National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

Sr. Madeleine and the House of Peace


I swear I’ll only stay five minutes. The roads are getting slick, I’ve got laundry in the washer at home and groceries in the trunk, and I’m only dropping something off.

I stay an hour.

It’s almost a gravitational force, the peace that swirls through the tiny South St. Louis bungalow Sr. Madeleine Lane shares with another School Sister of Notre Dame. The sofa is extraordinarily soft. The pictures are all serenely beautiful. The first time I visited, I arrived thinking how sad it was that they had to scrounge up a place to live and their community didn’t all live together in some gorgeous brick motherhouse, the way they used to when they all wore reassuringly heavy black habits and sang matins together every morning in perfect key.

And because Lane is the sort of delighted, interested, utterly nonjudgmental listener to whom one wants to blurt everything one’s ever thought, I admitted my nostalgia for her former world.

She looked startled.

“I think of this as a convent,” she said, looking around the room. “People say, ‘Aren’t you disappointed about all the changes? You don’t even wear habits anymore.’ But I’m not. I’m just sad that we haven’t communicated the deeper answers, the new ways we are living the vowed life.

“We are there for each other in new ways, and we’re not caught up in the externals anymore, like, ‘Who’s got the car?’ ”

Since that first visit, I’ve reexamined my romantic notions. Yes, I can imagine praying here, and singing and sharing meals. I can even imagine someone trusting these women’s kindness enough to leave a baby on their doorstep.

When I blurt -- well, not the part about the baby -- but this feeling of serenity, Lane smiles. “A friend who’s a priest calls this the House of Peace.”

No TV jangling. No TV in sight. No piles of mess, mail, things to do. There is discipline here, I realize. But discipline isn’t enough. I have friends whose homes are immaculately tidy and feel only constrained. Where does the peace come from? No Celtic New Age music plays; no essential lavender oil wafts from a lamp. And there’s sure nothing feng shui about their hand-me-down family furniture. It’s arranged in the only pattern space allows.

I review what I know about Madeleine Lane and realize she seldom talks about herself. I know she’s keenly sensitive to the struggles of lay people because I’ve written about the nonprofit counseling center she started, the Family Center, where clients pour out their stress and fear and guilt. I know she started the center so people would have a place to heal emotionally and spiritually; a place they could come as long as they wanted, free of interference from managed care, and pay what they were able. “I really worry about families today,” she often confides. “They are so busy -- for what? The kids have stuff, but they’re lonely. The parents work so hard, and they’re never convinced it’s enough.”

So she hears the world’s stresses every day as she walks the financial tightrope of running the center; counsels 5-year-olds stressed by kindergarten -- or, a layer deeper, their parents’ divorce -- helps crazily rushed professionals learn silence; walks alongside people who are dying or bereaved; teaches spiritual direction; speaks around the country about children, families and spirituality; spends hours listening to the older sisters in her community, whom she calls their wisdom figures. I tease her about all she does, trying to find a frazzled spot, a bit of that pulled-10-ways-for-Sunday frustration I sense in myself and everyone else our age.

“I don’t have to be home for a husband and six children,” she reminds me, her voice as soft and calm as ever. “If I spend time with someone who is dying, it’s OK.” She looks straight at me and smiles. “I would love to have a spouse, and I would want desperately to have children. But this is what I’m called to. It feels right. And the peace is very real.

“In the early ’90s I went through a growing-up time, questioning everything, disillusioned with everything,” she says suddenly. “Then I asked myself, ‘What am I choosing?’ And it became a deeper commitment.”

Sensing a clue, I lean forward.

“At 18, I said I was just going to love the whole world, and it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t loved individually by one person,” she continues. “Years later, when I ran out and felt totally empty, I stopped saying, ‘I’m going to go out and do all this,’ and turned to my relationship with God. It’s not about me anymore, about all I’m going to do. I count on love from others. And whatever I do flows naturally, because I feel so profoundly loved and blessed.”

She defines her vocation as “almost a deep silence.” She doesn’t organize and manage her time to get as much as possible done; instead she blocks out hours and hours of prayer each week, goes to Eucharist every day and keeps the Sabbath like a Mennonite -- no laundry, no TV, just hours left empty for God to fill.

“My sister Mary always teased that I was more of a contemplative than she was,” grins Lane. Then, for a second, the light goes out of her round, cheerful face. “Mary died last year of a brain tumor,” she says. “She was only 53, the prioress in a Carmelite monastery in Iowa. And she taught me an unbelievable example of unconditional love.”

Still missing her sister, Lane spent her Christmas holiday at the deathbed of a 52-year-old St. Louis woman. She’s still hearing, in odd quiet moments, the woman’s favorite line from “Les Mis”: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

“That,” says Lane, “is what I receive all day long.”

That, I realize, is what makes the peace possible.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@riverfront

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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