Friday, June 22, 2012

Nun Sense

 “That’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway…”

“…They said they were schoolteachers and that they’d just come from Chicago and that they were going to start teaching at some convent on 168th Street or 186th Street or one of those streets way the hell uptown.  The one next to me, with the iron glasses, said she taught English and her friend taught history and American government.  Then I started wondering like a bastard what the one sitting next to me, that taught English, thought about, being a nun and all, when she read certain books for English.  Books not necessarily with a lot of sexy stuff in them, but books with lovers and all in them…”

“…Oh, Romeo and Juliet!  Lovely! Didn’t you just love it?” She certainly didn’t sound much like a nun…
                                                -Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

Even Holden got a good sense about nuns. I don’t think it was a coincidence that he met up with two travelling nuns after his encounter with Sunny the prostitute. He not only helps them with their cheap suitcase but also is surprised by their love of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Their self-sacrifice, their disregard for expensive things whether it be food or suitcases, and their embrace of the more human, intellectual and yet romantic side of life did not go unrecognized.   They weren’t “phonies” as Holden was always on the lookout for.  Many are the real thing.  And I think that we are finally realizing that today.

This “Nun sense” has been on my mind lately. I hate to prejudge a book by its cover but I have to say I am fascinated by Sister Margaret Farley’s recently publicized book “Just Love.”  Anything that the Vatican condemns is a must-read in my book even if it has taken them 6 years after publication to make that judgment. It took them nearly 400 years to reverse their denouncement of Galileo’s theories. 

My interest in Vatican-banned items stems from the Catholic newspaper “The Advocate” from the Newark Archdiocese  that my Aunt subscribed to when I was a kid.  I used to read it when at her house for Sunday dinner. I distinctly remember it had a column devoted to religiously objectionable media, which, of course, were the first books or movies you really wanted to see, even as a nine-year –old.

No one should have the right to tell anyone what to read, see or think.  

So I will be reading her book soon. It comes at a time when the midst of rampant pedophilic priest sexual abuse, the Catholic Church is trying to make itself relevant and decidedly far right by supporting Republican efforts to narrow abortion rights and women’s health issues. A surprisingly easy sell in today’s post women’s movement world and I fear for the worst.  It is unfortunately not 1974.

But there is hope. I am impressed with the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. They, like their evangelical counterparts, are defying the separation of church and state by protesting the mostly Republican policies affecting low-income families. They no longer want the “back of the bus” seats on government matters.  If the women’s movement had it’s peak wave in the 1970’s, the conservative movement  is a forceful undertow pulling our country back.  I applaud these progressive women who want to at least consider a seawall. I will jump on their bandwagon, er, I mean,  bus to protest recent political issues. I have joined their “Nuns on the Bus” Facebook page and sent a small donation.

You go girls. These were the type of nuns I respected in school. I had a mixed bag of sisters in my 13  (kindergarten + 12) years of Catholic school.  Some were the most patient, intellectually curious yet practical women I have ever met to this day. Yet some were just DSM IV’s waiting to be diagnosed. I remember every one of them (even you Sr. Eucharista) and even have reconnected to some through Alumni or fundraising events.  I still have a special place in my heart for a certain sister who taught me math throughout my high school years.  Her round jovial face and small wire framed glasses reminded me of Santa Claus and every class was Christmas. Her love of teaching all levels of Algebra, Geometry Trigonometry through Calculus was a true gift. She often started it with a circle on the board and the joke:  “You know people are crazy when they can draw a perfect circle.” It always followed with a her laugh which made most of us either wake up or just settle down to concentrate.   Her circles were never perfect but her warmth and inspiration for teaching girls math was.

These are the women who did humanity’s (God’s?) dirty work.   Whether it be running tough inner city schools where parents, like mine, wanted a more disciplined academic environment, running hospitals, ministering to death-row inmates or caring for the world’s untouchables, they performed in arenas hardly ever visited by gold frocked priests.

I am reminded of the scene from the movie “Doubt.”  Mealtimes at the convent versus the rectory were portrayed as very different affairs.  The Sisters had had orderly meal with grace and a sharing of ideas.  The priests, on the other hand, had meals that resembled a fraternity party with plenty of alcohol and cigars. It was easy to pick out the more disciplined of the bunch.

I can’t say that I am a practicing anything now.  I don’t think any particular faith holds all the answers to life’s big questions, but when impractical guidelines trump common sense, it’s time to question things very deeply. I think the sisters, at least the good ones, do not avoid these deep questions.

It’s funny after all these years, these ladies are still teaching me things.

Just like Holden.

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