Good Zeal

Missing misnomers

Our renovation project still has a ways to go, but already I am beginning to miss the misnomers, the informal, descriptive monikers for various rooms and spaces that over time have lost their relationship to the current use of the space. After the renovation, when some of these spaces are no more, I will miss not only the rooms, but the misnomers.

We have, for instance, a cookie room – which is actually a closet, not a room, and there are no cookies. (I have looked!) The name harkens back to decades ago when Sr. Mary Ann was the baker and she stored the fruit of her efforts in the tiny, shelf-lined closet/room that became known as the cookie room. The space has held paper goods for years now, but the original moniker stuck like a cookie to an ungreased pan, and if you ask a Sister today where to find a roll of paper towels or a stack of paper plates, she will reply, “the cookie room,” as if it makes perfect sense. And to us, it somehow does.

We also have a flower room that routinely sees plenty of use for lots of things – but none of them have anything to do with flowers. And there is the Blue Room, one of our Retreat Center meeting rooms. In no living Sister’s memory has this room ever been blue, but the original coat of paint has flowed through the decades like a river of remembrance.

And then there’s the peeling porch, which is neither a porch, nor has it been peeled upon in ages. But once upon a time – and for a very long time – it was the place where Sisters gathered to peel, slice, and dice whatever they were having for dinner that night. The peeling now takes place in the kitchen, but our tray of paring knives is still stored on the peeling porch, as if in homage.

Most rooms at the monastery have names that make logical or intuitive sense, or that have changed as the room usage has changed. But the ‘misnomers’ have a favored place in monastery lingo. Far from simply being quirky linguistic relics, they speak to the vibrant life that has unfolded day by day and year by year here on this good ground.

St. Benedict roots the monastic search for God in the ordinary soil of daily life. Through such ordinary activities and concerns as vegetables, flowers, and the fruit of the baker’s oven, we monastics travel together in our search for God, learning to love, learning to live. Perhaps it is no accident that the names that could not be shaken have to do with such fundamental human concerns as food and flowers, the fruit of the earth, the gift of color.

These names also keep the spirit of our early Sisters alive in our memories. To us younger Sisters, Sr. Mary Ann is not the name of a Sister in the cemetery or in the archives, she is the baker who kept fresh breads, cakes, and cookies at the ready and safely stored. The flower room calls to mind stories of Sisters Placida and Martina who used to arrange flowers in the room’s deep double sink. And the peeling porch brings a mental image of generations of Sisters who sat around a stainless steel table surrounded by pans of vegetables and a tray of paring knives. Through the cookie room, the flower room, the peeling porch, and other such monikers, the active memory of our foremothers lives on.

Perhaps these names are not misnomers after all. Perhaps they are signs – signs of life, love, family, and home…and carriers of memory.

Postscript: This past week, Sr. Therese and I were preparing to revise a Retreat Center form to include the five new private retreatant rooms that the renovation will soon impart to us. But we were stumped as to how to list them. As Sr. Therese simply put it, “We don’t know yet what we’re going to call them.” And that settled that. The form revision will wait until the rooms have a name.

Sr. Therese’s statement pointed to the power of names. They help make and form the reality around us. But her comment also made me look forward to the new monikers – both formal and informal – that are soon to come. Through them we will make continue to make a monastic home here at Sacred Heart, with names that over time will become signs of our life together and carriers of memory. Perhaps some of them will even become beloved misnomers.

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