Sunday, October 24, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Catholic Years

Picture: A scrawny twelve-year-old girl with humiliatingly nondescript short brown hair and bangs, wearing a brand new plaid jumper, a pastel blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and black flats. She is being ushered through the high-ceilinged corridors of the convent, hugely built in the mid-1800s and home to classrooms, dormitories, elegantly crafted shelves and woodwork, well-appointed parlours, kitchens, dining halls ("refectories" in convent parlance), and cloistered chambers for nuns. Her guide is a nun -- and whatever that might be, the place is crawling with them. They are all decked out in long black habits and starched white wimples (new vocabularly words for our heroine), with crosses jammed into their black belts like hunting knives and lengthy strands of black beads swaying against the folds of their skirts. (The word "rosary" is, also, as of yet unknown.) As they reach the enormous Gothic chapel,
our young lady discovers that most of the women and girls, upon entering the door, dip their fingers into a container of water and make a mysterious sign across their bodies. They kneel in the aisle and then sidle into the long pews, where they again kneel on little cushioned benches that seem to have been placed there for just such a purpose. Being sort of Methodist, our observer has never seen anyone kneel in church -- not that she has ever encountered holy water or the sign of the cross, either. But she is willing to wait things out patiently. She is only twelve, but she has encountered enough new situations in life to know that there is no point in assuming or expecting anything. Whatever happens will always be something far different from anything that could have been anticipated.

The only man in evidence, grandly dressed in long robes, is at the altar, where he lifts an enormous round gold container of sorts into the air and chants something unintelligible. Most of the crowd in the pews chants right back. Within a few moments, all is made transparently clear: nothing will ever be comprehensible again. There will be no clarification of beads, crucifixes, water, hand signs, kneeling, nuns or chants -- it turns out that every single word is spoken in Latin.

And thus I was introduced to the Roman Catholic faith. A pre-Vatican II faith, in which young women were graduated from high school and immediately entered the convent, in which priests were placed on pedestals so high you could barely see them.

What was I doing there? My father and his brothers were graduates of a high-profile New England prep school and, while he wanted the same for me, my dad was convinced that our local school system was not up to the job of preparing me (to be prepared). He knew the nuns who ran the school -- it was 20 minutes further out into the country from our home. Many girls from our community attended the nuns' school, albeit as day students. I have my stepmother to thank for getting me out of the house on a permanent basis by the beginning of seventh grade.
In other words, I had arrived at a Catholic boarding school, kicking and screaming against my forced spearation from my friends, for academic and family reasons. No one in my family seems to have given a thought to the RELIGIOUS facet of the school, which would come to permeate my daily life. I can only conclude now that my family was so areligious (not anti-religious; just oblivious to the whole concept of religion) that it never occurred to them that anyone took it seriously. Not even nuns.

Here,in a nutshell, was life in a Catholic girls' boarding school in the mid-1960s:

blue wool skirts and white blouses designed in, oh, maybe 1940;

daily religion classes, Catholics and nonCatholics segregated from one another, but both taught by nuns;

long and narrow dormitories in which we slept on beds in rows of cubicles curtained off from one another;

the Beatles, the Stones, and the Supremes blasting from deeply recessed windows in hundred-year-old buildings;

a weekly liturgical music class and a weekly choral music class;

cigarettes in the bathrooms and in the fields behind the school;

skirts rolled up to reveal several inches of thigh;

Sunday Mass, Friday Mass, and, often, several other masses;
basketball with nuns in ankle-length habits;

Saturday morning sewing classes, which I avoided by hiding out on the soccer field;

Latin, statues, holy water, medals, missals, lacy caps for entering the chapel, tattered books on the gory and self-sacrificial lives of the saints, crosses all over the place, brief periods of freedom on late afternoon horseback rides, prayers before meals and classes, slipping out and curling up in those deep window wells for late night conversations long after the nuns had gone to bed;
numerous hours devoted to the development of carefully designed plots for infiltrating the cloistered area of the buildings where the nuns lived in order to research the answer to that endlessly challenging and earth-shaking question: What kind of underwear do nuns wear?

And, since it was the 60s: the Smothers Brothers, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Walter Kronkite.

If you watch the tv show American Dreams on Sunday nights, you can see in Meg's school some strong similarities to my own. The main difference, of course, was that we lived there, 24/7, and so it was nuns, may of them remarkably young and entirely Catholic, who filled in for parents.
I left that school after ninth grade as an agnostic at best, more probably an atheist. I had had my fill of religious indoctrination and, as a nonCatholic surrounded by medieval ritual, I emerged with a vastly enlarged capacity for skepticism. But I did make three gains that equipped me well for life:

In the first place, I became accustomed to a world in which women managed their own lives. The convent sat on acreage far out in the country and the nuns managed their farm, their convent, and their school. Men were seldom in evidence. Oh, there was a priest, but since I was not Catholic, his presence was of little significance to me. I didn't make confession or take communion or study with the upperclass Catholics, so I had virtually no interaction with him. I never had any reason to surmise that adult women were in need of male approval or cooperation for their endeavors.

Secondly, the nuns were, on the whole, particularly broad-minded women. Probably one of the most significant episodes of my entire educational career occurred when Sister Collette, who taught our nonCatholic religion class in 8th or 9th grade, decided that we would study comparative religions. An extremely young woman schooled entirely in the Roman Catholic tradition, she tried to teach us basic Catholicism, since that was what she knew. We, her irritable and difficult students, did not hesitate to communicate to her that her information conflicted with what we had picked up in various Protestant Sunday Schools. After running into several 13 and 14-year-old brick walls, she announced that she had realized that she knew nothing about religions other than her own, and so we were going to study them together. I don't remember any specifics about what we studied -- although I do know that the only Seder I have ever attended was the one we put togetherin our little pastel-painted Catholic classroom in the heart of midwestern farmland-- but I have always remembered her fearless and open-minded decision about what we should learn and how we should do it -- with respectful interest and graciousness.

Finally, I learned, without recognizing it as a life skill, to form friendships with other girls and women. I learned to see the members of my gender as reliable, trustworthy, and desirable confidants. I learned that girls and women are smart, talented, strong, funny, and hugely determined people. Year before last, I attended a reunion, and spent an afternoon with women I had last hung out with when we were 14 together. It was so easy. When you have talked with a good friend all afternoon and late into the night, month after month -- well, it's an incredible way to live asa young girl. I suppose that we were too independent of adult supervision, and too limited in our encounters with the opposite gender (not for want of trying, believe me), but we learned how to be with women. Don't misunderstand me -- I would not recommend that a twelve-year-old live away from home. But there are always compensations, and the company of strong women, whether twelve or 80 years old, is one of them.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: When It Got Harder

If I had a spiritual home at all between the ages of seven and twelve, it was at the camp in North Carolina where I spent two summers. Twelve short weeks as I turned 10 and 11, but they probably saved my life. I've written a bit about my camp elsewhere; my children all became campers there, and two of them worked there last summer.

When I was seven, my mother and year-old baby brother were killed in a car accident on a glorious October day. I've written about that event elsewhere, too, and I won't dwell upon it here, except to say that it marked the end of my family's connectedness to the church. My grandmother told my brother, many years later, that she had decided to have nothing to do with a god who could permit such a terrible thing to happen, and my father has indicated, obliquely, that he did not feel much support or comfort emanating from the church after the accident.

It would be difficult, of course, for any community ever to provide enough comfort or support to a family at a time of such an unexpected and devastating loss. Beyond that, I can't comment, as I don't remember a thing one way or another.

My father remarried a couple of years later. His new wife and her children (and former husband) were known to us as family friends from Florida; she and her two youngest of moved to our home in Ohio. I suppose that I could write volumes on the wretchedness of blended family life from the point of view of a ten-year-old, but it's not a period of my life in which I have any interest in reliving.

We children did go back to Sunday School -- my stepmother viewed it as a weekly respite from the terrible trials of motherhood. I had acquired a stepbrother who was exactly my age and we quickly developed a Sunday morning routine. My dad would drive the four of us into town and drop us off at the back door of the church. My brother and I would would leave the younger boys to fend for themselves among the dedicated Methodists. We ourselves would walk quickly through the building, out the front door, and up the street to the drugstore at the main intersection of town, where we would further our education by reading Playboy and drinking Cherry Cokes. Think Scout and Jem Finch and you've about got the picture. An hour later we would walk back to church, go through the front door and out the back, where my dad would be waiting to pick us up. We had picked up some church lingo, and knew that if we told him that we had been studying Paul (whatever that meant), he would be satisfied.

It was a small town and everyone knew everyone else. It's likely that my dad knew where we were all the time, and remained silent to foster peace at home. I have no idea.

One of the few good things to come out of those miserable years was summer camp in North Carolina. My stepmother's solution to the blended family situation was to evacuate all children as quickly as possible, first to camp and, a little later, to boarding school.

I know that it sounds dreadful: send a not-quite-10-year old child away for two months barely seconds after her family has been reconfigured yet again? Well, it's not something that I would do if I found myself steparenting young children but, as I said, it made all the difference for me.

Camp was a place where a very sad girl could be carefree and independent and strong. The mountains of western North Carolina are gentle and embracing, the skies are clear (well... unless it's raining-- which would be about every day), the sunsets go on forever, and the streams run cold and clear. What better place for a respite from a tormented family life?
The camp was more expressly Christian in those days, and I do remember with pleasure the Sunday morning services on the point of land that jutted into the tiny lake, with all the campers and counselors dressed in white and the songs from an old Protestant hymnal. In today's diverse world, Sunday at camp is called "Special Day" and the programming is spiritual but nondenominational. It doesn't matter. That small haven in the mountains remains a place where generosity of heart and peacefulness of spirit are celebrated, where young children are embraced and then set free to explore a welcoming world of nature and freedom, and where God's touch, however you want to articulate it (or not), is everywhere.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: When Life Was Easy

Let me introduce the next few weeks by saying that, while I'm going to try to write something each week about one of the Lectionary passages, I'm not making an offical start on the Lectionary itself until the end of November, just before the first Sunday of Advent, which is the beginning of the church year. (Didn't know the church had an offical year? Well, now you do. It differs a bit from a secular western calendar year, or a fiscal year, or a year as defined in other religions and/or cultures.)

In the meantime, I'm going to get started on a weekly schedule by posting a little bit at a time about my own spiritual journey. That way, anyone who comes across this journal will be able to discern to her satisfaction that I have absolutely no qualifications whatsoever to embark upon this project.

I have a lot of friends who have expressed hesitation about getting involved with religion in a formal way. I have other friends who are active Christians and others who are observant Jews and a couple who are devout Moslems and a couple who are practicing Buddhists. My own perspective is a Christian one, but I hope that anyone and everyone feels free to visit and leave comments. A few folks have already sent me emails and comments asking about adding their own persepctive, to which my response is: Welcome, and please join in!

I spent the first seven years of my life in idyllic circumstances. The oldest daughter of very young parents, the first grandchild on both sides, and the first girl for my paternal grandmother who had three sons, I was adored and doted on by almost every adult with whom I came in contact.

We lived in rural southwest Ohio, on several acres at the top of a hill behind my grandparents' own acreage. I was too young when we moved from an apartment in town out to the country, first to my grandparents' home and then to our newly built little ranch house carved into the side of a hill, to understand the ominous motivations behind the abrupt transistion. It was the early 50s and polio was abroad; parents thought that they could spare their children by moving from densely populated areas.

By the time October rolled around "when I was six," I was an older sister, to a three-year-old and a newborn baby brother. I absorbed the natural world as easily as I downed my morning orange juice and scrambled eggs: our house was surrounded by scarlet and gold trees in the fall, by soft snow and excellent sledding hills in the winter, and by carpets of flowers planted by my mother and grandmother in the spring and summer. I spent a lot of my time with my grandmother next door. She had a porch table full of jars of monarch caterpillars and chrysalises in various stages of development, a house full of books and games and art supplies, and unending patience for her oldest grandchild.

We spent the springs of my kindergarten and first grade years living near the beach in Florida. My father was trying to get a home construction business going, and one of the last houses he completed was ours. We moved put of our small rental house, set back among trees festooned with Spanish moss, to the spacious second floor of a triplex, sometime in the late spring of my first grade year. I acquired my very first room of my own, and my mother and I made big plans for how I would decorate it with shells and other ocean paraphernalia the following year. Photographs show a largely unfurnished apartment, an up-to-the minute 1960s kitchen with pink appliances, a handsome young husband and attractive blond wife, and three 1960 children: a little girl in dresses, short socks and Mary Janes; a little boy in shorts; and a fat and happy baby.

I can't say that we had any kind of spiritual life in those days. We attended the Methodist church in town, where my mother had sung in the choir as a young woman. As far as I know, she was the only member of the family who held an official church membership. I can remember standing on the pew next to her as she sang in the congregation, and straining to see around her slim body when my soon-to-be aunt came down the aisle in a hoop-skirted white wedding dress.

My father claimed no religious belief; he simply accompanied my mother. I don't think that any of my grandparents actually belonged to the church, although they were active participants in its major events and fundraising efforts. Many years later I discovered the names of most of the adults in my family -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- on the programs for a church anniversary celebration and the dedication of a new classroom wing. They had all been fundraising and building committee and decorating committee participants, but I believe that they saw themselves as fulfilling a civic duty rather than acting upon religious convictions. Certainly no one in my family talked or taught about a life of faith, and while our Christmas and Easter celebrations were extravagant, they were decidedly secular in nature. If I did go to Sunday School, or to summer Vacation Bible School, it wasn't with any resistance. But it wasn't with any sense of their import, either. The red brick church on the corner was simply one of several familiar spaces in my rural and small-town childhood, known to me in much the same way that my father's office and the town drugstore and grocery were.

I have a number of friends who grew up in the Methodist Church, attending Sunday School every week, belonging to youth groups, singingin children's and youth choirs. My husband, actually, is one of those people. One of my best friends has a whole string of pins for her thirteen years of perfect Sunday School attendance. In the Presbyterian Church that I attend now, enormous attention is lavished on the children's and youth programming, and the response on the part of both kids and parents is entirely positive. Who knows how things might have turned out for me in the church if my life had stayed on its ordinary and happy little track?

Monday, October 04, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: What Is The Lectionary?

Simply put, it the Lectionary is a "collection of
readings from Scripture for each Sunday of the
year” such that the greater part of the Bible will
be read in three years. Year A concentrates on
the Gospel of Matthew, Year B focses on the
Gospel of Mark and Year C on Luke. The
Gospel of John is read mainly at Christmas,
Lent and Easter, as well as during Year B.
Readings from the rest of the New Testament,
the Old Testament and the Psalms
are included in the selections for each week.
The Revised Common Lectionary was
produced by the consultation on Common
Texts, an ecumenical body formed in the
mid-1960s for consultation on worship
renewal by North American churches.

Source: Longmeadow (Massachusetts) Congregational Church.

When I first returned to church, around the time that I hit thirty, I had no idea what the Common Lectionary was. Our senior pastor was a brilliant preacher, nationally recognized for his work in the pulpit, but he preferred to pick and choose among the texts (exactly what the Lectionary is designed to avoid). When he left after a sixteen-year tenure (I had been at that church for about five of those years), our new minister introduced us to the Lectionary concept and we began to hear the same passages, and preaching thereon, that were being heard on the same Sundays in other churches across the country

Stultifying? Perhaps that’s what the first minister I knew had thought. But the Lectionary provides a structure that is ultimately freeing. It moves a congregation through much of the Bible, both Hebrew and Greek, over a three year period. It prevents a preacher from focusing repeatedly on her favorite passages, or on those that most easily support his primary message through the years. It requires that we consider the Bible in its entirety, hearing texts with which we might not bother otherwise and focusing in fresh ways upon old standards

There are four selections each week: one from the Hebrew Bible, one from the Psalms, one from the Gospels, and one from the rest of the Greek Bible. Some preachers meld two or more into a sermon; others focus on one. Some are more comfortable with certain parts of the Bible rather than others. The same holds for individuals and small groups who work with the Lectionary.

I’m often part of a small group at my church that meets to read, contemplate and pray together, using one of the week’s Lectionary passages as a focus. Sometimes we challenge ourselves with a new and difficult text; sometimes we opt for an old standard. Always, we are surprised by how much there is to be found in a few short lines. We aren't experts by any means, but we are able to gain a lot by immersing ourselves in the Bible on something of a regular basis