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Religious Life

Nuns live out an odd paradox


On New Year’s Eve I celebrated my 51st birthday in the company of women. Not too surprising for someone who has spent the last 25 birthdays “in the convent,” as people used to say in the Irish-Catholic neighborhood in which I grew up. But the group of women who gathered in our simple house in North St. Louis are not nuns, and the house itself hardly conjures up images of quiet cloister.

Instead, my companions were a diverse lot, drawn from the streets of the working class neighborhood that surrounds our two-story brick house on the corner of Knapp and Palm Street. It is a neighborhood in transition, having endured years of arson and abandonment. That evening an almost rural quiet prevailed. Only the rapid fire of semi-automatic weapons at midnight reminded me that I live in the inner city and that the snow-covered fields across the street are actually vacant lots that were once the site of handsome turn-of-the-century apartment buildings and private homes.

The women are also in transition. As each of us tried to remember and share the high point of the year ending, we learned that one of us has been married several times, several of us have grand children, most of us have struggled with serious physical, financial and emotional challenges. The one thing we all share is some kind of connection with the Roman Catholic church and a sense that we are becoming a community of support for one another through that connection. I was also aware, as I listened to each one speak, that our household, by its presence in and openness to the neighborhood, is becoming a vehicle of hope and healing.

To be a Roman Catholic nun at the beginning of the 21st century is to live out an odd paradox. Our heart-felt desire to be a healing presence in the world calls us to be countercultural at a time when our secular life style makes us almost invisible, if not irrelevant. Many years ago, when I was teaching religion to ninth graders, the subject of vocations came up. I was explaining that we lived a very normal life, that we all worked, took turns cooking, wore regular clothes -- when one girl raised her hand. “Sister, why would I want to become a nun when I can do everything you do and have a husband and kids as well?”

In the “old days” the exotic routines and trappings of religious life (the habits, the structured communal prayer, the imposing stone buildings in which we lived) sustained a powerful sense that something out of the ordinary and perhaps even holy was going on. The hierarchical structure protected those at the bottom from many of the distractions and pressures of ordinary life, and the time for personal prayer and reflection was guaranteed. The witness that Roman Catholic nuns bore to their belief in God was powerful and public.

Ironically, I would never have considered becoming a nun if all of that hadn’t changed.

By the 1970s, when I was attending a Catholic college in Boston, the nuns on campus had already begun living in small communities and wearing normal clothes. Many of their companions had already left and were making up for lost time -- finding husbands and starting families. The significance of all this was lost on me, preoccupied as I was with organizing the Grape Boycott in East Cambridge and learning transcendental meditation. My friends and I hitchhiked to various communes and admired those who had decided to live close to the land, heating their homes with wood stoves and raising their own crops and animals. While I felt a powerful desire growing within me to be of service, I never gave a serious thought to entering religious life.

Then I stumbled upon a small group of those “invisible” nuns living in an old town house in the South End, running a tot-lot for kids and helping women from Central and South America find a market for their native crafts. Young men and women from local colleges flowed in and out of the house, sharing meals with the nuns and often staying for simple liturgies featuring homemade bread and heart-felt, made-up prayers. I was enchanted.

In the 25 years since that first encounter (and my own entry into the Society of the Sacred Heart), I have lived out several variations on that theme of radical insertion: in a low-income apartment complex in Washington D.C., a blue-collar parish in Seattle and now in this North St. Louis neighborhood poised on the edge of gentrification. I have come to see the subversive power that an ordinary and loving presence can have when it is planted smack dab in the middle of despair. There is no exotic veil of mystery to pierce; the neighborhood kids have seen me in my bathrobe at the back door when they have shown up at two in the morning needing help. There is no cloister to keep people at arm’s length; a crisis will turn our dining room table into a command center for organizing the details of a child’s funeral, and our living room has served as the neighborhood watch center when arson and burglaries required an organized response.

While we do not have the imposed asceticism of the liturgy of the hours, we do experience the daily asceticism of availability. In order to have quiet time to pray, I wake up at 4:30. A neighbor joins me and one of my two housemates for morning prayer at 6:15. Our communal life does not inspire much curiosity because there is a standing invitation to “come and see.” This past Christmas Eve our quiet community dinner for three expanded into a table for 10 with the last two guests literally showing up on our doorstep, one of them in tears, just minutes before serving time. While it felt like the miracle of the loaves and fishes to me, the community member who had cooked felt a bit less edified and a lot more anxious.

While our life does not seem unusually interesting to our neighbors, I have discovered that it does inspire great interest in the young women who attend our academies. By living together and sharing what we have with our neighbors we provide a powerful answer to the young freshman who wanted to know why she might want to be a nun. Every summer I invite 12 girls to spend 10 days living with us, sleeping together on the living room rug, sharing two bathrooms and enduring the St. Louis humidity without benefit of air conditioning so that they can experience for themselves what it feels like to place your gifts at the service of children and adults who really want and appreciate them. They love it, and I love having them here.

An artist friend (nicknamed “Crazy Harry” by the drug dealers in the neighborhood) once explained his own passion for living in and photographing desperately troubled environments by explaining the cycle of love and need: I need your love, I love your need. By our very ordinariness, nuns in the 21st century are perfectly positioned to play the humble role of connecting both ends of this divine energy cycle: There are some of us who fit perfectly on the governing boards of well-funded institutions and others who fit seamlessly into the neighborhoods that need the services of those institutions. Is it romantic? Not particularly. Is it satisfying? You bet!

Sacred Heart Sr. Diane Roche is the executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and Seeds of Change Community Corporation. Her e-mail address is droche@rscj.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001