Vatican v. Nuns: Sr. Iphielya Weighs In

Sr. Iphielya

Sr. Iphielya, the alter ego to my alter ego, is an occasional contributor to Mary Tyler Mom.  She is also the patron saint of empathy, hence, her name.  Sr. Iphielya is a little riled up with all this business about nuns in the news this week.  

I’m a good nun.  Or at least I try to be.  Following the Golden Rule, leaving the earth a better place, and helping my fellow human beings are all things I’ve taken seriously these many years of serving our Lord.  You can imagine my surprise when the Vatican explained that I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.

What’s that, you say?  You didn’t hear that?  Why, yes, yes it’s true.  A group of nuns from the United States went to visit the Vatican on official business just last week and learned that not only were we not doing the job right, but that we would now be supervised by a bishop.  You can read all about it here.

So now we are to understand that us nuns have been promoting, “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”  Hmmmm.  I’d like to take a ruler to the knuckles of the knucklehead that wrote that.  And I’ve no doubt that person is a man and a priest.

Yes, you see the Vatican also tells us that the bishops in America are, ” the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”  While Jesus didn’t teach me to keep my mouth closed if I can’t say anything nice, my mother did, so no comment on American bishops.  Cough, cough [sex scandals, adoption scandals, payouts] cough, cough.  So sorry, I must be coming down with something.  Just a moment while I get a lozenge.

Now where was I?  Oh yes, we sisters are to listen to the bishops, talk more about the “sins” of abortion and same-sex marriage, and less time focusing on poverty and economic injustice.  Oh, yes, and express no opinions whatsoever about political matters.  Apparently, we are to leave that to the bishops, too.

Why just two weeks ago, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria laid out the case that President Obama is following in the path of Hitler and Stalin.  Oh, yes, he did, you can read about it here.  Bishop Jenky is a learned man, holding a doctorate in divinity, don’t you know.  Well, then.  He must be right.  And certainly “an authentic teacher of faith and morals.”  Now where is that ruler when you need it . . .

The thing is, the American nun is a dying species.  We are right now 57,000 strong, but our median age is over seventy years old.  Are we truly what the Vatican is so worried about?  A group of women living an extinct way of life that understands the principles of poverty, chastity, and obedience (to JC, mind you, not the Pope) — is that really something to fear and dominate and control?

Thank you, Pope Benedict.  And thank you, American bishops, for you have just done for nuns what we have not been able to do for ourselves for years. You have shone a light on all our good works.  You have brought much needed focus and attention to the fact that we practice instead of preach. And because we have never been preoccupied with the power struggles within the church, as we were never invited to the table, you have shown just how powerful a group of old ladies can be.

If you want to show your support of American nuns, as 20K+ have already done, sign this petition at that will be sent along to the Bishop now charged with reigning us in.


Sr. Iphielya: Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

Sr, Iphielya

The photo above, my dear Sr. Iphielya, is not an image I poached off the internet.  She is my aunt, Mary Cecile, or to me and my siblings, Sr. Michael.  Today, Sr. Iphielya is going to take a break, as Sr. Michael is the star of this particular show.  Humor me as I honor a most mythic woman and a most mythic way of life.

Growing up, I went to Catholic school.  A nun, or more properly, a sister (I learned just recently that a nun is cloistered and sisters live amongst us), is who taught me about periods and other things that Judy Blume wrote about.  RIP, Sr. Morrison — you were quite the dame.  As a girl, I always felt special, in that several of my aunts were nuns — two of my Dad’s four sisters and one of my Mom’s aunts.  I grew up with an awareness of and proximity to a very endangered way of life.  We ran around convents and used to role play by placing the cover of the living room arm chairs on our heads, making instant habits.

Sr. Michael, my Dad’s oldest sister, died two weeks ago today.  I traveled to a small town in Michigan to deliver a eulogy and watch her be buried.  She was the first of her five siblings to die, but only the most recent in a string of aging nuns who reside at the Motherhouse.  Dying is something nuns do a lot of these days.

When my aunt made her vocation in 1946, she was one of many, many young Catholic women drawn to the Church.  I’ve had the privilege of visitng the Motherhouse three times now and it is the most amazing of places.  There is an historical room there, just off the main chapel, that tells the story of the order both of my aunts professed.  In this room there is a parchment book with pages and pages and pages of calligraphed names under years.  You will find Sr. Michael’s name under 1946 and my other aunt’s name under 1948, but you have to look hard, as they are written amongst hundreds of others.

Each of those names is a woman with her own story of what brought her to the sisterhood.  For Sr. Michael, it was about vocation and adventure.  She felt a calling to become a sister and that calling turned into a most remarkable life full of travel and education and ministry and beer and achievement and chocolate.  Sr. Michael was a formidable aunt to me.  She always corrected my speech, placed a firm hand on my shoulder when I rocked unconsciously, listened with interest about what I was learning in school, and would buy me ice cream for lunch if we were having a day out together.

She dressed to the nines.  I’m not kidding.  Sr. Michael had a knack for finding Chanel and Dior in high end thrift stores.  She taught me about spectator pumps and handbags, “Never call it a purse,” she would tell me, and the importance of them “corresponding” with one another.  I used to worry that I disappointed her and sometimes got nervous in her presence.  As I got older, and more confident, I was challenged by her and loved to discuss the things I was learning in college.  She had three master degrees herself and used to encourage me to read Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote poems and books about social justice.

She did amazing things in her life, Sr. Michael, and saw amazing things.  I think, for most of her first 77 years, she was happy.  For the last of her 87 years, less so.  That final decade was spent waiting.  Waiting to die, waiting to be released, waiting for peace.  For a woman who embodied joie de vivre — not a phrase often associated with nuns — her joy became scarce in her later years.  Tis a shame.

At her funeral services, my family and I traveled in the snow to see Sr. Michael put to rest.  My other nun-aunt did me the honor of asking me to give the family eulogy.  I thought that would be on Friday, and planned to write it Thursday night.  Turns out, I was to deliver the eulogy at the wake service.  Oops.  I like to plan the words I deliver, but I think it was better that this one was extemporaneous.  I followed a most moving tribute by a nun who was in Sr. Michael’s crowd — the group of women who professed in the same year.  She was a good friend to my aunt for 64 years and recounted a story I have heard my Dad share.  Early on, after joining the sisterhood, the family traveled from their home in Chicago — a nice southside Irish family — to visit their oldest sibling at the Motherhouse.  Rules were very clear and limited about how much exposure nuns had to the outside world at that time.  There was concern about how Sr. Michael would be doing or what interaction they would have with her.  All concerns were erased when as her family waited below, Sr. Michael ran down the grand staircase at the Motherhouse, in full habit, to greet the family she loved and missed.  My Dad says it was then that her parents stopped worrying over her.  Sr. Michael had found her path.

May we all be so lucky to find our path.  This latest trip to the Motherhouse was my first as a mommy blogger.  The significance of going to a place called the “Motherhouse” was not lost on me.  But my associations were trivial and one dimensional.  Once there, standing in the reception line at the wake when nun after nun, filed past their sister to pay their respects, all of them in various states of visible aging — gray hair, walkers, scooters, stooped posture — I was struck by just how lucky I had been to be exposed to such a unique way of life.  Women who willingly opted out of marriage, out of children to serve a God they worshiped.

Their choices were vastly different from my own.  And now, their choice of a vocational life is all but extinct.  With Vatican II in the 1960s, those women choosing the sisterhood dramatically dropped.  That parchment book that listed all their names under the year they professed documents that visually.  In the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, each year is followed by pages of names.  In the 1960s that dropped dramatically to the point of one to three names following each year.  You will see a decade on each page now, a striking reminder of a way of life that is ** poof ** gone before our eyes.  It is a loss.

When my daughter was given her terminal status, I searched for a book that would help us help her understand what that meant.  What we found was a book called Lifetimes, which very gently but realistically stated that for each life there is a beginning, an ending, with life in between.  Such it is with people, and such it is with the sisterhood.  And as with Donna, you can understand it and accept the loss, but it does not make its passing any easier.

Rest in peace, Sr. Michael.  You will be missed.  And whenever I don a pair of spectator pumps, it is you I will think of . . .

Sr. Iphielya: Oy Vey, Christmas Can Be Difficult

Sr. Iphielya
Hello, there.  I’m just getting the hang of this email and, oh my, there is a lot to learn.  So many buttons!

Well, it seems there are more than a few of you out there that could stand a little more empathy and understanding in your lives.  Sr. Iphielya is here and in the motherhouse, so let’s spend a few moments together, shall we?

I received many, many letters since I made my debut on Mary Tyler Mom last week.  I love her, don’t you?  Such a nice lady.  Where was I?  Oh, yes, the letters.  I do wish to respond to all of them, and I will, but it will take some time, please.  Single file will do nicely.

Christmas is just around the corner.  Seven days and counting, my friends!  This time of year is difficult for many of us.  So much to do, so little $ to do it with, so many dramas with the family, and lots and lots of deep seated feelings of grief and loss bubbling up to the surface.  In the convent, I learned that efficiency is a virtue, so I am going to try and address two letters with one post!

During this season of joy, merriment, family and office gatherings, many of our hearts hang heavy with the things we don’t have, but wish we did.  For some, it is toys for the little ones.  For others it is that little one — the little baby we wish to hold and call our own.  And for others still, it is the one who held us when we were babies.

The holiday season often means we spend lots and lots of time with cookies and cousins.  There is small talk and good cheer, but there is also forced cheer.  You know what I mean, don’t you?  That gathering where all together are doing their level best to ignore the sadness that is shared, but so often not discussed.  One of my letter writers wrote to me in hopes of finding another mother, as she had lost her own this past summer.  Oh, dear.  Losing a mother is hard.  I know this myself.  For those of us lucky ones, our mothers were all they should be.  They loved and cared for us, cheered us up, prodded us, poked us when needed, and held us when things weren’t going too well.  There is no other soul that does quite what a mother does for us, is there?

If you’ve lost your mom, these holidays of family and cheer can be difficult.  And as hard as Christmas Day will be, Mother’s Day will hurt you, too.  I like to think that the holidays turn up the volume of our hearts.  All that we feel is just a little more intense this time of year.  And that first year?  That first year when your mother won’t be baking the cookies, wrapping the gifts, encouraging her flock to behave as they should — that is one of the hardest of all.

I’ve some words of advice for you.  Nuns always do, you know, have words of advice.  I do hope you will consider them in the spirit in which they are offered — with love and empathy.  Consider remembering your Mom that day.  Be it with the green and radish Jell-o mold you told me about, or with a toast before the feast.  Talk about her.  Mention her name.  Acknowledge that she is missed.  If tears are shed, offer a Kleenex.  There is no shame in a tear being shed for a loved one gone before us.  We miss them.  It’s okay to talk about that.

Other gatherings may include a loss that is more personal.  Like for the reader who shared the difficulty of infertility.  Unlike losing a mom, a grown adult who all recognize and miss when gone, the loss of a child through miscarriage, or even the idea of a child, the desire of a child, is not always as well recognized.  People don’t understand it, do they?  There is no great way to grieve that loss publicly, or even with others you may be close to.  I might suggest, when the well intentioned (one hopes) comments come about, as they most certainly will, you act as a duck and let that water roll off your back.  Talk to your partner about your pain.  He, or she (it is the 21st century, even for us nuns), will understand in a way others will not.  Or, at least, I hope they will.  I suppose even your partners don’t always understand that pain.

My point is, dear one, is that the insensitive comments you receive are uneducated, but not malicious.  They want for you what you want, these folks free with the advice, and think their comments might just help.  You know and I know they do not.  This week of celebrations will no doubt provide ample opportunity for the “well intentioned” in your life to trot out their advice for you.  They don’t want to know of your medical difficulty.  They just don’t.  They want you to have a child, because they know you want one.  It is sad, to be sure, but I believe it is true.

Harsh, perhaps.  I am sorry for that.  I know from experience the holidays can be brutal.  Sr. Iphielya wants to prepare you for that brutality.  Arm you with some coping skills that will help you get through the day.  Some years, that is the best we can hope for, right?  Get though the day.  I assure you that come January, that volume on your feelings will eek down just a bit.  You will feel a little more yourself and less vulnerable.  I do hope so for you.

Alrighty, dear ones!  Sr. Iphielya is being called to mediate a squabble over who will peel the potatoes and who will mash the potatoes for Sunday dinner.  Please do take care of yourself this holiday season.  And remember, the motherhouse is just an email away!