Sterotypes exist, and they exist for reasons. Like everyone else, Catholics are prey to the reality of stereotyping, and even within that huge umbrella of Catholicism, there are stereotypes about different groups within the whole. It was ironic to me that the realization of that was delivered by a Poor Clare, a contemplative monastic, who challenged me to see the persons who lived behind the walls or wore the veils or crosses, who were anything but stagnant and submissive, reactionary and judgmental. There was a particular moment that exposed my own prejudices. This is that story.
They walked arm in arm, their simple brown dresses swaying with each step and their laughter drifting back to the car. Removing bags from the trunk, I was in awe of the ease of their presence and the ready depth of their conversation. They were two contemplative monastics, one from NYC and the other Chicago; their lives had radically different turns. It had been decades since their last visit. I was simply the driver who delivered a lifelong New Yorker to this quiet corner of Ohio. My passenger was a Poor Clare of NY, and she was visiting a Byzantine rite Poor Clare monastery. Seh had met Sr. Philothea years before at a meeting and friendship was nurtured through handwritten notes of limited frequency. Now they swung into a vibrant conversation comparing the past and preparing for the future. The tone was rich; readiness and optimism brimmed from every word and belied the many decades of their lives.
Over dinner, they opened trajectories of thought and questions that were fascinating. What if, for instance, there actually was no God? What would be the implications of that? What if this, here and now, is eternity? What would that mean? What if the past was really just a springboard for the future? What is lost with the death of a person, of a community, a country? How does history and charism matter? Or does it? How does God love us when we fail? Or are we failing God in making choices or are we instruments? What are we learning?
What was most telling was the absence of all fear in the way they played with ideas, quoted competing philosophies and theologians of all persuasions, drifted from Judeo-Christian tradition to Buddhism and HInduism and Confucianism. No holds barred. All thoughts welcome. They were defying the stereotypes of religious women, of monastics, of the elderly with calm and confident conversation. There was no stagnation of thought, no sanctimonious piety in their unearthing ideas for table talk. They covered it all: tumult and conflict are intrinsic to the human experience. They laced that part of that discussion with examples from their worlds and from history with honesty and only tinges of regret.
They laughed heartily at the idea that any group of persons, any institution, was free of misunderstandings, harmful hypocrisies, untamed anger and dangerous duplicity. To them, complex human emotions and psychological factors were at work in every interaction; that was to be expected, understood, challenged and dealt with. They were realistic, practical, ruggedly honest. This from women who lived in confined settings where prayer, private and communal, devoured eight hours of the day, and the simplicity of manual work several more. There was no confinement of intellect, no spirit chained. It was beyond the scope of my expectations. Theirs was an ultimate freedom: they were without fear of rival ideas, unthreatened by divergent views, and ultimately confident in the trust they placed in God (whoever and whatever that actually was).
Listening that night was an unexpected privilege, something I had never imagined. There was a vitality in their aging, a deep sense of gratitude for the lives they were still living, and a disarming respect for the human person, all persons and ideas. I had not imagined that religious women, much less contemplatives, could court controversy with conversation and confidence and courage. They shared a level of conviction about the mysteries of human life and the validity of each person’s experience, and it was inspiring. I was in awe of their strength as well as their faith, and I knew the humility of standing before giants.
The evening ended, predictably, with prayer and then a shared silence. Two old friends had shown me that there is always more to see in life than we imagine; it is always worth the time to linger there with another, to know the light that shines there, and to appreciate the richness of the gift. Life is to be lived. Fear and prejudice have no place in the home that is friendship, community and the Church.