This blog was initiated by “It is my honor to declare war on you” by http://jahsonic.wordpress.com
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“Rumpole” says I have “Catholic Tastes”! Wondering what this meant, after he left home, I Googled this. Yes, I know that we have a shrine here at home made up of a crucifix I inherited from my Mother, and of a copy of the “Virgin of Vladivostok” icon “Rumpole” brought back from one of his travels. I consider myself a Lapsed Catholic, so found this reference to Catholic Taste somewhat perplexing. We have a sculpture of Krishna I value which may indicate just how far I have lapsed.
The mind creates surprising connections. While looking out the window (it was foggy) and scrubbing the counter I found myself whistling “Dominique…routier pauvre et chantant..” which was composed and sung by Soeur Sourire, a Belgian Nun. I am fond of sacred music. Long time ago, my sister and I danced in the aisle of the cathedral to some very fine sacred music. We just couldn’t help ourselves. Mother was so angry and embarrassed that she never again took us to church afterward, and insisted Father do this by himself.
This whistling led to my recalling Sister Saint Cecilia, my grade 5 teacher in Catholic School. We had just moved to suburbia from Hungary. Father and Mother decided that it might be better for us to go to a school which emphasized Catholic values. Any nuns we had had experience with, very limited experience, either grew wonderful plants and were experts in Botany or prepared the host wafers in a kitchen at the rectory next to the Cathedral. (I never could make the connection between nuns baking the host, and the stricture to never be able to touch the wafer to the teeth after having recieved communion. While returning to the pew, I was usually busy working my tongue around trying to scrape the wafer off my dry palate. The nuns made the hosts, the priest used his hand to put it on our tongues – so were my teeth so dirty?…This was a toughie!) Here in our new school I discovered that nuns had yet another job – teaching. But there were also some other fascinating discoveries about nuns. They may have dressed the same but like other women sure were different. Our teacher, Sister Saint Cecilia, was young, and huge surpise to me, made classes fun. She loved Elvis Presley and played his records in class ( at home we kids were not allowed to listen to anything Elvis, so this was just fine by me!). She sat on top of her desk, swinging her legs in time to the music while we copied things off the blackboard. The older nun in the next- door class preyed on her – she always poked her nose in the room and glared at Sister St C.who, soon as she was aware of the old nun looking at her, would stop whatever she was doing, straighten her habit and clasp her hands in front of her waist demurely. One day coming back to class from the bathroom, she was headed to the office of Mother Superior AND was skipping down the hall, habit skirt swaying. Here was a kindred spirit, I thought, someone who did things her other Sisters and Mother disapproved of sometimes. She took disapproval rather well. Also, she was gentle preparation for another revelation about Sisters.
At this school there were specialist Sisters also. The nun who taught Art and Physical Education was Sister Saint Alexina, who I now realize was about 45 years old back then. She was rangy and agile. But she didn’t seem to enjoy teaching us basketball. Every time our class started fooling around, not paying attention, she’d stop the basketball coaching and bring out the skipping ropes. She showed us some terrific skipping moves, and loved to take her turn. She was very good at this. So, here was a nun who skipped! Was this allowed?
Sister St. A taught us drawing, which I found lot of fun. After school, at home I’d sit with a pencil and draw on the front and back leaves of books, my own, and Father’s. Paper was more accessible at school, so there was greater opportunity to draw. Drawing on textbooks was Verboten in class, so as kids do, I drew on every surface permitted. Sister. St. A wrote and sent a note to my parents asking if they would consider letting me go to the nunnery on Saturdays where she taught several children drawing. This is where Sister, casually chatting with us in the garden at rest period would discuss anything we kids brought up.
Curious, we wanted to know what she did before she became a nun. ” A bubble-dancer” she replied, and herded us back inside to resume drawing. So what was a bubble dancer, I wondered? When asked, she said our parents should explain this to us. Later, during supper, I finally managed to blurt out “Just what is a bubble dancer? Sister St. A told us during drawing class that she had been one!” Everyone stopped eating and looked at each other, surprised. Mother blushed and pinched her lips together. Father started laughing uproariously. They left the room, stayed out a long while. Returning, they announced ,” You are both too young to know what a bubble dancer is!”. So, I figured this was a Secret neither parents, nor nuns could reveal. Why? Something about dancing, nuns, bubbles that couldn’t be discussed at dinner, or anywhere? So, people who should be in the know, have rules and suggestions we must follow, and who approve and disapprove (and punish, if necessary) refused to even answer at all? This I found very confusing., which led me to conclude there were Secrets involving Sisters one was only privy to when older. The end of that school year was the end of a Catholic Education for us!
Considering this, as I moved on to washing down the cupboards, it occurred to me that quite often Education may have unintended consequences, in spite of the best intentions of those doing the Educating, when even in a Catholic Education there tend to be bombs dropped onto innocent minds which leave a long-lingering fallout, with unanticipated results.
Back in the 60s, many young people living in North American suburbia made what might be considered a modern day equivalent of a Grand Tour. I was one such fortunate suburbanite, and hitch-hiked and got around the Old Countries by train. On a hot July afternoon, a friend and I were sweating it out by the side of a dusty road that ran along beside the French Mediterranean. Our bags by our feet, our thumbs at the ready, we languished waiting for a ride which would pick us up. We were pretty subdued, trying not to move around too much in the heat, chatting casually. My friend, a suburban girl educated in a Public School, noticed a group of women relaxing on the beach below the road where we waited. She pointed out to me that they were wearing unusual beach attire, not the usual bikinis worn by some women on Cote d’Azur beaches on which we had basked on in order to acquire a fashionable dark tan. My friend and I tried to blend in (while in Rome, and all that) so wore bikinis like the youngish French women. Curious about these lounging, different looking women, we noticed they wore long black clothes but left their heads, arms and lower legs exposed. Strangely, they had rigged up a protective perimeter made up of black cloths that flapped in the breeze. “I think these may be nuns”, I ventured a guess. “Oh”, said my friend, and there ended our exchange. Wiping the sweat from my dusty forehead, I privately mused on this and discovered that shock and surprise were my main reaction to this nun sighting. Sisters sunbathing showing bare heads, legs and forearms?
Moving on to cleaning the stove, and bored with Dominique, I began singing “How do you solve a problem like, Maria?” a catchy song form “The Sound of Music”, a movie-musical a bunch of us girls attending Art School in suburbia went so see one rainy afternoon ( we just couldn’t face the upcoming session on Uncial calligraphy in Design class, skipped out, saw the matinee – I didn’t particularly feel guilty about this after all there was a connection, in my mind, between Uncial hand and a story about a nun. Perversely, I reasoned that my father, who was opposed to my attending Art School instead of the U to study Pharmacy, and my mother, who lectured me ceaslessly about being a “good girl”, would see the utility of my learning something “of value”.) So here was a novice questioning her vocation who also liked to sing, dance, play with children, loved music and fell in love with a rather attractive, moral and caring man (with bad hair) who had a herd of kids already. As played, by Julie Andrews, the young nun Maria nicely symbolized the dilemma faced by young women in the early days of the Sexual Revolution, whether to choose between either marriage or abstinence. Of course, the question of sex in Catholic marriages was merely implied. After all there were a great number of progeny from the original Von Trapp family, and presumably Good Catholic Couples only had sex in order to procreate (so we had been told in Cathechism classes) so maybe eventually the Von Trapp Singers was enlarged by many new little Von Trapps. Could be?
When wool-gathering, a mind slips around without following strict chronology in recalling memories. Searching the thicket of memory to alight somewhere, my thinking slipped to a later experience of watching “The Nun’s Story”, a film based on the real-life dilemma encountered by a young Belgian nun. The main locale of this movie is an exotic place, the Belgian Congo, where as part of their apostolic work, some Belgian nuns provide nursing aid in a remote jungle hospital. Here the young nursing Sister Luke, as played by Audrey Hepburn, is daily faced with an irascible (and probably agnostic?) medical head of the clinic, Dr Fortunati (the attractively rumpled, intense Peter Finch) whose attitudes cause the young nun to question her vocation. On seeing this movie it became clear to me that Sisters had more demanding jobs to do beyond studying botany, preparing the host, teaching in school, leaving the nunnery before taking final vows to marry an older man with a passel of kids. Here was a nun, who ,through a period of over a decade, struggled with her vocation and her relationship to her religion. She had a far more exciting option than Maria (Sound of Music) to consider, after all Sister Luke had to debate whether to remain a nursing Sister in the Congo or some other backwater or run off back to Belgium to work in the Resistance as a civilian.
By this time, I was in a thorougly religious musical mood, and was faced with washing the kitchen floor. I dug out a recording of Elizabethan music sung by a counter-tenor, put it on the turntable to play. By the time the mop and hot water were in readiness the record had moved to “Miserere, my savior, God have Mercy on me poor wretch….” which I sang along with while beginning to wash the kitchen floor. Soon, my thinking slipped to the movie “Agnes of God”. In this film an guileless young novice is found in a psychotic state, having given birth to an infant which was found dead in a garbage can in her cell. This was a most disturbing psychodrama, because it was set in contemporary times. And yet, during the years when I saw “Agnes of God”, (the80s) I had also read “The Devils of Loudun”, as well as the story of Heloise and Abelard, both of which had an effect of profound sadness on me. Here were aspects of human behavior among people in the religious orders that may not have had exposure to the light of day and understanding, had it not been for the fact that exposing hypocrisy in all matters pertaining to life had by the time of the 80’s become more a norm.
By this time, I was ready for a cup of tea, and as I sat sipping it was mulling over having watched the UTube video link provided by person doing a blog as jahsonic,. This video is a takeoff of Julie Andrews’ song “The Lonely Goatherd” from the Sound of Music, by the contemporary pop queen Gwen Stefani. Complete with yodeling, trendy nun’s fashion accessorized with movie-star cool sunglasses, dancing and goose-stepping regimented children in quaint costume, glam-rock sequin bedecked guitar (that “Rumpole”, my traditionalist guitar-collecting husband would sneer at) and marvellous videography this was a video that I must admit to enjoying, and watching in sheer fascination. It was absurd, and entertaining at the same time. This makes me realize that “Rumpole” was right in saying I had “Catholic Taste”.
And yet I wonder what many young people who come from differing spiritual and social upbringings would make of this video? Would they be made curious enough to explore just how come this kind of imagery came to be possible as entertainment, to scratch beneath the surface of appearances? I do hope that is the case!