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Indianapolis Carmelites, Notre Dame Archives, and I

From: American Catholic Studies
Volume 124, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 47-59 | 10.1353/acs.2013.0048

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Neither of the two most important shaping events in my professional and personal life turned out as I had anticipated. A PhD in theology from the University of Notre Dame (1973) prepared me to teach in a Catholic university, a career that never happened. A retreat in a cloistered Carmelite monastery (1980) that I believed would be a unique, non-repeatable spiritual experience became a long relationship with significant intellectual rewards.

Notre Dame

The theology degree put an exclamation point to twenty-one years of Catholic education, nearly six of which were spent as the only organist in my small Midwestern church. Although tempted to count the number of Masses, novenas, Stations of the Cross services, funerals, weddings, wedding rehearsals, Forty-Hours devotions, special expositions of the Blessed Sacrament, and choir practices I attended, I have not done so. The many lonely mornings, in years where Masses for the dead required me to sing the entire Dies Irae, gave me an appreciation for the liturgical changes of the 1950s that stirred the first ideas that I might want to spend my life thinking about liturgy. Persistent invitations to consider religious life, linked to how much time I spent in church, were not appealing. From high school through college, the assumption that singleness was a state of creative indecision between one of the two legitimate states of life (marriage or the convent) paradoxically nourished a desire to follow my own pathways.

Four years in a small Catholic women’s college and a degree in chemistry led to my working on birth control research as a pharmaceutical chemist: it was the first time “the truth” as I had learned it in college was challenged by what I was actually doing. It did not dampen my faith, for I still went to Mass frequently, taught CCD in my local parish, read books like Louis Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety, and Peter Ellis’s The Men and Message of the Old Testament, and sometimes thought about graduate school. The Second Vatican Council gave women opportunities to get degrees in theology and I was eager to explore possibilities. When I learned that Notre Dame was beginning a PhD program in theology, I applied, was accepted, and moved to South Bend to begin graduate work in 1967. Since liturgical study seemed to be the province of priests and nuns, and degrees in Scripture required too many languages, I decided to study systematic theology with a strong emphasis on its historical dimensions. I hardly suspected that I would not use most of that work; but after a short stint of seminary teaching I was offered a position in the religious studies department at Indiana University – a new venture in a state university – and did not really read theology again until I retired thirty-four years later.

Notre Dame prepared me to teach in a Catholic setting and I imagined that I would spend my years introducing students to some of the nuances of St. Anselm’s definition of theology: “faith seeking understanding.” The religious studies department at Indiana, however, had no space for theology and required faculty to operate unhampered by personal beliefs. I once flippantly explained the difference by saying, “in Religious Studies we don’t actually believe anything, we’re just interested in people who do.” Although terrified with my beginning assignment – teaching nearly three hundred undergraduates about “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” when I barely knew what a Protestant was – I soon embraced the adventure of it. Despite being reared in a Catholic ghetto, I now had to learn how to be a lower-case catholic, accepting the face value of all religious traditions, paying attention to ecumenical complexities, and keeping my spiritual life to myself.1

Carmelite Monastery of Indianapolis

The most self-transcending week-long retreat I ever experienced almost did not happen. When I called the Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis in 1980 asking if I could make a retreat there, the sweet-sounding cloistered nun who posed the simple question, “Are you a Sister?” got an exasperated answer. “Oh, damn it” I barked, “what difference does that make?” “Just a moment,” she said “I’ll let you talk to the Prioress.” By the...

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