Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bloody but unbowed

"Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

Carol Anderson, who was for over 20 years the Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, was one of the first women priests ever ordained.  She is a giant in the Christian faith, and her sermons and books are a profound inspiration to people all over the world.  She is also a person who I am extremely fortunate enough to have formed a friendship with over the last couple of decades, and although most people don't know it - she has knee problems.

When you first meet Carol, she seems to be a brilliant, remote and intimidating figure.  She is tall, strong, no-nonsense, and she doesn't seem to like small talk.  As she warms up, though, you learn that she actually has a razor sharp sense of humor and the heart of a true saint.  She doesn't like small talk because she is far, far too busy thinking about ways to save the world.  When you first meet her, you also don't notice the tiny shuffle in her gait or the trouble she has getting up and down stairs, until you know her for a while and walk behind her a few times.  

When Carol went on her annual sabbatical to Scotland every year in August, I used to stay at her house and babysit her sweet, dim-witted and exceedingly obese cats - Bertie and Victoria.  While I was cat-sitting I lived at the Rectory and with each passing year I noticed how the bannister on her staircase got looser and looser and more unsteady.  I knew, as few others did, that it was because Carol leaned on it more and more for support as she made the painful journey each day between the first and second floors of her house.  Carol retired and moved to New York a couple of years ago, and now she lives in an apartment building in Manhattan with an elevator.  Her knees simply could not have stood one more year of going up and down stairs, so excruciating had her pain become, so she retired just in time.

I'd known her for nearly 10 years when she finally told me why her knees were so bad.  Carol is an intensely independent and private person, and she doesn't like to tell stories that sound like a ploy for sympathy.   She told me about what had happened her knees in a very quick, businesslike way, but her voice was soft as she talked, and her eyes never rose from looking at the floor.

When Carol was a young seminary student in the 1960s, she said, she went down south to help with the Civil Rights movement.  She and a group of other students went with priests and activists to help the black community register to vote in accordance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Not long after her young, idealistic companions and she arrived in the south, Carol was walking along a rural road with a couple of her fellow workers when a group of white men attacked them. One of the men beat Carol so severely with a baseball bat that he broke both of her knees.

I was so stunned when she revealed this to me that I couldn't say anything but "Oh my God.  I am so sorry.  I am so sorry."  She was not comfortable with that response and simply shrugged it off by saying "Well anyway, that's what happened so - my knees are getting worse." and she made an excuse and rushed off to one of her many, many important meetings.

It took Carol a long time to walk again after she was beaten.  She went on to be ordained as a priest in the late 1960s after a long struggle for women's equality in the church, and she has spent many decades leading others to do the social justice work that is the central driving force in her life.  

People like Carol were beaten, and many of them were murdered, because of a hatred towards blacks that I have never, for one moment of my life, understood.  I grew up in the south and one might think that as a white person I was supposed to have been trained to be a racist from birth, but it just didn't take.  It never, ever made sense to me.  

My friend Michael worked with a woman who said when she was a child in the 60's, a black man was murdered and hung from a bridge.  The man's body was left there for several days as cars, and as the school bus carrying this woman and her classmates to school, passed underneath it.  Growing up in Georgia I heard people - even total strangers - making shocking racist remarks all my life as I wondered how on earth people could hate so much, for no good reason.  People always said "the Civil War was a long time ago.  Let it go.  It's not that way any more.  Blacks have it really good!" and they would get very annoyed when I pointed out that racism is still very recent and very much with us, especially since my own young mother went to segregated schools and I saw first hand (and not just in the south) how hard it was for black people to get a good education in poorer school districts and later, to be fairly considered for jobs.

It's very easy for whites to criticize the black community for this or that, and yet never criticize themselves for keeping blacks down for 300 years.  I've seen the sideways glance and the slight smile of black coworkers and friends when someone says "Well why don't you try doing this…?"  That slight smile and sideways glance says "Yeah, that's very easy for you to say.  You don't know how how hard it really is."  It's the smile of someone up against odds that no white person could ever comprehend.

Maybe it's because I grew up so poor, or because I'm a truly odd person and never felt that I fit in anywhere, but my heart is always with those who are oppressed and disenfranchised.  I want to tell them "I can't ever truly know what it feels like to be you, but I want you to know that I feel for you and I pray for you."

One of Carol's funniest and most effective tactics as the leader of a huge parish was the way she dealt with complainers.  Whenever one of her thousands of parishioners would come to her with a complaint, she would say "Ok - I hereby appoint you as head of the committee to fix that."  That would shut the complainers up very quickly, and it also taught them an invaluable lesson:  If you don't like something, fix it.  

Fixing hatred in our culture is a long, slow process. It involves not only acts of great heroism and sacrifice, but also small acts of stopping ourselves before making a snide racist joke or railing against "those people."  It means ALL our words and our thoughts and our intentions have to be loving towards all people - not just people who look like us.

People who meet Carol Anderson might think that she is a bit aloof and brusque, but they need to stop before judging her exterior.  Carol was savagely beaten and left to die on a rural southern road.  She has suffered horrific trauma and, therefore, she does not easily warm up to people or let them in.  In her own character, she is a living lesson about tolerance.  Never, ever judge a person until you realize fully where they have come from.  

Monday, February 4, 2008

Serenity, with a Side of Panic

Written in early 2008

I hate flying. Its pretty horrendous, sitting on an airplane and getting claustrophobia while being terrified of dying, but surely the worst part of it for me is the airport. Airports are full of those things I have mental blocks about and which I'm therefore scared of - numbers, clocks...people...I get so freaked out about going to airports that I hate having anyone take me or pick me up. I would rather spend a bazillion dollars taking a cab with a non-English-speaking cab driver than have anyone drive me because my nervousness is so great that I seize up and go into slow motion and I can't even make decent conversation. When I'm not having recurring nightmares about losing my purse, I'm dreaming about being in airports and being pelted with numbers and clocks while people are running over me with Smarte Cartes. That's how much I hate them.

The great tragedy of this is that I must endure the trauma of airports in order to pursue one of my favorite interests - Anglican monasticism. The Anglican Communion is the name given to all the various branches of the Church of England throughout the world. When Henry VIII established the Church of England in the sixteenth century, he basically took Catholicism and threw out all the things he didn't like - the Pope (who was supplanted by the Archbishop of Canterbury), all those crappy old-fashioned rules about divorce, and monasticism. Henry didn't like monastics - monks and nuns - because they owned most of the land in England, Ireland and Scotland, so he abolished all the religious orders in his realm and seized their vast properties. 

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Church of England was hankering for monks and nuns. Anglicanism was gradually drifting back to its early Catholic roots, and various parishes were adding back all the fun things they had missed since breaking with the Vatican 300 years before. Fancy priest robes were reinstated, as were candles and incense and genuflecting and kneeling. The Victorians took advantage of this wave of Catholic nostalgia and started petitioning the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow them to re-establish religious orders. Groups of men and women had already gathered informal collectives to minister to the sick and the poor, and they now wanted to make it official by taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience just like Catholic monks and nuns. 

The Archbishop finally relented and soon hundreds of religious orders sprang up throughout England and the world - including the Church of England in the United States which is known as the Episcopal Church. Most people think only the Catholic church has religious orders, but Anglican monasticism, while existing on a much smaller scale, is just as alive and well as its Vatican counterpart. Anglican nuns are very different from the Catholics because the re-formed orders did not consist of 18 year old virgins. They were composed instead of widows and - heaven forbid - divorced women who'd been out in the world and done a bit of living.

I have always been fascinated by nuns - even though I never met one until I was seventeen years old. When I was a junior in high school, I helped a friend chaperone field trips and dances at St. Mary's, the local Catholic school where my friend's nieces were attending 6th and 8th grade, and I befriended the nuns who worked as teachers there. None of them were the stereotypes I had heard about - ruler-wielding closeted lesbians who took delight in abusing children - they were instead a group of intelligent, educated young women who were surprisingly normal. I was also struck by the fact, as I have continued to be with all the dozens of nuns and monks I've met since then, that they were among the happiest people I have ever met.

When I spent time with the sisters at St. Mary's, I sheepishly admitted to them that I had wanted to be a nun since I was a little kid. I had read "The Nun's Story" about ten times and had watched the movie religiously - pun intended. I told them that while I was fascinated with the whole idea, my family thought I was completely nuts and were dead set against it. In fact, everyone I'd ever told about my desire to be a nun suggested that I get therapy immediately. I had been raised a Baptist and had no exposure to the Catholic faith (Georgians are mostly Baptist and Methodist, and they regard Catholics suspiciously as yankees, immigrants and drunks), and I had absolutely no idea what being a nun might entail. The sisters were very patient and considerate when answering all my questions about their lives, and they gave me very good advice. 

Over the next twenty years I hid my spirituality in order to fit in and be cool and faux-agnostic, but I was still sneaking to church occasionally, praying twice a day as I always had - and the biggest secret of all was that I was writing to nuns. In spite of the fact that I was a supposedly worldly comedian wannabe actor in LA, married and working at an ad agency in the midst of Hollywood (a.k.a. Sodom and Gomorrah) I was more fascinated than ever with the religious life. On my honeymoon in Paris, I walked into Notre Dame cathedral with my fanatical Atheist husband and burst into tears. I even wrote to Dolores Hart, who had starred in a movie with Elvis before leaving her acting career behind and joining the Regina Laudis Abbey in Connecticut, and asked her about her life. By then she was the Mother Superior of her community and she wrote me back some of the most beautiful and inspirational wisdom I have ever read. 

I was greatly relieved, for many reasons, when I finally got a divorce in 1999. I thought "Hey, now maybe I can become a nun..." but I was still wrestling horribly with the idea of being Catholic. I cannot ever live my life as a hypocrite, and I knew that if I sat in church and pretended to believe my gay friends were going to hell, birth control and divorce were sinful, and women could not be priests, I would be a big fat liar. I asked my nun friends, with whom I was now corresponding regularly, what I should do and one of them said, much to my shock, "Well, if you don't want to be a Catholic, you should try the Episcopal church. They have nuns, too."

Sure enough, I looked up the beliefs of the Episcopal church: gays, OK, divorce, OK, birth control, no problem, women priests, OK, gay priests, fer sher, gay bishops, risky but kinda OK. This sounded like my kind of church. 

I joined All Saints Beverly Hills in 1999, and since then I have befriended monks and nuns from six of the twenty four Episcopal religious orders in the United States. I am an Associate (an official "friend" and supporter of the order) of the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity in Santa Barbara and I go there for silent meditational retreats once or twice a year. 

Unfortunately the rest of the religious orders (except the Franciscan brothers in San Francisco) are located on the east coast. This means that I must endure the hell of airports in order to experience the still, silent heaven of a convent. I have been to Ohio, to New Jersey and - just this past weekend, to the Society of St. Margaret in Boston. I hope to visit all the orders before I'm through, and I know that no matter what happens to me, I'll probably end up becoming a Sister. It's a fantastic way of living out your old age - lots of meditation and quiet time, with the younger sisters always fussing over you and taking care of you - nuns frequently live into their early hundreds. 

Monasticism was on the verge of dying out after the big surge of vocations dropped off in the mid-seventies, but now its coming back stronger every year as people who feel called to the religious life are finding and contacting communities via the internet. Most orders no longer operate the hospitals, schools and orphanages that once formed the bulk of their work. They have instead switched their focus to operating retreats and conferences for regular people who are seeking peace and quiet in an increasingly noisy and chaotic world, and business is booming. The psychological screening process for monastics is very stringent now, so the days of crazy ruler-wielding and abusive monks and nuns are thankfully over, and communities are better able to focus on the things that have made monasticism a truly beautiful and transcendent practice for the past 2,000 years. 

A psychic once told me that the reason I have always had this strange, incongruous fascination with nuns is because I was a nun in most of my former lives. My mother inadvertently gave me the middle name of Monica, which in Latin means "nun," so I think there is some connection beyond the realm of knowing. Whatever the reasons for my interest, I love and appreciate all the wonderful friends I've made in my many years of investigating their way of life. 

Autumn called me while I was on retreat at St. Margaret's this weekend and said "So what have you been doing?" "Well," I said, "I've been getting up at 5AM and praying six of the Daily Offices every day, and other than that we've been in silence and meditation." "OMIGOD!" She said, "That sounds AWFUL!!!"

To most people it does sound pretty brutal, but the daily rhythm of convent life always restores my fragmented soul. During the last Daily Office I attended this weekend - Compline on Sunday night - we were all calling out prayer intercessions. At the end of the long list of people who needed our prayers, Sister Grace called out "And also - please bless Claudette with a safe journey home tomorrow."

That's is the thing I love most about being "in community," as they say. I know that no matter how frightened I might be about being a much-too-sensitive person going back out into a cold, cruel world, my friends the Brothers and Sisters are praying for me. Everywhere I go, I feel their silent, profound and eternal love and support.

To learn more about the Society of St. Margaret:

The Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity:

Episcopal Religious Orders:

The Episcopal Church: