Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Prayer is the Occupation

It is intriguing to see how the mainstream media (e.g., the NYT) covers the cultural chasm between pre- and post-conciliar approaches to faith. They typically paint with far too broad a brush, and this story is a case in point. It blames the decline in the number of women in convents and the religious life generally on the very decision to ratify Vatican II. Nonetheless, the story is respectful and informative. There is also a delightful video (if you can get past the film trailer at the beginning).

HOLLYWOOD — Sister Mary Pia, wearing a threadbare habit, spoke from behind the bars of her gated parlor about the boundless power of prayer.

“Hollywood is the Babylon of the U.S.A.,” she said. “For people who need prayers, we have to be here.”

Just two long blocks from her monastery, you are in the thick of the electric lights of Hollywood Boulevard: among the dopers, the runaways, the surgically augmented, the homeless, the sex salesmen.

Sister Mary Pia, as pale and innocent as an uncooked loaf, prays for all of them, while knowing virtually nothing about them. There is nothing ironic about this, she believes: “One doesn’t need to be of it to know of it.”

Indeed, in her 56 years at the Monastery of the Angels, she has ventured out no more than a few dozen times to attend religious retreats or make preparations for dying loved ones. Rarely has she set a shoe onto the stained sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard.

Yet the signs of iniquity are everywhere. Police helicopters routinely hover over the cloister. There is the dull roar of the Hollywood Freeway. The head of the monastery’s statue of St. Martin de Porres has been stolen twice. Neighbors recently complained so loudly about the belfry’s morning chimes to prayer that the authorities forced the peals silent.

“I think we pricked their conscience,” she said of the neighbors. “Is 7 o’clock too early to get up?”

Sister Mary Pia is one of 21 Dominican nuns cloistered in this walled complex of stucco and steel. From a distance, the place looks more like a loading dock than a religious retreat.

They do no missionary work here, canvass no alleys, cook in no soup kitchen. Prayer is the occupation. Until recently there were 23 nuns, but Sister Mary the Pure Heart and Sister Mary Rose were sent to a convalescent home because there were not enough youthful and vigorous nuns to care for them.

The sisterhood is a dying way of life in America. Forty years ago, the United States had about 180,000 nuns. Today there are perhaps 70,000. Fewer than 6,000 are younger than 50. There are estimated to be about 5,000 cloistered, contemplative nuns, a piece of women’s history that may be on the way out.

Reasons for the collapse can be traced to the mid-1960’s: the flowering of the women’s movement, which broadened opportunities beyond secretary, housewife, nurse, teacher and nun. But the Roman Catholic Church unintentionally inflicted damage on itself when it ratified the Second Vatican Council.

“Basically it said that religious women were no more holy than lay women,” said Sister Patricia Wittberg, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. “It was devastating.”

Still, the sisters of the Angels, frail and birdlike, go on with a vocation to which they sacrificed their youth: perhaps never to have known a man, never to have rowed the banks of the Seine, never to have taken a moonlight drive. High heels and self-adornment were given up after high school graduation.

As a young woman, Sister Mary Pia might have become an opera singer. Sister Mary St. Peter, 78, the daughter of a Protestant, thought of becoming a nurse. Sister Mary St. Pius was good at photography. They gave away these things, without regret, for something they say is incalculable.

The average age at the Monastery of the Angels is about 70. From this generation also came feminists like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Hugh Hefner, too, is of their era, as was the centerfold pinup Bettie Page. This generation helped create the cultural chasm that divides America today.

“It’s a materialistic age,” said Sister Mary Pia, gray now, her eyes milky with years. “For young women, religion is far down on the list.”

Sister Mary Pia grew up in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles and joined the monastery at 17, despite the tears of her parents. Prayer, she said, had delivered her brother home from the South Pacific battlefields, and so, seeing the power in it, she dedicated her life to God. She became a novitiate in 1950, years before the birth of rock ’n’ roll.

“I’ve heard of Alex Presley,” she offered. “But I wouldn’t know his music.”

Sister Mary St. Peter gave over her life in 1947, six years before the founding of Playboy magazine. “I never heard of Hugh Hefner,” she said with a shrug in the cloister’s front garden.

Sister Mary St. Pius, who arrived in 1953 from a small town in the Mojave Desert, does not know the work of the political satirist Jon Stewart. But after a brief moment, she squealed: “Martha Stewart? Oh, yes!”

Asked about Father John Geoghan, the Boston priest and serial molester who was the catalyst of the sex scandal that rocked the Catholic Church, the sisters went blank-eyed.

When told about him, Sister Mary Pia’s eyes became flinty, flashing defiance. She said she believed that one of the last respectable prejudices in America was that against the Catholics, and that the news coverage of abusive priests had been excessive, almost joyful.

“You get a little tired of all the bad news,” she said. “The media,” she wrinkled her nose, as if catching a whiff of a bad onion. “They never write about the good things.”

The important thing, then, is that there are still old women in America with the charity to care about something more than themselves, about strangers, even if they do not know those strangers’ manias and motivations. But take a walk down the boulevard any evening, and one wonders whether their prayers are reaching the intended destination.

“That’s the meaning of faith,” Sister Mary Pia said.

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