Wednesday, May 09, 2007

When Mothers Become Contemplative Nuns - Part I

"Home" by Matthew Pleva (pencil drawing, original 2x3 inches)
Gift on the day of my entrance into the monastery

A mid-twentieth century experience of American Catholicism gives a rather distorted view of the history of religious life. It leaves little room for the reality of diversity and the ups, as well as the downs, of vowed life throughout the history of the Church. As illustration I offer my memory of those who became sisters when I was a teenager. At the end of my freshman year in a small private Catholic academy for girls in Brooklyn, New York, circa 1960, five graduating seniors entered the teaching congregation which staffed the school. Two years later, another student from that class entered a cloistered community. All of the sisters I knew at the time had entered as teenagers with the exception of one who was considered a 'late vocation', because she postponed entering until she graduated from college. I believe that this label stayed with her throughout religious life tagging her as somewhat the oddball. In hind sight, I see that it was not only age that separated her but also the natural difference in viewpoint and exposure she carried as a result of four years of higher education as a lay person. The experience of large annual (in some cases semi-annual) entrance classes persisted from the 1930s into the 1960s. For the average Catholic this was 'the' way people entered religious life. More rare but also possible were the sisters' juniorates, and preparatory levels of seminaries and brotherhoods that accepted young people in their early teens. While we viewed this a the norm, the homogeneity suggested here was a small blip in the historical time line. It is important to note here that the blip so described ended with the mid-1960s and the promulgation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Of the five young women I knew who entered the teaching congregation in 1960 only one remained a sister by 1970. The woman who entered the cloister remained for only five years.

Recently I have been doing some research concerning St. Hilda of Whitby (England, 614-680C.E) Venerable Bede recorded her achievements as the foundress and Abbess of a double monastery of both women and men. Double monasteries were not unusual at the time. The Council of Whitby (664) was held at her monastery and she participated in the discussions by which it was determined that the Northumbrian Celtic Church would give way to the practices of the Roman discipline. Hild (Celtic name) did not enter a monastery until the advanced age of 33. We have to remind ourselves that the average life span for a woman at that time was little more than forty years. My research also revealed that historians today think it probable that Hild had been married and widowed before making the decision to enter religious life. If this is so, it marks a continuation of more ancient tradition dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries in which it was common for widows, as well as virgins, to flee to the 'desert' to emulate the reclusion of the great monk, St. Anthony.

Closer to our own time, we have the example of St. Jeanne Frances De Chantal, widow, mother and co-foundress of he Order of the Visitation. In 1610, she and then Bishop of Geneva founded the Order of the Visitation of Mary, "a congregation dedicated to prayer and works of charity. Their original intention was that the order would be adapted for widows and other women who, for reasons of health or age, could not endure the rigors of enclosed life. But the plan met with such carping disapproval from ecclesiastical authorities that in the end Jeanne consented to accept enclosure. Jeanne's daughters were married by this time, but her fifteen-year-old son...resisted his mother's plan to enter religious life. He was the occasion of a melodramatic test, for which Jeanne is especially remembered. Laying his body across the threshold of their home, he implored her not to leave. Without hesitating she stepped over him and proceeded on her way." (from All Saints by Robert Ellsberg, Crossroads Books, 1997)

Fortunately I did not have to step over anyone's prostrate body. When I entered in 2000 my three sons were 28, 25 and 23 years old respectively. The oldest was married, middle one graduated from college and the third finishing up at a community college. Responding to the current phenomenon of young adults returning to their childhood homes I jokingly say, "They came home and I left." My oldest son was initially concerned about the fate of his brothers without benefit of my steady hand, not to mention the checkbook to cover expenses. Since our house carried an old, very affordable, and nearly paid off mortgage, these two have easily taken on the responsibility of home owners. Without a mother paying the the phone and AOL bills, etc., they have come into their own as mature, responsible young man. They feel fortunate to be living in the only home they have ever known. The drawing above is my artist son's rendering of that house. A light shines in only one window, the window of what was my bedroom. He said that is what they saw when they came home every night.

These three became my staunchest supporters. I like to think that the gift of freedom they gave to me was a sign of their gratitude for many gifts of freedom and respect I gave them as individuals and mature young men during my seventeen years as a single parent.


Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC said...

Thank you for this beautiful reflection on mature motherhood and "sonhood". These are 3 remarkable men you brought up.

I was amused by the "reverse empty nest" situation you describe. The grown educated children return, the parent flies away...

mema said...

ahhhh, what a heart warming story. Thank you so much. Now how do I wipe the teas off my keyboard"?