Old nun on a walk
The old nun and I set off for a walk to the top of the hill to catch the early winter sunset. We had been friends since she was my eighth grade teacher. She was eighty-three that afternoon and I was fifty-nine, on the cusp of old age myself. It was a raw afternoon and I had given her my black wool cape with a hood to wear. She looked great in it. Back in the days when I was her student, the nuns had worn handsome full-length black cloaks on cold days and lightweight full-length habits on warm days when they watched over us on the playground.
Sister Winters is telling me about her annual retreat with the Jesuits last summer. “My spiritual director said, ‘Tell me about your prayer life this past year,’ and I said, ‘To do that, Father,I would have to tell you about my life this past year.'”
Then we segued into the story of her past year, which had its fill of uncertainties, upheavals, and tensions between fellow nuns. I have wondered since why I failed to ask what the spiritual director had replied. Did he say, “Oh, in that case we ought to start with your year.” Or did he suggest they go straight on to her prayer life? In the religious life, did you make an effort to keep the two separate?
We reached the top of the hill in time for the sunset. I blurted out rather aggressively, “How can you be so sure God loves you?”
“Well, you can’t, Gail. Not until you love yourself.”
This did not console me. And still does not. And what about all those other souls who can’t love themselves either?
I can hear her reply though she’s been gone 16 years.
Oh, God loves them all the same. It’s just that THEY cant be sure they are loved.
Do I pray?
Yes, every morning, but not the way I used to. The new praying began the morning after the 2016 presidential election. I turned off “Morning Joe” and Chris Cuomo around 7:15, and felt drawn to a guest room with a high bed. I had bought the bed because I was nostalgic for my grandmother’s high bed. But when it was delivered, I realized I had shrunken in height and was going to need a stepping stool. On November 9, I lay face down across the bed, in a horizontal position, so my head looked out the window at a bare Japanese maple and my feet hung over the other side.
I was truly wordless. Not even my emergency “Help, help,” would serve. Soon the cats followed me and arranged themselves neatly on either side of me. We just lay and let the silence have its way with us. We have followed this “morning prayer” routine ever since.
I have prayed in pews and pretended to pray in pews, I have prayed lying flat on my back inside an MRI cylinder, I have prayed while doing my ten minutes on the treadmill which is the most boring activity on earth. These days I am keeping my mouth shut and letting the silence have its way with me.
Characters in novels I have written occasionally say helpful things. Margaret, the young seminarian in Evensong writes to her beloved Adrian about the horrible things she is seeing during her Clinical Pastoral training at St. Luke’s Hospital. “Where is God in all this?” She demands angrily. He answers that our job may be to keep asking that question, asking it faithfully, over and over, whatever ghastly thing is happening, until God begins to reveal himself through the ways we are changed by the answering silence.
The witch’s hat
While writing this, I remembered the beautiful cloaks of the nuns at St.Genevieve’s. After Vatican II, what happened to those well-tailored wardrobes? (“Oh, look at that hem-stitching! Feel the quality of that wool.”) Are various garments still to be found hanging in costume shops? And of course the nuns could never dress so well again, because their small allowances wouldn’t allow for well-made store-bought clothes. On several occasions I went with Sister Winters to look for a handbag, or shoes, or a dress. And the dresses did not have the deep pockets of habits–or sometimes any pockets at all. Then I started thinking of the nuns who guarded our recreation hour. You could see the rosaries circling inexorably beneath their sleeves. I do not remember any child getting hurt on the playground, which was a miracle, considering we had one of those “witch’s hat” merry-go-rounds. The name came from the pointy piece on top. I found one when Googling “twentieth century playground equipment.” Witches Hats were banned from children’s playgrounds in the early nineteen sixties. I have made a so-so representation of this fearsome construction in my drawing. But you can’t hear the clangs of metal hitting metal, the wild shrieks of the girls who climbed aboard. (Not me.) That standing blonde amazon in the center was a physically intrepid girl named Julia Smith. She would jump on, or over, or into, anything. Julia, are you still out there?