Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Soul Sisters

I had such a beautiful six days at Morning Star House of Prayer. I didn't want to leave.

First of all, the house, as you can see on the Web site, is one-of-a-kind—built in 1724. What you can't see is that it is naturally separated from the rest of civilization, being neatly surrounded by a babbling brook. Woodland creatures abound—I saw a groundhog and a family of six deer, though I sadly missed the resident fox. There are also moonflowers, roses, and other blossoms. It reminds me of nothing so much as an English country farmhouse.

The spacious grounds include Stations of the Cross, a Grotto, and a labyrinth. I walked the labyrinth, stopping at various points to read one of the "Song of Degrees" psalms until I'd read them all. I found it a good aid to prayer, although I did get dizzy after a while.

Up a short flight of steps from the house's grounds is the Delaware and Raritan Canal, part of a national park. It goes on for miles. I would walk along it and look at the ducks. I saw lots of things that I haven't seen in years, like a perfectly formed spider web. It was a wonderful feeling to walk in such a lovely place, with greenery and reflecting water, and yet be an easy walk from shelter. I found a bench facing the canal where I could write. Periodically joggers and bikers would come by, but much of the time I was alone with the birds and crickets.

I also walked down to the Delaware River state park, where I found delicious solitude. The only thing keeping me from spending the entire day there was fear of Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks. The river was very low due to lack of rain. It was easy to walk right down to its shore and take in a vista unmarred by smog or tall buildings.

One day, I told the sisters that I would like to learn the rosary. Right away, they provided me with pamphlets of prayers and a lovely rosary that I could keep. The rosary has white pearlized beads and was blessed by John Paul the Great. They also e-mailed me links to Web sites on how to say the rosary (I mentioned here earlier that the nuns had wireless), and they lent me a tape of the rosary recitation and a Walkman so I could listen while taking a stroll.

Thus equipped, I said the rosary for the first time while walking along the canal. It was a very special experience. I felt close to St. Maximilian, as I thought about how praying the rosary helped sustain him when he was suffering persecution—and I remembered how he prayed for his persecutors.

I also realized for the first time what a powerful weapon the rosary is against abortion facilities. To hail Mary is to hail the woman who said "yes" to the Lord and "yes" to life. "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places]" (Ephesians 6:12).

What really made my stay meaningful were my hostesses, Sister Josephine Aparo and Sister Geraldine Calabrese of the Religious Teachers Filippini. They are both retired from teaching--Sister Jo taught math and Sister Gerry taught grammar--but they're hardly retired. They give spiritual direction to individuals, they lead group retreats, and—I love this—they make music! Sister Jo is a bona fide singing nun, composing the melodies for the nuns' tunes, and the pair collaborate on lyrics.

The sisters' music is haunting, often ethereal, and uplifting. You could call it outsider music, in that Sister Jo's unaffected vocals and simple, catchy melodies give the tunes a homemade feel. But the well-conceived arrangements are far above the do-it-yourself variety, and the backing is excellent—the sisters record with Lou Argese, who's toured with the likes of Al Kooper. (That means they're three degrees of separation from Bob Dylan.)

Their songs aren't available online, but the sisters have allowed me to present a couple of samples. The angelic "I Am With You," from the album of the same title, features Sister Jo's voice doubled along with that of Liz Penza, an associate of the nuns' order. "I Need a Friend" from God Is Love, a song that was originally written for children, is the hit—it makes me imagine what if the Waitresses had taken the Catechism. To order I Am With You and God Is Love, follow the links on Morning Star House of Prayer's Web site.

One other surprise I found at Morning Star was that one of the books in my room—Forever Yes, a biography of Lucy Filippini—was co-written by Sister Gerry. When I'd arrived and said I was writing a book, she didn't mention she'd written one herself. I bought a copy to take home and find it inspiring. (You can read about it and Saint Lucy in an online sermon [it's just over midway down that page].)

Sister Gerry and Sister Jo have, of necessity, a "Mary and Martha" kind of complementary relationship, as Sister Gerry is older (82) and blind. Watching them together, I was deeply touched by the love and friendship between them. I'm not used to seeing creative people with such different personalities who spend so much time together get along so well. Just from being allowed to take part in the way they lived, all their good deeds aside, I received a taste of the peaceful kingdom that is to come. It's something that I pray I'll keep with me, and I'm very thankful to have experienced it.

After writing the above, I realized I should add one more thing to this piece: a link to more information on St. Lucy Filippini. The first link that came up was this page, which I had never read before. It includes these words, which it states were on a parchment laid in the saint's grave:

Her ability and experience made her work flourish and spread to our diocese and to many others. Her endeavors earned her the name ofuna donna forte—a strong woman. Though she lived wholly for her foundation, she never ceased praying at the feet of the Lord, thus uniting, in admirable fashion, the virtues of Martha and Mary.
Please pray that God will bless the donnas fortes Sister Geraldine and Sister Josephine, and their order. The world is a better place because of the faith and love that they bring to it from their little oasis by the Delaware.