Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Letter Filled with Concern




Last week I shared with you the gift of a cache of letters and documents—eight in all—that I recently discovered in my safety deposit box. Among the documents was the “Permission for Exclaustration,” which you read last week.
Several of you who left comments noted how formal it sounded and that’s true. It was in a sense a legal document that permitted me to leave the convent for a year. I’d professed a vowed commitment to that convent on January 1963 and so this document was a formal recognition of that and a permission to leave the Mount for a year and live beyond the convent itself.
 The vow I’d taken—along with poverty, chastity, obedience, and conversion of morals—was one of “stability.” That is, I would be a part of that Community of Benedictines for the rest of my life. I was walking away for a year and so I needed permission to depart the convent and leave the Community.
This week, I’m sharing with you the following letter that Mother Mary Austin wrote to me on December 23, 1966, the day I signed the above document. That was the day before I left the convent.

Late as it is, I cannot resist writing a brief note to you. In my own name and that of the Community, I wish to express my appreciation for the contribution you have made to our apostolic work.
Even though you are leaving us, please be assured that the Mount Benedictines are not breaking their bond with you. You will be included daily in our remembrance of the “absent brethren.”
Know too, Sister, that I have faith in you as a person. I believe that you are trying sincerely to bear witness to Christ in the way that seems best for you. Know also, Sister, that if after you have tried to live outside the convent and find that you would like to return, we will gladly welcome you back. In the interim we will always have a prayerful and loving remembrance of you.
I hope you will find the peace and happiness that you are seeking. God bless you through the coming year. Please remember me and the Community in your prayers.
With love in the Holy Child,
Mother Mary Austin OSB

I don’t remember Mother Mary Austin giving me this letter. My memory of her attitude has always been that she was deeply annoyed with me. And she was annoyed on the evening of December 5 when I’d sought her out and said I needed to leave. But it’s clear from this letter that her annoyance was only momentary and perhaps she felt it only because she was powerless to give me peace from my torments. It was only in myself that I could find the happiness I sought.
I had become, in today’s parlance, somewhat of a zombie. I taught my high school religion and English lit classes enthusiastically. I participated devoutly in the monastic prayer of Benedictines. I listened intently to the students asking for advice.
I did all that was asked of me and yet I felt nothing. I was simply acting the role. It was a performance. I had lost between ten and fifteen pounds; I had no appetite; and I wasn’t sleeping. Truly I walked as the living dead from Thanksgiving on.
So I suspect now that I gave only a cursory glance at the document I signed on December 23 and at this letter from Mother Mary Austin. I’m not sure why I kept them or the other six documents I’ll share with you. I was acting on “autopilot” for many months after leaving and somehow these letters and documents must have held meaning for me even though I never again read them.
Note that at the end of her letter, Mother Mary Austin—of the Order of Saint Benedict (OSB)—asked me to remember her and the Community in my prayers. The truth is that rather quickly I ceased attending Sunday Mass and seldom prayed. I felt I was drowning in despair. I suppose my only prayer was “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord. Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Psalm 130)
I did sorely miss the many friends I’d made in the convent—women who laughed a lot and showed compassion toward all and cared with deep concern about our world. Many of them are dead now, but I’m still in touch with several nuns who became dear to me during those convent years.
I think the truth may be that I was in such anguish for many months after leaving that I drew in on myself—except for when I had to put on a performance of normality at work and with the new friends I’d made at the Loretta Guild for Working Women.


I tell you now that I figuratively died during that time. I existed merely as a puppet, although I don’t know whose hand animated me. Many years passed before—like Pinocchio the marionette—the current of life pulsed within me.


I always think of that when I read newspaper stories about the Magicicada cicadas of eastern North America. They spend most of their life underground. Then after thirteen or seventeen years the mature cicadas emerge and live for several weeks, singing their unique song.
I, too, finally emerged from the dark loam of uncertainty. I left the convent in 1966 between my 30th and 31st year. But I think I did not truly live as a whole person until 1976 when I met Doctor Nimlos, who literally saved my life.
For everything there is a season. Peace.

PS: These past two weeks have not been—for me—the season for blogging. I’ve had two bouts of pink eye, a cold, and a sinus infection. I’m hoping that by next Monday I’ll be back to my routines. Peace.

Photographs from Wikipedia.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Cache of Letters Reveals Faulty Memory



The Mount College Chapel

These past two weeks have been busy with me going hither and yon for health and recreation. Thus, I didn’t post last Thursday and this week I haven’t visited any of your blogs. I hope to do a “blog marathon” this weekend and catch up.
Now to today’s posting.
         The past two weeks revealed to me that my memory is sometimes—maybe often—faulty. In the last few postings, I’ve given you certain seasons and years when I corresponded with the convent and with Rome. But I’ve discovered that time frame was inaccurate.
Here’s how the discovery was made: While sorting the contents of my safety deposit box, I discovered letters from the papal prelate and Mother Mary Austin concerning my being released from my vows. That’s when I learned that I’d given you an incorrect time frame. The letters also revealed just how kind both the prelate and the prioress were and how much they wanted nothing but surety and peace of mind for me.
In this posting and perhaps one or two more, I’d like to share that cache of letters with you. I don’t have the ones I wrote because those are probably in the Mount archives, but you will see from the concerns expressed by Mother Mary Austin and the prelate that I was indeed confused and torn by the decision I was making.


The interior of the Mount College Chapel.

The first sharing I'll do from that cache is not a letter but a document called “Permission for Exclaustration,” which simply means “permission to leave the convent.”

Sister M. Innocence (Dolores) Ready, O.S.B., of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kansas, by letter of December 5, 1966, has, for a just cause, requested permission to live outside the religious community for a year.
By reason of the authority granted to Major Superiors by the Hold See through #4 of the Decree to Lay Religious Institutes, I am, with the consent of my Council, granting you permission to be absent from the Religious House for not more than a year.
You will be expected to put off the religious habit when you leave, and when you have established yourself in some location will notify the Ordinary of the place of your state as an excloistered religious and will be subject to him in obedience.
Although an adequate sum is given by the Community to cover your immediate needs, you will be expected to seek suitable employment and thus to maintain yourself throughout the year.
May God be pleased to show you His will and to grant you peace.
Approved by the Council of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kansas, this 20th day of December, 1966.

Mother Mary Austin, the prioress, signed the document on the 20th. Three days later I went to her office to read and sign it. Below her name came the following:
 “On this date, December 23, 1966, I accept the permission for exclaustration for one year as indicated above.”
As I signed the document, two nuns witnessed my signature.
In my posting of October 30, I indicated that I saw—for the first time—the “Ordinary,” that is, the Cincinnati bishop, nearly a year and a half later—in 1968. But it’s clear from this letter that I was supposed to notify him of my presence in the Ohio diocese when I moved to Dayton in January 1967. I didn’t do so.
Did I forget? Was I just being obstreperous? I don’t know. I can’t remember. But it’s interesting to me that I began my year’s leave with disobedience. Why? Because of the five vows I made in the convent it was the vow of obedience that caused me to stumble again and again. I was not always able to bend my will to the vision of a superior.
Next week I’ll share another letter or two or three with you.
Peace.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Showdown at the O.K. Corral



A panoramic view of Cincinnati.

Last Thursday’s posting related how in the fall of 1967, nearly a year after I moved to Dayton on a leave of absence from the convent, I sent a letter to Rome asking to be released from my final—solemn—vows. The Roman prelate refused my request because of its vacillation. Then, in the spring of 1968, the archbishop of Cincinnati set up a meeting for the following Saturday morning.
A friend picked me up in his Volkswagen beetle. George had studied for the priesthood, but had left before ordination. So he and I shared a mutual interest in the religious life as well as the arts. Our conversation never lagged as he drove the fifty miles from Dayton to the larger city.  


The cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in downtown Cincinnati.

After entering the downtown area of Cincinnati and passing the cathedral, which occupied the corner of 8th and Plum, we came to the chancery. George waited in the car as I went inside. Upon entering the bishop’s office, I kissed his ring and then, at his request, sat on the sofa while he stood in front of his desk. I do not remember the exact words exchanged between us. Thus, the dialogue that follows gives you only the gist of our conversation.
To begin he asked, “How did you get here today? By bus?”
“A friend brought me.”
“Male or female.”
“Male.”
“You’re dating?”
“I have but I’m not dating now.”
“What about your vow of chastity?”
That startled me. This will be hard to believe, but in the fifteen months I’d been out of the convent on a leave of absence I hadn’t once thought about my vows and about the fact that I hadn’t been released from them. Even when I wrote the letter asking to be released from my vows it didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to be living them. And yet that’s what a leave of absence was: I was away from the convent, but I hadn’t left my vows behind.
I spent a moment berating myself: How could I have been so dense? But then my common sense took hold and I said, “How can I decide if I want to return to the convent if I don’t date and enjoy a normal life outside?”
“You don’t need to date to lead a normal life. Stop dating until you’ve been released from your vows.”
He continued his interrogation. “Do you have a job?”
“I worked for Pflaum Publishing for a year and now I’m teaching religion at Julianne Academy.” (Julianne was a Catholic high school for girls in Dayton.)
“So why haven’t we received your paychecks all this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your paychecks should be sent here to the chancery.”
“Why?” I asked. “I need money for clothes. Rent. Utilities. Transportation around Dayton. All kinds of things.”
“I remind you again—you are under vows. You made a vow of poverty. Have Julianne send your paychecks here and we will give you a stipend to live on.”
Something within me rebelled. Abruptly I rose from the sofa and moved a step closer. “No. I’m saving for grad school. I will not ask Julianne to send you my checks.”
“You will. You’ve broken your vows of chastity and poverty already. And now you’re refusing to follow my orders. This is a serious breach of your vow of obedience.”
I simply stared at him. What he said was true: I’d forgotten I was still under vows. Yet I’d done nothing wrong. In many ways I was still living both the vows of chastity and poverty because deep down I had long ago, even before entering the convent, found contentment in living simply. Once again, however, the vow of obedience was proving difficult. 


Cassock worn by Roman Catholic bishops.

When I didn’t respond to his command, the bishop pointed his right index finger at the floor in front of where he stood and said, “Kneel. I want you to recommit to your vows. Your checks will come here. You will do no more dating or driving in cars with men. You will obey my dictates. And you will come back here every month and report to me.”
I didn’t move. I could feel myself crossing the Rubicon.
“Kneel!” he said, his voice rising.
I picked up my purse and walked toward the door.
“Come back here and kneel down,” he commanded.
I turned toward him and said, “I’m never coming here again. And if you have trouble with that then get in touch with the prelate for Benedictine convents in Rome and denounce me. Maybe then I’ll be released from my vows.”
With those parting words, I left the chancery. George drove me back to my apartment in Dayton. I cried; he sympathized. I never again heard from the bishop. But it took two more years to finalize my decision. That’s next week’s post.


A 1966 Volkswagen Beetle.

Photographs from Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Need to Be Resolute




Dayton, Ohio

In January 1967 I moved to Dayton. Two and a half years later—in August 1969—I left Ohio to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. During those thirty-two months, I mostly enjoyed life: I made many new friends and was “adopted” by a young couple who had two children with whom I played lightheartedly.
I also dated, learned how to manage money, took a literature course at the University of Dayton, explored my emotional immaturity with an astute psychiatrist, flew home to visit my parents, lived through the death of my mother, worked at Pflaum Publishing Company, taught at two schools, attended concerts and musicals, became a frequent visitor at the local library, shopped for clothes, reveled in movies, and moved several times.
My life seemed full and rich. However, there was also the difficulty of becoming fully released from my final vows.
Last week I explained why I’d taken only a year’s leave of absence from the convent. During that time, I hoped to discover why the religious life overwhelmed me emotionally and why I found the vow of obedience so oppressive.
To my way of thinking, I’d been a total failure as a nun. All those other women with whom I’d lived for eight and a half years were able to remain faithful to their vows. They seemed content with their lives. What was wrong with me?
And yet, deep down in my psyche was the thought—one I didn’t want to embrace then or even now—that something was amiss in the convent. That it failed to help people like myself, who’d entered immature, to grow emotionally and spiritually. And yet. And yet. All those other nuns seemed fine. So I was the ugly duckling.
Throughout 1967, I became aware that I’d felt stifled in the convent. That I was unwilling—deep down—to suppress my need to be independent and to follow my own will as to what was good for me.
In early autumn of that year, the prioress contacted me, asking what I’d decided: Did I want to return or be released from my vows?
I wrote to say I wanted to stay “in the world.” She then explained that I needed to write a letter asking for permission to be released from final vows. She would forward the letter to the Roman prelate who oversaw this process at the Vatican.
Writing that letter proved difficult. I was still confused. I felt hamstrung when living the monastic life. Yet, the idea of monasticism continued to appeal deeply to my romantic and idealistic nature. The letter I wrote revealed a conflicted person.
The prelate’s reply came via the prioress. Concerned, he thought I needed more surety in my life before walking steadfastly away from monasticism. And so I was given another year’s leave of absence to think through what I really wanted to do. During that year I was to report to the archbishop of the Cincinnati archdiocese, which took in the western and southwest corner of Ohio and included both the Cincinnati and the Dayton metropolitan area. 
My independent streak rebelled. “I don’t need to see the archbishop. I just need to write a more resolute letter next October,” I thought, putting off the Cincinnati visit. Then, in the spring of 1968, I received notification from the archbishop’s office: I was to report there on the following Saturday morning.
That meeting, my friends, did not go well.
Peace.

Dayton panorama from Wikipedia.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Seesawing in the Convent



St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

When last I posted a story from my life in Dayton back in the late ‘60s, I shared with you several perceptive comments that Dr. C., a psychiatrist, said to me as he discerned the patterns of my life. During that time I also tried to officially leave the convent.
When I’d asked to leave in early December of 1966, the Mother Superior thought that my taking a leave of absence rather than being released from my vows would be best for me. I can’t remember exactly how she proposed this, but she must have been thinking that I often acted impulsively and that I’d changed my mind more than once about leaving.
In June of 1965, after teaching high school students in Baileyville, Kansas, for a year, I’d arrived home at the Mount and immediately asked to leave the convent. The Prioress called and asked my mom to come and persuade me otherwise. Mom came, talked about how she’d stayed married to Dad despite his drinking, and said, “Dolores, when you put your hand to the plow, you never look back.” I stayed.


But a year later, in June of 1966, after teaching another nine months in Baileyville, I’d once again entered the Prioress’ office, knelt down, and asked to leave. My second request startled her even more than the first. After all, only a handful of professed nuns had left the convent in its previous one hundred years and so my persistence was historically atypical.
Vatican Two, an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, had taken place in Rome between October 1962 and December 1965. Pope John XXIII had encouraged the prelates to open up the Church to renewal. I knew little about the council, nor what this renewal implied. Nor did I know any professed nuns who’d left the convent. To leave after making final vows just wasn’t done at that time.
But I had become so desperate that leaving seemed my only recourse. I can’t remember how or when that drastic option—actually leaving the convent—occurred to me. I can’t stress enough how in December 1966 that was a radical idea. A year later leaving became more widespread.
I attribute my decision to that deep down survival instinct in me. It was leave or endure a breakdown. At the time, nuns who suffered from extreme mental illness were sent to a hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa. My fear was that I’d be sent there and would spend the rest of my life sitting by a window, facing the sun’s warmth, totally incoherent.
The Prioress suggested that I take part in the convent’s June retreat and then make my decision. I did this, and sure enough, because at heart I love the idea of monasticism, I went into her office afterward and said, in my usual dramatic and grandiose way, “I’m staying. And if I ever again ask to leave, remind me of this. I’m committed to staying.”


St. John’s Abbey Church at Saint John’s University in Collegeville

Within a day or two, I traveled to Collegeville, Minnesota, where I had been pursuing for two previous summers a graduate degree in Benedictine Spirituality. When I returned to the Mount in August 1969, I began teaching religion and English literature in the Mount Academy attached to the convent.
But summer school had only bandaged the woundedness of my spirit. Once again, it began to fester. Once again I seemed to shatter into shards of myself. And so late one evening in early December 1966 I walked down the shadowed halls, entered the Prioress’ office, and asked to leave.
Next week I’ll explain a leave of absence and how that worked out in the two and a half years I lived in Dayton. Peace.

Postscript: This past Monday I completed the first rough draft of my convent memoir. I’m putting it aside for several weeks. Then I’ll read it to discover exactly what I’ve written. Editing and polishing will follow, through probably two or so more drafts, until I have a final manuscript. I’m feeling a real sense of accomplishment.

Photographs from Wikipedia.