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The Archdiocese of LA is offering a podcast series called Beauty Within that is kind of great (you can read the transcripts if you’d rather which I often do).

It’s a series of interviews with cloistered nuns in Massachusetts that lay on a shelf for decades. Here’s how the whole thing came about:

This is John Masko. I’m a Physician, a psychiatrist. But conversations that follow have little to do with formal psychiatry, except in so far as psychiatry — depending on one’s perspective — counts the broad range of human thought and emotion within its purview. No, the topics at hand, for the most part, are in another arena.

But let me backup for a moment and describe for you the circumstances surrounding these interviews. There’s a monastery of Catholic nuns, they’re called Cistercians or Trappistines in Wrentham, Massachusetts, not far from my home. They have a chapel on the property for their worship and there’s provision for the public to attend services. One day I did so and was assaulted, or so I felt, by the behavior of these sisters. I heard laughter coming from the hidden areas beyond the chapel after the service and had an immediate complex reaction, the leading edge of which was bemused irritation.

I should mention that by virtue of my work, I have super-sensitive antennae. For me, there are a hundred styles of laughter as there are types of smiles, ways to raise eyebrows, and so on. And this was a joyous laugh, a pure laugh, the kind I rarely hear and almost never give myself. It’s like hearing a pure clear note from a trumpet when you’re used to playing and listening to kazoos.

I thought to myself, “What right has she to have such a pure soul, a heart unencumbered by the usual baffles that we place between our inner self and its expression?” She has run away from life. She’s probably been cooped up in this prison for decades. She’s led a loveless life, surrounded by a bunch of frightened, confused unloved ladies. So, where did — where could that sweet note, that pure Clarion laugh come from?

So he ends up sitting down and interviewing a bunch of these nuns and what they have to say is very deep.

Here, for example, is Sister Hannah Maria, a woman from Norway, is 47 years old. She was a journalist and later a journalism scholar in Scandinavia.

Sister Hanna Maria:
It’s a daily being confronted by the truth of God, which is not apart from me. It’s not different from me, not apart from me, but it is to go into my heart and to meet God in my heart. And also by repeating the Psalms day out and day in. They are so rich. There is no mood where you can’t find yourself in the prayers of the Psalms. So whatever mood I’m in, you go to the office and the day is… The office, the liturgy for us, it’s like the spine. It’s like the skeleton of a body. It’s what keeps the day for us. And it is what keeps us up.

John Masko:
The framework.
Sister Hanna Maria:
Yeah. A skeleton, I find a better image. Because it is movable. I think of framework as a little bit square. But that might be just a mistake in my head.

John Masko:
No, I think you’re right. It is a better metaphor.
Sister Hanna Maria:
So you always get something and there is a newness in it. But to come to that, I think another key is the simplicity of our life. And as I said, the cloister, we are sheltered enough to move towards single-mindedness. It doesn’t come easily. Doesn’t come quickly. And I think you have to work with it all your life. But here, this life of the monastery is ordered to help you to do it.

John Masko:
To come to single-mindedness.
Sister Hanna Maria:
Single-mindedness, right. And that is the simplicity, the poverty, the simpleness of our life. It’s very, very simple. And what I’ve found is that it opens me up to see and hear, and smell, and touch, and taste much more than I did before. Because when you just pour in, it’s too much, kind of thing. It’s too much. I often feel that even in the monastery, “oh, it’s too much. God, stop this. Can’t you give me a little rest? Let me just pause a little bit here now so I can get what you’re telling me. What i
s this about?” And he says, “no, go on, go on, go on.”

My experience–over many years but especially here in Tucson–resonates with all of the above. Take the flora, for example, which at first glance is seriously reduced in scope and kind from the more or less riotous pageant in Southern California.

Oh cool, lots of cactus, I thought at first, but not very deeply. I knew the cholla, the barrel, the candelabra, the what I simply called prickly pear–opuntia when I was feeling fancy–that had been in my back yard in Pasadena.

Turns out there are over 40 kinds of prickly pear alone, which began to dawn on me when I went shopping at Old Pueblo Cactus the other day and asked for “the purple one.” Turns out also there are several purple ones–the one I wanted is the Santa Rita. I also got a load of the fact that cacti are not cheap. And the next morning when I was putting out the recycling I took a close look and realized there are at least five different kinds of cacti–all different shapes, sizes and personalities–just growing in the alley! From which I can of course take cuttings if I’ve a mind to, which I do and will.

That’s just one small example of what happens when the external choices, distractions, and pageant get even slightly toned down. So now I’m going to read up on the cacti of Southern Arizona, and the Sonoran desert, and so much else in this new geography, climate, culture.

People are asking me things like, So have you found any great restaurants? and Where do you shop for clothes?

I laugh! I eat very very simply. A piece of chicken, some Israeli coucous, a salad of butter lettuce, avocado and black olilves. I love to cook and am halfway decent at it, but for myself I go for simple. (As for clothes: ebay).

Yesterday I finally took a day off and went to a movie theater for the first time since COVID (Summer of Soul). The screening was at noon and I walked the .7 miles in the sun down Speedway to The Loft, an indie cinema in which I felt instantly at home.

Walking, way more than shopping or eating out (much as I enjoy both those things) is how I become one with the neighborhood. I walk every chance I get: to Mass, to the dentist, to the library, to the corner market, to the PO, and mostly just to poke around, get some exercise, look at the sky, study the plants, smell the smells, commune with the birds, and wish “the people” well. I’m always aware of the poeple around me, whether on foot or bike, working in their years, walking their dogs, and am alert to smile and say Hello unless they look curmudgeonly, troubled, or in despair.

Most people don’t want to say hi, which is fine. But I try to move through the world in a way that takes the world into account. Which makes me feel part of my neighborhood even if I still don’t (and may never) know anyone (which is not for lack of me being as friendly as possible without being pushy and weird). I think I read somewhere that introverts, silent and alone in crowds, still feel very much “part of” or maybe more a part of than if they talked. And I have absolutely found that to be true. I usually pray a Rosary when I’m walking, and lost in wonder and gratitude, thereby imagine myself to know and support everybody! Hey! Hi, it’s me, your lowly servant!

On the way home from the movies I stopped at Starbucks to use part of a 10-dollar gift certificate someone had given me (venti iced Americano, thank you), and then at a ramen place on the next block. LA has insanely great ramen on practically every street corner so, not that I’m any great ramen connoisseur, I had hesitated. This was okay–not great but not horrible and I was grateful for it.

Speedway, by they way, the closest main drag to my home, is terrifying, whether driving on, walking along, or especially, crossing. And back home, safe and sated, I suddenly thought of how St. Thérèse of Lisieux had preferred the cracked, ugly pitcher to the pretty one, or had chosen the ugly one rather. That had always struck me as slightly if not highly unnecessary. Isn’t there enough suffering and privation in this vale of tears; enough times when we don’t get our way? But suddenly I thought of how I’d chosen Tucson over a more glittery, culturally hip, conventionally beautiful place. Partly because it’s cheaper but also or the same reason I’d chosen to live in Koreatown–another terrifying-yet-glorious place–for 18 years.

I distrust too much comfort and ease. I distrust the herd. How much of why we live in a certain place has to do with wanting to project a certain image, to have an idea of ourselves? I have no self, apart from the “skeleton” of prayer, Mass, writing, walking, observing…

And even the cracked, misshapen pitcher is too much! It all comes too fast, is too much to take in, is so weird, so interesting, of such abundance–40 kinds of prickly pear alone! The days already getting shorter! The new hummingbird feeder arriving soon by mail!

Here’s another fringe benefit of silence, solitude and the search for the beauty within: People also ask all the time: Are you lonely?

My response: NO!


6 Replies to “THE BEAUTY WITHIN”

  1. Anne Mallampalli says: Reply

    I love how you write. I’m seriously considering signing up for your next class. Pray for me, will you? Anne Maurene of Aberdeen.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Anne, I totally will pray! In fact, I was just praying myself that some more people would sign up for the Workshop and that I would have something to offer…I’d love to have you but you’ll know if this is the right time…plenty of room still–

  2. Valorie Shue says: Reply

    This year my patio garden consists of whatever plant the birds, squirrels, and wind have deposited in the pots. Most of my perennials died during minus 20 degree temps around Valentine’s Day. I didn’t have time to replace them when my mom had her last illness this spring. I felt sad about it until I read your post. I realized that I have lots of surprise flowers and grasses, a new gift of creation.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Thanks so much, Valerie. I left a huge garden behind in Cal, and also gave away I swear another three of four starter gardens’ worth of succulents, agaves and aloes. And ALSO brought many plants and a ton of pots (though never nearly enough!) to Tucson…it seemed like SO much letting go..and now that I’m here, I find that a lot of the the Southern Cal plants just don’t thrive here…so I’m slowly acclimating to the idea of Southern ARIZONA native plants, bushes, trees, and of course the aforementioned cacti…it’s a very different landscape and feel–the spacing, the groupings…as you say, when we can just let go of how we “thought” it was going to be, and embrace how it really is–we “have lots of surprise flowers and grasses, a new gift of creation.” Just beautiful–your stuff resurrected in the wake of your mother’s death..

  3. Your words are treasure, dear Heather! Yes, I am alone around people but never alone with Jesus! and never alone with my animals!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      And plants, trees, flowers, sky, birds!…


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