Loving the Elders

May 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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By now, you’ve probably figured out that something has been up. I haven’t blogged for a while. The thing is, my esteemed companion, Keith A. Russell, has convinced me that it’s not a good idea to announce in advance that we’re going on holiday, lest somebody drop by our Flatbush apartment while we’re gone and clean the place out. So I just disappear and ask your forgiveness later.

Ten days ago we drove out to southwest Ohio to visit with a number of members of the International Grail Movement–women seventy to a hundred years old–who had flown in from all over the world for a gathering of “Grail elders.” Some of these women had an enormous impact on me when I was in college and in my twenties and thirties. At the risk of sounding morbid, I was a bit afraid that if I didn’t get myself out there, I might not have another chance, especially to see the ones who had come from Europe and South Africa and Australia.

I “met the Grail,” as we say, when a Grail member gave a talk at my Catholic girls’ high school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1965. I began going to meetings at the Grail Center in Philadelphia, and then I visited Grailville, the Grail’s farm and program center outside Cincinnati, and then I went there for several summers while I was teaching the fourth grade, and then I joined the Grailville community and lived on the farm for four full years. There’s no way I would be anything like the person I am if I had not done so. And a number of Grail women who were in their late thirties and forties when I was in my twenties were the most astonishing role models a working class Catholic baby-boomer could ever have hoped for. Somebody was always suggesting that I compile and edit a prayer book for the community, or go take a grant-writing workshop, or work up a feminist version of the Easter Vigil to celebrate during Holy Week. They helped me to believe that anything was possible.

Forty years later, some of these women have left us. I walked down to the cemetery behind the Grailville Oratory one morning to have a chat with them. But lots of others were at the elders’ gathering, so I got to visit with them, and pray with them, and recall a wide range of amazing experiences we had shared. With Francine Wickes, my dear friend from Bangor, Maine, I recalled dancing to Pachelbel’s Canon during a liturgy in the Oratory, and I resolved to go up soon to interview her about the twenty years she spent with the Grail in Indonesia. With Carolyn Gratton, the gifted spiritual director and psychologist from Toronto, I recalled running a summer program at Grailville in 1975 where several of the participants who had come up from Louisiana played Miles Davis music on the loudest setting of their tape recorder for the entire month.

I sat next to another old friend, Alice Dougan, during the Trinity Sunday liturgy. The priest, the Grail’s dear friend George Wilson, SJ, announced that instead of giving a sermon, he wanted us to talk with one another about an experience we had of the mystery of God. Al shared with me that her senior year in high school, she had been so deeply moved by Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain that after graduation, she joined the Poor Clares, a contemplative religious order. She only lasted a year and a half, she told me–by then she had discovered that she was a “doer”–but in that year and a half, she learned how to pray . Something that came in handy during her six decades of Grail service in Africa and the US, I’d warrant.

Another person whom I had not seen in a very long time was South African Grail member, Anne Hope. During one of our conversations, I told her the story of how a Grail member who had influenced both of us enormously, Eleanor Walker, had become a Catholic. While she was a Ph.D. student in French at Columbia during World War II, Eleanor read a lot of French medieval literature, and decided she wanted to join the Catholic Church. This can sound pretty crazy now, but in those days, and for decades before, Catholicism’s medieval vision of the world attracted many people who were searching for an alternative to the increasing violence of modernity and industrialization. Eleanor went to the rectory at Corpus Christi, the famous Catholic parish at Columbia where Thomas Merton also was received into the church, and said she wanted to be baptized. The priest asked her if she knew a Catholic who could be her godparent, but she said no, she didn’t.  Probably because she was a student in French, the priest at Corpus Christi  gave Eleanor the phone number of Jacques Maritain, the famous French neo-Thomist philosopher who had fled Paris with his Jewish convert wife, Raissa, to escape the Nazis. Maritain did, indeed, serve as Eleanor’s godfather when she was baptized, and she went to the Maritains’ apartment for tea (well, wine, probably) every Sunday afternoon thereafter until the Maritains moved to Princeton. Anne Hope had never heard the story, and urged me to write my memories of Eleanor, who died in 1979. Anne herself had just finished her memoirs, including the story of how she had been forced to flee South Africa under apartheid because of her work with Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid hero.

There were sixty women at the meeting, which means there are many more stories I could tell  you,  but it’s time for me to go slice the collards for supper. I’m sorry to have been AWOL for so long, but probably you can see that it was worth it. I’ll write another post soon.

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9 Comments »

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  1. By coincidence, see a beautiful poem by Clive James, “Lecons de Tenebres,” in the June 3, 2013, New Yorker, p. 64. He muses about his mistakes of the past but learns to see “how the years have brought/ A fitting end, if not the one I sought.”

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  2. Oh, brava, Marian! I love this. thank you for telling me some Grail stories. I love hearing about Eleanor. I can picture her now.

    The Grail certainly change my life. Janet Kalven taught me how to invent things. Just make ’em up. Was she there? I hear she just turned 100.

    Sending lots of love.

    Jeanette Stokes Durham, NC stokesnet@aol.com Blog: http://stokesnet.wordpress.com

    REPEAL Amendment One

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    • Jeanette, there were two different parties during the elders’ meeting to celebrate Janet’s 100th birthday. Janet has fairly advanced Alzheimer’s disease, but it was wonderful to see her alive and (sometimes) attentive. I guess one of the challenges facing us all is how to appreciate folks for who they are now, however constrained their mind or body has become. Did you ever read Janet’s book on the Grail in the US, “Women Breaking Boundaries”? I realized, while rereading it recently, that she wrote it when she was 85!!

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  3. A beautiful reflection, Marian! Thanks! Maybe a collections of such stories would be timely, if you are not ready for a whole book! Doretta

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  4. Marian, I loved hearing these stories (and second Doretta’s thoughts about writing more of them). I love too the way you have of remembering your roots. Obviously, you were pretty fertile ground for all these rich seeds in your life!

    Love,

    Carolyn

    P.S. I think George and Keith may have a lot in common!

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  5. Dear Marian, I thoroughly enjoyed your stories about the people at the 70-100 meeting. I’ve read your e-mail several times and will probably read it several more times. I talked with Fran Martin this afternoon and heard her storiesabout the meeting. It sounded like a great gathering. I’m so glad so many people got to go. I’m glad Ruth Gallant got back for it–and Elise. I was treated to a phone call from Mary Clifford, Stephana T, and a couple other people on Saturday. It’s a good thing I didn’t go because my hearing and my mobility have gotten so bad. I do fine in KC, thank heavens. Love, Lyllis

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    • So good to hear from you, Lyllis. The meeting really was wonderful, though it would have been even more so if you could have been there. Much love to you.

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  6. Sounds like a wonderful trip! Thanks for the reflections, Marian!

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  7. Marian, I’m a little late in replying…but I was so happy to read your reflection of the meeting. I wish I had been able to attend, maybe next time. I loved your stories about all the people that were such an influence on my Grail experience also!

    Thanks for writing about then,I learned a lot! Alexa

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