Thursday, January 25, 2007

My first Catholic faux pas

Tim and I converted to the Catholic faith while stationed in Naples, Italy. Only about 90 minutes away from both Naples and Rome is the monastary where St. Benedict wrote his rule. The abbot of Montecassino owns several abbeys in the district, one of which, San Volturno is home to some American Benedictine nuns. We became friends with the sisters and would visit often during our tour, bringing groceries, working in the fields, pruning and harvesting olives from their 2000 trees.
My favorite chore on the farm was climbing into the stubby, fragrant trees and sawing branches that were out of control. There was a sense of mission, that I was helping do something for God by helping his nuns produce more olives. It was also a chore that once completed, I could say, "I pruned 15 trees," and they would stay pruned (at least until the next year). It was a far cry from my daily tasks of changing nappies and filling sippy cups for 1, and then 2 babies. (what I am still doing, 6 years later!) It was such a peaceful place, away from the dirt and crime of the big city.
Shortly after we started visiting, I decided to attend one of the 6 daily services of the Benedictine sisters. I had never been to Vespers so Tim kept baby Will at the guest house so he wouldn't cry and interrupt. Another visitor was present behind me, an older Italian lady who kept staring when it became obvious that I didn't know when to kneel or stand. As a high church Episcopalian, it was impressed upon me to follow the service and kneel, stand, and sit at the appropriate time. Since I didn't have anyone else to take cues from, I simply tried to imitate what the nuns did. However, when the nuns bowed over the table in the center of the room toward the meager congregation and the back wall, I turned around and bowed too. The woman behind me began to stare at me like I had just sprouted two heads. I did this two more times during the course of the evening.
The following morning I went for a walk with Mother Miriam, the foundress of the reconstructed abbey. She gently told me that the sisters were bowing toward the altar in the chapel, not the East wall. My face flamed with embarassment and I quickly apologized as I realized that it was Muslims who face a certain compass direction in their prayers, not Catholics. Even though I still cringe at the thought of my first Catholic faux pas, I am grateful for the grace and compassion of the kind nuns. Mother Miriam certainly never mentioned the incident again and I fondly recall my days of harvesting that bitter fruit that turns into such sweet, luscious oil.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am Jewish and once was invited to be a member of the circle of unity for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace, an Archdiocese of Santa Fe event.
At the mass that began the event, I was asked to do a reading from Torah in English. The reading was from Parashah Yitro, wich contains the Ten Commandments. I had my daughter with me and brought her up with me. She was about 3 at the time. She wandered over to one of the statues in the church and announced in a loud voice: "Mom! Is this a graven image?"

I don't think anyone heard the rest of the reading. There was laughter from the clergy on the bimah and from the pews. I felt my face flaming! But I look back on the event fondly because the master of ceremonies handled it quite well and the archbishop complimented me that my girl knew the ten commandments already. It was a greatly humerous moment in interfaith relations.

By the way, Jews also bow toward the east during prayer. The Ark where the Torahs are kept are often on the eastern wall of the synagogue. At home, we have a special sign called a Mizrach to hang on the eastern wall so that we know which direction to bow.