Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
located in Carmel, California
Many women find themselves, in middle or late age, longing to realize a strong monastic vocation that, for various reasons, they have been unable to pursue in their youth. In my case, I was raised without any religion whatsoever. In fact, my parents were hostile to religion in general and Catholicism in particular. They were generally narcissistic people, who divorced when I was about 5 and spent the rest of their lives chasing sex, money and glamour.
We had a Cuban babysitter when I was about 6 or 7. My mother was working at one of just a very few jobs she ever had. The babysitter spoke no English, so we had to learn Spanish to communicate with her. One day she took us out of the house and down to an enormous Catholic church to attend mass. We were mystified by it all. At one point, a man in a long robe at the front of the church was passing out cookies to lots of young children who were kneeling at a railing. I was hungry. I asked Iday if we could go get a cookie, but she didn't understand what I was saying. I grabbed my little sister's hand and ran up the aisle, dutifully kneeling as I saw the other children doing. When the priest got to me, he asked me, "Have you had your first communion?" I said, "huh?" and looked at him, mouth agape in confusion. He laughed to himself, cast a glance at me and then my sister, and walked past us with the cookies. Red with embarrassment, I dragged my sister back to our seat. We were hungry, darn it!
When I was about 11 years old, my mother moved us to the beautiful Carmel Valley in California. I was a lonely child and spent many hours riding around town on my little Schwin bicycle with its colorful "banana seat", long handle bars and plastic streamers flowing from the handles. The Carmel Mission, though a long ride from my home, was my favorite haunt. It was open every day and there was no fee to enter.
I loved to wander through the book store and admire the pretty medals and rosaries, knowing nothing of their use or meaning. But I had a fascination for it all. The man behind the counter felt sorry for me, I think. Every once in a while he would give me an inexpensive little book mark or a colorful medal of Saint Therese or the Virgin Mary. I was an avid reader and I would hide the medals in my books at home.
One day, the nice man gave me a pamphlet about the Carmelite nuns. In it, there was an address to write to them. Enchanted by the descriptions of the life of peace and silence, I sent them a letter. This began a short period of correspondence that was brought to an abrupt halt by my mother, who cuttingly announced to me, "do you think they will want you when they find out that your mother is DIVORCED?" She pronounced the word with a distinct air of scandal.
Indeed, the nuns did stop writing me. I realize now that, in all likelihood, my mother had written them and told them to bug off, or something like that, but I was left with the impression that she had been right, that I was somehow tainted by my mother's divorce. This would not be the first time that I believed what other people had to say about the Catholic Church. Absent any Christian education, how could it be otherwise?
At the tender age of 17, I left my abusive home and struck out on my own, with nothing but the clothes on my back. My mother had hidden my car keys. I had received the car as my high school graduation present. It was a hand-me-down from my father's new wife who "deserved better." It later went to my sibling, like nearly everything I had ever been given. It had been a bizarre home life.
Life was very difficult, but despite continuing survival issues including a brief homeless stint, I continued to yearn for God, for peace, for a life of prayer, and a life that meant something. My search was not what I would call successful. I fell in with some Scientologists and spent some time working for L. Ron Hubbard on his "flagship" that traveled between Lisbon, Portugal, to the northern regions of Spain, in Basque country. Franco was still in charge in those days, and Spain was more than a little tense.
From the obvious drawbacks of the Scientologists, I flirted with a form of Buddhism that involved a lot of chanting. That's all I remember about it, except that all the women I knew who practiced this religion were using it as a way to get things out of life...like cars and boyfriends. It hardly seemed worth the effort and was obviously not a genuine pursuit. In any case, there was no peace or joy and it lasted a very short time.
After some extremely difficult life occurrences, I found myself in an apartment in Sacramento, working in a law firm and feeling that familiar urge again. Somehow, I had to get closer to God, but how? I decided that I needed to learn how to meditate. Perhaps THAT would give me peace. So, I picked up a phone book and found a group that sounded East Indian: The Vedanta Society.
That phone call was the beginning of more than 8 years of involvement in this group that posited the idea that "all religions lead to God." Well, that sounded nice and tolerant and broad. Plus, they taught meditation. Just the ticket. I became very involved because I did love the meditation and the peace that I felt on the premises. For the first time, I studied a legitimate mainline religion (Hinduism.) I swallowed the philosophy hook, line and sinker and decided to join the convent.
In the convent, we had a large library of books of most of the major religious traditions. The darndest thing happened. Every time I walked in there, I gravitated toward the Catholic books, especially the ones about the Catholic mystics and Catholic religious orders. I also particularly loved the Eastern Orthodox magazines and books like, The Way of the Pilgrim, and the Philokalia. I would tell myself that I "should" read the Hindu-based books, but they left me cold.
These Catholic books were my first introduction to Christian history, theology and cosmology, except for the slim pamphlets I'd been sent from the Carmelites as a young girl. In my childhood, I'd never had a friend who was Christian. My mother moved us to another city every year, one step ahead of the creditors or the last boyfriend or whatever. It wasn't enough time to get to know anyone. No one in my family was overtly Christian. My grandmother said, "all you need is the golden rule," and that no one needed to go to church. In my 20's, I had been working in the entertainment industry. I didn't meet any Christians there either.
I was 38 before I encountered Jesus. Realizing that my heart had become Christian, I got a job in a law firm, left the convent, and began taking RCIA classes at the large Catholic Church near my workplace in Beverly Hills. About halfway through the classes, the nun in charge summoned me to her office and announced that it would be "years" before they would consent to baptize me because I had been divorced.
To be clear, I was leading a chaste life. I had no boyfriend. I wasn't dating. There was no reason to deny me baptism, but this nun was under a misconception, which she gleefully transmitted to me. Evidently, getting a divorce was so sinful in her mind, that baptism couldn't even wash me clean.
Heartbroken, and desperately wanting to be baptized Christian, I walked across the street to the big Episcopal Church, entered their class midway and was baptized on April 11, 1993. It was what they call "high church," but the minister was a very masculine woman who made me very uneasy and who rarely smiled. Aside from the female minister, they had all the bells and smells of a Catholic Church but something was definitely missing. Later, I would learn that it was the apostolic succession that was so necessary but which was absent.
The Episcopal Church was a huge disappointment, for various reasons too numerous and, frankly, too petty to elaborate here. I was part of the problem, of course. On their part, the lack of apostolic succession of the Episcopal Church and its evolution toward secular values was a problem for me. My experience with them gave me the impression that they didn't care much for the poor, especially if the poor was in the pew next to the upper-middle class congregants. I am not saying this is true, but this was my perception.
One thing I particularly missed was Jesus' mandate that we love one another. I didn't see any of that in the Episcopal Church. The Catholic Church had made it clear it didn't want me because I had been divorced, and what could be more unloving than that sort of rejection? I just couldn't seem to find a religious "home" with any of the Christian denominations I had visited.
After a period of sadness, confusion, and challenging life issues, I returned to the Hindus by taking sannyas vows by permission of my Hindu teacher. These vows, essentially, make one a female swami. You could say that they are the "final" vows of a Hindu monastic, some of whom live in monasteries, but most live ascetic lives by themselves. I wanted to devote myself to God completely and felt that these vows would help me.
While living in a large apartment complex, I met a woman who was an Ursaline nun. We became friends. I did her genealogy and found that she was my 11th cousin. When I confided to her what had happened to me when I had tried to become Catholic and how sad it had made me, she informed me that the nun who had refused me baptism had been completely wrong. Unless I had been living in an "irregular" second marriage or living in sin with someone, there was absolutely no bar to baptism or confirmation in the church. She offered to sponsor me if I still wanted to become Catholic, and I was thrilled.
Once again, I had problems, however, because of my physical health issues. I was unable to sit through the classes and had to pursue a private course. I wanted to be confirmed in the Byzantine Catholic Church that I loved so much but, while the priest was willing to have me pursue a private course, the deacon felt he didn't have the time and he refused me. Once again, the door had been closed on me.
I wasn't going to let this rejection throw me off, however. My cousin had an acquaintance at a large church near my house. We had a meeting with her, made arrangements for my confirmation, and this was done about 8 years ago....20 years after I first wanted to enter!
After a period of poor health, trying different Roman Catholic Churches, I returned to the Byzantine Catholic Church that I loved so much. The Byzantines are, essentially, Orthodox style churches that either stayed with the Catholic Church or joined it. I can't remember the specific history. There is only one in all of New Mexico and, thanks be to God, it is in the town where I live. We are lucky enough to have two marvelous priests. Our retired priest, Father Chris, my new spiritual director, has been permitted to remain there, which is a great benefit to all of us. He is a man of great spirituality and intelligence. Likewise, our new young priest, Father Artur. He is just a couple years younger than the age of my son, if my son had not died last year. Recently, I offered to fill a need in the bookstore on Sundays, and am happily doing what little I can.
Looking back on my experiences, I realize that my failing in all of this was my lack of persistence. When my mother badmouthed the Catholics, I should have continued writing them. In the alternative, I could have visited them on my little bike. Of course, I was only 11, so I have to cut myself some slack! Seriously, however, my lack of persistence was the real problem when that nun refused to allow me to become baptized. I knew in my heart that she was wrong, that the Catholic Church did not expect you to be a saint before baptism. It only required that one be repentant of one's mistakes and not be living in sin while requesting baptism.
So, here I am, at age 60, with some health problems and plenty of impediments to a monastic vocation, yet, in other ways, I am an ideal candidate. Confident that God can and does use a broken instrument such as myself, I am determined to live as a nun to the best of my ability.
It occurs to me that other women who have retired or are not in ideal health may also like to join me in a contemplative life as religious sisters. I would call the order "The Prodigal Daughters of the Most Holy Mother of God."
If you are likewise inclined, please share your story with me.
In the meantime, I pray for all of you, as I hope you pray for me.
Silver Rose Parnell