now call a breakthrough - I know that a life of prayer, love, discipline enabled me to survive in those first years until I could gradually begin to come to life. 

I need to remember the convent. It's not nostalgia. It's a crucial part of the person I am still becoming. And I thank God for it all. And She says, "You're welcome."

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