Monday, April 19, 2010

Nun Conference

I was in Ferdinand at a conference on Vocations. It was five days long, which is a really long time to be at a conference. It went at a nun's pace, which meant the breaks were long for those who needed to recharge or take naps, and there was free time and lots and lots of hospitality. Three social receptions, two of which included fudge from Gethsemani, Thomas Merton's Trappist monastery down the road in Kentucky. The monks there sent seven boxes of fudge, mostly with bourbon but some without, along with two Trappistine Sisters who visited on their way from their monastery in Virginia to the conference in Indiana.

I hope that someday I will give a full account of the world I'm experiencing now, the world of nuns at the beginning of the 21st century. Right now I feel self-conscious about it, because I am an official representative of a monastery, and because I am conscious of their image and the image they want to use to portray themselves.

At the conference, and most of the time, of course, it is clear that most nuns today are old, first generation American women. In the Midwest, they are mostly the daughters of German and some Irish immigrants. They are mostly the daughters of farm families.

On the final night, there was a Eucharist just for the 25 of us at the conference, so we wouldn't have to worry about getting to Sunday Mass on the day we were traveling. After the Eucharist, there was a party with all the Sisters at Ferdinand. The younger Sisters were all out, except for a few who live and work at the monastery. Most of their younger Sisters work in parishes and schools in Louisville or Evansville or even farther away.

Four Sisters have a combo: upright bass, guitar, electric piano and drums. When they play liturgical music (without drums), they call themselvesStillpoint. When they play at parties, they are The Combo. They had a large repertoire. Much to the chagrin of the three Redemptorist priests from Ireland, they played "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "Toura Loura Loura" and "Danny Boy," though Father Dan did sing along. They also played a Schottische. Of course, the chicken dance and hokey pokey. Some Sisters got out and danced as well to a few polkas. There was one line dance. Sisters danced at everything they played.

Then, during what seemed like a break, the pianist played a tinkling little number that sounded like something you'd hear from a music box.

That is when Sister Catherine got up and danced. She turned 73 during the conference, and she is the prioress at the Trappistine monastery. Her young colleague had asked during a presentation, "Could you tell us what this Facebook is?" The 10 Trappistines make cheese as a community one day a week, just enough to cover their expenses, although there is demand for more. They want to figure out how to attract more women to their way of life, and I'm not sure what they made of the conference. They did determine they need a web site, and probably it was not realistic to think a Sister would be able to make one using the copy of Dreamweaver they bought for the community.

Sister Catherine danced by herself, spinning and moving lightly across the floor. Her hands moved like butterflies, like birds. She was out there about three whole minutes, while we all watched. After the number was over, we all clapped, and she graciously bowed.

Not all Sisters are the same, and not all monasteries or orders are the same. There is great variety, that goes overlooked in the stereotypes and generalizations. They are vibrant and they are in possession of a culture, which they are practicing in these days, despite all the rapid change going on around them and even in their communities, and that in another generation will be gone.

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