Tuesday, 2 October 2018

A nun walking.


It's cold enough to wear cardigans (aye, and a vest). It'll be Christmas before we know it.

I've taken to doing all my photos in the bathroom because I love the honesty of the light. What you might call wrinkle-light; the camera that doesn't lie.

But that's not what I came here to say.

I've been thinking about the ways we influence others quite inadvertently. I know so many people who think "I'm not important. Nobody listens to me. No one pays attention to anything I do. I haven't really got any contribution to make." Not a pity-party — they really believe it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Let your life preach," George Fox said; and, yes, he did say "preach", not "speak" as modern Quakers have rendered it to suit the creep of secularisation. Well, it does, doesn't it? Does preach, I mean, not does suit secularisation. Your life. Everybody's life preaches; the question is, what message?

And I was remembering a nun who influenced me massively.

I got my first job when I was fifteen, working on the checkouts in Sainsburys supermarket. Then, when I was sixteen I started working for some nuns who ran a home and school for people with epilepsy.

At one end it had a school, then the various accommodation units for the children, graded in ages, then the offices and the chapel and the stairs to the nuns' accommodation upstairs, then the kitchen and the units where the adult residents lived, then the nurses' home and the little farm with its cows and orchard and sheds and everything. The building was strung out in a long practical line, with a central corridor running the whole length of it — really, really loooooooooooooooong.

The nuns wore twentieth century clothing; I was going to say "modern" but that doesn't quite describe their gear. This was back in the 1970s. They wore, for the most part, either skirts and blouses or pinafore dresses (US "jumpers") in profoundly synthetic easy-care fabric. Navy blue and white, in various combinations. But though they'd eschewed their groovy habits of old, they kept their veils. Not the full wimple and whatnot, you understand, just this kind of thing, or this (but black). And they wore walking shoes or sandals.

Monastics have a particular walk. Doesn't matter if they're Buddhist, Catholic, whatever — they have the same walk; a quiet, deliberate, self-effacing, recollected tread.

One day I arrived for work, came in through the front door in the middle by the offices, and turned right to make my way along the corridor to the children's department. From about fifteen miles away down the far end of the corridor a nun was walking towards me, wearing sandals over her heavy-gauge tights, proceeding along with that quiet monastic tread. 

Above the big old 1930s radiator, on the window ledge, stood a telephone. Like this. It was ringing. I was merely a minion and only the nuns or the office staff could answer the phone. It rang and rang.

The phone rang and the nun walked. It kept ringing and she kept walking. Gaze recollected, head slightly bent, veil lifting a little in the breeze, tread, tread, tread, that nun walked right on by the ringing telephone, and she never even spared it a glance. She kept on walking and she didn't look back, and eventually it gave up and stopped.

That was forty-five years ago.

I hate telephones.

As the years have rolled by I've noticed most people are kind of compulsive about the phone. I remember one Methodist minister, a Circuit Superintendent, no less, old enough to be just coming up to retirement (and they don't let 'em go early), who used to run to answer his phone if it started ringing — no matter what he was doing or who he was talking to. Just couldn't stop himself. Intriguing.

And I count myself lucky to have learned so early that you don't have to answer the phone.

We do have one in our house, but not by my choice. It rings, every now and then. And when it does, in my head it sets off a kind of video of a nun walking. She starts at the end of a long, long corridor. On she comes, tread, tread, tread, never stopping, never lifting her eyes from the ground, her veil slightly lifting as she goes. Tread, tread, tread. On she goes. Right on past. And eventually the damn thing stops ringing.

Thank you, Sister Whoever-you-were. Sister Carmel, I think. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Tread. Tread. Tread.


Suzan said...

I am my mother's carer and is she is compulsive about the phone. Mobile phones are the bane of my existence. I only hear in one ear and driving while using the phone is illegal. To keep mum happy I keep the phone in the car with me and when it rings or bings that I have a text she is on to it. It drives me insane as she cannot use the phone without much assistance. Today I told her this behaviour is dangerous.

If things are very important it can still wait until I can stop. the car safely.

Yes I want to walk away from any telephone.

The Mother Abyss said...

Demon doodad...

greta said...

you've got that exactly right. it certainly describes the nuns i know! we can learn a lot from their quiet, gentle, mindful way of being in the world. they create islands of peace. an anchorhold. thank heaven for those spaces where silence reigns.

Kat said...

I needed this today and beautifully written as always, thanks! :)

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, friends! Waving! Why do we have phones anyway? Back to pen and paper . . .

Rapunzel said...

We have phones for OUR convenience....not so random strangers can get us out of the bath to offer us a great price on vinyl siding for our rented brick house......!

I grew up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood and loved the stillness and dignity of the nuns. They never seemed rushed or worried.

It was a nun who was instrumental in opening up my mind to the experience of spirituality (as opposed to the skills of rule following). In my late 40's, having moved to a place near where I grew up, I took a workshop on prayer at the parish in my old neighborhood. I imagine I signed up for it more out of curiosity than anything.
I don't remember much about the presenters, but when we broke into small groups for discussion one of the nuns asked me, "What has your experience of God been?"

It was a flat out life changing question. No one in my nearly 50 years had EVER asked me about my experience of God. People had always, always just Told Me what God is, and what God thinks, and what God wants from us.

You just never know when magic is going to be placed into your lap.

Pen Wilcock said...

The right question at the right moment!

Since I have lived in this town, I've seen one monastic community after another quietly come to an end. It is so very sad. Just old age and dwindling numbers. We do have a small house of Poor Clares here, which is lovely.

Helen said...

This thing about phones is interesting, and it has grown to include social media too. If our phone rings, which, to be honest, it rarely does, I can very easily ignore it. If I’m busy doing something else, or nothing, or just don’t want to talk to anyone else at that moment, then I leave it to ring, with no qualms at all. My husband however HAS to answer it. He might be otherwise engaged, but if that phone rings, then it must be answered. Someone wants to talk to one of us, and it is very rude to ignore it/them. Likewise with social media. He doesn’t like it, rarely posts anything himself, but daily goes through the motions of checking to see if any of his “friends” have said anything. In his own words “it’s a chore”. Why does he do it? Society has got to the stage where people feel that they have to be available and connected 24/7, otherwise they will miss something, or, worse still, get forgotten. Technology has a lot to answe for. If we don’t actively fight against it we get drawn in to living ‘virtual’ Lives, rather than the real thing. We even live our lives and watch the world through the lens of our mobile phone cameras, so that we can prove that we were there, rather than enjoying the moment for what it is, rather than what our online images tell us that it was. Oh dear, I’m on a roll I’m afraid. Better stop.

Pen Wilcock said...

I feel your frustration! I recently watched a TV programme about the UK Royal Family, in which Prince Charles (I think it was) commented on the phenomenon in Royal walkabouts, where you stop to speak to a person and find yourself face-to-face with a phone or i-Pad rather than in a conversation — the record of the moment in a photo having taken precedence over the actual encounter.
In the days when I used to lead quiet days and retreats, I was sometimes asked by somebody with something else in their diary if I would video the occasion for them to catch up with later. For me, part of being present to a person of situation is making that your priority, and one's presence in a group forms an essential part of the alchemy of the event. Besides which, to make available a video of an event where people were sharing deeply and personally would have been a betrayal of trust, and the permissions sought would have inevitably rendered the discussion more cautious and more superficial. So I never did it.
And I won't record services where I preach, either. I believe that being there is part of what it is, if you see what I mean.
I'm not against electronic media, though I no longer do Facebook, and it is a forum for profound and real encounter. But it's a good servant and a poor master.

BLD in MT said...

That is a wonderful mental video. Yes, yes, people are nuts about their phones. Matt and I got a cellphone last year (and gave up our home phone) and it sure has been interesting. People have such different expectations about reaching me now. I had to set some boundaries (with myself and others) so it didn't slowly start intruding at every turn.

We don't answer the phone during dinner and have learned this baffles people. We're eating! Why would we interrupt that!?! I am quite sure whatever it was can wait.

:) Thanks for this story, Pen.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hooray for you and Matt not answering your phone when you're eating together! Way to go! xx