Get online on August 9!
So ran the slogan for the 2016 Australian census, which – for the first time ever – could be submitted online. We’d been assured it was unhackable, which inevitably turned out to be more or less the same as unsinkable. I got online on August 9 and found the website down, bombarded by so many millions of fake logins that the Australian Bureau of Statistics had hit the panic button and closed it down.
In filling out all the census questions a couple of days after the original deadline, I was reminded suddenly of the last time someone attempted to include me in a survey of this kind, which also didn’t work out as planned. Three-and-a-bit years ago, a letter from my former university arrived in the convent mailbox containing a Graduate Careers questionnaire for all alumnae. I dutifully filled it out:
What is your current occupation?
What are the primary responsibilities of this role?
Prayer, penance, and the witness of a holy life.
How many hours per week do you spend performing this role?
Ideally, every waking minute.
What is your current annual income?
What is your anticipated annual income in five years’ time?
What is your level of seniority within the organization?
What is your next anticipated career development?
Novice, about eight months from now.
What is the level of seniority of this position within the organization?
At what age do you expect to retire from the workforce?
Sadly, although it gave the sisters a laugh at recreation, I didn’t end up mailing back the answers above; partly because I genuinely didn’t want to skew the results of their survey, and partly out of a sense that a religious vocation is not something that can be broken down into a tidy set of numbers as they would have to attempt to do. (Imagine an accountant trying to classify “a hundredfold in the life to come” as your superannuation, and you’ll see what I mean.) Had I still been in the convent this year, I assume my superior would have entered me on the census as an employee in a religious non-profit/charitable organization or some other odd contortion of language like that, because the census isn’t equipped to handle “spouse of Christ” any more than the census that brought Saint Joseph to Bethlehem two thousand and six Decembers ago had a category for “carpenter/foster-father of the Messiah” (#censusfailcaesaraugustus).
A census is a practical, quantitative tool, not a qualitative one: if I check “Catholic” in the religion category, a computer somewhere far away will go click and add one Catholic to its demographic information, and that’s the whole bewildering tapestry of my religious experience to date statistically done and dusted. It’s rather like the limitations of the Google Analytics data that I, with my Blog Mistress hat on, use to measure traffic through the Leonie’s Longing website. I might be delighted to see a spike on the graph showing that over a hundred people viewed a particular article, but that spike doesn’t tell me the most important thing of all: what that article meant to the real people who read it. My own cheerful postulant answers to the university survey were contrariwise all true, but contained not a single piece of information that they could use because everything that mattered was inside my soul and therefore unquantifiable. And although I’ve finally submitted my census, and hope that the government will be able to use the information I provided to help get an idea of the demographics of Australia in 2016, the act of filling my life out on a form is a reminder that although a human can be represented in numbers, the numbers will always fall short of the image and likeness of God.
A classic parlour game, with a Leonie’s Longing twist! Answers below.
a) My parents refused me permission to enter the convent because they could not give me a dowry. Several religious communities rejected my application to enter because I was poor and had little formal education.
b) I made three attempts to enter the religious life in active communities of sisters, none successful. Finally, I accepted my spiritual director’s advice to enter the Capuchin Poor Clares, a community to which I felt no attraction at all.
c) I entered the Sisters of Mercy in my early twenties, but my health collapsed and I returned home after eighteen months of religious life. I was unwell for nearly two years afterward. During this time of illness I began to feel called found my own religious community, but my spiritual director told me that this idea was a deception to be rejected.
d) As a young woman with poor health, I applied to the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and was turned away. My sister was accepted by the Visitandines. I decided that, if I could not be a religious sister, I would raise a large family and dedicate my children to the Lord.
e) When I applied to the Passionists, the superior sent back a letter saying, “We will not have the convent contaminated by her.”
f) All of my sisters became nuns. My own first attempt at living the religious life lasted eight weeks; I made two more unsuccessful tries before persevering.
g) After years of struggling to keep up academically in my studies for the priesthood, I was dismissed from the seminary. I was re-admitted, and failed my examinations again. It took me eleven years to complete my studies and become a diocesan priest.
h) At the age of twenty-two, I applied to the Augustinian Canons of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice in the Swiss Alps, famous for rescuing pilgrims lost in the snow or endangered by the treacherous conditions. However, in order to be accepted I was ordered to learn Latin, a language which I found impossible; finally, I admitted defeat and accepted, to my great disappointment, that I did not truly have a religious vocation.
i) My spiritual director told me to put the idea of a religious vocation out of my head; I was poorly educated, and considered slow-witted. A few days later, however, he came back and asked me whether I really did believe that Jesus was calling me to religious life. When I said that I did, he asked me whether I could at least peel potatoes. Yes, I said, I can peel potatoes. So he told me to go to the convent to peel the potatoes, and I did!
j) I was enclosed in a church as an anchoress, and was resolved to stay there forever. There was fierce opposition when God called me out of my anchorhold to reform the Poor Clares; it was considered a betrayal of my vocation.
k) I applied to enter the Franciscans and was initially accepted, but later turned away after I confessed the details of my past life to one of the friars. I was devastated, and broke down in tears during my next Confession.
l) I was accepted as a novice by the Third Order Dominicans, and I made my first vows in the community; however, I found out that my true vocation lay in the cloistered life, and I left the Dominicans to become a Carmelite.
m) I was rejected by seven monasteries before I realised I was not called to religious life.
n) As a young seminarian, I felt a deep attraction to the life of a Carmelite friar, but my bishop told me to finish what I started, and would not permit me to transfer to the monastery. I finished my studies and became a diocesan priest instead.
And the answers…
a) Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, mystic and Secretary of the Divine Mercy, canonized April 30th, 2000.
b) Servant of God Sister Consolata Betrone, mystic and victim soul.
c) Venerable Mary Potter, foundress of the Little Company of Mary.
d) Saint Zelie Martin, mother of Saint Therese of Lisieux.
e) Saint Gemma Galgani, mystic and victim soul, canonized May 2nd, 1940.
f) Servant of God Sister Francoise Therese (Leonie) Martin, sister of Saint Therese of Lisieux.
g) Saint John Marie Vianney, Patron Saint of priests, canonised 1925.
h) Saint Louis Martin, father of Saint Therese of Lisieux.
i) Saint Maria Bertrilla Boscardin, Dorothean Sister and nurse during the First World War, canonised June 8th, 1952.
j) Saint Colette of Corbie, foundress of the reformed branch of Poor Clares which bears her name, Colettine.
k) Father Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, priest and spiritual writer.
l) Blessed Elia of Saint Clement, spiritual writer.
m) Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the pilgrim Saint, French mendicant and Franciscan tertiary, canonised December 8th, 1881.
n) Pope Saint John Paul II, canonised April 27th (Divine Mercy Sunday), 2014. Yes, really!
Can you add any others?
Just in time for International Women’s Day, Cinnamon turns on the snark.
After giving it some thought, I have concluded that the Catholic Church is irredeemably sexist and oppressive. I will have to strike out on my own and found one that doesn’t treat women as second-class citizens.
Seriously, the Catholic Church has a patron saint of housewives (the docile little Saint Martha)
but I challenge you to find a Catholic woman who ever led an army
or turned one back in its tracks
or faced down a lion like a boss.
All through the ages, women have been forced to submit blindly to the pope
to the bishops
and even to their own brothers!
In my church, however, women will be valued for more than their virginity
or their beauty
or their physical fragility and dependence on men for protection.
The heroines of my church will be scientists
No longer will we take as our inspiration the passivity of the Virgin Mary.
We will find a role model who can empathize with us in our sufferings.
I want to belong to a Church that respects and values women
and treats them as the equals of men.
Image credits: the image of Blessed Margaret of Castello is used under Creative Commons License, CC BY S-A 4.0. The owner is Judgefloro.
The photograph of Saint Gianna Molla is also used under Creative Commons License, CC BY S-A 4.0. The owner is Jose Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro.
Last week, a Catholic friend was telling me about her parish priest. “He’s a very holy man,” she said, and added, “He’s really on the same wavelength as Pope Francis.”
To which I immediately replied, “I don’t think anyone’s on Pope Francis’ wavelength: I think he’s found one all his own.”
She thought for a second, then nodded agreement.
Pope Francis has a unique ability, wherever he goes, to make everyone – atheists and evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, traditional and fallen-away Catholics – sit back, tilt their heads to the side, and ask in unison, “What actually just happened?” It strikes me that this is probably not unlike the effect that a certain friar, not coincidentally also named Francis, would have stirred up around Umbria in the early 1200s. This rich merchant’s son began his religious life by stripping naked and abandoning all his worldly clothes in a heap in the town square, racing off to rebuild a crumbling church, and gaily inviting the whole world to come and join him. And thus comes a familiar chorus across the centuries:Â What on earth is Francis going to do next?
At first, it can seem paradoxical that deep, sincere humility and alarmingly unprecedented actions undertaken on one’s own authority can co-existÂ within the same person. At eight hundred years’ remove, however, we can see clearly that the humility of Saint Francis, the little poor man of Assisi, was the source of his openness to the Holy Spirit; he could hear the tiniest breath of grace and hare off after it without hesitation while everyone else tagged along behind him scratching their heads. Of course, mistakes can be made with this approach (Father Benedict Groeschel comments that St Francis’ greatest error was to allow indiscriminate entry to anyone who wanted to join his Order, with the result that by the time he died there were many in it who didn’t share his vision and oughtn’t to have been there) and confusion can be sown by off-the-cuff remarks (“Who am I to judge?”), but great good also comes from that openness.
Soon, we’ll leave the Year of Consecrated Life and enter the Year of Mercy – a year of reaching out to other Christians, ex-Christians, and non-Christians alike, to share with them the joy of the Gospel of Christ. Saint Francis, one of the greatest missionaries of true, unadulterated joy that the Church has ever known, would approve.
Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us!
You love them, and they love you, but sometimes they just don’t get it. If you have ever heard your friends and family come out with the following lines, we’re pleased to announce that you can now nominate them for these well-known gameshows, specially re-worked for EWTN:
The line: “You’re running away to the convent.”
The show: Shark Tank.
How it works: Contestants go through several days of intense psychological testing, and then write a comprehensive and brutally honest autobiography. Next, they “pitch” the results to a panel of five Superiors from different religious communities, and try to persuade at least one of these Superiors to accept them for candidacy. Abject pleading is permitted as a last resort, but not encouraged.
The line: “Nuns live such an idle life. All they do is pray all day. You could do so much more good out in the world.”
The show: Survivor.
How it works: No exotic desert locale – just a monastery. Any monastery. But for the sake of good television, let’s make it a Trappistine monastery during harvesting season, or maybe a Carmelite monastery that’s running behind with its orders for altar bread. In any case, there will of course be elimination challenges (“Today is the first-class feast of a bishop of the Order, who was also a martyr. Your breviary has six ribbons. Good luck.”)… and watch out, because Lent is coming!
Those who make it to the end of the first year do not win a cash prize – instead, they are given the holy habit, and another year of even harder work. Anyone who is still around by the end of novitiate will receive the million dollars.
Sadly, I didn’t make up this slogan. Some pilgrims at WYD 2008 had it on their shirts.The line: “It must be so easy never to have to wonder where your next meal is coming from.”
The show: Iron Chef.
How it works: Finances are a bit tight at the moment, but fortunately, a benefactor has donated a load of produce from his farm. Therefore, for every lunch and dinner over the next week, you must prepare a unique and tasty meal with the featured ingredient:
You lose points every time someone flinches at the sight of yet another plate full of it.
The line: “It’s such a waste of your intellect.”
The show: The Weakest Link.
How it works: Simple.
What is a vow?
Contestant 1: A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good, which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2102.)
When and where did Saint Benedict found his first monastery?
Contestant 2: Um… Prouille… in… 1170?
Remembering that this is a light-hearted exercise, can you think of any others?
There was a custom in the community for the nuns, on their way to breakfast after Prime, to stop at the statue of Our Lady with the Holy Child in the long cloister, to say three Hail Mary’s there. Wimple the cat was impatient for her breakfast and she would walk among the kneeling figures, giving them small pushings with her head; one hand after another would come out, not to push her away but to stroke her. Wimple was perverse; she would come into the refectory through the ever-opening service door and walk through the room to the other, demanding to be let out. Unlike Grock’s, Wimple’s miaow was piercing and could, at dinner and supper, interrupt the reader so that Sister Xaviera who doted on Wimple would get up and let her out. In a moment or two, the little cat would walk back in at the service door again. (From In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden.)
On our Facebook page recently, we asked readers about their experiences with pets and other animals in religious life, and this is what they said:
- We had crazy squirrels in the Bronx! They would eat whole pizzas and bagels! And even sneaked into a sisters room and eat the peanuts out of her peanut m&m’s from her Christmas candy stash!
- We had a stray cat that hung around the Novitiate wing for a little while… loved one of the postulants so much that she earned the title “Cat Whisperer…”
- Our novitiate was by a petting zoo. We would say our rosary walking around out there. The goats were always distracting. One day an alpaca got loose and after the rosary, two sisters tried to get hold of him. It was so funny!
- We had a bird flying around the house one morning and we finally caught him with a butterfly net and a tennis racket in the refectory! It took about twenty minutes!
- The turkeys were a regular topic of conversation. My best memory was Sr. MT chasing them with a broom and slipping on the dew covered grass down the hill. (They were getting aggressive and needed to be put in their proper place.)
I’d like to add that my own nemeses in keeping custody of the eyes were the skinks that would sun themselves on the window frames outside the chapel every morning. During the first week of Lent, I got busted: the Prioress gave us a sheet of paper on which to keep a diary of our meditation topics, and I had to ‘fess up and ask her, “Is there enough space to write, ‘Started meditating on Soul of My Saviour, and ended up watching lizards climbing the wall outside”? (At least I tried to keep in mind Saint Teresa of Avila’s image of the soul as a little lizard basking in the light of God. That’s kind of on topic, right?)
I recently read a charming article from The Ark (A Publication of Catholic Concern for Animals) about the pets kept in monasteries of nuns during the Middle Ages.
The Ancren Riwle, or Nun’s Rule, was the English rule for nuns written in about 1300. At first it was a rule for hermits but was soon revised to apply to all nuns. It is quite a strict and rigid rule but in part 8, “On Domestic Matters” we read: “You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat.”
Creative Commons Licence. Owner: whatisthatpicture
Cue all sorts of trouble as the nuns smuggled rabbits, dogs and birds into the monastery and even into the choir – like Chaucer’s Prioress, who kept a number of “smale hounds” which she fed with “rosted flesh, or milk and wastel bread.” Apparently, bishops conducting visitations would eject these non-regulation critters from the monastery, and then depart, after which the nuns – of course – whistled their pets in again. (What the bishops would have made of the free-range turtles that wander the grounds at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington is anyone’s guess.)
As the monks of the New Skete (Orthodox) explain with beautiful simplicity, “For many of us, love for creation deepens through the relationships we form with our pets, particularly our dogs. By their very nature and need, dogs draw us out of ourselves: they root us in nature, making us more conscious of the mystery of God inherent in all things. We cannot but delight in recognizing God’s mystery in the length and breadth of our daily life.”
Today, let’s give thanks for the creatures that added laughter and companionship to our time in the convent!