This is the first of a quarterly newsletter I am sending out in anticipation of a forthcoming memoir, The Fun Master, about my time as a stay-at-home dad. The fun master, in case you were wondering, was our late son Ethan.
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“Come on people!” a casual observer might remark. “This is the era of oversharing. Who doesn’t welcome an opportunity to talk about themselves?”
That the query came from the instructor after a Pilates class might account for the silence. We were all strangers to one another, careful not to make eye contact our entire time together. Moreover, people in spandex clutching yoga mats began streaming into the room just as our class ended. Even if anyone was inclined to share, they might have felt pressure to get on their way.
What began as an awkward moment quickly escalated into a situation ripe for a panic attack when the instructor began calling on particular people. My mind raced while she worked her way around the room. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to report. I had just returned from a trip to Spain with twenty-four other people. The problem was I didn’t quite know how to describe the experience. Everyone who had made the trip agreed that it just didn’t capture it to say that we were there to visit a bunch of cloistered Carmelite nuns.
Then, it struck me. That was perfect response.
“See you all next time.”
No one thanked me for securing our early release. For me, it was thanks enough to be heading off to a debriefing among my fellow travelers, where we all laughed about the difficulty of capturing the experience in a soundbite.
I’ll start with the meeting itself. Twenty-five people filled a small, plain room with plaster walls and wainscoting. There was a cross on one wall, a painting on another, chairs here and there. What immediately grabbed and held your attention, though, was the large metal grate along one wall. You couldn’t miss it. Four-foot wide, it extended five feet or so up from the floor and had four-inch spikes protruding every few inches.
That was as close as get to the nuns. In fact, not even that close. The nuns were also sitting several feet behind the grate, shrouded in darkness. Only the first row of them was visible in the gloom when you stood as close to the grate as the metal spikes allowed.
Along each side of the outer grate, there were small sections without spikes. That is where our friends Mike and Dorothea rested their heads while speaking with the assemblage of nuns in full habits on the other side.
They were the reason we were all there. Dorothea needed to work one more year as a teacher to receive a pension. Seeking motivation, she decided to use the money she made in that final year to buy everyone’s tickets to Madrid to visit the Carmelite monastery there. Huh? Obviously, I have a lot of ‘splainin to do.
Dorothea’s parents funded the Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines, Illinois decades before. She and her siblings, friends, and other family members visited them regularly over the years, sharing major events in their lives, triumphs as well as tragedies. When new babies arrived, for example, and arrived they did in droves, they were blessed by the nuns, but from behind their grate. The little tikes were placed in a special drawer, which opened on the other side, something like at a bank drive-through. I know what you are thinking: I wonder if that will come up later under hypnosis. I certainly see no evidence of that among the huge number of happy adults produced over the years by the clan.
Okay. Why us? When Mike and Dorothea’s youngest child Billy died in a tragic accident seven years ago,* she decided to make the following year one of prayer, because that’s when she felt closest to him. Her sisters joined her on their porch every morning. They continued through the summer into the fall and then on through the winter. Other people joined them, including my wife Janet and I, who lost our son two years before, and it became an institution, the prayer porch.
Dorothea leads the group, though most everyone contributes by sharing prayers from various traditions as well as poems, stories, reflections, news reports, and, yes, some gossip, though usually just as people are gathering. All this harkens back to the early Christian gatherings led by women in private homes before everything became settled doctrine and, alas, so patriarchal and controlling. Not surprisingly, the most diverse range of people find a comfortable spiritual home there, even, or perhaps especially, those struggling with established churches.
Over time, some things coalesced into regular features of the twenty-minute session. We break into the serenity prayer during awkward pauses and end with the Memorare, a pre-Vatican II prayer to Mary, for example. There is a daily story about Billy and his cousin Claire, who died two years after Billy. And, then, there are the Carmelites.
The author and his fearless leader
We always say a prayer supplied by the Carmelites in Madrid for a young man suffering from locked-in syndrome after a stroke. We also read five Carmelite maxims. Developed by the mystic St. Teresa of Avila, the maxims offer guidance about how to lead a rich spiritual life. As guides to everyday behavior, the maxims are very much like the teachings of the Buddha or Hindu spiritual leaders, illustrating Pierre Teilhard’s view, made famous by Flannery O’Connor, that everything that rises must converge.
So, that’s partly why Dorothea wanted so badly for the prayer porch regulars to accompany her to Spain to visit the Carmelites. The nuns there have been praying together with us for years, just as they have been praying for us. Hence Dorothea and Mike made a point of introducing everyone, each of us stepping up to the grate for a brief exchange with the nuns. It was kind of like meeting your spiritual pen pals for the first time.
The final purpose of the trip was to have some fun together. My sense was that this was first among equals in terms of importance. Or perhaps that’s how I, the committed ne’er-do-well, saw it. One of my takeaways from participating in this group for some time is that spirituality and sensuality are not antithetical when they are infused with love. When not holding the prayer porch on buses, hotel lobbies, or someone’s room during siesta, the group was eating, drinking, dancing, sight-seeing, shopping, and swimming our way through Spain
Youngest Pilgrim Penelope with Janet and Dorothea
Most surprising for me, though, is how much fun the Carmelites were. They live a very austere life, mostly in isolation, praying for others they have little or no contact with, and yet they really enjoy people, like hearing their stories, and sharing a laugh with them. During a previous visit, for example, Mike pointed out to them that the prayer porch reads five maxims a day, not just one like the Carmelites do. Mother superior responded: “Pride goeth before a fall,” and they all laughed. How true.
An agnostic for much of my life, I am still a little surprised to be involved in such an enterprise. Never having had any experience in a prayer group, I had always assumed they would be positively dreary. Same with holy people. Taking vows of poverty and chastity was bound to make you like Sister Mary Stigmata in the Blues Brothers, wouldn’t it?
Not these nuns. Leaving the monastery that day, we all remarked on how much better we felt. Later, Janet and I recalled that we had felt the same way when eight Tibetan monks stayed at our house for two weeks a number years ago. I can’t explain it. But the nuns and the monks somehow seemed to change the atmosphere around them, raising the vibrational level of everyone in the vicinity. Perhaps that’s why crowds followed Jesus around; they wanted those good vibes.
Mystics teach that true spiritual advancement requires placing the needs of others before your own. Fine, but I am not a mystic. So, it seems appropriate that I end with something about myself. I was very pleased that the Carmelites sang happy birthday to me, in Spanish, of course.
Yes, that’s right. I spent my birthday with a bunch of nuns, and I don’t regret it a bit.
The group decompressing, yet gain.
*If you would like to learn more about this remarkable person, here is a link to an award-winning documentary about Dorothea’s knitting group benefiting underprivileged kids in honor of Billy:
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