BY MADONNA HAMEL
“I’ve been working on this book for so long now I’m sure people have given up asking about it” I whined to a friend recently. “Or maybe they’ve assumed I’ve given up and they’re just being polite. Or maybe they’re relieved because now they won’t have to read something so boring.”
“Or maybe they’re not even thinking about you, at least, not your nonexistent book.” My friend laughs then asks: “But seriously, when did you start this thing? Because at some time you have to end it- it won’t end itself, you know. There’s always more.”
The seed was planted the day my chum Denis walked in the front door with a copy of ‘L’Histoire Des Femmes Au Quebec’ in one hand and a cloth grocery bag, with a baguette sticking out of it, in another. A cigarette dangled from his lips as he handed the book to me.
“Voila Cherie, page 42, check it, your ancestor Marie.”
I flipped it to the page and slowly translated out loud. “Marie Morin…at 13 entered the order of the Hospitellers…bursar, superior, economist…in 1697 she became an annalist?”
“Historian. She wrote the annals of Montreal. So, Mado, she was not just the first nun but the first writer!”
I sat with that fact, that my ancestor Marie Morin, daughter of Helen Desportes, first infant born in Canada, New France at the time, was our first published author. The writer role intrigued me more than the nun part, to be honest. Who is fascinated by nuns? What Catholic kid doesn’t have a story about a mean or suspicious or shaming nun? Who hasn’t been humiliated for just being a kid, perhaps a wild child, living half-feral, covered in mud or drenched in melted snow by the end of recess? Who hasn’t had their spirit crushed by some Mother Superior who believed that curiosity and communing with nature meant wantonness and corruption later in life?
One of my jobs is to write book reviews. I have the privilege of reading the latest titles concerning the ways and lives of Indigenous people, stories that for so long have gone unwritten or unheard by the rest of us. In these stories there are few kind nuns and many criminals: Nuns who starve children or worse, force them to eat their own vomit. Nuns who deprive children of warmth in the way of clothing and love. It’s not unheard of that people in power abuse children all the time: coaches, teachers, bosses. But when a person who claims to be a handmaiden of God, dispensing infinite kindness and mercy, instead dispenses cruelty and demoralization, the crime is that more egregious, the chance for renewed faith and trust in humanity that less likely. Unfortunately, when I try to speak of what I am writing, these are the nuns most people think of. They bristle at the idea or, as was the case with one young woman, yawn the words: That’ll be boring.
Given that cruel and blindly obedient nuns exist, let’s look at the cool ones.
The year I convinced a CBC producer in Kelowna to let me do a regular series on Faith Practices, which I named ‘More Than One Way Home’ – a title borrowed from a Keb Mo song- I spent hours talking with and eventually hanging out with two very cool nuns: Sr. Phyllis and Sr Elaine. It was Sr. Phyllis who set me straight on the meaning of the vows.
“Poverty, she said, is about right relationship with things. Chastity is about right relationship with people. And obedience is about right relationship with God.”
“I always thought it was about doing whatever your bishop said,” I pushed. “I mean, what if you are told to do something you don’t believe is right? Are you telling me you’d go with your God over the bishop?”
“If after a period of discernment I came to that awareness, yes.”
Luckily for both Elaine and Phyllis their bishop was a Franciscan with a sense of humour and chickens in his back yard. He’s retired now and works in a soup kitchen in Toronto.
Elaine is also retired and headed for Ireland to work with a group of farming nuns, similar to the ones to whom Kentucky author-farmer Wendell Berry bequeathed his land when he became too old to work it. She points out that the work of the social gospel today is both urban and rural. It’s about saving the planet, not souls. The definition of ‘radical’ is ‘root’, getting to the root of things. Nuns are taking the word literally.
The other focus, and perhaps even more radical, is on human trafficking. Nuns are creating safe houses for young women who have been misled into brothels and sex-trade warehouses. It happens more often than we care to think. At a party once I heard a guy brag about his upcoming stag party, part of a sex tourism package, in Bulgaria. Not a week later I interviewed a girl of 14 who bragged about the bracelets on her wrist: one for every blow-job. Her casual manner made me think it wasn’t just the pimps in her neighbourhood who had groomed her, but our culture at large.
The nuns who work to provide safe space for enslaved girls are not anti-sex, but they also couldn’t care less if people consider they are. To paraphrase a few of their remarks: When you see these girls, often limping toward you, you know what you have to do. There is nothing sexually liberating about being starved and beaten and sold. And there is no celebration of one’s sexuality here, in these dark places few people are willing to talk about. The depths of human depravity is bottomless, but I’m not here to moralize. If I can give a woman – a child!- a full belly and a safe home then she can have a good night’s sleep with no one prodding at her. Let’s start there.
This Halloween I’ll probably dress as a nun. Again. No, not sexy nun. I’ll be like Mother Alphonses, my own mother superior at St. Mary’s where the nuns were most concerned with producing the best choir in the province, or figuring out the science behind Moses parting the Red Sea. I’ll wear a bulky sweater. For a veil, a turtleneck sweater pulled over my head will suffice. I’ll try and practice the vows of right relationship – with all my relations and on into the year. I’ll start over. I’ll start there.