"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A chasm has always existed between secular culture and religious communities. In the lapse from the order’s founding eight hundred years ago to postmodernity, a continental drift has widened the distance between mainstream popular culture and the cultural oasis that is the Corpus Christi Monastery, described by Mother Miryam as “a whole different secluded world.” A fundamental unity of purpose and values prevents any significant culture war within the monastery between women hailing from different eras of the past century and different experiences around the globe. When Sister Mary Nicolette was a novice alongside women her mother’s age, she felt an unexpected kinship she does not think would be possible beyond the enclosure. “We shared the same ideals, and we were striving for the same thing—living the same life—and so what was dearest and closest to our heart was what we shared, and so that kind of transcended any kind of generation gap as far as what we were striving for,” Sister Mary Nicolette says. And yet it is no small feat to knit together several generations of women from a range of personal experiences, who departed their own versions of contemporary culture. The difficulties have intensified over the centuries for would-be-denizens willing themselves to release their fascination with what popular society suggests is significant.
An oft-stated adage at the monastery is that the nuns know, when they arrive, that they must adapt to monastic culture, and they should not expect the monastery to adapt to their individual desires and personalities. Sister Maria Benedicta embraces the dictum; even if her fresh eyes find room for improvement in the ancient order, she would not presume to suggest the community revamp any customs. “It would be totally contrary to what we’re supposed to be,” she says. “I’m not coming here to do things my way, you know what I mean? I need to fit into the life. We’re fitting in; we’re not trying to make the life fit us. And that is something you have to learn. Because you can say it. They can tell you before you come and you can say, ‘Oh, yes, that makes perfect sense.’ But then it’s really in the little details. I have to even fold the laundry the right way, with all the nametags in the same place.”
Sister Maria Deo Gratias believes that young women arrive at the Corpus Christi Monastery today from a world of immediacy, with a mind-set of “when I have a headache, I take medicine right away.” “It’s always instant. They want instant answers, instant gratification. It’s like the level of suffering is very low. So, here, say you have a headache, naturally, if you need medicine you take it. But you don’t jump to that as your first solution. Sometimes, by just being calm, then it’s gone. On the emotional level, it’s more a sense of keyed-upness, and I think it’s probably because of the fast rate of society—everything at them all at once, everything is always action, action, action. Where, if you come here, it’s a different culture, so they have to learn. Not that they can’t; most of them that enter are very welcoming of this, but because they don’t have the experience from the world, then they have to learn how to slow down, or they have to learn how to combat difficulties or struggles that they may have within themselves in trying to adjust to the silence and to the life.”
Seventy-four-year-old Sister Mary Joseph is known as the mechanical nun who fixes what she can and calls in repairmen for the rest, often to teach her how to make the repair herself next time. Born in the aftermath of the Great Depression’s financial reserve and material minimalism, Sister Mary Joseph’s transition to the monastery felt simple. What she learned at home was reinforced at the monastery; with tools, she was taught to handle possessions “as they should be,” she says—leaving them in good condition so that others could use them after her. She joined the Rockford community as an eighteen-year-old in 1957. Her understanding of modernity has developed from watching and listening to the tales of novices. She has seen young women who are the products of emerging technologies—objects she has never encountered in person or virtually— try to assimilate with her religious family. “They’re coming from a different world, a different society than we came from,” Sister Mary Joseph says. “It’s sort of a throwaway society, where you use a thing and throw it out. We use a thing and take care of it, and keep on using it and use it so the next person is able to use it. It’s a respect for things, and handling them carefully. And the younger ones weren’t taught that. They use a thing and maybe that’s the only one that can use it. It’s not useable after that.” Aghast by postulants’ destructive tendencies, Sister Mary Joseph recites a lyric that captures the religious approach: “You can tell a monk by the way he sits and stands, the way he picks a thing up and holds it in his hand.” She explains that the monastic way of caring for material possessions means knowing what pressures or demands the tools should take, how they have to be handled—“what they are, and using them for what they are and what they can do, and not pushing them too far. It’s something you have to have or learn. And it seems they’re coming from a world that just doesn’t have that, for the greater part.”
As religious communities have discovered that women need more time to adjust to life inside a cloister, Sister Mary Monica says the Rockford Poor Clares have revamped the black-and-white time frame of progressing from postulant to novice one year after entering the monastery; the three-year temporary vows two years later; and then final vows, which are permanent. At the Corpus Christi Monastery, temporary vows can be extended by one-year increments if a nun needs additional time before making solemn vows, which are permanent.
Although Sister Mary Joseph cannot relate to the newcomers’ approach to the monastery’s equipment, or condone their unrealistic demands on the tools, she does not judge the women. She knows they bring into the monastery only what they learned in the world. “They don’t realize it because that’s what they did; they just used things and then threw them out, and when they needed it again, got another,” Sister Mary Joseph says. “Each generation will have to find their own ways to overcome what distractions are brought about by the people that are living in them at the time, because each person is different; each person comes from a different background.”
Sister Mary Clara leafs through the pages of an album; at one time, a superior gave one of these small photo albums to each nun. She has turned hers into a book of memories, filling the transparent folders with cards and mementos, including a prayer card following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. She has also kept, since 1982, the piece of paper on which she wrote, in precise cursive, the final, solemn vows she made the day she became a Poor Clare. Ever since she made those vows, she has recited them again each day. In another transparent folder in her album is a card, and inside the card is a poem written in calligraphy—a gift from her best friend, Sister Michelle, the last time the two saw each other in 1978. The poem reads: “May you be kept in safety in the hollow of God’s hand, no matter where you wander, over sea or over land; under His protection may your life’s heights ascend, is the prayer that’s offered daily, the benediction of a friend.” Sister Michelle and Sister Mary Clara were teachers in an active religious order. Sister Mary Clara lived with that community for more than two decades before she decided to join the cloistered contemplatives at the Corpus Christi Monastery.
Clutching her memory book, she explains how her view on possessions has changed. “It’s not that they become less important,” she says. “You draw away from them. You know where your treasure is: It’s up on the altar and the Tabernacle. If I was asked to give this up, if one of the sisters wanted the book, I would be able to give it to them.” She pauses, then adds, “I would take some things out, of course.”
When she was a teacher, most of Sister Mary Clara’s wages went to her community’s operating expenses; she received a ten-dollar monthly allowance, which she spent on the brand of toothpaste she liked. Sometimes, she saved up to buy a book. The more austere lifestyle of the Poor Clares still startles her at times; she believes that the gradual immersion into cloistered monastic life from an active order, in which she could make personal purchases and own a few items, afforded a more fluid transition than she might have experienced otherwise. “That’s why the young people have such a difficult time,” Sister Mary Clara says; “because they haven’t experienced anything religious in their life, and so they have a harder time making the switch giving up things or not being able to hold onto things, not possessing things.”
Sister Maria Benedicta’s path from college softball pitcher to the youngest member of the Corpus Christi Monastery, when she joined in 2006, might appear unlikely. She knows this and smiles when she explains she was drawn by the poverty. Sister Maria Benedicta was a twentysomething active nun with the Marian Sisters, a Franciscan order, when her religious community made a pilgrimage from Nebraska to Assisi, Italy, where Saint Clare had followed Saint Francis; there they founded the Franciscan Friars and the Poor Clares, respectively. Sister Maria Benedicta toured San Damiano, the run-down church that Saint Francis and the Friars Minor turned over to Saint Clare for her budding order to use as a monastery.
“They were so poor!” Sister Maria Benedicta says. “But they were so happy because they had Jesus, and I thought, ‘They never had to do anything but just love Christ.’” She shows a photographic postcard she kept of San Damiano, the Poor Clares’ motherhouse where fifty sisters lived together, cramped in the stone quarters. Sister Maria Benedicta muses that she is not sure how they all fit. Some of the nuns must have slept on the floor. “Talk about only staying for the right reasons!” she says. “It’s no comforts. But that’s like how God puts it in your heart, because I think most people would see this and think, ‘Uh, what? Yuck!’ ”
Sister Maria Benedicta aspired to the life of simplicity that Saint Francis and Saint Clare modeled—the giving of oneself entirely to Christ in utter poverty. In the Franciscan template for monastic living, poverty is not merely an external demonstration, with indifference to physical signs of wealth; poverty in religious life means divesting oneself of other status symbols—power and prestige and looking good to others. “That’s the true poverty,” Sister Maria Benedicta says. “Yes, it starts with the material things; I don’t need all these things that lead me away from God, but it’s also in giving up my own self, my selfish ways, my selfish desires in order to just live for Christ. The material poverty is a start; we don’t want all these things that are going to lead us away from God because the more you have, the more you want.
“Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of God.’ He didn’t just mean, ‘If you don’t wear shoes, you’ll go to heaven,’” Sister Maria Benedicta says. “Obviously, there’s something behind it. There’s so much more to poverty than not having the latest modern conveniences or the most comfortable whatever in your life. It’s being stripped of everything that’s not God. It’s an interior stripping. The exterior stripping helps to make the interior possible. If I’m always seeking things that are going to help my comfort, it’s not going to help me strip of all my selfishness. It’s going to feed it. But the purpose is so that God can fill me rather than be filled with self. That’s what poverty is: It’s not an end in itself. Not wearing shoes is not going to get me to heaven, unless I see the purpose that, you know, it’s very selfish that I always want to be comfortable, to seek self.”
Her Novice Mistress, Sister Mary Nicolette, teases this concept further: In and of itself, she says, poverty has no value. “Poverty can even be an evil. It can even lead people to be bitter, or away from God. But when it can be used as a means, as an instrument to a deeper reality, then it becomes a good. But never in and of itself—poverty is just a means to something greater.”
In what has become her third and, she hopes, final home with her second religious family, Sister Maria Benedicta feels affinity for the older nuns in her community. She senses few hindrances relating to the older nuns because of age differences or generation gaps. All share the same values, motivations, and desire for simplicity. “I think in the world, I wanted this, I wanted this, then this,” Sister Maria Benedicta says. “Those things don’t satisfy.” She reflects on the postcard of the San Damiano Monastery that triggered her countercultural transformation. “Poverty,” she says. “It’s a good thing. It’s not what the world thinks is a good thing.”
Although she has not yet made permanent vows as a Poor Clare Colettine, Sister Maria Benedicta is already a zealous protector of her ancient order. Assuming that a new wave or trickle of postulants and novices follows, she will contend with any relics and mind-sets of contemporary culture that disrupt the carefully guarded terrain of the Corpus Christi Monastery.
Excerpted from “Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns” by Abbie Reese. Copyright 2014. Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)