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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

In my new screenplay, I have a scene in which an elderly dying man, stubbornly resists his stated attraction to be reconciled to God. After a wracking bout of bloody coughs, he rasps to the young priest hero of the piece, "I told myself my whole life, that I wouldn't turn to God in the end because I was afraid."

I got this line straight from real life. Suffering from Parkinsons, an agnostic aunt of mine said this to me one night a few years back, after a few glasses of wine. I remember being bowled over by the pathetic absurdness of it all, saying, "And? How is that working out for you?"

I have thought of this line many times in the last few weeks as the Church has gone through the process of electing the 265th successor to St. Peter. Suddenly, all the grey-haired dissenting Catholic pundits were back in their beloved limelight, stubbornly defending their disastrous tenure as the arbiters of American Church life. Watching them, I thought of my aunt. "Eventually," I thought, "one of them is going to break down and say, "Hell, we really screwed up, didn't we?"

How about Richard McBrien saying, "That freakin' Catholic philosophical tradition may have been oppressive and patriarchal, but damn if it didn't produce students who were more rigorous in their thought."

Or how about Andrew Greeley looking up from his latest soft-porn manuscript to shrug, "Humanae Vitae was right. Sex outside of total commitment objectifies women and de-civilizes men."

But the ones I'm really waiting for are the Joan Chittisters, osb, and the legions of other women who, in one lifetime, devastated the power and tradition of religious communities in the U.S. Certainly, some one of these unhappy women is eventually going to exhale, "Well, that was a mistake."

Because of my personal history, I find religious women to be the most egregious offenders in the "stubborn refusal to have a keen sense of the obvious" contest.


Two weeks ago, I spent two days of meetings in a Chicago airport hotel. Waiting at the curb at O'Hare for the Wyndham shuttle, I found myself suddenly surrounded by a flock of overweight, grey-haired women in Walmart clothes and sensible shoes. "Nuns" I knew with certainty.

(It's so ironic that most American nuns went secular so as to get away from any kind of indication that religious life was anything special. The whole point was to blend in. But is there anything as conspicuous as a nun in lay person's clothing? Beyond not having the resources to dress well, they are not the kind of folks for whom accessorizing is a main preoccupation anyway. If it were, they wouldn't have been attracted to religious life in the first place. Sheesh...!)

As we boarded the shuttle, I said to one of the fourteen nuns, "What Congregation are you with, Sister?" The woman was annoyed at me for asking for some reason. I have experienced this cagey coldness before from the secular religious who, I guess, are too busy campaigning for social justice to be nice to strangers on an airport shuttle. The nun murmured back, "Sinsinawa" and then leaned into a conversation with the sister beside her.

"Sinsinawa," I thought. "Ah, Dominicans." (I love that I know stuff like that.)

Walking in to the Wyndham lobby, we were all greeted by a large sign which read, "Dominican Sisters Assembly: The Planet. The People. The Preaching." The sign - I found it on line here - was decorated with, a graphic of planet earth, I think with flowers on one side of it. It was clearly some kind of planet, anyway.

Taking it in, my head bent spontaneously to the side in perplexion. "The Planet? The People? I can give you 'the preaching' as that is, after all, a Dominican thing. But what about 'The devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist? The rosary? The enlightened intellect? Or, blow your mind, 'St. Dominic'?"


Still, I am someone who likes being around nuns. So, I was actually kind of enjoying the joke that I was going to spend the next two days surrounded by them. And, then, I thought to myself, "Hey, I'll be able to catch Mass here with them tomorrrow morning, instead of trying to convince myself to trudge the two miles to the nearest church. Cool."

So, I turned to the friendliest looking sister near me (I know it is my personal pathology, but secular nuns always look kind of scary to me), and I asked her, "Sister, what time are you all having Mass tomorrow? Would it be possible for me to crash?" I thought that given secular laissez-faireness, letting a lay woman crash the assembly's Mass would be an acceptable kind of rebellion.

But the sister looked back at me in confusion, "Mass?" she said. "And why would we be having any kind of Eucharistic liturgy on Friday?"

"Oh crap." I thought. "I just outed myself all over the floor here, didn't I?" Aloud I said, "Oh, sorry... I thought...well, because you're all sisters...but of course, why would you...I mean..." [retreat into stupid nervous laughing sounds]

The sister turned away from me like last week's blue-light special. A few seconds later she turned around again, holding a brochure out for my inspection. "We have a VERY packed schedule."

I decided to go get a beer and check in later. As I walked away, the sister called out to me, "We do have a meditation room. You would probably be welcomed to use that."

"Oh, hey, cool. Thanks."

My dark side took over. I couldn't resist. Soon, I was slinking down the hall, past the table displays about political protesting, following the signs for "Prayer Circle Space." I slipped inside, even now, looking around to see if Jesus Host was there somewhere, waiting to be asked for help in salvaging the Dominican communities in the United States. But no.

They had a circle of chairs around some kind of a mounted paper mache planet thing. I guess it was supposed to match the planet image that I had seen on the sign in the lobby.

There was no Jesus. No Mary. No Dominic. No Thomas or Albert. No rosary. No cross. No anything to establish this group as Domincans, nevermind Christians, nevermind Catholics.

But none of the sisters seems to mind. They were everywhere in groups of three and four, laughing and hugging, and just fine with the fact that everything they have as a community will end with them. There were no younger members.

Later on, I asked one of the nuns, also having a beer in the bar, why the community was meeting at an urban hotel. "Don't you have any retreat centers with some nature around? It seems like with your theme of "The Planet" you might pick a place that has some trees..." The sister gulped her beer and shrugged. "We need to get away from all the places we work. In a hotel, we don't have to worry about doing the dishes and making beds. We have a lot of work to do."

Talk about your understatement of the half-century.

The problem is, they won't get to the real work they have to do. They are going to die clinging with gritted teeth to their errors. They are going to see the property and the institutions sold off. So many wonderful places that were acquired through generations of sacrifice by the people of God and the members of their own communities. And they are going to watch it all with unflinching commitment to the revolution. They are so like the nostalgic Marxists who taught me in grad school. Even six years after the wall had smashed down, they just wouldn't give over that Communism was a failure.

Being stiff-necked isn't a virtue. It's just very sad. Somebody needs to tell the secular nuns that. Not me, of course.... (shiver)