Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sister Jeremy Hall

There are Sisters here who it would be unthinkable to have changed their names back. Sister Thomas Carey is one. In some ways I think of it as I do my choice not to change my name either time I married. I had already published under my name. I had an identity in the world under that name I didn't want to confuse. I wanted people to know me as I'd come into my adult life. Most of these women changed their names when they entered the monastery at 20 or 21. By the 1960s they had lived whole lives-- everything they had done that made them who they were was done under that second name, their monastic name.

Another sister I can't imagine could have changed her name is Sister Jeremy Hall, who died on November 15. Sister Jeremy was a very well known Sister. In the early days she was "ahead of her time," or as other sisters have said, "radical" and "way out there." She traveled to India and met Mother Teresa, and afterward corresponded with her. She amassed several graduate degrees. But something happened after Vatican II. As waves of nuns and priests left their orders, many of them to marry priests, others just to reenter the world, she thought maybe the reforms had gone too far. She went to a modified habit, the light veil, but never to full secular dress.

In the late '70s and early '80s she took a sabbatical and a few long retreats to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, which made a deep impression on her. In her search for more prayer time and solitude, she became vowed hermit. She moved to a trailer on the edge of the property, where she lived from 1983 to 2005 with her dog. From there she wrote, and became well known as a retreat leader for religious communities and a spiritual director for individuals. Like all the Sisters, even as a hermit, she worked. Like that famous hermit Thomas Merton, she wrote innumerable letters. She deeply affected people's lives.

I met Sister Jeremy only once, in September. When I went to visit Saint Scholastica, the retirement community, at the end of my visit I encountered a group of Sisters in the hall, several in wheel chairs. One was Sister Jeremy, who asked who I was and introduced herself. I told her I knew about her book, Silence, Solitude, and Simplicity, because I'd worked at Liturgical Press who published it. I asked her how she was doing. She said she didn't like living at Saint Scholastica, that it was too hard, too much of a change. I said it must be hard after so much solitude to have so much community. She wasn't the kind of person to enjoy being dependent. She wasn't sick at all, and didn't even seem particularly old or frail, despite the wheelchair, so I was shocked when she died. It is our sixth death since August. Sister Jeremy was 90 years old. She had an obstruction in her esophagus that was "like cement," the doctor said. She refused a feeding tube, and died very quickly after that.

At her funeral the prioress said that as a young woman in the community she'd always been afraid of Sister Jeremy. When she told her this, Sister Jeremy laughed. When people talk about her they use tough phrases: "She took her God straight up," and "Sister Jeremy didn't tolerate any bullshit when it came to God." She passed from this place without my really knowing her. It felt like a big loss. People talk about hearing her dog barking out at the trailer when they went running along the trail through the monastery woods. Others talk about how wise she was, and how genuine. People light up when they talk about her, and they also can't seem to quite get a hold on what they want to tell me about her.

1 comment:

P.Striegel said...

I am so glad that I found this post. I had Sister Jeremy Hall for an instructor at St. Ben's in 1974. I remember her as the first genuinely kind person that I had ever met.

Please know that I feel such gratitude that you gave her such a thoughtful tribute.