What you see is not always what you see. What you seek is not always what you find. A few years ago I was part of an editorial board for a feminist journal. Twice a year we would seek out a place to meet to do work on the journal, and to talk and plan. For the most part we would hold our meetings at the home university of one of the members, and that person would find a reasonable hotel near the school where we all could stay. So, it came time for Esther to volunteer her school which was in a major east coast city, a kind of pricy east coast city. But, Esther was undaunted! She knew of a bed and breakfast right across the street from the building where we could meet at her school. It would be perfect!
Of course we were immediately all on board with this, and the idea became a plan. Time when by, and it was coming on to be time for the meeting, so we all made our reservations at the bed and breakfast. And indeed the price for two nights and two breakfasts was remarkably inexpensive – it was downright cheap! All the better for low budget feminist academics. The weekend of the meeting arrived, and I arrived at the address of the accommodations. As I went through the door of the bed and breakfast I was taken with the rather prominent displays of Christian iconography – particularly since the bed and breakfast had been identified by Esther who is a very observant orthodox Jewish woman. But, then, I’m a feminist who celebrates diversity, so I was not going to quibble about this. Then at the registration desk – which was more like a telephone table in a small hallway, I was greeted by a young woman in a nun’s habit. She warmly greeted me “God bless you, welcome to our retreat home.” My jaw must have dropped several stories, because the good sister continued, “yes, we are the Poor Clare sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. We’ve been running this retreat house as an extension of our cloister for a few years now. It gives women an opportunity to retreat and reflect in silence.”
At that point I found my voice – barely, and managed to utter, “Retreat house? Silence? Cloister? Is this … and I sputtered out the address?”
The good sister was the paragon of graciousness, and confirmed that I was at the right place, and affirmed that indeed the bed and breakfast that I was – that we were – expecting was in fact a retreat house where silence was the rule, and prayerful reflection was the practice.
At that point I found myself fervently, silently repeating the mantra, “I’m a feminist who celebrates diversity; I’m a feminist who celebrates diversity.” As I took up my silent chant, I tried to explain who I was and what I was expecting, and that there were a dozen or so other women with similar expectations who would be arriving shortly. Then the good sister’s eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, you must be part of Esther’s group.” Ah, Esther’s group – that clarified it, and all was right with the world again. I was shown to my room, reminded of the rule of silence, and told that breakfast and prayers would begin at 7 AM. So, off to my room I went to settle in, to wait for the others and to see how the evening would unfold.
I unpacked, settled in, and then started to get restless. So, I ventured out to see if anyone else had arrived, and I found myself in a common room with another of the Poor Clare Sisters. This Sister noticed me, smiled and gestured for me to follow her. We moved into a kitchen area, and she introduced herself as the Mother in charge of the house, and welcomed me. She allowed as how hosting a non-retreat group was a new venture for the sisters, but there was only a small retreat scheduled for that weekend, so they could easily accommodate us, and they could use the additional revenue that our group would add. She asked if I was comfortable, if I needed anything or if I had any questions.
Well, indeed, I had some questions. I was raised Catholic. I knew about the Catholic Church. And there was a thing or two that I wanted to say to the Church. And, since she was standing there and she was clearly bearing the robes of the Church, well, I could just as well say them to her. So, within the rule of silence, I began. And, I continued. And, I went on. Abortion, birth control, clerical celibacy, dogmatism, exempting priests from responsibility for their acts against children, excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, financial wealth in the midst of urban poverty … I went on with questions about how an intelligent, thinking woman could be part of such an institution. (Maybe I might have been carrying some pent up frustration and hostility? Do you think?) Finally I paused for a breath in my monologue about the failures in catholicity of the Catholic Church and the need for protest and reform. And the Mother Sister smiled graciously, and asked if I would like a cup of tea.
Actually I did. Tea sounded very good about then. And so I dug deep and found my last good manner, and said, “yes, please.” The water was already simmering, so Mother Sister got a couple of cups, poured the water into a teapot, and after the tea had steeped for a few minutes, she began to pour. As she poured the tea into my cup, I quickly notice that the tea was reaching the rim. “Ahhh” I said. And Mother Sister continued to pour. “Wait, stop!” I said, “my cup is full, you can’t put anymore tea in it!”
Mother Sister just smiled, and said, “Exactly. If your cup is so full, how can anyone put anymore in it.”
And I knew right then and there that she was talking about a lot more than tea in a tea cup. Her few words said so much more than my monologue. Maybe there was something to this silence. And, I continued my silent chant, “I’m a feminist and I celebrate diversity.” And I started to think a bit more about what that meant, about what I meant by it, and about what it could mean.
Well, then others from the group started to arrive. Word about the rule of silence started to spread. And the giggles started to erupt. Women, silent? Feminist women, silent! Really? Well, we managed. We were silent in the bed and breakfast retreat house – well mostly – and always when we were reminded. The work that weekend did seem to progress a bit more smoothly than usual. It was a weekend that none of us has ever forgotten.
And, I find myself smiling quietly now every time I pour myself a cup of tea – and I find myself thinking about how full I really am, about how much I actually know. I’ve heard the beginning of wisdom is to know that you don’t know. And, while I do manage to keep the tea in the cup, more often than not, as I remember that weekend and my conversation with Mother Sister, I do feel like my cup runneth over.