Nazareth, Kentucky


Last week, I went on a retreat with the CMMR.  We drove to Nazareth, Kentucky, to the mother-house of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.  Nazareth, and that part of Kentucky generally, is a really interesting, and kinda strange, place.  The area was settled soon after the Revolutionary War by English Catholics from Maryland and some French Catholics fleeing Napoleon.  As a result, this area of north-central Kentucky (including the bigger towns of Bardstown and Elizabethtown) has this unusual Catholic through-line permeating what is otherwise the normal, rural American South.

Likewise, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth themselves were formed in the U.S. in 1812 to minister to this population, and other similar pockets of Catholics in the South and Midwest.  Thus, they are a uniquely and exclusively American expression of Catholicism.  Sure, they looked to European models for guidance (their rule is that of Vincent de Paul), but they are products of this soil from the jump.

On sign of this unusual arrangement is found in the nature of the town.  Nazareth, Kentucky is coterminous with the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity.  There is a small post-office, in between the motherhouse proper and the former science building (now converted into apartments for low-income folks), giving the official U.S. government imprimatur that this place is its own entity, wholly under the care of the sisters.


The most striking part of the place is the cemetery.   Row upon row of sisters are laid to rest in clean lines, making use of the subtle undulations of the terrain to highlight each row, each stone.  It reminds me, albeit on a much smaller scale, of Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, D.C.  Even the headstones that mark the final resting places of the older cohort of sisters are the same simple white marble of the graves at Arlington.

But that's not the striking part of the cemetery.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Amy noticed it first, but once she brought it to our attention, you couldn't unsee it.  Interspersed among the simple, dignified, unassuming white headstones are a half-dozen very large, black marble biers.  The combination of their size and their color made the contrast with the rest of the field was overwhelming, almost painful in its incongruity.  They are so obviously out of place that they must exist because someone or some group of someones insisted on communicating to anyone who would visit who was really important in this field.  The overall effect, especially when viewed from the entrance to the cemetery where the slight rise of the land allowed you to see the entire field, was of a handful of dark cancerous tumors that had wormed their way among the pristine white lines, disrupting the healthy flow of the body.

And who is buried beneath those black tumors?  The priests who acted as chaplains to the sisters.  All of the markers date to the middle part of the 20th Century, so these priests were active during the last days of the ancien regime, of the time before the Council.  We were staying in a nearby guesthouse, which was a massive thing--three floors, at least a dozen rather spacious rooms.  We came to find out that the guest house was once the rectory for those priests, a rectory which housed at most three or so priests.  Three priests, living in this massive space, having all of their material needs taken care of by the sisters, required only to say Mass once a day and hear some confessions from the sisters.  And knowing that, in death, they were headed for an ostentatious place of honor in and among the sisters in return for their modest efforts in life.

More than anything else, the combination of the rectory and the black marble biers was a communication to the sisters of their place in the great chain of being.  Everything is ours, it says to these women.  Even in this place, which you legally own, which you have build with your hands and with you labor, we are still in charge.  Even in death, we dictate the terms of everything we touch.  We are the ones that really matter, no matter the circumstances.


That's no longer the case, of course.  The sisters gently, but pointedly and without apology, made it clear to us and to anyone who might inquire that they are masters of their domain now.  They, and they alone, decide what goes on in Nazareth, Kentucky.

We were all a little unsure, perhaps even nervous, about how we would be received when we arrived.  In many ways, we are more traditional than the sisters.  We wear habits, when by and large the sisters do not.  We say the daily office, which it seems they mostly do not.  But, unlike anything in the Roman Catholic world, we are men and women, married and single, openly gay and straight.

As it turns out, our arrival was a little bit like a hand-grenade going off, but an explosion almost entirely of positivity.  They loved our mix.  They really loved Amy, especially when they learned that she was beginning the process of studying to become a priest.  They even reacted mostly positively to the more tradition parts of our set-up.  It was so positive, in fact, that they want to partner up with us in a more formal way, maybe to the point of letting us use part of their land on a more permanent basis.

A certain sort of person will seize on this response and say, "I knew it!  These sorts of congregations of sisters have abandoned the One True Faith!"  And that's not entirely wrong, at least for certain values of the One True Faith.  At lunch one day, when attempting to explain the differences between the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church, Jason's offering of "we don't believe that the Pope is infallible" was greeted with a deadpan "we don't either" from one of the sisters.  If the One True Faith means being horrified by women being priests and gay people getting married and anything outside of what is approved from Rome being accepted, then the sisters were definitively not sufficiently horrified, or really at all.

But I think the reaction is far less about taking sides in theological pissing contests, about "sticking it to the Man" (or, perhaps, certain men) than the critics would suspect.


The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth are dying.  I would estimate that their average is somewhere in the mid to high 60s.  It's not discussed explicitly, at least we didn't hear it discussed explicitly, but it is obvious.  And, while again it is not at the tip of their tongue, neither do you sense that they are putting their head into the sand, denying this facts in front of their faces.

The same sort of person I mentioned above loves to seize on this fact more than any other to prove the inferiority of the sisters' approach and world-view to their own.  Somehow we have found ourselves in a place where it is socially acceptable to talk about religious institutions in the coldest of Darwinistic terms--survival of the fittest, and if you aren't going to survive, then you must not be very fit.  The very people that are so quick to decry the corrupting influence of "secular" culture are all-too willing to capitulate to one of the grossest and most poisonous manifestations of that culture, and apply it to their own lives and works.  If we as Christians are going to evaluate our projects through the lens of Darwinism, then we are doomed as a faith.

We are doomed if we take that route because, at its heart, Christianity is a religion about dying.  All of us, and everything that we have built, are going to die.  Even God, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, died.  It is true that we as Christians believe that there is a reality beyond death, the reality of the Resurrection, but that reality only comes to us, is only accessible to us, by going through death and coming out the other side.  When the Church sings about "defeating death," that is not, and cannot be, a kind of Jedi mind trick in which we convince ourselves that we are not ever going to die, that we have a special immunity from this process.

The temptation, the perennial temptation, is to think we can defeat death by somehow going around it.  That through our cleverness or our endurance or our technology, we can avoid facing death in whatever form death takes in our situation, or at least so we tell ourselves.  We create innumerable artifices, all designed either to freeze our reality in place before crossing the threshold of death, and/or to jump us ahead of the dying to the sunlit lands beyond.  Perhaps the most common technique is to build monuments to ourselves, in the hope that having a name on a building or some other enduring symbol will bestow on us a kind of eternal life, even when we are physically not present in the flesh.

The black marble biers among the simple white headstones in the sisters' graveyard are a testament to the ultimate futility of monuments.  Those priests, or their supporters and patrons, commissioned large and ostentatious graves as a symbol of who was important, who mattered, who had control in Nazareth, Kentucky.  The builders were saying something about how things were, and how things should be.  And yet, despite those efforts and that expense, they could not stop the passage of time.  Male clerics do not dictate the terms of reality in Nazareth, Kentucky any longer.  It is not just that these men died, but the system and the power relationships that they embodied died as well.  Markers that once communicated, or at least the builders thought communicated, power and influence and control are now farcical, gaudy and over-wrought symbols of hubris. 

To be a people of the Resurrection, it seems to me, we should accept the reality of death--our biological death, but it also applies to our works, our projects, all of the elements of our lives.  Once we have accepted this reality, we can prepare ourselves to go through it, and then fix our eyes to what lies beyond.  Running away from death, or running around death, or trying to convince ourselves that nothing will change and that we can indefinitely keep everything as it is, as we want it to be, is both a hopeless cause and a source of far greater personal suffering in the long-run.  That's the message of The Fountainwhich as I discussed before is one of my favorite movies.  Tom refuses to accept death, believes that it can control it, stop it.  But, he can't, and more to the point he should not try.  Death is not a disease, death is not a failure.  Death is ultimately, as The Fountain frames it, the Road to Awe.

And we all better get busy learning this lesson, because death is coming for us.  We have, at least in the prosperous, technologically advanced West, done a pretty good job of walling off as much of death as possible from our collective lives.  But now we are all staring down the barrel of a planet that is turning against us as a result of our arrogance and mismanagement and stupidity.  In the coming years, few of us will be able to hold off its effects, and one of the core effects is that a lot of things and people we love are going to die.  If we act as if we can tamp down every flare up of this brush fire, we will do nothing but dig ourselves a deeper and deeper hole.  What we need, what all of us need, is to accept that we are going to experience real, severe loss of things that we loved, and fix our eyes on what might lie beyond that loss, toward some new future that is yet to be written, or perhaps even imagined.


The sisters, and other religious communities of women in a similar state, have much to teach us in this project.  They show us a path between, or perhaps out of phase with, the two common options of a death-grip on what we have in the desperate hope to preserve it, or a nihilistic abandonment of hope in a future.  The sisters know that the specific way of life that they have built is coming to an end, and as an outside observer I think that they have in the main accepted this.  The project now is to plant seeds that will germinate and grow on the other side--some new vision, some new manifestation of the core ideas and values that animated their work.  Because they are free of the colonization that gave rise to the black biers among the simple white headstones, they can do this in and among a Church that has not, and appears that it will not in the near future, come to grips with the erosion of its foundations as an institution.

We as a community are trying, in our limited and no-doubt blinkered way, to be a seed out of which something new can grow.  It may come to nothing--many seeds never germinate, and others are killed off before reaching any appreciable size--but it could be something that will last on the other side of whatever this is that we are going through.  I think the sisters, with their eyes fixed beyond the death of their project, on a new version of their old project, or at least the possibility of such, see that.  That it comes out of a different denomination in our current arrangement of playing pieces matters little, especially if you don't think that arrangement has much of a shelf-life left, anyway.

If it comes to pass that we are able to build something with the sisters, to build something in Nazareth, Kentucky, we will be given a great gift in being among the sisters for as long as they might be with us.  When you are young, whether personally or as an institution, the future appears infinite, and death of whatever sort seems conjectural.  When you are older, you come to learn that death is coming to all things in time.  It's a hard lesson, one we naturally resist, but one we need to learn.  It will make us, individually and collectively, better people and better Christians.

That the sisters seem interested in providing a vehicle for us to learn those lessons, while being open to sharing some of their legacy with outsiders, is a powerful grace.  I hope we can live up to it.   


Popular posts from this blog

Anatomy of a Twitter Beef

For the Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life

In Memoriam: Rachel Held Evans