Kristin Ohlson had a mission. She wanted to write a book about nuns. A
lapsed Catholic and freelance writer, she forged a connection with St. Paul
Shrine, an inner city Cleveland church which housed within its walls a group
of Poor Clares, an order dedicated to continual prayer.
Immuring -- the practice of enclosing a religious person within walls for
life -- seems to almost anyone outside to be a form of torture. Perpetual
prayer, the practice of improving the world just by praying for the relief
of its many sufferings, seems to almost anyone outside to be if not
futile, at least hopelessly idealistic. Ohlson met and talked with women
who had volunteered for both these experiences.
Ohlson wanted to know, as does the reader, what it feels like to be in the
company of other women only in almost total silence in a single small
enclosed home for life. But Mother James, with her sharp Boston accent,
kept trying to set the author straight: "There you go about feeling again...I
told you before, it's not about feeling. You can't go by what you feel.
You have to go by what you know -- that God is there, and you're doing your
best in all things."
Clare of Assisi, a rich, beautiful woman, founded her order of Poor Clares
against opposition from the Pope and the Church hierarchy. She wanted women
to live the simple rule of poverty practiced by St. Francis. In those
times, women who became nuns often enjoyed a life of relative ease, even of
luxury, paying large dowries to the church and living lavishly on the
proceeds. For many, life in a convent was an escape from the burden of
wealth that forced them into unwanted arranged marriages in which they would
be totally powerless. In the religious life at least they had some sense of
accomplishment - feeding the poor, nursing the sick: "There seems to have
been a loathing among these noblewomen for their own assets."
Ohlson draws a number of threads together in weaving her story of the nuns
of the St. Paul Shrine. There is her own personal longing "to reach the
belief side of the chasm." There is the history of the once-grand building
itself, stuck in the middle of what gradually became a degraded and
inhospitable neighborhood, and the saga of the coalescing of the enclosed
order of sisters within it.
Each sister that Ohlson interviewed as she herself was drawn towards their
simple life, had a different story, a different perspective, even a
different accent. Living so long together, she observed, had not changed
their multitude of speech patterns - then she learned that they spoke
together only 45 minutes each day.
There is Sister Maria, who wanted to be a nun "from the first grade, if you
can believe that," but was unable to take her vows until she was almost
fifty. There is Sister Thomas the artist, who lived fully and "thought of
this [convent] life as a kind of prison." Sister Bernadette, "the Poor Clare
who dives for the sports page every day," found the cloister at first too
communal - she had longed for the deprivations of the hermit saints.
As the author interviews the sisters behind the screen that obscures them
from public view, and the priest on the other side who manages the church
for a dwindling congregation, she examines her own faith life. When her
mother becomes critically ill, the sisters pray for her, and there is a
"miraculous" recovery, though not sufficiently miraculous to lead Ohlson
back to full membership in the church. At the latter stage of her quest, she
asks "if the church even wanted someone like me," and is told, "Take your
time. Stay with it." There is never a sense that anyone expects to convert
her back to Catholicism away from her skepticism and rational questioning of
Church doctrine. But "they do think that God drew me to the shrine for some
sort of purpose - of course they would think that, because that's what
people like them think."
Ohlson gives dignity to her subjects, these contemplative sisters who believe
that they have a vocation to pray for the world, that "some things only
happen through the intercession of prayer," as Mother James expresses it.
It is an idea as old as worship itself, and one which finds resonance in
other religions as well.
The author poses the obvious question to Mother James: "If everyone stopped
praying, would goodness dry up and evil run rampant?" And Mother James
responds, as we know she will, "It won't happen. That won't ever happen."