Christin's Words from Sunshine Hill

If it is to be music
you must be present to it, must offer to it
a profound self-remembering.
-from Altar Music

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Carol in the Hand of God

Carol in the Hand of God

My dear friend, Carol Rieke, died yesterday. Please read my tribute to her life HERE

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Edge of Tenderness

Convent Years

I will love you even when my love of you is ended.
I will desire you even when I desire you no more.
Gertrude von le Fort

Even as a little girl I wanted someday to become a nun. The sisters came to the little town where I lived only once a year, for two weeks in June. How could I know I wanted to join them and live their way of life? I really knew nothing about them. These women in their long dresses and veils mystified me, filled me with awe, and at the same time instilled in me that kind of shyness born of fear. It probably was the mystery of them that drew me, that held me, that never really let me go even when I almost chose to end my life to find a way away.

Here is the story of my fourteen years with the sisters--from mid-1958 to early 1973. During this era many young women entered and subsequently left convents. We became Catholic Sisters in one world, and left the sisterhood in another. Viet Nam was happening. Cultural transformation was happening. Our contemporaries in the society outside the convent protested or embraced the changes taking place, not only in the world at large, but in the Catholic Church. The rigid Pope Pius XII died and was followed by the old but charismatic Pope John XXIII who called an ecumenical council in Rome--the iconoclastic Second Vatican Council which paved the way among Protestants for the Emerging Church Movement of the new millennium. 

My contemporaries in religious orders and congregations of that era reeled with excitement and confusion. We were just learning what it meant to be Catholic women with vows when the secure structure beneath us began to give way. We stood on quicksand. It actually took years to realize what was happening, years of thinking we knew who we were and then realizing at some moment in time that we really were not what we had thought. It didn't matter on which side of the changes we  found ourselves, we discovered ourselves in the situation described by T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets: "Last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice." Some of us left that life because the life we thought we chose no longer existed, others left because the transformation we anticipated wouldn't happen fast enough. And possibly some of us, feeling caught in a cultural and religious whirlwind felt we could no longer breathe in such a wind, and left merely to survive.

For me it was centrifugal force. I think so, anyway. I'm an old woman now and I've never gotten over it. This memoir is one I've written many times in many ways, but its final form is the result of letters from my mother written to me at least weekly during all the years I spent in the convent. Many of these letters she sent survived. When she died in 1993 I organized them and put them in plastic page savers in a loose-leaf notebook. I read them once again as I worked. We went through those years together, she and I. Our hopes, our confusions, our sufferings, sometimes our realizations correspond. It was in the spaces between our letters that I finally found a way to write this memoir.

Here's the blurb I wrote for advertising this new book:

Caught in the turmoil of renewal resulting from the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a young nun and her mother struggle to understand and live their faith in a new and often unfamiliar religious world. Sister Christin, eager to implement the new directives from Rome, finds herself with theological vision but without guidelines, wisdom, or life experience to create structures for living that vision. "No one knows how to do this!" Humorous and sometimes tragic results ensue. Her mother, Alyce, proud of her daughter but at the same time concerned for her welfare at such an unstable time, encourages and warns her of possible dangers through letters and occasional visits to the convent. As the two women exchange these "words in their fingers," the reader will experience the effect their church in turmoil has upon the lives of each of them. 
This is a memoir of a turning point, a thin place in the texture of an ancient institution, of a surrounding culture on the edge of a new understanding of the world, and of the souls of even the most common women who lived through those times and attempted to influence the outcome. For the human soul, it was an edge both terrifying and tender.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

With That From The Earth

This poster hangs in my kitchen at Sunshine Hill. I first saw it in the home of Nor Hall back in Minnesota and went right down to a Grand Ave. gallery to find one for myself. It cost twelve dollars or near that, making it expensive for me at the time. Now Google tells me it is out of print. It has hung on the walls of each successive home: in California, Washington, and now in Oregon. Every day I gaze on it and never tire of its secrets. The words which might be too small for you to see, but which I read every day, have become a life commitment:

With that from the earth, beauty I will create. With that beauty, my soul I will give.

This is the original community of woman, the elemental feminine, one could even say the Divine Feminine within and at the heart of matter. That's what the painting says to me. Go deep, it says, to find them. Go into the core of the mountain, the core of the body, the core of the universe, and they will be there weaving and painting and whispering the words of beauty.

There are seven women. In the ancient wisdom, seven represents the wholeness of the natural world. It is a sacred number in virtually every spiritual tradition. You might say, "Christin, there are eight of them--look, there's another woman, one they've painted and framed."  Yes. I've noticed that. Eight represents the world to come, the world beyond this world, the fullness that encloses this world and is unending. This is the image of their desire.

When you Google the meaning of seven the information is virtually unending. For me, after all these years of gazing at this painting, I realize that meaning emerges from the task of bringing the light of Spirit into the material of earth to create beauty. This can happen every moment because earth is what we are and Spirit is what flows into and through us. Seven are the number of notes in the diatonic scale; we are the musicians; Spirit is the music. Seven are the colors in the rainbow; we are the artists; Spirit is the inspiration. Seven are the way-places on the mystic mountain, we are the pilgrims, Spirit is the ever expanding energy by which the mountain is transformed into beauty by the giving of our souls in even the smallest and most common task.

Like right now. I'm on my way to the kitchen to start making supper. On the way I'll glance over at the seven women in the mountain of being and say Thank You. You have taught me much. Let's get the kettle out and whip up a bit of delicious beauty!

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Lark Ascending

Sister Marie Schwan

Sometimes in life, if you are more than usually blessed, a person will come quietly into your heart and never leave. Time won't make a difference, nor will place--physical presence of a beloved is overrated. Marie died December 30, just a few weeks ago, and I still hear her singing, like the lark ascending from what is deepest to what is highest as she makes her flight from realm to realm, from this earth, from this galaxy, from this universe, through the multiverse, into that totality of Being we try to utter in our feeble way, crying AH! Spreading wings and crying GOD! Dissolving, she is, in a burst of flame, in a song impossibly high. I hear her still in me as she soars. Her promise in that farewell song is this: I am not leaving. This burst, this cry, this sweet flight, this surrender -- I am oneing with the All. Never again will you NOT hear me, feel me, know me, love me in the deep heights, in the farnear of pure essence that you ARE.

It's hard, though, to surrender those intimacies mediated by the beauty of this earth.

Sister Marie Schwan is the mother of my soul. She will remain that in this world and the next. She taught me to think, to pray, to love. She gave me a deep sensitivity for words and for The Word. It is she who encouraged me to become a writer.

I was twenty and she was twenty-seven when we met as student sister and master teacher at Marywood. She filled me full of memories that still guide my life. We were faithful to observances that sprung from our love for each other.

That she would be a visionary, that she would whisper her visions into my soul, that her descriptions would be vivid and beyond the wild of nature or the invisibility of God, that she would smile and tell me to see.

That she would open the writings of  Thomas Merton, Jessica Powers, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Claudel, Gertrude von le Forte, Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot, and drop their words into my mind and heart; that I would catch my breath and love her for the gift of them. We would read them together. She loved the lark from Claudel's  Tidings Brought to Mary, all wings and no feet like the cherubim, crying out in its ascent towards God.

That she would form the thought patterns of my mind.

That she would give structure to my creative imagination.

That she would dissolve the dualities and extol Wisdom, the knowledge gleaned from love.

That she would carve a path and I would walk that path gladly. That she would plant me in the future before the future was here. That I would begin to live in her dream.

A few hours before she died, I was sitting in my living room by the Christmas tree, watching the candle beside her photograph burn down. Music played quietly in the background. For three days I'd kept vigil, though in miles I was far away from where her body lay. She was not alone; I knew that. Her Sisters of St. Joseph kept their own vigil, someone with her every moment as her body made that mysterious transformation into spirit. Suddenly I heard the violin begin to climb. I caught my breath. I rose to my feet. "The Lark Ascending," by Ralph von Williams. Those tones that seem played on the heartstrings. Higher, Higher, seeming finally to dissolve into the Cosmic Silence. 

John came into the room to find me in tears. "It's Marie." I told him. "She came to say goodbye."

I am so grateful.