Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sisters not Mothers

Two weeks ago I spent an afternoon at St. Scholastica, the retirement center for the Sisters. It's something I've been wanting to write about, and have been talking about to people since. I went mostly just to see the place-- 90+ of our 300 Sisters live there, and it's an assisted living retirement center but I knew it wouldn't be like other retirement centers-- like the depressing vision I have of "old folks' homes." It's in St. Cloud, on the other side of the Mississippi River from the monastery, and I know it's hard for Sisters here when they move over there. In my job as communications director, I want to find a way to make sure those Sisters and their stories are included in a significant and positive way in our publications-- that they're not forgotten or put out to pasture (more like "put out to pray") over there. Because that's how it is sometimes presented-- that these Sisters who have spent their lives serving in health care or education or other ministries, go to St. Scholastica to return to their primary mission: prayer. And it's true, but for women who were so active in their professional careers and lives at the monastery, it must sound like their usefulness is in some way relegated to the background.

I also wanted to meet some of the Sisters who will be celebrating their 60th and 75th Jubilees next year. (This means it's been 60 or 75 years since they took their final vows at the monastery.) I will write about them in our next magazine, Benedictine Sisters and Friends, and want to include some meaningful or at least interesting stories/anecdotes about them. To this point the profiles that have run with their pictures in the Jubilee section have felt more like obituaries: how many children in their families, their main ministries/work during their lives, etc.

I have several stories from that day, but the one that I woke up with this morning was told to me by Sister Victorine. She has been in the monastery 75 years come July 11, 2009. That means she entered in 1931, and took final vows in 1934. And when I went to talk to her she was just waking up from a nap, but after I talked to Sister Elvan, who also entered in 1934, I went back and she was up and in her wheelchair, completely focused and ready to talk.

She told me great stories. She worked as a pharmacist at St. Cloud Hospital, which the Sisters started during the Depression. The Sisters who worked there lived in a convent next to the hospital, right on the Mississippi River. She said that despite a genetic condition that made her sick if she had too much exposure to the sun (not diagnosed until the 1970s), she loved the outdoors and being active, especially rowing the boats they'd take out on the river. She told me of one time a group was out on the river and a storm came up. She rowed them toward shore, and one Sister stood up to grab a rope or something, and fell in the river. "Well," she said, "everyone else jumped out to help her-- leaving me alone in the boat!" She was livid, still angry at them. "Not one of them stayed behind to help me get the boat to shore. I had to jump out and push the boat in to shore." The abandonment was fresh. So was the adventure. And when she told it, this 95-year-old woman's spirit and vitality was completely present to me.

She also spent some time at St. Benedict's Hospital in Utah, which was one of the missions started by the Sisters. It sounds like it was a difficult mission-- the hospital was successful, but the place was of course completely Mormon. There is an independently run community there, (a daughter house of our monastery), Mount Benedict Monastery. It is currently at 8 women, 4 of whom are from Minnesota. Many of the older Sisters here worked and lived at that monastery for various stints, and it too looms large as a great adventure, a time of travel and seeing another part of the world.

Sister Victorine was first assigned to the polio ward. What she remembered was caring for a polio baby. She said she was the primary caregiver for this child for the first two years of her life, and the baby called her "Dictidine!" Her love and bond with the child was clear, and when I asked if she knew whatever became of that little girl, she shook her head sadly.

The issue of childlessness, much more than the issue of celibacy and singleness, is one I'm aware of with these women. For one thing, it's another thing that separates the discussion of the lay employees from that of the Sisters. When I'm in the lunchroom (the "lay lounge"), quite often Jennifer and Stacey talk about their kids, as does Lori when she's around. In conversations with the Sisters, they do a good job of listening and asking questoins, but they often seem taken off-guard-- it's not a topic of conversation that comes up in community.

I've become very aware in recent years that when these discussions happen I, too, listen and ask questions. What I have to contribute are stories of my own childhood, or stories of my niece, or my friend's children. I do pay attention and love to retell the stories of those children and their rearing. I feel self-conscious now when it's my own childhood stories I share, and evn in some ways when my story is about my niece or a friend's child.

The Sisters also have nieces and nephews, and some are quite close to them. But it's also clear that many of these women would have been such good mothers, and would have been quite happy being mothers. The Church's focus on the importance of having children must have been difficult all along for those whose life choice meant they wouldn't have children. I think it's harder than not marrying-- though of course the two go together. The women clearly find real community together, have real, deep loving relationships with each other, true support, special friendships. But children is something different. I picked up a book from my shelf at work, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, written by Cheryl Reed, a reporter who spent four years visiting women's religious communities to write the book. She began with St. Benedict's (she was from the Twin Cities), where she'd come on retreat and had gotten so involved she'd kept coming back for years, before she even knew she'd write the book. She quotes Sister Linda Kulzer, who is an amazing Sister, a much-honored former professor and dean at the College, and for whom there is now a major annual award in social work. The book cites her as saying that the trade-off of becoming a nun was never having children. "There is something unnatural about being a celibate," she said sadly, "of not finding a life partner, and not having children, which you always think in the back of your head you could do someday."

But also, though I have wondered about celibacy and whether it's necessary to religious life, feeling like it's a terrible burden to put on monks and nuns (but especially priests, who can so obviously do their ministry while being married), it is very clear that there's no way they could have led the lives they did if they'd had children. They just could not have gone to prayers 4 times a day, plus Eucharist, and worked the jobs they did at the levels they worked them, and built the communities they built, if their primary emotional and physical responsibility for 18 years was children. The life in community-- and it seems essential to me that it is a community just of women--would not have worked. (But the topic of women-only is for another post...)

I know this is part of my own reflections these days. I didn't have children, and though I felt this as a conscious decision when I turned 38 and it was time to decide-- when my first husband and I moved to Southern California for his tenure-track job and I felt very strongly that if he'd have gotten a job in Reno (another possibility and where we lived the year before) we'd have had children, but I didn't want to raise children in Southern California-- now I live in Central Minnesota, where having children is like breathing. Like the Sisters, I'm an odd duck out here. I don't at all regret the decisions I've made, and even the possibilities for the future and what I'm able to do precisely because I haven't had children, but there is a melancholy there-- a sense of being incomplete, and of not having done something it was natural to do.

No comments: