What the Nuns Taught Me

There were two things I quickly learned not to do in my first year living in the United States: not go around telling people how much you loved them and, even worse, telling their secrets to other people. For both you gained a reputation that preceded you as someone “loose” with things that should be held close and away from prying eyes and deaf ears. I remember both moments well because both involved learning discretion and being able to discriminate what information should be revealed in what context. I also remembered the feeling when the nuns of St.Mary’s Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania pulled me to a corner, dragged along by my skinny arm and into the dark area right behind the confession booth.

“The Lord teaches us to be humble with all things,” she whispered it close to my ear and then wagged their finger slowly in my face, “and to not do or say unto others as you would not have done or said unto you.” Even if it’s true? I asked. “It doesn’t matter, it’s none of your business child.”

In journalism school I learned truth is not a defense for libel, in fact, it can actually create more grounds for emotional damage and distress and cost you quite a bit in cases where the person is not a public figure. I visualize how an onion thickens and how we only focus on the peeling back. I think of the 300-year -old Sequoias in King’s Canyon and the jaggedness of some rings inside their trunks sometimes signaling periods of great distress and then harmony. The layers form, protect, harden, become foundation and protect the vitality from within by keeping a relationship outside of itself.

I didn’t know it then, but when the nun whispered it in my ear, I lost something. I became self-conscious of everything, the conversations, the constant filtering, “Christ Freeze Tag” became a lie. I listened more and talked less. The context was always changing and I struggled to grasp it. I was less witty for it and people blamed it on the fact that I was an immigrant and didn’t know English well. “She’s slow, she’s just like that.” Perhaps I had become shy or introverted or I rolled backward into myself. It wasn’t an overnight change, but when Sister Mary Catherine whispered it in my ear it wasn’t her words I heard, but this: it’s time to let go of child-like ways.

It was the end of a certain openness and faith I had in the world as a playground of emotion and thought. Information could be dangerous, it could “do unto others” if I was heedless, if I stopped paying attention or was too much with the world. It could do unto others what I had never expected it do unto them because the world, as my mother later informed me, was a constant negotiation for information and for your own truth.

When Joan Kiley and I had a heated discussion this afternoon, I realized that I felt the same sadness around Wikileaks that I had felt that day when I stopped trusting something and then felt the responsibility of creating my own meaning at every moment.

The message remains the same, regardless of the messenger. Whether it’s Wikileaks or anything that involves openness and honesty,  it’s about a broader context and about the worlds we want to live in, fight and take responsibility for. It’s about equality and respect and it’s the reason I work in Central America. And so I thank Joan for that discussion and for her poem which I share with you:

Advent 2010: What are we waiting for?

Will we get new light this time around?
Will the sun really return?
Or has it, too, been co-opted by corporate interests
and the wealthiest two percent?

I don’t want to give up
on Nature’s cyclic rhythm.
It is archetypal after all.
But in this dark night
of our nation’s soul
there are moments when the idea of hoarding
matches and candles in a remote cave
seems like a reasonable notion.

Remember the seeds
waiting in the cold
resting in the dark.
Their time will come.
It’s a matter of trust.

Given that the survival rate of the genetically modified
and manipulated is likely far greater
than those bare-naked “natural” little gems,
where do I send my energy of hope
my prayers for new world creative collaboration?

Truth. I shall trust in truth.
Truth may be covered in slime,
living at the bottom of all the moving boxes
the last to be unpacked when the transition
has been made. But truth weathers well,
doesn’t rot or succumb to mildew.

Like an acorn on the dank forest floor
there is an unseen mightiness
about truth, a warmth like fire.
I shall go there and stand with it.

—Joan Kiley, December 2010

2 comments on “What the Nuns Taught Me”

  1. That reminds me of how when I was in 5th grade and we were taken to a weather observatory I became excited and started asking lots of questions of the docent who was showing us around. Suddenly my teacher grabbed me aside and whispered harshly to stop asking so many questions, as this was “unseemly and annoying, most especially a girl.” That made me keep my questions to myself for many years, which I guess was the idea, not to have girls asking too many questions, using public space, gaining too much knowledge. It is sad when allegedly well-intentioned teachers manage to crush the natural inquisitiveness and/or communicative impulse in children, rather than just guide it.

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