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Original Essays

Behind Stalking the Divine

by Kristin Ohlson
  1. Stalking the Divine
    $4.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Stalking the Divine

    Kristin Ohlson
    "In telling the stories of the shy nuns we glean Ohlson's immense writing talent. As she explores their diverse backgrounds, callings, and challenges to meet their divine mandate, we start to share her fascination and tender affection." Ms. Magazine
I rushed out my front door to the funeral, hair still wet, about ten minutes before it started. It was at a church only six blocks away, but I drove because it was too cold to walk. Just two blocks from my house, I saw parked cars lining the streets and wondered if it was that one day a week when realtors tour houses newly listed for sale; I looked around for signs. But the line of parked cars continued all the way to the church and blocks past it in every direction — the church, it seemed, was the epicenter of a huge grid of mourning. As I finally found a place to park blocks away from the church and did one of those decorous lopes that women wearing stupid shoes are sometimes forced into, as I watched other people rushing to converge upon the funeral in their good clothes — suit jackets flapping, hats threatening escape, earrings flying off and rolling down the sidewalk, as I saw cars and limos blocking a whole lane of the main street in front of the church, I thought to myself that this was the kind of spectacle one would expect for Princess Diana.

But the funeral was for a minister who started a social service agency here in Cleveland some thirty years ago. It's an agency that's been extraordinarily successful at finding ways to help people who are hard to help — women coming out of prison who have no idea how to make it in the world and whose lovers and families have dumped them and who seem fatally attracted to things that make their troubles more intractable, or kids who have pissed off every school counselor and juvenile authority in their wake. People whom others tried to help but failed. People in whom others couldn't see the glint of promise. I once wrote an article about one of this agency's programs that trained retarded adults as personal care assistants for people with physical handicaps — it was a marriage of needs that seemed to work out splendidly. Years later, I became a volunteer in the program for women getting out of prison. Its main focus was to link them to the services they needed to struggle onto their feet — to get their high school diplomas or career training, to get jobs, to get treatment for their addictions, to get their kids back if they could manage it. My small part was to lead a creative writing class. I'm not sure the kind of people who write off women like these would agree they needed to write poems, of all things, but it did make the women feel they were able to create something in the midst of the crash and burn of their lives. It made me feel I was doing something important. And every once in a while, I'd pass the man who had started this noble enterprise in the agency's shabby hallways, and he'd give me a friendly if distracted nod as he hurried past.

When I finally reached the funeral, I had a chair in an annex, where someone had set up a screen so we could watch the speakers in the main part of the church — these included people who had been pulled into this man's orbit of goodness in one way or another and his family. Of course, people said glowing things about him — that's what you do at a funeral, after all — but his daughter drew a laugh when she talked about one trait that might have been a source of slight if fond annoyance when he was alive. He had been living with colon cancer for over six years and only succumbed in his final few days, his car still piled with folders and agendas for the next project. As I recall it, his daughter said he was unconscious during most of the last day and only snapped awake when a nurse was fussing with something at the end of his bed. He sat up and said, "Hurry!" then fell back again, once more out of reach. His daughter said that was just like him — that when she worked for him as an office assistant during college, all the tasks he handed her were marked "Urgent!!!" and "ASAP!!!" and "Very, very urgent!!!" His daughter told the crowd that her father never thought there was a moment to waste if there was someone that needed help, and he knew there was always someone who needed help. He was always rushing to get to what he considered God's work.

I'm still stunned by this funeral, which lasted for hours, and I keep running into other people stunned by it, too. It was impossible to greet anyone you knew that day — even when I saw a familiar face, I was pressed so tightly among strangers that it was hard to lift a hand. Now, we have the chance to talk about it. Those who knew him, even slightly, always gasp, "He was a saint! I've known good people before, but it was only around him that I was sure I was in the presence of a saint." From everything I know of him — that he was modest, irreverent, funny, furious at a society that let so many people down, an anti-bombast in the extreme — he would have hated this. But it might be true, nonetheless.

Goodness gets a bad rap in our culture. We often assume that really good people are cloyingly, even blindly, sweet — that they're only able to maintain their belief in goodness because they refuse to observe the nastiness of life around them. Or that their apparent goodness masks a hidden, nefarious purpose — for instance, that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where a faux street preacher lures the forlorn to his storefront shelter so he can steal their vigor for his sinister doings. We're comfortably cynical, we're suspicious of goodness, or maybe we're wary of it catching us and taking up too much of our time. Just think of how our lips curl at the words "do-gooders."

But at least part of the reason I wrote Stalking the Divine is that I was dazzled by goodness — not only by this man's but also by the people he collected to help him carry out his mission — and deeply unsettled that its source, in this case, was faith. I've known good people driven by humanist values — my ex-Communist, social activist, exceptionally generous ex-mother-in-law comes to mind — but this man was exponentially more good. And faith — I'd jettisoned that years ago. I had no high-minded rupture with the Catholic Church: I didn't leave because I objected to the church's sexism, anti-semitism, or — well, such a collection of -isms to choose from! Rather, I bolted when I was in my teens because I didn't want anyone else's moral template pressed upon my life. And I simply didn't believe anymore, not any of it. I imagined that some kind of intellectual lacunae lurked in the brains of smart people who did believe, assumed they had a desire to be coddled by faith that was simply overriding all the obvious signs that faith was a sham.

Funny that I've wound up writing a book that I myself would have swerved to avoid not too long ago. It's hard to remember exactly when the desire for faith started welling up in me — it's like when you go in for those hearing tests and they tell you to wave a finger when you first hear a tone and for a while, you're only aware of a sensation and don't recognize it as sound. I think that disappointments and heartbreak had something to do with it, although "find faith" may have found its way to my annual list of New Year's resolutions anyway — there with reading Proust and lifting weights. I dropped in on churches or other spiritual gatherings when the longing seized me, but found nothing to move me closer to faith — to a belief that the divine was here, even though I didn't know how to recognize it. Scripture? Rituals? All that seemed to be anachronistic baggage. Incense? Made me wheeze.

But I suppose if you want to find something, you find it despite your own seemingly insurmountable diffidence. I finally stumbled upon a crumbling inner-city church four years ago, on Christmas day, and a small door opened. It was one of those big old churches from the late 1800s — every post-industrial landscape like Cleveland has dozens of them — and many are sparsely attended since the neighborhoods that once filled them were razed long ago for parking lots. And maybe its emptiness was part of its charm. I wasn't surrounded by religious certainty in this church, only by dusty expanses of empty pews and the occasional solitary worshipper. My religious scorn had no target there — in fact, I kept gazing in wonder at the other thirty people in this huge church, trying to understand what kept pulling them inside. Then, behind a panel of carved wood at the front of the church, I noticed the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. See if you can say that name without either snickering or repeating it for the pure pleasure of its melodramatic soulfulness — I went to this mass because an ad in the paper said that they would be singing, and they sounded so much like a Saturday Night Live skit that I couldn't resist. I gawked at them for the rest of the mass. What made these women give up the world for a life behind bars? What kind of life did they lead? And what might they be able to tell me about faith?

And that's the book — my questions and their answers, their story and mine, my musings and cogitations over whether someone like me could ever have faith again. In their own way, the nuns have the kind of goodness that I admired in the man who started the social service agency: They give their lives to pray for us. If you find yourself trapped by an avalanche or cheated by your broker or kidnapped by a street gang and the news makes the Cleveland papers, they'll pray for you by name — they read the paper every morning to see who's in trouble and needs their prayers. Even if you don't make the Cleveland papers, they pray for you in a general way, in the way that we're all part of humanity that hurts and hungers and longs for grace.

When I told one of my dearest friends that I was writing a book about the Poor Clares, he threw up his hands in exasperation at my seemingly hopeless attraction to failure and snapped, "Who's going to want to read a book about a bunch of old women who don't have sex?" But I had an idea that others would be interested, people who had the same wistfulness but the same distance from faith as I. Who might want to know about this small group of women in an old monastery in downtown Cleveland, fanning the flame of prayer for the named and the nameless — even in days so dark we despair of the light. spacer

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