By KIMBERLY CRUM
Sixty-plus people kneel, holding rosaries in folded palms, thumbing beads forward at each prayer’s end. I too kneel, but my hands are empty. The faithful recite in rote synchrony. Mumbling becomes mantra. Prayer becomes chant. I cannot remember the order in which I must recite the ritual prayers. The rosaries in the drawer of my bedside table are relics, valued only because of their origins: the Connemara marble rosary was a gift to my father; the rose petal beads were a gift from my daughter.In a Rosary service, Catholics recite the “Hail Mary” 53 times. They recite the “Our Father” six times.
I am a “good enough” Catholic, fallen away from certain traditions—the Rosary and some Church doctrine, for example. My experience is common, even cliché. If former Catholics were their own denomination, it would be the third largest in the United States, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
“I really don’t understand how you can stay Catholic,” a friend said. She is a politically liberal second-wave feminist, as I am. She is also a Protestant, unfamiliar with the mysteries inherent in the Catholic liturgy.
“The Church is not a democracy,” my sister-in-law explained. “Be patient. Wait, and everything will change.” She longs for a more expansive role for women in the Church. However, she is devoted to obedience, as so many Catholics are.
Cognitive dissonance defines my ongoing struggle with the Catholic Church. I have long held contradictory attitudes that cannot comfortably coexist. I hate abortion; I am pro-choice. I love the Pope; I dislike the Vatican. I am a feminist; I accept that priests are men. I believe marriage is a sacred bond; I support same-sex marriage. I love babies; I celebrate contraception. Some bishops of the current Catholic Church would feel justified in refusing to serve me communion.
At the peak of my cognitive dissonance, I took myself to a nunnery—specifically, to the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in central Kentucky. There I spent three days in a solo-retreat with the Catholic matriarchy. Through quiet contemplation, there might be an answer to my question: Can a socially progressive woman thrive in a patriarchal church nostalgic for the 1950’s, when men were men, and women were pregnant?
I love the undulating frontier beauty of the Motherhouse grounds. Not a gas station or convenience store in view. No street lights. No suburbs. Only 780 acres of Loretto-owned rolling farm fields and wild nature, all at least 10 miles from somewhere. The sisters wander quietly on the grounds in habit-free austerity—graying women whose sole ornaments are dangling crucifixes. Many lean on canes and push walkers. Most have returned to the Motherhouse to retire after lives as missionaries. These devout elderly women, mistresses of simplicity, do not look like troublemakers promoting, “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” (New York Times, 18 April, 2012). At the time of my visit, this religious order, as part of a network of women religious, was being investigated by Vatican officials who had reprimanded them for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals,” as a Catholic News Service article reported in April 2012. It seems the sisters’ sins were of omission rather than commission. They had ignored issues of “crucial importance” to the Church—abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia— and took actions in favor of programs opposed by the bishops—namely, the Affordable Health Care Act (ACHA), which was “not in agreement with the church’s teaching on human sexuality.” In the case of the AHCA, many women in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (of which Loretto is a member) either agreed with the laws’ requirement for insurance coverage for contraception, or they failed to disagree.
I have struggled with the decision to leave the Church more than once. I left it for 14 years when I married a divorced Presbyterian. Now, 17 years after my return—still married to the Presbyterian— I contemplate leaving again. This elastic relationship with the faith of my birth should not be a surprise. I am the child of a devout Catholic mother and a lapsed Episcopalian father who, in 1946, agreed to the required instruction to marry a Roman Catholic. Dad talked the priest into playing Pinochle, instead.
Doubt and disobedience are in my blood.
As a pre-Vatican II “Cradle Catholic,” I kneeled at bedside to say nightly prayers. I sat in Mass with my mother, our heads covered by lace mantillas—hers black, and mine white. I lined up for confession, seeking release from the terrors of my 9-year old soul.
As a youth, the mythology of Catholicism captivated me. St. Augustine was a prolific sinner before he gave himself to Jesus. “He gave himself up to pleasure with all the vehemence of an ardent nature,” New Advent’s Catholic encyclopedia tells us. Joan of Arc was a great female warrior, powered by God and then burned at the stake. Bernadette’s vision of the Virgin shaped her life; she chose the convent and bravely faced pain and suffering—a requisite for sainthood. Time, maturity, and Presbyterianism lessened my fascination with the saints of lore (and saints in general). Nevertheless, I continue to embrace the magic and mystery inherent in Catholicism. When I was a Protestant, I missed the sameness of the liturgy and the meditative solitude of Catholic Mass, worshipping alone with hundreds of people.
The destination of my solo retreat, the Loretto Motherhouse, is in the region known as, “The Holy Land of Kentucky.” This was the frontier diocese destination for the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in the 18th century. Today, this area boasts “more religious establishments per square inch than any rural place in the country,” according to a July 29, 2013, article in the National Catholic Reporter. In the rolling hills are the Loretto Motherhouse, the Ursuline sisters, the Kentucky Dominicans, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and the Abbey of Gethsemani—the latter was home to the great spiritualist literary monk, Thomas Merton.
My room at Loretto was on the unoccupied third-floor “penthouse” of the antebellum Academy building. Immediately below were the retired sisters. The building’s most notable feature, other than its cupola and 16-foot ceilings, was that it had no operable locks on doors—inside or out. “We don’t need them here,” the retreat coordinator said as she escorted me to an elevator the depth of a coffin. She implied that, in the middle of nowhere, not much happens. Nevertheless, I could not purge myself of the memory of Truman Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood.”
Once in the room, I calculated a plan for self-protection. I would erect barriers—a well-placed doorstop, a tipsy aluminum towel rack, and an upended desk chair. If an intruder entered, the fallen items would crash and the nuns would come running.
Anxiety over the unlocked door found its remedy in a pastoral view. From three 12-foot windows, I viewed the Loretto estate: rolling hills, a lake, a cemetery, and a log cabin the size of a child’s playhouse. Each morning brought a Tequila sunrise over the lake. Each night was a planetarium. Orion’s belt clarified itself so clearly that I could raise my finger and connect the dots—from the belt, to the arms, to the sword of the hunter. Orion and I were both hunters. He hunted wild game. My prey was peace—the space and time to read, write, walk, sleep, and consider my future in the Catholic Church.In a Rosary service, Catholics recite the “Hail Mary” 53 times. They recite the “Our Father” six times.
I remain a Catholic for two reasons: the liturgy and the Madonna. I love the incense and the magical thinking created by ritual. I love the idea of Mother Mary, a woman in a “leadership” position.
At Loretto, there are Blessed Mothers everywhere. Mary waits at the other side of the lake. She is nestled among the rocks in a small grotto on a footpath. She is abundant at the entrance to the cemetery, where the stations of her “seven sorrows” portray her life with-and-after Jesus. Here she escapes from Egypt with her young family. Here she cradles the dead body of her first-born son.
In my time at the Motherhouse, only one sister introduced herself. She grasped my hand with warm tissue-paper-soft palms. She welcomed me to the convent. She told me of her life as a missionary in Ghana. She was the only resident who approached me. Otherwise, the sisters smiled and let me be. They understood the value of contemplation.
On the third day of the retreat, I was climbing the stairs to the Academy building after my daily lake walk. I felt the peace that solitude brings. Suddenly a song burst into the silence, from my lips: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.” Is this the blinding light of epiphany? Is this “recognition energy,” which the sister had referred to in the homily at Mass? Though I liked the idea of sage Mother Mary whispering words of wisdom, the advice “Let it Be” is vague, implying acceptance and lack of action. What exactly is the IT I am to accept?
Of course, there was nothing magic about the spontaneous Beatles lyric. A walk at Loretto is abundant with Mother Mary. And, I have the annoying habit of bursting into spontaneous song: “Grab your coat and get your hat/leave your worries on the doorstep; All I am saying is give Peace a chance; Que sera sera.”
There is another complication to this lyric epiphany. “Let it Be,” is not about the Madonna. Paul McCartney composed it in memory of his deceased mother, Mary. No matter. In my view, one mother’s whisper-of-wisdom is as good as the next.
I love Mary for her humanity and her motherhood. I admire images and sculpture that portray her after the birth of Christ, rather than as The Virgin. As Virgin Mary, she stands erect, her head bowed in virtuous prayer; her palms pressed together. After the birth of Christ, Mary looks straight ahead with arms outstretched, warm and welcoming as if she is waiting for an embrace. In life, as in art, motherhood softens a woman.
One image that I love of the Virgin is Rosetti’s “The Annunciation.” Mary and Angel Gabriel are in a small stucco room. A glassless window frames the day-blue sky. Gabriel stands just inside the window, with the hint of a halo on his head. Otherwise, he appears a slight ordinary man, without the paparazzi of cherubim and seraphim, though his feet appear to be floating over a tiny campfire. A white dove perches on his left hand and a lily branch extends from his right. The seated Mary cowers in the corner of her bed, her feet tucked under the folds of her muslin gown. She looks no older than 16 years. Mary focuses her eyes, not on the angel or the dove, but on the white lily Gabriel extends. This scene of the Annunciation is pre-Magnificat. Before her soul glorified the Lord, her belly churned with fear. Surely, she tried to bargain with Gabriel. She might have said something like, “I am not worthy. Take Sarah, two huts down. She is older and wiser, more pure and holy. She would be a better mother to the Son of God. “
The power of the story of the Immaculate Conception rests in Mary’s absolute acceptance. She could not have grasped the full reality of her situation: that she and her family would be fugitive exiles and her son’s existence would result in Herod’s slaughter of many first-born sons. She could not have fathomed she would lose this son twice, first to ministry and then to humanity. She could not have imagined that she would be forever called Virgin Mary as if virginity were her greatest achievement.In a Rosary service, Catholics recite the “Hail Mary” 53 times. They recite the “Our Father” six times.
I cradle the Connemara marble rosary. The square green beads make a soft jingling sound each time my hand changes position. I try to say the Hail Mary, but can only recite by rote as far as “Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb, Jesus.” For me, the Rosary will not become a routine, except at funeral vigils. Yet I appreciate the ritual’s focus on Mary. Indeed, the existence of a Blessed Mother is a paradox of Catholic womanhood. In this patriarchal Church, I can pray to a woman. This is not to say Mary has equal rights with the Deity, though she does have a seat at the welcome table.
This is not to say that I have reconciled the differences between the Church’s and my beliefs. Some of my ideas are incompatible with the views of the hierarchy. But I am satisfied to accept what I love about Catholicism: the spiritual value of ritual, the enduring example of Mother Mary, and the prayerful disobedience of the sisters religious—who are able to continue their faith while speaking their minds.
Kimberly Crum is passionate about essays. Her nonfiction has appeared in 94 Creations and New Southerner. She has read her radio essays for NPR affiliate WFPL in Louisville and has received awards for her magazine writing from the Society for Professional Journalists (Metro Louisville Chapter). Crum owns Shape & Flow Writing Services, a writing instruction studio where she especially enjoys leading memoir workshops. She serves as president of the board of directors of Louisville Literary Arts and is working on a segmented memoir, When I Find Myself: A life in eight stages. Learn more about Crum and read her blog and essays at safws.com.