Some of the best advice I have ever received came from a woman named Mary Jennings – Sister Mary Jennings, to be exact.
Sister Jennings was one of a small group of nuns (and one priest- male, of course) from the Roman Catholic Cenacle Retreat House in St. Louis who came to Memphis every summer to host silent retreats for women at Rhodes College, (then Southwestern). I attended the retreats every year and got to know Sister Jennings fairly well because, although we retreatants were to observe strict silence at all times, we were allowed – even encouraged – to sign up for conversations with one of the nuns if we wished.
I first saw Sister Jennings at the opening evening prayer service of my first retreat. Tall, slender, dark-haired, and blue-eyed, she was sitting to the side of the lectern where the priest would lead the service. She was strumming a guitar as naturally as if she’d been born with one in her hand.
I was fascinated. Not because she played the guitar (Sally Fields could fly, after all.) Somehow the sight of her sitting, black blouse tucked into a black skirt (no habits for the Cenacle sisters and no wimples, either), focusing on her music with such ease and grace became an icon for me. I made a beeline for her sign-up sheet.
From that first retreat (I attended twelve or more) until the group stopped coming to Memphis, I signed up for a conversation with Sister Jennings every year. We formed a relationship that felt to more like a friendship than spiritual direction. (Maybe there’s a fine line between the two.) Anyway, over the years, I learned about her growing up in Minneapolis and about her family. She learned way more about my family and me than she probably ever wanted to know.
In the summer of 1975, I was about to become president of a large women’s volunteer organization in Memphis; I felt inadequate and overwhelmed by all the responsibilities I imagined that job would entail, so the first thing I did at the retreat that summer was to make a bee-line for Sister Jennings’s sign-up sheet. When I walked into the small lounge she used for these conversations, she stood up, greeted me warmly, and said, ‘Let’s take a walk around the campus. I’m tired of being cooped up, aren’t you?.’
We strolled silently through the tree-shaded grounds before she asked. “What’s on your mind?” “I’m about to be president of a big women’s organization that trains women to be effective community volunteers. It’s been around a long time and is full of talented women; I feel overwhelmed; afraid I won’t do a good job.”
“What is the name of this group?”
I had hoped she wouldn’t ask that question. The membership back then was by invitation only, and it was often considered a ‘social’ club in spite of the important work it did. I didn’t want Sister Jennings to be disappointed in me.
“It’s called The Junior League,” I said.
She stopped, turning toward me. “Oh, Honey-Dear!” she exclaimed, almost clapping her hands. “You have nothing to worry about! I was a member of the Junior League myself – in Minneapolis. Those women are so talented! Focus on them, not on yourself. Appreciate them, delegate to them, and trust them. With that group, you are playing with a full deck; remember that. The work will be done, perhaps better than you could do it yourself.”
For once, I paid attention to her good advice, I learned to delegate, to trust, to appreciate, to thank. It was a really good year, one I was almost sorry to see end. And that was all because a guitar-playing disciple of Christ showed me the way.