; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Letter to a Prioress ;

Friday, January 12, 2018

Letter to a Prioress

Here is a letter I wrote to a long time nun friend. I have not written to her in some years. When I decided to write her again today, I looked her up to see where to send the letter, and found she was elected to lead her order last year. Congratulations are most certainly overdue on my part.

As always with posts of this kind, names and places are masked to avoid any potential embarrassment and I let a week go by so she will have received the letter.


My very dear Rev. Mother Prioress previously known as Sister___,

Well, still known as, but it’s an opportunity to open my missive, goodness me, I haven’t written in ever so long, can’t recall how long exactly, but you walked across a dream two nights ago. I woke up and thought wow, I should really write. Google’d the address to see where you are at these days, and the news articles, so many, I really must congratulate you on your recent election! Now today, six or seven months pass since your investiture. Long enough for the newness to wear off perhaps, but not long enough to completely lose the “get me out of here.” ?? Maybe?

Nah, of course not. I saw it in you, all those years ago. But how are you, my friend? Enjoying all the meetings…

As I said, I cannot recall exactly the last time I wrote, I do remember writing back during my days as an associate (postulant) in (___), from my room where the mice ran over me at night. I kept up writing a couple of years at least, Sister B. told me to “keep it up, try and phone etc.” so I did for a time. Then I got busy with my own bunch. I also wrote to Sister M. some years longer, I do still have some letters from her, and photos, as well as the sketch I drew of her. No doubt your archives have plenty of her materials but if you need more, I can always send over what I still have. I wrote to Fr. I. until his death as well.

And speaking of archives, I took so many of my college notes using the clean back sides of paper from the to-recycle bins in the liturgy office, the start of my career as a dumpster diver. Looking through them one day I noticed the used side of many pages are sheet music, with handwritten music parts by Sister T. and Sister D., descants, flute parts, depending upon the week and the musicians they could scrounge up for Sunday, so they wrote extra parts for whatever we happened to sing. I am sure these sisters have written many more in the thirty five years since. I wonder if the parts still end up in the recycle bin for some student to rescue.

My current biography is that I am---old, hair’s gone white. I left my order some years ago, finished a doctorate, and worked for some time in clinical mental health and case management, married/divorced, cellist husband moved to Communist China, son is twenty-seven and a bassoon player, I am mostly retired with a nice pension. I write a bit, have a tea blog of all things. Fermented puerh tea, long story. I might put this letter up, names removed of course, simply because my own tale is nearly impossible and I barely believe it. Really the truth is, we grow older much the same and there is just more of everything.

I don’t know how your bunch came through the Vatican inquiry stemming from the LCWR*, I followed the news with some interest. I knew that my group would get a tough scrutiny after our own president got elected to the (___) and then the signing of the petition for national healthcare, something I’m rather proud of, but I know the heat must have been intense. I still go back for community events on occasion. The last time I went I planned to ask how the whole process turned out. But I got there and did not need to ask, I could see immediately what had gone down. One cannot miss Franciscan priests in full habit at the motherhouse, (not just collar mind you ), they somewhat stick out. What I did miss, and you can tell Sister M. this, is the music is gone. All my sisters use now are the old hymnals from the 1940s. None of the beautiful pieces by Marty Haugen etc., no instrumentals, stuff we used to play, all gone. I don’t know if this is a directive or a kind of protest, “we will sing our own music” and that’s all, I see people who can play or direct liturgy but instead everything is stripped down. Hopefully nothing like this has come to pass at St.___’s, I hope Sister T. has liturgical freedom because there is mission in it more than ever.

My order hired a futures study in the late 1980s that projected the financial needs and retirements. The findings were presented at a community meeting for discussion. I remember that the futures projections showed the numbers of sisters and in the year 2027 only one member remained, and her death projected for 2037, ten years alone at that point. That was my data point, and it shook me to the core, over the next couple of years I got to where I could no longer stay. I could not face a holocaust of hundreds, but more than that obedience is impossible in a situation where they will be gone and yet are giving me certain directions for my life which includes no retirement while also not paying into the national Social Security.

It’s not the money and I wish today were only about the buildings but we have more than a century of non-stop, round the clock adoration, and that’s the painful part, what will happen to it. Are lay members enough, and will lay members continue to join when there are no longer sisters to partner with? I’m sure some of these questions are yours as well, and you have more strength with them, perhaps, and anyway you coped with the funerals better than I did, more strength than I would have on my own. Even through the newsletters I can feel the grief, worry and fury of the few contemporaries I had then, who still remain. I feel like your monastic tradition has bedrock to lean on and monastic vocations historically continue to trickle in, but I know this is also a kind of wishful thinking when facing the realities of today for orders formed nearly two centuries ago to teach and nurse immigrant communities.

In some ways, I wish religious life had a model for essentially what I got from it, to train other young women and give a foundation. College is not really the same, especially with all the drug and alcohol use these days, and back in my day too. I suppose if someone is seeking what religious life has to offer, even as a lay person, it’s all there for those who look even without needing to join. But hundreds of years ago, for young women and older women as I am now, religious life was an option for a time, not necessarily for all time. I wish it for so many women, I do not know now what I would be without it, well, I do know, either crazy or a drug addict, or both. Instead I am strong and mostly sane.

The year I left I took a job as a pastoral associate at a parish with extra building space, and a sister named D. had an office in this building to work on a diocesan project. Now I am sure her name is familiar, I thought of her when I read today that St.___ Priory was assumed a few years ago. That same year I signed my papers to leave, D. was in her exclaustration* year. She was one of the greatest gifts of friendship, we were both dealing with the same issues then, and we could talk and talk. I kept in touch with her until her death a few years back, used to call her once in awhile. What a dear lady, she talked as much as one could and still be monastic. I think we both saw a similar future, I wonder if she wanted and perhaps needed something like what the Madison priory is now, but twenty years before it came to fruition. I know she got to a fully ecumenical* place before the shame of such a view disappeared. Now it’s rather fashionable, D. was way ahead in her thinking. But I know she also had a huge self honesty as to what is incompatible with today’s reality, and how or where she departed from monasticism and took responsibility for her own stuff, as it were.

I remember reading when Father P. died in a car accident in 1999, he was cousin to my associate (postulant) director and visited our convent house once, the one where the mice ran over me in bed and where I wrote to you. He stayed with us after a trip to Australia, brought us a nice box of huge apricots coated in chocolate, never tasted the like since, they were as large as my hand. All the news of St.--- over the years pained me so much, shook me really, larger church issues too.

Okay I have to ask. Do you get those weird looks, are people treating you differently now? You walk down the halls and previously no one paid you much mind, maybe a nod etc. because you were one of the young ones, and now has anything changed? Because you did not get a mask or costume for the job, something you can wear and then pull the mask and go “Boo!” to remind them you are still you and not a hallowed idea. Well you are a hallowed idea.

I remember when my cousin was about to be elected and she served two terms as president, I had a difficult time with it. Mainly because I felt I was part of a circle of a number of the leaders, and it was not inappropriate and probably part of the training, but it was enough that others felt left out, and that made it a little wrong. An in-group, not bad but just a step in towards exclusion, the kind we cannot have and it destroys community in small ways because issues that were only conversation might become policy. I had differences in historical perspective too, because I wasn’t alive when Kennedy was shot, so I definitely felt the in-group keenly and someone warned me too, probably not soon enough.

My cousin left shortly after I did and moved to New Mexico. You probably remember my sister A., she lives in Milwaukee. She has traveled a great deal in her life as I figured she would. Her health is not the best, she has some immunity and thyroid stuff and remains fragile but still she sparkles.

Well now I am certain you have better things to do than continue to read a letter that goes on and on. My best to you and everyone at St.___, in my mind I can still sit in your chapel any time I wish to go there as a mental traveler, and I do, so if you see me, wave.



*LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious)

*exclaustration: a one-year of separation required for perpetually vowed nuns prior to leaving their order permanently.

*ecumenical: a view embracing commonalities among religions rather than differences.

1 comment:

  1. I learned a bit about you today. Thank you for sharing such an intimate letter.