The Sister Rosemary Effect: Letters from Espanola

And there is something very positive to be said for an education that brings a "higher power" into the foregro...

1382765641 (12K)October 24, 2013: Part of my journey in this life was attending Catholic school for 12 years. Grade school, Junior High and High School. All guided by nuns.

I have a lot of respect for the Catholic women who decide to become nuns. They dedicate their lives to serving others. Some of them make amazing teachers. To this day, my fifth grade teacher, Sister Ann Patricia, is legendary among her students for the way she trained children in the details of English grammar.

And there is something very positive to be said for an education that brings a "higher power" into the foreground. Catholic guilt may be difficult to digest. But having a school environment that nurtures telling the truth and taking responsibility for your errors has an upside to it.

Still, there were moments that left scars.

As a young child, I loved to visit the chapel on the school grounds. The Sisters would tell us stories about the Catholic saints, and how people had visions of angels or the Virgin Mary. With my sensitive and imaginative temper, I wanted to have that experience myself. So I used to sit in the chapel, when no one else was around, and hope for a vision.

The chapel had beautiful stained glass windows, with the shadows of tree limbs dancing in the background. The sanctuary was dark, with a single candle lit. I would sit there and do my own style of praying, waiting for something to happen.

I never had a vision like they show in the movies. But the more I sat in that stillness, in that quiet, and just talked to the Creator, the more I felt ‘something’ talking back. We created our own dialogue, of sorts.

I would visit the chapel after school, and give an accounting of how the day had gone. And then I could feel, in the silence, a ‘presence’ that just held Its side of the conversation. It was not in an audible language. It was in a subtle language, that exists for any of us if we simply listen. It always felt very peaceful, and I came away from those little chapel visits feeling deeply content.

As I grew older, the Sisters began to train us more rigorously in Church doctrine. And one day, in the seventh grade, when we were preparing for a Catholic rite of passage called Confirmation, Sister Rosemary took all of us to the chapel to have a very important talk. (Sister Rosemary is not her real name.) She was trying to explain the essence of Confirmation.

We sat there, while she pointed to the Crucifix of Jesus, and talked about his sacrifice. Then she laid down Church doctrine in its simplest form.

"There is a God," she said. "But you cannot get to God except through Jesus."

A question mark hung in my mind. Really? All of these times, sitting in the chapel, praying and feeling that presence - was that Jesus?

I checked my inner compass. Nope. No Jesus there. Just that presence.

I raised my hand, and when Sister Rosemary called on me, I said, "I don't think you need to go through Jesus to get to God. I mean, I talk to God all the time and Jesus doesn't have anything to do with it."

I said those words so very innocently. I could not anticipate the firestorm that followed. Sister Rosemary started yelling at me. And she was not normally a nun who yelled. She told me that Jesus was the only way. That if I did not relate to Jesus, I was doomed. That absolutely nobody could speak with God except through Jesus.

She yelled so much her face turned red. And by the end of it, I was confused, embarrassed, ashamed, and hurt. I could not figure out why I was wrong.

The rest of the day, and for days after, I did my very best to connect with Jesus. There just wasn't much there. But if I tried to talk to God, that presence showed up, ready to have a conversation.

Yet, instead of realizing that Sister Rosemary did not actually understand how the whole God-prayer thing worked, I decided that she was right. I decided that I must be a bad person. Something must be wrong with me because I could not feel that connection to a statue of a man being crucified on a cross.

This event created a tremendous duality that haunted me through my adolescence and early adulthood. In the privacy of my own life, I did feel a spiritual connection with a power so much greater than me. But I never felt it according to the terms that my school or my religion defined. I found myself constantly at odds with the nuns who had been charged with bringing spirituality into my education.

Yes, something spiritual was definitely being awakened. But no - not the way they talked about it. In high school, I would get into arguments with the nuns. Some of whom saw me as a potential theologian for the Church once I got through my confusion. And others who thought the devil was taking over my soul.

Even today, I still struggle with this duality. When deep conversations with that presence show me something, or tell me something, it can make life difficult. Especially when that experience contradicts what the people around me believe. We are social animals, after all.

It is painful to feel disconnected from another person when the inner vision conflicts with what someone else thinks or sees.

Guru Nanak was called a mad man by his contemporaries, because his vision ripped apart the fundamental beliefs of the society from which he came. It is no small thing to stand up and say, "What I see in my meditation is true, and what you think is not."

Guru Nanak had the strength to do it. But for myself, it is not so easy - especially when the ‘subtle space‘, and time and space, don’t seem to correlate at all. Staying committed to that inner vision sometimes demands a willingness to stand alone.

I wish I could say the Sister Rosemary Effect was a Catholic problem. But as I have grown older, I realize this is a "religion" problem. Every religion expects people to experience the divine according to their concepts and their rules.

But people do not need concepts and rules to know the Creator, or have a relationship with the heavens. We were built to have that relationship. It is in our DNA. All people need is to be affirmed in the experience of their own souls. It is the most natural thing in the universe to have that connection, if nothing gets in the way.

When we begin to define ourselves based on a social group, the definition, in and of itself, creates a limit. To be Catholic requires a definition. To be Hindu or Buddhist, Jewish or Sikh, requires a definition. But the spirit has no limit.

Guru Nanak explained it beautifully when he said that the divine is beyond our ability to define it. The moment we limit what God is or can be or can do, we have stopped relating to Infinity.

There is no end.
The visions go on
As far as we can see.

There is a limit
To our understanding
Of Thee.

(Poetically interpreted from the 24th paurri of Japji Sahib.)

I love these lines. It seems that Guru Nanak is saying, "Hey people - your understanding has limits. But the divine does not."

The moment a religion draws a box around the Creator, it tries to delineate something which, by Its very nature, can never be delineated.

For many weeks, I have been thinking about writing this essay. And I am still looking for the conclusion. It is strange to look back over the course of my life and see how difficult it can be, on occasion, to trust that presence and maintain the social peace at the same time. The hesitation and uncertainty that comes from comparing the inner vision to the outer world is a very real challenge along the spiritual path.

And when those who have the obligation to guide others do not, themselves, see the inherent limitlessness of the divine – it seems like there is hardly any hope.

I was not a good Catholic by definition. And for some people, I am probably not a very good Sikh, either.

But I have found, in the words and life of Guru Nanak, a kindred spirit. Someone who stood by his inner vision and let it contradict those around him. Until slowly, over time, the people who surrounded him learned to stand by their inner vision, as well.


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