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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