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Interview with Mother Elizabeth

February 23, 2009

I read a book by Thomas Merton one time.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of him.  He was from England and he lived a very wild life.  He was an author and converted to Catholicism and entered the Trappists in Kentucky.  He wrote a lot of books like “The Seven Storey Mountain” all about his journey through contemplative life.  He said, “If you can explain contemplative life then you haven’t got it.”  Because it’s not something you can explain.  It’s a faith experience and a faith relationship.  It’s not to be defined.  We can say a lot about it and what it looks like but unless you go through it yourself it’s hard to understand. 

So, I’ll tell you a little about my journey and see what that brings up…

I was born in Washington and my father was Catholic and my mom was not Catholic.  She converted when I was in high school.  I am the only child so I have no brothers and sisters.  We lived in a small town, not a real small town but a medium small town, about two blocks from the parish church and school and that’s where I used to go to mass with my dad when I was a little girl.  My mom didn’t go but she was a very prayerful, good person and she always helped me with all of the religion that I got in school.  She was very devout.  I went to Catholic school from the first grade until the twelfth grade and we were taught by Franciscan sisters.  After that, I went to nursing school, which was in the hospital 6 blocks away from the high school, and that was all run by Franciscan sisters too.  I went three years there; it was a hospital school of nursing.  Then, after that, I thought I needed to know a lot more so I went to the university for two more years and got a degree. 

 

I lived a very sheltered family life and when I got into university life it was a different story.  I lived on campus for a little while and then I lived in a boarding house right off the campus connected to the Newman Center.  At that time it was in the 60’s and everything was going a little cuckoo so I went a little cuckoo too.  I think probably I was impressioned by the people that I had lived with in school.  So there everything was pretty relative; you could figure out what you wanted to and do what you wanted to. 

 

But, anyway, after I got out, I went to work in public health because I had gotten a grant that if I worked for two years in public health they would give me so much for my school.  So I did that.  I worked in the ghetto.  I was coming from a sheltered life, so going into a ghetto and not having a lot of experience in medicine was not a great thing, but I sure learned a lot fast.  I wasn’t happy in that kind of work because I’m the type of person who needs structure and that was very unstructured.  But anyway, I learned many things…In my district there were the very rich at one end and the very poor at the other end so it was quite an education. 

After I got out of that, I thought I’d better go to the hospital and work.  So I went to the hospital and I worked in medical-surgical nursing for a couple of years.  All this time, I was not practicing my faith so I would say I was pretty unhappy.  But there was something in me that was searching.  Then I had an opportunity to get a job with a kidney center, so I went and I worked there for four years in hemodialysis.  I think that really helped me; working with chronically ill patients because you’re always in the presence of deep suffering, really hard suffering.  You don’t see anybody get well.  You’re really facing death all the time and then you start asking yourself questions. 

 

But I also started getting hard and it scared me.  Then, a nurse came to be trained in hemodialysis who worked in the Children’s Hospital and she offered me a job to work in their ICU with kids.  I thought, “Maybe if I work with children I won’t be so hard.”  So I went to the ICU and it was very hard. It did soften me a lot and I became more compassionate and, I think that was the beginning of when I was aware of my vocation to Carmel.  Because when you see kids die right and left, you start asking why and I started reaching out for God.  And, at that time, I had a conversion experience.  It was very profound and I finally found my way back into the church again to practice my faith.  Then, I became more and more interested in my faith and what it meant.  I began really searching for myself instead of just having been instructed in things.

 

I stayed in the ICU but I knew that I needed more training because we did open hearts and burns and everything.  I didn’t feel that that kind of stress was something I needed.  So I left that job after about a year and a half and I went back to the hospital and worked with patients with kidney failure.  From there I came here.

 

I remember that I could see people around me, people that I worked with, everybody just doing their own thing.  Nobody respected the authority of the people who were in charge.  Everybody wanted everything; they wanted more money and they wanted to do this… I thought to myself, “Is there anybody who wants to obey?  Is there anybody who doesn’t want to have sex every day?  Is there anybody who wants to just live simply and not have everything?  I want to do that.”  I think I was being drawn at that time by God to a deeper life. 

 

So, how I came here was…I wanted to meet some people.  In the Catholic Church at that time there was not a lot of community and I wanted some kind of spiritual community.  A friend of mine told me about a secular order of Carmel so I went there to the monastery, and I asked if I could join and they were real happy and they brought me in.  I joined that for about a year but I found that it wasn’t enough.  We met once a month and we had a little spiritual talk.  The people who were in charge of that were starting a secular group down here and they said, “why don’t you come down here and just meet people” and so I said “OK” and I came down here.  That was really interesting.  I liked everybody. 

At that time, Mother Miriam was the prioress and she came to the grill.  I didn’t say anything to her.  Everybody was gathering around talking to her but I stood in the back and I watched.  That was all and I went home.  She wrote to these people a couple of weeks later and she said, “That girl has a vocation.  What is she waiting for?”  I had been praying for a sign all along showing me what I should do with my life.  It was funny because at first I would pray, “Lord whatever you want but I want either to be married or single.”  And I kept praying that and praying that and I got no answer.  I got so desperate, I said,”I’ll do whatever you want.”  And then this all happened.  I had been praying for a sign and I could see it clearly so I said, “I’d better go talk to her, but I don’t know if I really want to do that.”  So, I came and talked to her and she wanted me to meet the community but I didn’t want to because I was scared.  But I knew in my heart, I think, that that was what I was supposed to do.  So, I applied.  I wrote a letter and asked if I could try my vocation here and of course they said yes. Then, I came and I’ve been here for 32 years. 

 

When I came I was miserable.  I didn’t want to leave what I had; I had my own home and I had family and my parents and I didn’t want to leave that.  But I knew I had to be true to myself.  So when I came here, I was just very homesick and weeping and I was a mess and cranky and everything, but I knew I was happy but I was miserable at the same time.  It was an emotional thing.  I thought “Well God and time are on my side and I’ll find out.”  But I never ever thought that I would leave.  I wanted to one time.  I wanted to…it was really funny.  I had just gotten the habit and it was summer and it was 85 degrees outside and I was peeling potatoes in the kitchen.  I had my winter habit on because that’s the only one I had and I was hotter than heck and I was so cranky and mad and was just fed up because I was so tired. I just threw my potatoes down and I walked down to the woods and I said, “I’ve had it! I hate it! I hate it!  I don’t like this!  I just can’t stand it!”  And I ranted and raved for about 10 minutes and then I said to myself, “OK what do you want to do?” And I couldn’t think of a thing so I walked back and I picked back up my potatoes and I kept going!

 

You know, this life is not easy.  It’s a real sacrifice.  You have to do it out of love for God.  That’s the only reason you can do it.  And, He makes it happen.  And, you know, we say “I can do this, I can do that”…you can’t do anything, you have to depend on Him for everything.  And the more you’re here, the poorer you see you are.  You have no distractions so that you come up against yourself all the time.  And, we help each other that way.  So, it’s a life of faith and love, really.

 

There’s always a struggle for me. I guess it’s just my personality.  But, I know that I love it and I know that I’m supposed to be here.  It’s a wonderful feeling to belong to somebody and I know that I belong to God.  I think that’s what’s helped me most of all.  To know and believe in His love for me because I’ve done some cuckoo things and I’ve not been the ideal person, whatever that is, but I know He still loves me.  To know that is a wonderful gift.  It’s a gift; it’s not something you earn. 

If it’s not too personal could you tell more about your conversion experience? 

I was in a difficult situation and it broke wide open and I realized that I had been far from God.  I realized that there was a God and I had been ignoring Him for many years.  So, coming back to the practice of my faith was slow.  I started by reading the Bible, and I hadn’t really read it that well before, but I read it. Everything made sense to me.  I believed it all and I was surprised that I did.  I would go and sit in the back of the church when nobody was there and just sit there.  I worked with a girl who was a Baptist, and I thought I’d try her church.  So I went to the Baptist religion and the fellowship was lovely, people were lovely, but there was nothing there.  I was used to rich liturgy; things could be explained, there was meaning to everything and symbols; and there was none of that there.  So, I just finally said, “Well, what am I’m fooling around for?”  I knew this priest and he helped me a lot.  I could ask him a lot of questions and he helped me come back.  It was a hard time in my life, but I think suffering is the thing that really helped me.  Working with it and having it in my own life is just a beautiful thing.  I look back on it now and I think I was blessed and I am grateful for everything I went through. 

We have a very disciplined life here and that suits my personality very well although, some days I would like to have a day off, but that’s part of the discipline and the life.  It keeps you supported and focused, so I’m grateful for that.  It’s not easy living in community.  I love the community, but when you think of women living together 24/7 and we’re all so different.  That’s why it is God’s work; you can’t do it on your own.  Also, since I was an only child, I didn’t know how to interact in a community so it’s part of my struggle.  But it’s really good, because you come to find out that love is not about feeling good about something, it’s what you give of yourself to somebody else and receive from them too.  Sometimes you have to look at what you’re receiving, sometimes it doesn’t look right, but it is.  It’s for your good.  It’s funny how we hide from ourselves. When you come up against other people and their problems, you have to start looking at yourself and say, “How am I entering into this?”  Say I’m mad at somebody or angry with them for something, I’ve come to say, “Well now why am I angry?”  And you say, “Because I want it to be my way!” And then you say, “Ah-hah! Does it need to be your way?”  Just little things like that.   It’s that simple.  But I think in our world today, there is so much distraction that we don’t stop to think about who we are, what we need to be.  We want to be in charge. 

Our life in Carmel is part eremetical and partly community, but in this Carmel it’s big in community.  We have a very united community.  We work together; we have our differences but we always seem to work things out.  We do what we need to do to be better, to do things better, and to relate better. Sometimes it takes a long time to do that but we eventually get there.  It’s a real nice community.  We’re probably more structured than a lot of communities are.  We don’t have a lot of extra things, for example we don’t have internet. We watch the television very rarely; we don’t watch television actually we watch some videos or a DVD, something light not something heavy.  And when we have a big community problem, it is very interesting. Everybody contributes to working out the problem. It’s beautiful to see how sometimes people aren’t sure and, then all of a sudden, somebody has a solution and everybody says, “Oh yeah, that’s it” and everybody agrees. It’s really beautiful to see that.  We try to take care of each other.  That’s the part of the Christian message that we want to give; it’s that love comes first and we try to do that for each other and for ourselves.  That’s the fruit of our prayer life. 

Are you allowed contact with your families? 

Family can call once a month and they can come and see us once a month.  We don’t visit a lot because otherwise there are distractions.  We have to be careful about distractions.  We work for a living and we also make crafts to sell and you can really get into crafts.  If you work with it, it can become part of your prayer life, too.  But you have to be careful. 

Do you have much contact with the community?

 

Half and half I would say.  We have periods of recreation during the day.  And also, in your work sometimes, you have to talk with somebody in the community.  Or, sometimes people will come and ask me about problems and I talk with them.  We do have a silence which makes us like hermits.  We all have our own room, which is really nice.  It is not like they used to do way back when there were dormitories in a lot of the active congregations.  We have structured hours of prayer by ourselves and also in community so it’s pretty intense.  Then, we have time for study.  We have a really nice, big library and it has all kinds of books in it not just religious books but biographies and the classics, recreational books, art books, all kinds of craft books.  That’s one thing we’ve kept up through the years because it’s good for us.  People who are sitting around doing nothing during the day have all kinds of problems so I think it’s real good for us.  Then, we have all the grounds to keep up and that’s really good for the sisters to get out.  Each person that is capable has a little garden they’re in charge of and they can do what they want with it.  So it’s kind of nice that way.  We have our own art studio that we can put our things in and work by ourselves.  Then we have recreation days on big feast days and we talk and we watch a video and we have popcorn…you know, just simple things.

Do you ever visit other Carmelites? 

We belong to an association.  There are 21 Carmels in the association.  We have a meeting every three years and usually one of the monasteries hosts it.  This last year we had one in Houston, Texas.  We stay out at a retreat house because usually there are about sixty of us and nobody can handle that many people.  It’s really nice and we get to meet all the different sisters and you get to know them after a few years.  We all have the basic structure but everybody has a different flavor to them.  Sometimes, they have meetings with all the Carmels in the country.  That’s not too often.  And sometimes they invite the sisters from Mexico or Europe.  In our association, we have two Carmels that are in Canada, Ontario and British Columbia, so they come to our meetings too.  Then, we have a newsletter that we put out and we find out all that everybody is doing.  And some of the foreign Carmels, like from Africa, put things in the newsletter.  We have one Carmel that belongs to our association, in Finland, and they let us know what they’re doing.  So, it’s quite international.  And then here, we sell the books that Sister Miriam translated so we have contact with a lot of Carmels all over the world.  They send pictures and we get to see what they look like and what they’re up to.  It’s nice. 

Regarding discerning a vocation…

Usually we ask the person to write a little bit about themselves.  You can tell a lot about a person by the way they write about themselves and I ask them to tell a little bit about their story.  And if it looks promising then I have them come and stay here for a weekend in the guest quarters or even for a day to interview.  We talk about what they’re looking for.  A lot of people say, “Well I want to be a nun.”  What is that supposed to mean?  I want to know what you want with your life.  After the visit, I wait to see if they want to come back and then I have them talk to the sisters.  And if they want to come and make a live-in, which is usually for three months, they can do it.  It’s very nice.  They can see how the life is right from the beginning and we can see how they adapt.  If that works out and they want to come back and enter as a postulant then we have all the paperwork to do.  We don’t do background checks but we do have a questionnaire that asks a lot of questions such as medical questions and questions about their faith life and everything.  Postulancy is for a year and then they can receive the habit and then they’re novices for two years.  And, after that, they can make temporary vows which they renew every year for three years.  Then at the end if they wish to continue, they would make their final vows.  So, that’s a six year period.  We can extend it another year if we want to. 
 

We’ve had a lot of people come and go through the years.  Some have stayed a very short time like two weeks and some have stayed many years and then left.  So it just depends. You can do a lot of psychological testing but we’ve found that even with that still people can’t do it.  Their needs are greater than what they can do here.  But that’s part of how it is.  This is such a rare vocation that you’re not going to get a lot of people come in, but it would be nice to get some more people to keep it going.  I feel that it’s needed.  It’s a big part of the church.  It’s a good witness as Christians that God supplies. 

 

There’s nobody here from Eugene.  We all come from other parts of Oregon or other states and everybody’s story is very different. 

So, did you always know you were pulled toward the Carmelites in particular? 

Well, I looked at other things.  I looked at the Sisters of St Mary’s in Oregon.  They are active in nursing and education too.  But, I never wrote to them because I just didn’t feel that was right for me.  But this felt good.  When I came here, I didn’t like the place, I didn’t like anything I saw but when I met the Sisters I knew that it was right.  They were just so nice and fun.  They were just people.  I had this crazy idea of everybody going around like skeletons with no pink cheeks and dark veils over their faces and I thought, “Oh, do you really want me to do that?”  So, it was the people that drew me here.  And now of course I love it.  It’s beautiful.  I was in Seattle and I loved the Carmel there and I loved to go there all the time but it wasn’t for me.  It’s funny.  I think you are called to a specific Carmel, too, not just the order in general but a certain house you belong. 

Do you ever miss nursing? 

I did a lot of it here over 20 years.  Then I got kind of burned out.  Now, I have to watch and make sure everybody’s fairly on target.  And I know what kind of questions to ask.  I don’t know any drugs or anything anymore but I know, “Well, that doesn’t look quite right.  We better call 911.” When I first came, I had worked in critical care a lot so I didn’t know little ordinary stuff.  And then the Sisters would start asking me ordinary stuff and I would say, “I don’t know”.  That was so hard to say I didn’t know! That was good for me.  I thought I knew everything.  I have done a lot of nursing and taking people to the doctor and making sure they do what they’re supposed to.  That’s been a big help. 

 

I got into nursing right away when I came and since then I know that that was not a good thing.  You need to come into the life and experience it as it is.  So, it’s better that you wash dishes than you know all kinds of stuff.  It’s better that you just do what the rest are doing and have more time for prayer because you come out of that world out there and it takes a while to settle down.  It really does.  You’re not used to the silence and the solitude.  I lived by myself at home, but I could go and come as I pleased and I could call my friends on the phone.  All that’s no more.  So, I think I got into nursing a little bit too fast.  So, I watch it when people come and make sure they get the space they need because what you do is important but it’s not totally who you are.  I think you have to be appreciated just for yourself and not for what you can do.

 

I think today, too, people that feel called to religious life or are interested in it, especially contemplative life, need to see if they can live with silence, if they can have some solitariness in their life such as when they have a period of time in the day where they’re quiet.  And they have to pray.  I think for Catholics, we need to go to Mass as often as we can, go to confession, take advantage of the sacraments as much as possible.  And that’s what we’re looking for.  It’s not so much that someone has a lot of projects they’re doing in the parish, that isn’t important to us.  It’s how deep is your interior life and how much do you want to go that way.  Because people have come here and it’s pretty hard to give up your cell phone.  If you have a lot of social contacts and you’re busy, busy all the time, it’s not going to work.  So, we’re pretty counter-cultural.  They have to see if they can do this, see if that’s something that really draws them. 

 

I think too, it’s very hard for people to express what they’re looking for.  What I look for is:  do they want to love God more than anything.  Is that what they want?  And then if they do, then they’ll pray and, if they pray, they’ll have an answer eventually.  And you know how it is, you have to try different things and if that doesn’t work you keep trying until you find out which way you’re supposed to go.  But as long as you have that relationship with God and it’s open as much as you can get it open and you spend quiet time that way a little bit each day, you’ll find the answer if you want it.  That’s what my advice is to people that are looking at a religious vocation. 

 

There are a lot of people that are going into active consecrated life for women and it’s great.  I just think it’s wonderful.  A lot of the new orders coming up are really doing very well.  And that’s good.  But, our whole mission here is prayer and that’s a different way.  Not a lot of people can see that.  It’s very sacrificial.  It’s all about trusting God.

For the Faith 
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