My childhood was rich in religious symbolism. My mother would lead us in the Rosary during long car trips. My father would read to us from a beautifully illustrated Children’s Bible before bed. My grandparent’s home was adorned with religious art and Crucifixes. My Grandmother “Granny” would spend hours talking with me about God and the Saints. One of my favorite memories would be going to Easter Sunday Mass at St Raphael’s’ in Williamstown Massachusetts where my grandparents lived. My parents, brothers and sister, cousins, grandparents and aunts and uncles would all walk across the street to the church. We kids would jostle to sit with our favorite cousins while our family would fill several rows. After Easter diner we would all take a walk through the town.
We went on trips to visit Catholic shrines like La Salette Shrine in Attleboro Massachusetts. At La Salette I was entranced by the statues the candles and the huge Rosary circling around the pond. My Aunt Mary-Teresa would patiently explain to us the meanings of statues and images. One very cold March, my Grandfather “Pepere” took my brother Davy and I to Montreal to see Norte Dame and Saint Joseph’s Oratory.
There is one place though, above all others, that has been shrouded within the mysterious mists of my memory: The Poor Clare Monastery in Jamaica Plain in Boston. I first visited there when I was very young, perhaps only 3 years old to visit my Aunt Joan who was a cloistered nun in residence. The last time I visited as a child was in 1969 when my Aunt Joan left Jamaica Plain for Africa. In the years since then I always felt I had a special connection there between it and myself that I just always just out of reach of my understanding.
In 2011, during a business trip to Boston, I finally returned to the Poor Clare’s, hoping for an insight to it’s mysterious connection to my childhood. I recounted the visit to my Aunt Joan:
After over 40 years I returned to the Poor Clare Monastery in Jamaica Plain. Arriving at 6:00 AM I could hear a mocking bird and robins singing in the early morning twilight as I stood out front. I went into the chapel and spent an hour with Jesus in the Eucharist listening to the Sisters pray and sing the Liturgy of the Hours (Lauds). I spend the time meditating on the family history here, remembering that Pepere, Granny and the whole family including myself sat in the very pews I where I was now sitting. I also reflected how I as a small child here first felt a spiritual awakening and presence of God here in this very Chapel. As all early childhood memories, it was more felt then recalled.
A sister who needed a walker was moving about, preparing the altar for Mass. The Poor Clare sisters were in a room behind the Tabernacle. I could only catch small glimpses of them through the screen. At 7:00 AM they moved to a room off to the left side, behind a gate for Mass. Father said Mass facing them although he would turn to us occasionally.
After Mass, I went up to the elderly sister who was preparing for the Mass earlier. I introduced myself and said that my aunt was a Sister here back in the 1960s. She asked for a name and when I said Joan Savoie, she just lit right up and smiled. She said that not a day goes by that she doesn’t think of her. You were, in her words, her best friend. As the archivist, she still has the letter you wrote to her after your return from Africa. Sister mentioned that you were part of her “army” of younger sisters who were working to implement the Vatican II changes to the Monastery. By now I am sure who know who I am talking about: Sister David. I told her that you are doing very well and that you are now a grandmother. She does miss you and I am sure she would love to hear from you. She also said that she is now 86 years old.
My return to the Poor Clare’s in Jamaica Plain didn’t satisfy the mystery but only deepened it. The last couple of years since I was convinced that I was missing something or perhaps more accurately, forgetting something important. Unexpectedly, while I was at Mass with my Uncle Tom in Colorado, the veil was momentarily lifted.
I had just received the Eucharist and sat down when I saw my relationship with Jesus with the eyes of a four year old boy sitting in the pews of the Poor Clare Monastery. I keenly felt and understood how much I was loved by God and I in turn, reflected back an innocent, trusting love to God. If Jesus had walked into that into the Church that moment I would have run right over to Him and hugged Him like a small child greeting a beloved grandparent.
The mystery I was seeking was not a literal memory but a clear vision of my childhood understanding of God. It was a vision of what once was, what could be now, and what will hopefully be again. The feelings were so powerful I had to actually get up and walk to the back of the church. Just as quickly as it came though, the curtain closed again and the emotion faded. I was left, though, with a deeper understanding. I could see that this is the way Jesus loves us and that this is the kind of relationship He wants to have with us. The curtain I perceived was of my own making. It’s not God who put it there but rather my own fears, doubts, pride, and weakness.
All these years the Poor Clare Monastery in Jamaica Plain was a time capsule, holding safe a special gift of my childhood memory until I was drawn back to it when I needed it most. More than that though, it was invitation to return to the roots of our personal faith, to believe as a child again without the burdens we have only imposed on ourselves.
It’s easier to write this than it is to follow through. We all struggle with doubt and unfortunately some of our experiences growing up cloud our vision of what faith can be. Nevertheless, I do believe it was no accident that I was drawn back to Jamaica Plain after all these years and that it was not just for my benefit but for others too. As for myself, I am willing to accept the invitation and strive to return to the experience of a childhood faith.
Post Script: Like most families, life was not always easy for my ten aunts and uncles growing up. I didn’t understand that until I was an adult. Growing up among them I always felt loved and my childhood was never touched by their struggles and pains. That was their great gift to me. My memories of the Poor Clare Monastery are so closely intertwined with my recollections of my aunts and uncles that I cannot think of one without the other. Last November, as I stood looking upon all of them gathered together after my brother Davy’s funeral I could see how special they were to me, how unique it was to have so many and just how much I loved all of them dearly. So… I want to tell each of them why they mean so much to me. (Spouses in parenthesis)
Aunt Jean: Thank you for being a second mother and for being so wise
(Uncle Jack): Thank you for being a hero and an Army role model and for instilling in us kids a love of history, self-discipline and excellence.
Aunt Joan: Thank you for walking with me outside in the blizzard of 1969 in Williamstown and taking me under your wing me in Washington State during my first adventure on my own after high school. Of course being the reason why I went to the Poor Clares in the first place.
(Uncle John): Thank you for taking me camping with Shaun
Aunt Phyllis: Thank you for being our teacher and for your smile and your sense of humor
(Uncle Dave): Thank you for loving us grandkids unconditionally and for always listening to us
Uncle Frank: Thank you for giving all of us kids the joy of laughter. Kids need uncles who make them laugh
(Aunt Linda): Thank you for inspiring us with your passionate activism
Uncle Tom: Thanks for inspiring this blog, for sharing the Dancing Bull, for deep conversations on the Philosopher Thrones under the watchful eye of the Syntopicon and for being there with me when the large green meteorite flew over Denver so I know I wasn’t imagining it
(Aunt Jacquie): Thank you for making me feel at home in Germany and for being a voice of calm and reason
Uncle Dave: You were the first philosopher I ever knew. Thank you for respecting my intellect when I was young and thank you for taking me to Boulder Colorado to meet the gurus in 1982
(Aunt Harriet): Thank you for hiking with me in the hills of Tennessee
Uncle Paul: Thank you for teaching me to throw snowballs at the neighbor’s garage and for carrying me around in the blanket at Savoy State forest and for camping with me at Pine Mountain. Kids need uncles to horse around with
(Aunt Claudia): Thank you for your warmth and your love and for making us feel like we were always part of your family
Aunt Marion: Thank you for your sharp wit, your mischiefness and for making us feel grown up when we were kids. Remember that you are a beautiful woman, inside and out, even when you’re feeling grumpy
(Uncle Doug): Thank you for walking with us around in Williamstown and taking us up to MT Greylock and Pine Coble
Aunt Teresa: Thank you so much for taking an interest in me when I was young and when I needed it most. I miss you
(Uncle Mike): Thank you for starting the family address list. You kept us all together before the internet and Facebook
Aunt Annie: Thank you for being an aunt, a big sister and a friend. You still owe me an ice cream
(Uncle Gao): Thank for being a great cook and introducing us to new foods and for always making us feel at home with your gentle spirit