Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Chilling With the Sisters on a Saturday Night

A continuation of last week’s post on my visit to the St Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas…….

I don’t have any pictures to show today. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by taking pictures of people. It didn’t seem very spiritual.

I arranged to stay the night after the retreat since I had a long drive home. There was only one other person who was staying the night, a young woman named Cari Kaufman. I was settling in for the night when I had a knock on my door. Cari said the sisters were about to start watching a video and did I want to join them? I was feeling mellow and could have stayed in my room and gone to bed early but I thought to myself, how many times will I ever get invited by a bunch of nuns to watch a movie with them in their private quarters?

And it was so much more than just a movie. I had a tour of the sister’s personal space in ways I never expected.

I had read just enough of the Rules of Benedict to know that hospitality is a big deal to them. So, in a way, they invited us because they were supposed to and I really wasn’t surprised at the invitation. But they also made me feel like they were very excited to share what they had with me. The sisters are innocent in small ways that tell you they’ve probably never had a pedicure at the mall. And how many women do I know who have never had a pedicure?

We stopped by Macrina’s room since neither Cari nor I knew where the nun’s housing was. I found out the room on the third floor by my own room, what I thought was Macrina’s bedroom (since it had a name plate with “Macrina Wierdekehr, OSB”), was actually an office. She had a desk and a whole array of electronics indicating she is plugged in and as modern as anyone.

Scotch-taped over her desk was a scrap of paper: “I aspire/ to inspire/ before I expire.”

She led us down the stairs and through more 12-foot wide halls and into the opposite section of the building. Cari was about as lost as I was; what made it so bad was the fact that everything in the building was the same. Each wing of each floor was identical: there was a large common area with inviting chairs, easy chairs, rockers and couches from an assortment of styles and times. I’m not sure if things were donated to them or they bought things sporadically. But, even though comfortable, nothing matched. Each area offered a tiny kitchen and communal bathroom. The sisters'  private rooms were the same size as the one I was spending the weekend in:  about 10 feet by 20 feet. The bathroom was identical to the one on our floor: A row of showers, a row of toilets and a row of sinks with mirrors. You could tell they were settled in because there were bottles of shampoo and tubes of toothpaste sitting out just like at home. The shower was going when we walked past.

Their common room was pretty much like the lounge on my floor: two couches and an assortment of chairs. A couple of bookcases. Their kitchen was maybe slightly larger than the one I have a picture in last week’s blog.

Sister Macrina got Cari and I settled on the couch then went off to do something. We already knew from spending the day with Macrina that she was one of those people who spends a lot of time darting hither and yon. We sat on one of the couches talking to one of the sisters. One by one, the sisters came in the common room to settle around the TV. Someone put in the movie video and turned the TV on then hit “pause.”

The monastery has a Netflix subscription and they love watching movies that are, as Macrina describes them, “a cut above Hollywood.” I took that to mean with a little more meat on their bones if not the culturally popular shows. This one was a biography of Dr Ben Carson, one of the pioneers in neurosurgery who was also black. It was a classic story of triumph over adversity.

I knew most of the sisters from seeing them at dinner and lunch. There was Magdalene who had welcomed me and took me all over the place when I first arrived. One sister looked like a thin version of myself. A couple of the sisters were in their PJs. The evening had a Slumber Party feel.

The sisters started settling in and fluttering around wondering where the pizza they’d ordered was. However, there was something different in the way they wondered aloud about the pizza, there was an air of innocence more than complaint. It was not so much “Where’s the damned pizza? We ordered it an hour ago,” like I would have asked. It was more of a concern that the delivery guy might have gotten lost or had car trouble. I heard a telephone ring and saw that they had something my section of the building lacked—a wall phone. The delivery guy was calling to ask which of the six front doors to the imposing compound he should go to. Something told me these ladies didn’t order pizza very often and that I hadn’t been the only one intimidated by the enormity of the place.

Once the pizza arrived they commenced to flutter about drinks. One sister casually asked if there was any beer. Another sister went to look for it and found a small one, a “pony” she called out. These chicks may not have ever had a pedicure but they knew their beer sizes.

Then they fluttered around with their seating to make sure everyone could see. Again, they arranged themselves with a manner radiating concern for each other’s welfare. Sister Macrina arrived but then they noticed another sister was missing. Trying to get all the sisters settled in was starting to look like assembling a bunch of schoolgirls. Waiting for her, they cued up the movie and were delighted to find they had option to have captions.

As they settled in, each one had a prayer shawl either around their shoulders or over their legs. The weather that night in northern Arkansas was cold and the inside of the building was always about two degrees below “refreshing.” The sisters just wrapped themselves in shawls. Shawls were everywhere that evening as we watched TV. I realized there were probably thousands of Catholic women all over the country knitting their little hearts out for these nuns. Shawls and canes seemed to be ubiquitous and interchangeable here. Taking a vow of poverty meant that nothing belonged to any one woman and things were always available to anyone who needed it. Ownership wasn’t part of their lifestyle. Yet they cared for everything they touched as though it had value beyond measure.

The movie wasn’t a Hollywood blockbuster. It was a forgettable biography made for TV. At one point in the show a child died and they all mourned the death like it was their own family. At another emotional point there were sniffles around the room. These women without children regarded every child as though it was their own.

The next morning I packed up and was on my way. I could tell my life had been changed in a small way that is hard to put into words.  Life looked softer somehow. I had time alone in a way I’d never had before. I would repeat the weekend in a heartbeat.

Next week: How I became an unofficial Muslim

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