The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

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ON SILENCE

A devout young Irish Catholic girl contemplated her future and God’s purpose for her. After considerable prayer and self-examination, Mary Kathleen O’Shea believed that she had a vocation to the monastic life.

She read about the various orders of the Church and their works and believed that her life was meant to be a contemplative one – and so she interviewed with the Order of St. Clare. They are commonly known as the Poor Clares.

In her interview with the Mother Superior, that elderly and wise woman admonished Mary Kathleen that there were many other orders which she might consider. There were some orders whose members taught, others who were hospitalers and still others who were missionaries. The way of life of the Poor Clare was especially difficult – it was one of silence.

Mother went on to explain, “Ours is a way of life of pure prayer, devotion and contemplation. In fact, if you join us, you will only be allowed to speak two words expressing your personal feelings once each year – on the anniversary of your profession.”

Nonetheless, Mary Kathleen insisted that this was her calling and after several more interviews was accepted into the order’s novitiate. She was finally professed with the name which had been selected for her, Sister Ignatius Thomas.

At the first anniversary of taking her final vows, two of her sisters knocked at her cell to bring her before the community in order that she might speak her two personal words.

As she knelt before them, Mother Superior said, “Speak to us, Sister Ignatius Thomas.” She replied, “Hard bed.”

Mother gently shook her head and said, “You’ll remember that when you first came to us I told you how difficult our way was. Sister, we must put aside the comforts of this world so that we can enjoy the eternal rewards our Lord has in store for us in Heaven.”

Another year went by and the same scenario was repeated, Sister Ignatius Thomas kneeling before Mother and the community. Again she was asked to speak her two words. She replied, “Bad food.”

Mother Superior replied, “Sister Ignatius Thomas, we must set aside the delights of this life in order that we are found worthy to feast at the endless banquet table that our Lord has prepared for us in Heaven.”

On her third anniversary, as she knelt before Mother Superior, Sister Ignatius Thomas looked up, a sense of defiance in her eyes and she emphatically said, “I quit.”

Mother looked at her with sadness and shook her head. She said, “Oh, sister. You will remember when you came to us I told you that our way was difficult and meant for only a very few. I admonished you on that again last year and the year before. Sadly, I can’t say that I’m surprised at your statement. Since you’ve been with us, all I’ve heard from you has been bitch – bitch – bitch.”

I thought of this story last night as I was at dinner with two acquaintances.

Frankly, I dreaded the evening and had put it off once already – steeling myself for what I knew lay ahead. But the couple had done me a small service and this was my way of attempting to repay them for it – something which they expected me to do. I believe their philosophy is, “Do good unto others – but only if you expect to get more back from them in return.”

I ate my meal listening to the wife (with the full support of her spouse) trash people whom they knew, complete with a run down of all the indiscretions, mistakes and transgressions these people had committed. I couldn’t help wonder, is this the way “normal” people spend their conversational lives?

Since I didn’t know the people whom they were maligning the whole thing was totally irrelevant to me, which was just as well. Thank you, Lord that the dinner lasted only an hour as I gulped my food and encouraged them to, “Eat up.”

As I was driving home, I turned off the CD player. I had been playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, but I felt a need for complete silence – even from this delightful music.

I remembered spending a week on a religious retreat during the spring break of my senior year in high school. It was a week with nothing but countryside, birds chirping, the Divine Office and the Liturgy and enjoying the simple majesty of the crocuses. A week of silence and contemplation. A rejuvenating week.

When it came to an end I boarded the Greyhound Bus back to New York City, leaving the lovely setting on the Hudson River which had welcomed me. I felt like a new person.

As we pulled into the bus terminal, I thanked the driver and stepped down to the curb. And then it hit me.

Noise. The noise of New York at an almost lethal level. I had lived with it and amidst it for my whole life – and I had never heard it before. Not until I had been freed of it on my retreat. I felt as though I were drowning, sinking below the waters of its cacophony. But not much more so than during last night’s one-way conversation.

I think I need to spend this day in total silence and contemplation – and maybe tomorrow as well.

 

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