By Marge Rogers Barrett*
Reviewed by Arianne Lehn
Antrim House, 2016, 324 pp.
Minutes after a near fatal car crash on the icy Minneapolis interstate, Marge Rogers Barrett made a declaration. While pinned in her flipped car and surrounded by shattered glass, she gritted her teeth. “I determined that if I lived through this,” she writes, “I was going to live large and messy… I resolved from this point on – because I had been given a reprieve on life – to be totally my own person…I would write my book about all that had been given to me.”
Called: The Making & Unmaking of a Nun is that book – a powerful testimony to and expression of gratitude for life. The title grows from a calling to and away from the religious order, but Barrett’s story is much more than her life as a nun. It’s the brave quest to follow love’s lifelong call, and how that took a variety of forms throughout her journey. Barrett’s beautiful memoir captures the ways storytelling uniquely uncovers meaning and appreciation for one’s life.
Now a published author, teacher, and writing coach, Barrett’s early chapters take us back to small town Marshall, MN where she grew up in a large, progressive, Catholic family. She explores her relationships with each member, and how they formed and launched her into the person she now is. Wise and hardworking parents; a younger sister with Down Syndrome; her brother who struggled with mental illness; Mary, her older sister, who would also enter the convent; even Blackie the dog, are among those who teach Barrett how to care for others and be cared for herself. We also get an early introduction to her future husband, Tom Barrett – a lovely thread woven throughout the book beginning in friendship and leading to marriage.
A gorgeous, poetic, and gripping storyteller, Barrett’s recounting of her growing world and expanding love pained my heart, made me laugh, and enclosed me with arms of invitation. It’s after a move to Saint Paul (the big city) for high school that her “nun to none” journey commences.
“And then I was called,” Barrett wrote. “That day in the auditorium at the end of our senior retreat when I couldn’t say no to God. He wanted me.”
An all-or-nothing person, Barrett dove head-first into being a nun, as had her older sister. Her stories witness to the grit and beauty of true communal living, where one must trust and appreciate all kinds of people. Barrett sets her personal experiences within a broader historical and social commentary:–assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., Second Vatican Council, Civil Rights Movement, the horrific state of mental health institutions, and more.
It’s within her first year as a postulant, however, when questioning twinges move Barrett’s heart. She feels separated from her family and the world. She continues her life as a nun for a number of years before the twinges turn stronger, eventually leading her away from religious life and her Catholic faith.
But her “calling” does not end with the convent. The deeper call toward love and other-centeredness offers Barrett adventure after adventure. I was deeply inspired by Barrett’s ingenuity, innovation, and courageous spirit as she responded yes, yes, and yes to each new opportunity. Working the McCarthy campaign in New Mexico, volunteering at a hospital where she walked every week with a young boy who wouldn’t speak, teaching at an inner-city school in St Paul where knives were held to her face while breaking up gang fights, traveling to Europe and Africa, enrolling in graduate school, marrying Tom Barrett, and starting her writing career as her kids entered junior high – these are but a handful of her explorations. All the while, Barrett’s writing provides a graceful parallel between her physical experiences and her inner reflection.
Though willing to drop everything at the ring of a phone call, Barrett’s fierce faithfulness to family never changed. In fact, I think the most beautiful portions of her memoir are some of her later chapters, which delve into the deep connections she shared with her family and the ways they took care of one another in adult life. It makes sense that these relationships were primary in Barrett’s story; after all, we know who we are in large part by knowing from where we came and with whom we are inextricably linked.
Barrett offers many moving and memorable takeaways. Each of us are paradoxes and complex creations. There is always more to learn about people – even those we think we know the best – and we are to never stop changing and becoming. Our calling is to claim who we are – with love and with trust. To lead a contented, but not complacent life, means being present where you are. To embrace, rather than resist change. To discuss question rather than to blindly surrender. To live your life as an adventure, and be grateful for it.
In the last chapter, Barrett eventually left the hospital following her car accident. While viewing her totaled Explorer, she was nearly asthmatic over the horrific sight and astonished she survived. For some reason, she remembered the dog’s bed was in the back and went to look for it. Instead of finding the bed, she spied a book lying on the backseat. A book she never put there. It was a Bible.
*Marge Rogers Barrett has both attended and served as a writing instructor at Collegeville Institute summer writing workshops. She also worked with the Wholly Writers who first met at the Writing Pastors, Working Pastors workshop in 2013 where she was the writing coach.