Twenty Minutes with Mother Miriam
By Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
Mother Miriam is the 18-year superior of the Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province, which has houses in Greenwich, New York, and Mzuzu, Malawi. Five sisters founded the community in 1865 and the Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, Bishop of New York, received them as a monastic order.
The sisters publish books (The Monastic Diurnal Revised, vols. I and II, and the forthcoming Monastic Diurnal Noted Revised), appeared in a PBS documentary (The Hidden Life: The Story of the Sisters of St. Mary), sell goods made of cashmere wool, and make cards, calligraphy, and bookmarks.
How were you drawn to the monastic life, and how did you come to live it in the Community of Saint Mary?
Oh, Richard, God is so patient! My mother saved a picture I drew at age 6 while Hurricane Donna passed over our home in Orlando, Florida. The scene was the house across the street, and the caption I wrote was “God is love.” However, it was not until I was 15 that I felt called to the religious life. I am a fifth-generation cradle Episcopalian and was privileged to attend Episcopal schools all through my growing-up years.
I remember distinctly the moment I declared my desire to be a nun. It was not in church. It was not to God. But it was to my tenth-grade gym teacher, when I refused to play powder-puff football! I was sent to the dean’s office, of course; but the miracle was that he was a priest associate of one of the newer Episcopal religious orders then and knew what I was searching for. Obviously, I had started out on a very human, willful path, but God could use even my foibles to get me where he wanted me.
I always marvel at his timing. While a sophomore at the University of the South, Sewanee, I visited the Sisters of St. Mary several times. The first time I met Mother Mary Basil, who was there on official visitation from the motherhouse in Peekskill. The second time I met Mother Mary Grace, then Mother General of the community. I loved both of them and felt I could trust them and live under their direction. There is not much glamor in my story, but a lot of personal growth and surprises on the way.
How has CSM changed during the time that you have been a sister?
I entered in 1975 when most of the post-Vatican II upheaval of the 1960s in the religious orders had settled down. I am one of the last sisters in the community to have experienced community life at the Mother House of the Eastern Province when it was a thriving community of 35 sisters in six branch houses. That changed shortly after my novitiate. We all remember Mother Mary Basil as the one called to close all those branch houses, bring sisters back to the motherhouse, and reinvent the service of the sisters to the Church through the retreat and Benedictine hospitality ministry. For 15 of those years I was the youngest in the house.
CSM has always adapted to outside influences because the sisters were service-oriented, even when their last-remaining capacity was prayer. When I entered, the days of running large schools, hospitals, homes for orphans or troubled teenage girls were numbered. The number of sisters was declining, and the increasing governmental regulations made it impossible to fulfill the obligations of both a religious and a social service professional. We chose the Opus Dei gladly, as we would like to think Mother Harriet, our foundress, would have chosen. The monastic life is countercultural. We chose faithfulness over success because we believe that is what God is always asking of us.
The consequence of that choice was a cascade of circumstances that pointed to our eventual relocation from the metropolitan New York area to upstate New York in the Diocese of Albany. When we closed St. Mary’s School in Peekskill and ultimately sold it to a real estate developer, our time in Peekskill was limited. Peekskill had grown into suburbia for New York City. In 1870 Mother Harriet had envisioned the rural Peekskill convent for training her young sisters in monastic prayer and giving elderly sisters their well-deserved respite in prayer. It was no longer that rural oasis in 1980.
I was elected the Eastern Mother Provincial in 1996 while still one of the two youngest sisters in the house. In studying our history, I found that only Mother Harriet and Mother Mary Ambrose (the first western sister elected Mother Provincial in Kenosha, Wisconsin) were younger upon their election. Clearly, the sisters knew that radical change was in the air. It was a time to honor the wisdom of the past and find the common thread into God’s Kingdom for us all in a new era.
In my 18 years as mother, so far I would say that the two major changes for us were the coming of the Malawian Sisters in 1999 and the relocating and building of a new motherhouse at Christ the King Spiritual Life Center in the Diocese of Albany in 2003. My beloved Malawian sisters have taught us much about the gospel life as we laughed, cried, and struggled our way to a common understanding of the sacrifice and joys of living as a monastic family.
Sr. Martha, the first Malawian novice, today will tell you that she is my memory. I have a terrible memory, especially if I do not write things down. As a novice, she was convinced that I did not love her because I always forgot to get her needed things. Now she has learned the weakness of my education compared to hers. Her learned memory skills are phenomenal compared to mine, but it does not mean she loves me more than I love her. The American sisters taught the Malawian sisters what we knew about prayer, theology, church history, animal husbandry, computers, and bookkeeping. They are well positioned to make the transition into the 21st-century Anglican Communion the African way.
The second change, the move of the American sisters to Greenwich, was a community-accepted reality from the moment the city of Peekskill planned to declare the convent road a public thoroughfare in 2000. Only one sister departed this world during my time as mother in Peekskill. Life was just too interesting right then. The five sisters over 85 when we moved all lived into their 90s. Life was a fun time of making new friends and dreaming new dreams for the kingdom, and still is. We are an integral part of the Diocese of Albany’s Christ the King Spiritual Life Center, doing the things we do best: pray, teach, preach the gospel, lead retreats, raise much of our own produce, meat, and cashmere goats. Our aim is the wisdom of the Benedictine balance of prayer, study, and manual labor — all food for the soul in the school of the Lord’s service.
Who have been the most important influences in your monastic life?
I should say first that the rector in my childhood parish, Christ the King, Orlando, Florida, was the one who instilled a love of the Lord in me. I remember my confirmation at age 10 with joy because I understood that I was now allowed to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, a most magical moment for me.
Mother Mary Basil was a role model in wisdom, patience, and trust in God. She gave me a lot of scope as a novice to research Canon Winfred Douglas’s work and finish the plainsong adaptation for the Monastic Diurnal Noted Revised.
I have Dr. Burton Grebin, the president of St. Mary’s Hospital for Children, Bayside, New York, to thank for supporting my desire to go to Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business. At the time it seemed a crazy thing for a nun to do, but without the skills learned there, I do not think we could have organized the Greenwich relocation successfully and debt-free. Frankly, working under him for five years at the hospital saved my vocation as a religious. As a young sister, I was too restless and hungry for new experience and learning for a purely contemplative lifestyle. Fortunately, ours is a mixed life of prayer — yes — but also work and study.
I have lots of heroes besides Mother Harriet, among the monastics of the past: Evagrius Ponticus for his masterful understanding of temptation; Benedict, the father of us all; Aelred of Rievaulx because he was not afraid to encourage true friendships among his Cistercian brethren; Dame Laurentia McLachlan of Stanbrook Abbey, who is known for her plainsong scholarship, her unusual friendship with the old renegade George Bernard Shaw, and as a model for Rumer Godden’s In this House of Brede; and lastly, Dom Gregory Dix for his theological scholarship, both in The Shape of the Liturgy and in his last work, Jew and Greek, on the formation of the Apostolic Church.
In our conversations over the last 15 years, I have learned that we both have Mother Harriet, one of the founders of CSM, as a close spiritual advisor. What do you think she is telling her community today?
Yes, you are right. Since I was a young sister I have always wished I could sit down with Mother Harriet and have a heart-to-heart chat with her. Everything I could dig out of the archives pointed to an extraordinary lady with ardent devotion to Jesus Christ. She convinced me that the only-child attitude was not what I wanted in life. Her desire for family attachments, growing from her loss of parents at an early age and of her elder sister as a young adult, brought her to the doorstep of Dr. Augustus Muhlenberg’s new Sisterhood of the Holy Communion.
However, the trials of balancing prayer and the nursing work of that sisterhood led her to leave with the other founding sisters to begin CSM. Their conviction that prayer came first, and that the work flowed from prayer, is the foundation of our monastic rule, which has always accepted a flexibility in our work as anything a woman is capable of doing. She had no models to follow and yet instinctively was able, with Dr. Dix’s spiritual guidance, to interpret the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to mean simplicity, cheerfulness, and self-mortification. In this way, the community resists the world, the flesh, and the devil, as the old baptismal rite says.
What is your greatest hope for the monastic life in Anglicanism today? In the Episcopal Church in the United States?
I stumbled across some writings by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove a while back where the term “New Monasticism” was being bandied about. I was fascinated to see a young Methodist and Baptist take up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term for his seminary in the midst of 1930s Nazi Germany. They awakened a thirst in me that our community’s conscious witness be a life lived as Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount. It is quite exciting that Gen Y and Millennial Protestant brethren are thinking this way. Would that we lived closer to them or that they would visit us! The old and the new have much to share.
I think that Anglican monastic life has become as infected with western cultural malaise as has the institutional Church. My hope is for us as monastics to become once more a “voice in the wilderness,” saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” St. Benedict did it by forming the “School of the Lord’s Service” amid the chaos of the fall of the Roman Empire. St. Francis did it in the decadence of the Holy Roman Empire in the late Middle Ages. The Anglican revival of monasticism began in the heart of Victorian England’s industrial revolution when the poor were enslaved to the very machinery that was supposed to liberate the worker from drudgery.
My greatest hope is to be a faithful Christian. As God has called a few good women into this unique oblation of a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to the Rule of the Community of St. Mary, I hope we will have the courage to challenge the Church outside of its comfort zone on the royal road of the Cross. Economics and ecology point to the problems of selfishness in our western world. I believe relearning how to live as community under God will be part of our salvation.
Where do you see CSM in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
We’ll still be here in Greenwich and Mzuzu, Malawi. Seriously, I think I am glad that I have no idea where CSM will be in five years. I learned how to do five-year plans at Fordham, but I have yet to see one that survived beyond the second year without significant changes and surprises. God acts while we make plans. I take comfort that he does not need large numbers of monastics to carry out his kingdom plans. Sr. Thérèse of Lisieux was a firm believer in the power of her intercessory prayer for the missions of the Church. She was only one sister, but united with the Bridegroom, great things happened for the advancement of God’s work and kingdom.
When you’re not singing chant or listening to it, what’s your favorite kind of music?
My all-time favorite is Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, and my second favorite is Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. My sisters laugh at me when I say that I only like music written before 1820 (when Beethoven succumbed to the Romantic Era), but I still enjoy some of the 1960s folk groups’ social commentary songs, like the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” and “Let It Be.” They just don’t have the spiritual depth of Bach.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is archivist of The Living Church.