Monday, October 6, 2008

AT ST. MARY OF ANSELM

The sun glints in orange-colored leaves that have slowly begun to turn on a few trees fringing the bluff. I am sitting here on the deck of St. Mary of Anselm’s cottage, a hermitage retreat house used by the Sisters of St. Mary when they make private retreats or schedule “on-the-premises vacations.” St. Anselm’s is a small stone cottage in the midst of woods surrounding St. Mary’s Convent here at Sewanee. Inside the cottage are a small parlor, a wood-burning stove awaiting winter, a drop-leaf table, an antique desk with thin legs and nooks for letters, and rockers draped with colorful lap robes. Sister Elizabeth has made everything ready for us to spend the week here in this sanctuary. In the bedroom, a picture with Julian of Norwich’s words calms my foolish anxieties: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Prayer is the chief resident in the walls of the cottage; it is at the heart of this undisturbed place.

I rest in the sacrament of landscape and Designer, becoming like the chameleon, blending with the environment. A squirrel chatters nearby, and the ubiquitous cicadas prevalent on The Mountain enhance the wonderful silence with their monotonous hum. The cottage is a few steps away from the stone chapel where services are held four times daily – Morning Prayer and Eucharist, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline – except on Wednesdays when the Sisters enjoy what they call a “mini retreat,” otherwise known in the secular world as “a day off.” In competition with the cicadas, giant, white oak acorns fall and ping loudly on the metal roof of the Convent – acorns larger than those of the Louisiana live oak that litter my patio in New Iberia, and I wonder if the squirrels’ chattering has to do with an overabundant crop of nuts this Fall. Sister Lucy says that the bountiful crop foretells a cold winter on The Mountain. The acorns make intermittent pops like gunshot and are alien noises in the blanketing silence surrounding the Convent.

A nun, out of habit, and clad in blue jeans, strides up the road leading away from the Convent, but she won’t stray far; she’s taking her daily walk. In her spare time, Sister Margaret hikes and goes kayaking. She has a wide face with mischievous blue eyes, framed by gray-blonde hair, and a wry manner that revives good humor in those who need to “lighten up.” She was once secretary to two administrators at the Univ. of Tennessee in Knoxville, as well as a camp program director for a Girl Scout Council here in Tennessee (we can talk shop because one of my other lives was as a Girl Scout executive). She is now the co-Mother Superior of St. Mary’s. Eight Sisters live here – Sister Elizabeth, Sister Lucy, Sister Margaret, Sister Mary Zita, Sister Madeleine Mary, Sister Mary Martha, Sister Miriam, and Sister Julian, and I feel enclosed not only by a “cloud of witnesses” but a cloud of caring women, some of whom have been mothers, others who have been nurses, one, a teacher, and another, an orphaned Filipino woman. The experiences they bring to the Convent have created a climate of inclusiveness – and, always, one of hospitality. They’re a community of women who love to chant and sing, offer gifts of prayer and care. They create and expand the spiritual dimension of this mountain, a “thin place” surrounded by woods exuberant with trees and plants.

The Sisters invited us here because we rented out our Sewanee cottage for a week and were “homeless.” So here I sit, relaxing on the deck, feeling incautious and peaceful, living out a short pause in my life, sans internet, television, and cell phone…and, already, the view has become clearer.
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