French fries with a fork: yes — crossed legs: no
Recently, a Sisters of Providence communications staff member unearthed a “Sisters of Providence Etiquette” booklet in archives and proudly brought her find to my desk.
Dated 1968, the booklet gives detailed instructions on how a Sister of Providence should look, sound and act in a variety of situations, from car rides to meal times to classrooms and even Superiors’ offices. (This moment was akin to the discovery of old pictoral directories which have brought giggles at seeing some of my beloved sisters in the splendor of spunky perms or outrageous shoulder pads.)
As I paged through the booklet, I became more and more convinced I never would have made it as a nun in the ‘60’s. For one thing, my walk is way off. According to SP etiquette 47 years ago, I should be walking with “abdominal muscles in, chest high and head erect.” Hip swinging and military gait are out; “rhythmic movement of the body” is in. Detailed instructions are also included for standing and sitting positions. (To give you a clue, my preferred cross-legged seated position is an absolute no-no.)
The section on eating, with specific considerations for different types of meat and sandwiches, was even more meticulous. While my childhood self enjoyed licking French fry salt off my fingers, a Sister of Providence in 1968 was to use a fork for fries. “If slices are too long, they may be broken with the fork,” the booklet specifies.
My behavior as a car passenger doesn’t fit the bill either. Reading the SP etiquette suggestion to “refrain from loud conversation or singing which might distract the driver” brought to mind numerous road trips with younger SPs that involved roaring laughter and dramatic sing-alongs.
Although I admit reading through these expectations gave me a chuckle and a sense of gratitude for shifted perspectives that I experience today, I think the heart of the message still holds true. Something that drew me to the Sisters of Providence has been the sense of attentiveness that I experience among them. While I know some of my earth-conscious sisters would object to “meticulous regularity in taking a daily shower or bath,” as the booklet demands, I think they would agree that our voices, actions and movements are expressions of the divine … that a deeper level of awareness results in a different way of being. The more I read, the more I sensed the underlying values of hospitality, intentionality and community that I experience today.
This emphasis on the meaning behind the rules is expressed beautifully in the booklet: “Formalized routine – however “correct” – can never replace the intuitive empathy of the discerning disciple of Christ, Who was the perfect guest at a marriage feast, the thoughtful host at a lakeside breakfast, and all things to all [people] – always.” And this is the heart of the matter.
Comment below to share your experience of hospitality, intentionality or goofy etiquette rules with the SPs!