Thursday, September 27, 2012

Little Workers, Little Italy

We ate vanilla ice cream. With drumstick cones, chocolate cake, whipped cream, oatmeal cookies and almond coffee cake on the side. You got to choose. But don’t let me get ahead of myself…that was just dessert.

Dinner looked something like this: sweet potatoes, salad, green beans, pork chops, bread, cheese and wine. Can’t forget the wine.

“In Italy, drinking wine is like breathing,” the Italian nun explained.

I knew I would like the Little Workers of the Sacred Heart before I even smelled, saw or savored their food, before they poured me a glass of Two Buck Chuck and before they pulled out dessert. I knew I would like them when they invited Chelsea and me over for evening prayer, complete with the Liturgy of the Hours I had come to love so much
at the Benedictine monastery.

“It’s about an hour,” Sr. Dede, the Mother Superior, said. “Go to the bathroom now if you have to.”

I found myself at this little convent, weekend clinic and daycare less than two blocks away from my house after work around 5 and didn’t leave with Chelsea until 8:30. The Little Workers confirmed my suspicions: I’m slightly obsessed with nuns. So much so that the other day, as I was getting off the metro, I spotted two habits bouncing along up ahead of me and power walked to reach them. My brilliant idea was to say “Hi Sisters!” coolly. I got right up to them…and chickened out. Awkward...

The Little Workers, however, are everything I imagine a nun to be: warm, easy to talk to, funny and holy. There’s Sister Pamela, a young nun who just arrived from Argentina. Sister Martha and Sister Licia, both beautifully ancient and from Italy. The postulant Mary Jo, finishing up her third year at the Catholic University nursing program. And Sister Dede, almost 6 feet, who is an ex-army surgeon from Virginia. While that sounds fascinating on its own, I’ll try to explain her this way: Sr. Dede likes wine and a strong cup of coffee. During dessert, she put ice cream in a coffee mug and got up at least twice to refill it with whipped cream.

Sr. Dede with patients

The Sisters tend to the sick and have a free clinic on Saturdays—providing medical services and other charitable works to the poor. Some Fridays, the Italian nuns make homemade pasta or pizza and watch movies. Oh yeah, and there’s always a bowl of extra spicy jalapenos on the table during their meals.

I think we’ll all get along.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Brother John Baptist, Brother Innocent, Brother Athanasius. What would possess a human being to take on these names so unfamiliar to our tongues? John Baptist we hear about in the gospels, okay, that’s easy enough. Innocent could stem from a child martyr in the early church under the Roman empire or might refer to one of the I’ll let that one slide too. Besides, it’s in the dictionary. But Athanasius? Really?

I’ll tell you right now these Brothers did not come into the world only to have their parents exclaim “He shall be named Athanasius after his father!” I’m willing to bet many have never heard of the name, let alone how to pronounce it. And the parents would have been far too considerate of the nurses taking down the child’s name to give them such a hard one to write. They also would have diligently tried to spare their newborn taunting or confusion later on in middle school.

I don’t say this to detract from Brother Athanasius’ name or to make fun, but to highlight a ritual and practice much of the world doesn’t understand. My own first true encounter with name changes happened at Our Lady of the Rock. Let’s review the Benedictine squad who I was with: Mother Felicitas, Mother Dilecta, Mother Hildegard, Mother Mary Grace, Mother Therese, Mother Ruth, Mother Catarina. The first three stick out as the most uncommon. Even my spell check is having a hard time. I had never even heard of the name Dilecta or met anyone in my lifetime actually named Hildegard. The Dominican brothers were no different.

“Sorry, one more time?” I asked as we all went around a circle last Wednesday night, introducing ourselves at the Dominican House of Studies.
“Brother Athsklfjgsus”
“What did he say?” I whispered to Brother John Baptist—I had his name down. 
Got it…kind of.

Dominican House of Studies
The act of receiving a new name when taking orders signifies the death of the old self and the rebirth of the new self as committed to Christ. All of those who participate in baptism experience this to some degree. Taking religious orders takes things up a notch…or several…by fully committing yourself to God in mind, body and spirit through your religious vocation. Seeking God, whether it be through studies, through pastoral care, through working with the poor, through social justice, through contemplation or through acts of service, becomes the purpose of life. Other vows add to this, most commonly: poverty, chastity and obedience. If this sounds unappealing or foreign, it should. Religious life is a life that’s part of the world, yes, but not necessarily “of” it. Upon taking vows, you are committing to this new lifestyle. A new name signifies this new identity in Christ. That’s Catholics also get Confirmation names, for example. Not all religious orders, however, give their members new names.

I think the practice is beautiful.

All the names mean something. They are not drawn out of a hat like in Harry Potter or assigned randomly. They are given after long consideration, mutual discussion with the novice and time spent getting to know them. Hildegard, for example, means “battle stronghold.” St. Hildegard was a strong woman. She was highly respected among intellectuals in the Middle Ages for her academic works. I think of Mother Hildegard barking out orders at the monastery, casually having a Ph. D in Child Psychology, and running things with guests, and don’t even have to use my imagination to know how she got her name.

I don’t know why the Brothers I met that night had been given their own names, what they mean for them or what drew them to certain ones and not others. But one of these days I’ll have to ask. I thought about of all of this as I followed the Brothers into the next room. But as our small group walked into the dimly lit, ornate chapel after discussing a book by Blessed John Paul II that night, the names no longer really mattered. An ancient looking structure lay before me, with the wooden pews you see in the movies of kings and queens. Old school. 

Dominican House of Studies Chapel

I had never sat in pews like that, with arms rests separating each seat to designate it. I had also never seen what now occurred before my still-adjusting eyes. White cloaked brothers seemed to be flying in from all around me, quickly filling up the empty chairs. Young and old alike. Relative silence. Simple white starkly contrasting the rich wood behind them.The chants began after the 50+ settled in. 

Never had a straight, rigid, wooden chair felt so much like home.

Monday, September 24, 2012


You notice a difference in yourself as you hum softly in the kitchen, scraping the rice from the pan under the running water.You think about yourself less; you hardly check your phone or watch; you go out of your way to talk to others. You’re going to sleep before midnight, most nights before eleven, and wake up pretty easily by 7am. You lay your outfits out the night before, prepare and pack your lunch then too. You’re trying, slowly, to stay in touch with people. To answer e-mail. You’re wearing your glasses a lot more and get ready for work in about ten minutes. You look at your unlined eyes and fresh face and think you’re beautiful.

You’re still learning to run errands right away and not put things off. To make your bed in the morning. To work with your wily hair. To organize. To do one thing at a time. To take care of your things. But in the meantime, you’ll continue taking it day by day. And learn to relish what you have learned somewhere along the way.

You’re growing up.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

chores and memories

I stood there vacuuming and thought of Mother Hildegard. I doubt she’d appreciate the connection. I didn’t think of her because she used to vacuum back at the monastery or because I ever saw her use one, but because the smell that erupted from the dusty old machine I held was the same as the smell of her dusty old car on the day I vacuumed it with Sue. The car was covered in dirt, dust and dog hair—things typical to a several decade old vehicle on a farm—and it was our job to clean it. I remember hitting the seats with a brush and watching the dust explosions. The shining sun, the mist from the hose, the haze of the dust--all disappears as I am back at the entrance of the old house on 15th street, doing my weekly chore after work, smiling quietly about a time not long ago.  

Monday, September 10, 2012


I had known about this date for a while when it arrived. 8/19/12. "I leave the island on 8/19/12," I'd think. I'd be at the monastery for a month, until 8/19/12. I'd leave the day after the fair, 8/19/12. Sunday, 8/19/12. And there it sat on the top of my journal entry--the date I had known would come and bring inescapable change. The day of transition--of ends and new beginnings.

I sat on the ferry that day on a bench seat that intentionally looked forward, thinking my choice had something to say about my attitude. Look ahead. Hold your head high. Go into the future facing forward. Take it head on.

But my head betrayed me. My eyes kept looking back. And Shaw Island kept getting smaller and smaller. And Mary Ann and Martha were no longer at the ferry landing, waving goodbye. Sunday mass would start in an hour. My sheets would still be in the dryer. Mother Dilecta would be milking the cow. Guests would arrive. But I was leaving, to go home, to start work, facing forward, on a bench looking ahead, glancing back.