America’s atomic age saw the arrival of aliens in Roswell, New Mexico. You might be thinking of those infamous little green men supposedly secreted away in Area 51, but they and their flying saucers might seem a little less out of place to modern eyes than Roswell’s other hidden-away inhabitants: the cloistered Colettine Poor Clares of the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The monastery’s long-term abbess, Mother Mary Francis (1921-2006), was one of the best-selling American Catholic authors of the 1950s and ’60s. One of her books, Strange Gods Before Me: A Poor Clare Nun Topples the Myths of the Cloister, has just been re-released by her monastery. Originally published in 1965, the same year that saw the conclusion of Vatican II, the book has only grown more relevant in the intervening years. Catholics who feel somewhat cast adrift in the choppy waters of modernism and innovation would do well to make Mother Francis’ acquaintance.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Strange Gods Before Me is its authoress’ arguments against the progressive attitude that what the Church and her monasteries need is a thorough stripping of “outdated” tradition in favor of a more “enlightened” and “sophisticated” modern stance. Mother Mary Francis was a tireless defender of the contemplative vocation, and she played a vital role in the chaotic years after the Council to save the order’s strict enclosure, original habits, and faithful adherence to the same precepts set down by St. Clare and St. Colette.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
As she notes, “Adaptation is intelligently achieved on accidentals only by those who are quite certain about the nature of accidentals and the nature of fundamentals, and who can distinguish the one from the other.” Strange Gods Before Me contains the clear-sighted reflections of one who was quite certain about the true nature not only of the contemplative life but of the Christian life itself.
In Strange Gods Before Me, Mother Francis asks,
has the day at last arrived when enclosed nuns should be liberated to “do something useful”? Is it time to stop living in silence when there is so much to be said? Are grilles and penances, fasts and bare feet, night vigils and solemn choral offices definitely out of style? It is easy for the contemplative nun to bristle at such questions, but it is much better to face them and answer them.
The book’s answers are not simply filled with wisdom but with patience and delight for the truth. For 21st-century Catholics bristling at the incessant progressive urge to get with the times, Mother Francis is an important model of Christian charity and saintly good will.
The titular strange gods which Mother Francis topples quite handily are the various mindsets which particularly afflict modern Christians—though they have been present in all eras marked by human fallibility. Importantly, these strange gods are not simply progressive fallacies but are mental prisons into which the most ardent lover of orthodoxy and tradition could also fall. In promising to face the questioning of modern innovators, Mother Francis does a thorough job of addressing mistaken attitudes to be found on both sides.
For instance, in skewering the myopic god, Mother Francis notes that
to cling to theatrical medieval practices of penance just because they were performed in the past is patently foolish. However, it is just as foolish to abandon fruitful practices of penance simply because they belong to the past. The present moves forward in exactly the measure in which it gathers wisdom from the past. If ancient usages continue to be conducive to humility, charity, and patience, then they are as modern as they are ancient. If they are not, then it is time to think about updating or maybe even abolishing them. But we shall first want to make sure that something is really wrong with the usage and not instead something wrong with the nun.
And, because Mother Francis is so keenly aware of human nature, she charitably diagnoses many such things that are often wrong with the individual. We can fall victim not only to the myopic god but to the surface god, who trains our eyes to “immediate significance rather than…ultimate meaning.” Those idolators bowing to the surface god come in both progressive and traditionally-minded flavors, and both are at risk of losing God’s truth. Getting below the surface of immediate significance, Mother Francis relates stories as diverse as postulants sorting straw for their beds to the community’s reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Her penetrating vision offers a way out of the tedium and stress that results from our obsession with the surface of reality. Things, people, and activities are never “just” themselves, and we dismiss them at our loss. In giving the lie to the surface god, Mother Francis lights up the deeper symbolism of little quirks of tradition that those with weaker eyes of faith might think of as pointless:
All the minutiae of religious life are given the deference they deserve as symbols of a great reality, though of themselves they might appear as exaggerated, cumbersome, or formalistic; maybe as mere nuisances. This is where so many of the errors that beget Impassioned Authors to correct them originate—on the surface. “Tuus sum.” I am yours, God. Not, “I must loosen the collar of this regulation-shirt so that I can really do something for You, God.” What mental strutting about we do when we talk of doing something for God! What can we do for Him but love Him? And how can we love Him more profoundly or comprehensively than simply by being His?
Love is a powerful theme, cutting through the temptations of the strange gods that clamor for our attention and distract us so that we lose sight of the Lover and forget that we are His Beloved. As a contemplative nun, Mother Francis is especially concerned with love as a distinctive aspect of the woman’s soul.
Woman’s destiny is love. When she is loved, she is most completely herself, able to expand and unfold the riches of her being as a flower opens its full beauty only in sunlight. When she loves, she is exercising her great mission in life. And if love is the life work of all women, it is the particular vocation of the contemplative religious woman.
The gentleness with which Mother Francis asks us to search our souls to discover the crowd of strange gods that threaten true Christian freedom is only matched by her playfulness. The neurotic god is practically laughed away in the pages of her book. This particular false god is one that often feeds upon serious matters, making his worshipers always frustrated, always worried, always obsessing over issues that, Mother Francis willingly admits, are often important.
This particular god is one that I, alas, recognize as all too often interrupting my day, especially during the quiet moments at Mass. It is hard to keep him out, with the incessant bad news concerning our world and our Church. But, as Mother Francis says,
we do not need an immediate certainty about every situation and detail of life as long as we have the radical certainty that we speak our works to the King…God has never asked us to succeed. This is only what we demand of ourselves.
Although the book details many terrible storm clouds on her own horizon, Mother Francis snaps her fingers at the neurotic god with an infectious joy, a joy that she promises will make him “take triple aspirin and remain in bed.”
The reason for Mother’s joy is her embrace of suffering—not simply as something to be borne, but as something to be embraced. “Once,” she tells us, “Saint Colette was asked by her nuns what she considered the greatest misfortune that could befall her. The saint replied: ‘To pass a day without suffering something for God.’” And just as I, reading Mother’s words, find myself objecting, “yes, but…,” thinking of my worst fears for the future, she reminds me that “God’s answer to Paul is God’s answer to any religious [and lay person] who thinks this thing is too big for her: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’”