Shoeless nuns


The Discalced Order of Carmelite nuns were barefoot, but not weak by any means. Their postulants, in addition to dressing in long plain black gowns and praying every three hours with the rest of the community, had to work out an hour every day. All that praying meant a lot of sitting, and stillness of that sort wasn’t good for the body.
They looked askance at the nuns in many of the other Orders. Some of them weren’t even 60 years old yet and they were obese, feeble, reduced to using a wheelchair. Worse – the wheelchairs were electric. They didn’t even have to exercise their arms to get around. Just push the knob on the armrest and off they went. A Discalced Carmelite would rather renounce her vows than to be seen in such a state of sloth.
For sloth it was – a deadly sin, a sign of spiritual or emotional apathy and being physically and emotionally inactive. It was a sin because it abused the gifts of God. It was what Jesus was speaking about when he told the parable of the talents. You must take what you are given and make more of it, just like with the loaves and fishes miracle. They took seriously the adage that idle hands are the devil’s playground. Inactivity invited the Accuser into the very core of the person, into the holy shrine of the soul.
The demon of sloth loved those lazy nuns especially, because he could slowly, over years, convince them to ease up on their prayers or service. He grew stronger with every forgotten prayer and every abandoned act of kindness. It would start with them thinking they could catch up later, but later never came. Only discipline kept the demon at bay. Discipline makes disciples after all. Sure, you were chosen, but you also have to choose the holy life every day, sometimes every minute. It didn’t just happen.
The Carmelites never really slept. There were certainly times of rest, between prayers and work, but not many. The prayers were every three hours, and all the sisters were required to be present. Only being laid up in the infirmary was an excuse to skip. Many postulants left after just a couple of weeks of this unusual schedule, either exhausted or insane. Those who lasted soon learned what army recruits did – sleep when you can, or learn to adapt to the changed mental state that results from too little rest. Some older nuns suspected that was the goal of the frequent prayer schedule. They achieved communion with God alright – it was just not the way that was expected.
Some kept their new revelations to themselves, out of concern for being asked to leave. The Order might not take kindly to sisters with potential mental health issues. Were they really hearing from God, or was it all in their heads? Some shared their revelations only with their confessors. Some could not contain themselves, the onslaught of visions and new understanding pouring forth like water over the dam after a flood.
Those who spoke up learned that The Order was kinder than many others, and examined every revelation with respect, measuring it against scripture, tradition, and reason, to see if it was valid. They were open to the idea that God still spoke to his people.

Mary’s finger

So, I found Mary’s finger. And not just any finger, her right index finger. That has to mean something. That has to mean more than just her pinkie finger, right?

I was on retreat at Mercy convent – a convent for retired nuns of the Sisters of Mercy. There is a statue of Mary in the back garden, made of marble. I went outside to draw it. I’m not much of an artist but I like to try. I’d just realized that drawing is easier if I use pencil and an eraser rather than a pen to make my first sketch. You can go as deep on that as you like.

This is the angle I was working with.


Part of drawing is noticing what is actually there. When we take pictures, we often work so quickly that we miss things. Or, well, at least I do. There are things that our brains fill in and we assume things are like we think they are. I’ve learned that when I take time to actually draw something I learn where those gaps are. I learn what reality is, versus what I think reality is. It is a very useful meditation.

While looking, I noticed that she is missing some fingers. She looks a little sad about this.


Here is her left hand. Some repairs have already been done.


Here’s her right hand. There is a lot more damage here.


There are six intact fingers, and only one thumb in total. There is a small chip marble rock garden at the base, so I thought that the rest of the fingers could be there. It was a long shot. Surely someone else has looked for it.

Here’s the rock garden. The plaque says “Our Lady’s Garden” In memory of Sister Mary Demetrius Coode, Fall 1993.


I started looking on the left-hand side. That is the side I was closest to. I looked around a bit, but not really very hard. I mean really – someone else has to have thought of this, right? White marble statue pieces fall into a small rock garden filled with white marble pieces. That is where you look.

But the people who live here are all old. They don’t have great eyesight. They aren’t quite fit enough to hunch over and study these pieces. Their knees and backs aren’t so great anymore. They’ve had a life of service and now they are resting.

I gave up looking on the left side and moved to the right. There was more to look for over there – bigger pieces. It should be easier.

After about a minute I found it.


An electric shock ran through me. It was like finding an Easter Egg, or a four leaf clover, or a diamond. I found it. Me. It was here.


I thought briefly that they had left it in there as a treat, as a special thing to be found. It was the fact that I found it that made it special. It wouldn’t have been the same if it had been intact, or if it had been sitting at the base.

There is something about seeking, and finding, that is special. There is something about putting forth the effort and having it rewarded.

I thought about keeping it. Then I thought about taking a piece of chip marble as a token instead. In fact, I thought about taking one anyway, even before I found the finger. I thought about taking a piece as a memento of the search. I was going to pretend that the chip was a piece of the finger. Kind of like a diamond in the rough. The pieces at the base and the statue were both marble. The only difference between the two is one had a lot more work and skill applied to it. But the material is the same.

How do things get value? Why is this piece of marble more valuable than that piece? How does this relate to ourselves and our lives? Deep down, we are all the same.

I didn’t take the finger. I put it on the base, easily visible. This was during the silent part of the retreat, so I knew I couldn’t explain it to the sister who is the caretaker of the place. I figured if I left it there it would make it easier to tell her later.


Then I thought that maybe it is safer in the rock garden. It can’t fall off the base and break into more pieces. It could shatter if it fell again. And I thought also, maybe I should leave the joy of finding it for someone else.

I didn’t find her right thumb, but then again I didn’t look too hard after finding that finger.

A whole finger! Of Mary!

She looks pretty happy that her finger has been found. This is around 11:30 a.m.


Later, at the end of the retreat when we can talk again and it is time to go home, I went to tell the Sister in charge. I thought she was going tell me that they left it there on purpose. No – she was delighted that it had been found. “Now I can write up a work order!” she said.

I was about to leave, but I followed her outside to make sure that she found it. Maybe it had fallen off. Maybe someone had moved it. I went to have some resolution. I went to help find it again if necessary. I went, in part, because I didn’t really want to leave.

She was beaming when she noticed it, and carried it carefully, like a baby bird, in her hands.

She told me that members of the church that sponsored the retreat came once and cleaned this statue. She was so happy about this kindness done to the Sisters.

She told me “We have to be the finger of Mary.”

Yes, and her thumb, and her big toe. And everything. We have to be Mary, willing to let God into the world. We have to let her take care of us, and we have to take care of her. It is reciprocal, this relationship. She isn’t God, but she is a face of God. She is mothering, kindness, compassion. She is a willingness to say “Yes, here I am” when God asks for a favor. She represents who we are when allow God to work through us.

And we also have to be marble, allowing ourselves to be shaped by a Master’s skill.

And we have to understand that we are valuable even as chips at the base of a statue.

Mary is beaming now. This is at 7, after I told the Sister about her finger.


“Get thee to a nunnery”?

So how come nuns get a special place to retire to? It is a lot nicer than a retirement home. Cleaner, smells better, better lit. Better food. There are no special codes to get in and out either. There isn’t a feeling of being trapped.

They have donated their lives to serving those who suffer from “poverty, sickness, and ignorance.” Their whole lives have been given up in the service of the church. No husband, no income, no possessions; they have sacrificed themselves to serve others.

How is this different from a teacher, or a police officer, or a nurse? How are their lives of service different? Their lives, the lives of the secular who serve, are harder in fact. They have to secure for themselves a home. They have to buy their clothes. They have to pay for the electricity, the water, the gas. They have to do upkeep on their homes. They have to pay for their training. If they are smart they save for their retirement. Then they have to find a place that has an opening that is nice to retire to.

This is a beautiful convent that just happens to be a nursing home. The grass is lush. The rooms are pleasant. It was built as a retirement home for aging Sisters of Mercy. Not all nuns, just these particular kind of nuns. The sister who welcomed us said that they had served the poor and the homeless all their lives, and now with their convent they are still serving them. But then she got a little quiet. How? By letting people come here on retreat.

Now, they aren’t leading the retreats. They are allowing people to come and have their retreats here. They didn’t initiate it. They had 41 sisters to start with and are now left with 18. Other people started calling, wondering if they could use the space. There are a lot of empty rooms.

This makes me wonder about the ranks of nuns. Surely there should be others who are ready to retire. A steady influx of novitiates would result in a steady stream of retirees 50 years later. But the stream is drying up.

Do people not want to serve God by being a nun? Is it too much of a commitment? Is it a stigma attached to the Catholic Church, and church in general? Or are people choosing to serve God in less open ways?

You don’t have to be a sister to serve. You can be married or not, female or not, Catholic or not. You can work in a church or a school or a department store. You can work anywhere where you can use your talents and your gifts to help others.

God wants each of us right where we are, right as we are.

Be honest in your dealings. Treat every person fairly. Speak truthfully and kindly. In these ways you are serving God.

You don’t have to join a nonprofit. You don’t have to give all your money away. You don’t have to go on a missions trip to Belize or the Congo or Africa.

God is here. The poor are here. You are here. Get going. You don’t even have to “get thee to a nunnery.” Just go.

(Started 9-14-13 at 11:30 am, middle of a 26 hour silent retreat. Expanded 9-16-13)

Temporary nuns.

I know a lady whose friend thinks she is being called to be a nun. She is about to enter a year-long discernment process to determine if she is indeed being called. If it is anything like the Sisters of Mercy process it could take a minimum of seven years before she is able to fully be accepted as a sister.

Why? Why this long? But then again, wouldn’t it be helpful if all people went through a process to see if they were suited for their professions? I’ve lost track of the number of people I know who spent many years and many more dollars to get an education to get professionally certified; only to find out when they actually entered their chosen field they hated it. They trained to be teachers or nurses and found they couldn’t stand it in reality. When it came time to do the work they were trained for, they found that they didn’t love it.

That is a lot of time and money and energy wasted. A little discernment beforehand would have helped a lot.

Of course, deciding to be a nun isn’t the same as deciding to be a nurse or a teacher. Well, actually it is. A lot of nuns end up doing those very jobs. They are both service jobs.

But nuns don’t get paid. They don’t get to marry. They don’t get to own anything either. There is a lot more commitment to being a nun.

I’ve heard that very few young women are entering the convent these days. Perhaps the Catholic Church should rethink this whole thing.

Let people have 5 year runs. Let young women sign up to serve the poor, the homeless, the sick for five years. During that time their “pay” is room and board, just like regular nuns. During that time they are single, so they can dedicate all of their time to their mission and not a family.

After that time they can leave. It is kind of like the Peace Corps, but with church training and oversight. This would bolster the ranks of the nuns and give young women who want to help a way to do so without the lifetime commitment.

They might also have the opportunity of renewing their contract. Either way, they will have training and on the job experience that can translate into a job in the secular world.

Seems like a winning solution to the shortage of help.