May 15th, 2017
“Then Sister Aquinata abandoned the nonviolent methods and produced a rolling pin from somewhere.” – Mary Robinette Kowal
Karin and spent two nights with the nuns. We had a soothing, peaceful experience at their retreat house. We needed it.
The retreat center was in Tiffin, Ohio. Tiffin is a tranquil, rural community. It is altogether pleasant. The problem is that, in order to get from Milwaukee to Tiffin, a person must drive through Chicago. There is no other path. It cannot be avoided.
Driving through Chicago is much like diving off of a high platform into a swimming pool. You take a deep breath as soon as you hit the Wisconsin-Illinois border, and you don’t exhale until you break the surface somewhere in western Indiana. Over the years, Karin and I have tried many different ways to navigate through Chicagoland, and they all suck. Every one of them. You start the journey knowing that you are screwed. Somehow, that makes it a bit more bearable.
The scenery in northern Indiana and Ohio is not significantly different from the landscape in Wisconsin. Things are perhaps a bit flatter, but otherwise it all looks familiar. Rolling fields of corn, herds of cows, forests of maple and hickory. It’s all the upper Midwest. It’s like home.
The St. Francis Spirituality Center is where we stayed. It is a large red brick building on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Francis of Tiffin, Ohio. This religious order was founded in 1869 to care for orphans and the elderly. There aren’t any orphans left on the property, but there are quite a few people who would qualify as elderly. Most of them are nuns.
Karin and I met a number of the sisters. I don’t think we met any women who were younger than ourselves. This is a problem. The nuns are in a community that does not seem to have any young recruits. This is a clear sign of mortality for their order. Their members are literally dying off.
This problem is not limited to the Sisters of St. Francis. Karin and I stayed with several monastic communities in the course of our travels, and almost all of them are struggling with the same issue. Unless the sisters are able to attract some young women, and do that soon, they will not be able to continue their ministry. Or they will have to eventually turn their work and their property over to lay people. In any case, the old patterns of life are coming to an end. This religious order will have to be transformed into something new, and it is uncertain what that will be.
I read once that the last radicals in America are Catholic nuns. This I believe. Some of the sisters are very active politically. For example, Sister Paulette frequently goes to Palestine to advocate for the people living there. The nuns are deeply concerned with environmental issues. They have classes about ecology. That is in line with their Franciscan spirituality. They work with people coming out of the prison system. They help the poor. They teach yoga. All of that is also connected with the Franciscan worldview. It is a paradox that these women, who have given themselves entirely to lives of chastity, poverty, and obedience, are also incredibly free. They have given up most of the usual attachments in life, so they can do all sorts of things that most people can’t or won’t do.
Most of the energy at the convent is focused on caring for the elderly sisters. Many are quite old and in failing health. The nuns take care of their own. They also do whatever they can to help the local community and the world at large. As part of their concern for the environment, the sisters have built a straw bale house, a cottage completely insulated with straw bales (hence the name). The structure serves as a home, and as an example of how humans can be energy self-sufficient. The sisters look both inward and outward.
Very few of the sisters wear the traditional garb. Most of them wear shirts and slacks. They still have a strong nun vibe. Maybe it’s the haircuts (short and simple), or the lack of any jewelry, other than a cross. They remind me of military people when they are in civilian clothes. Soldiers always look like soldiers, no matter how they are dressed. Nuns always look like nuns.
The retreat center itself is comfortable and inviting. It’s a place to relax and recharge. I think that Catholic retreat houses operate under the basic assumption that those who come to stay there are walking wounded. The guests have had their asses kicked by life. People come to the retreat house wounded, and they need to heal. The retreat house provides good food, good books, and good beds. Most of all, it provides a place where a person can be still and hear God’s voice.
This essay isn’t very exciting. Tiffin isn’t very exciting. It doesn’t need to be. The convent isn’t an amusement park. It is a refuge.
Thank God for that.