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: