Interview with Sr. Annette Covatta
- We are all interdependent, what happens here affects what's going on at the other end of the world. I really believe that. We're part of all that's alive. There really is an order, and there is chaos. And if we can stay centered in our own divine essence, it gives us the fulcrum, it gives us the point where there is some stability. And the rest will follow; it will take place through the divine order. But we collaborate with it according to the stirrings that are within us.
- I'm fascinated by world religions. I went to India to explore the Buddhist sites-to those original sites up in northern India especially. I remember reading the Upanashad, which is about Hinduism, and I just think there's so much that is holistic in the Hindu approach to living the life of the spirit.
- I think that gathering is sacramental, to use a real church word. A sacrament is defined in the catechism as an outward sign instituted by God to give grace. And the gathering of women is an outward sign that brings grace into every spirit, into the circle. All of that is happening, and there's no stopping it.
- It seems in all the changes in my life there was a lot of ego, This is something that I want to do. There's good ego and bad ego-and sometimes ego seems to be the driving force, but always underneath there is this palpable sense that I'm being led. There's this energetic spiritual stream leading me. Every once in a while, it's downright awesome.
- I write in my journal, and that is very powerful. I have journals going back twenty years. Sometimes I'll pull out one of the old ones and just think, "Who was I at that time?" It's so helpful for me to see what I was struggling with or what was happening at a particular time. If I were to go through those journals I know I'd find moments of great enlightenment.
- Our place in the world is not to take over and control, with new technology and all of that. There is such a thing as cause and effect, and we make certain decisions that affect other species and other living forms. Our place in the world is to co-create with God. Each generation does that in its own way.
Ann: In what spiritual tradition were you raised?
Sr. Annette: I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church in Troy, New York, which is on the outskirts of Albany. We lived in a flat just one block away from St. Patrick's Church, which was our church. There were a lot of churches on that block-Methodist, Lutheran and so on.
Ann: How many years have you followed the Roman Catholic tradition?
Sr. Annette: I'm seventy-two years old, and I call myself a recovering Catholic. There have been a lot of shifts, if you will, in my spiritual life, but in terms of formal religion I'm a Catholic. I entered the convent two months after graduation from high school. I was eighteen years old, so I've been a sister for fifty-two years.
Ann: So you've seen many, many changes-I remember pictures of you in a black habit with white starched collar.
Sr. Annette: The changing moment in the Catholic Church was Vatican Council II, in the sixties. It was truly a type of revolution, but it was not a schism away from the Church, it was a revolution within the Church itself. The Pope himself called this council and made tremendous changes, just opening the windows and letting in some fresh air. We women, the nuns-especially in the United States-we went after those changes with great fervor and passion. We just knew that there was something fresh that was trying to be born. There were so many changes in the rules of religious life, and of course the most dramatic change was external: Gradually, little by little, we changed from the religious habit into secular dress.
Ann: What is the name of your order?
Sr. Annette: My order is called the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Most of us know it as Holy Names, or the Sisters of the Holy Names. It's an international order. It was founded in 1844 by a Canadian woman, Eulalie Durocher, and she took the name of Mother Marie Rose. In the early 19th century, the big need in the Catholic Church was for schools, for education. That's when the parochial school system was born, all these religious communities were dedicated to education. Mother Marie Rose and two companions started a school in a little town called Longueuil, and very soon a number of women joined them. The order continued to flourish in that area with schools connected to parishes. Next they sent some of the women to go out and spread the word. A group of them went out to Oregon, and that was the beginning of the Sisters of the Holy Names in the United States. And then a group came down from Canada into Schenectady, New York, and they started my province. There are now about thirteen provinces in the entire community. We have women in Haiti, South America, Peru, and we have a big province in Lesotho, Africa.
But the changes have been enormous. We have women who are doctors, lawyers…one woman is working for the Associated Press in a very high level position-and they're nuns! So the margins are thin, and the boundaries have been stretched very wide, in terms of the way we work now. Because the parochial school system is shifting, there aren't too many Catholic schools, per se, but we still have two private academies, and they go from preschool to senior year of high school. There's one in Albany called Academy of the Holy Names-it's all girls-and there's one in Tampa, Florida, by the same name, and they're flourishing.
Ann: You started your career teaching in high school?
Sr. Annette: I started my career teaching music, because music's been part of my whole life. I taught in Albany for four years, then I was sent down to Tampa, Florida, and I taught there, then I was sent back to Albany and I continued to teach grade school and high school. I directed the glee club and choirs for the church. I taught music in all the classes, and I taught private piano.
Ann: I know that you teach internationally for The Intensive Journal. When did that start?
Sr. Annette: That started when I moved to New York. I had taken a journal workshop with Ira Progroff, and I just knew it was home for me-that kind of spirituality where you trust the spirit within. But I knew that even before the Progroff workshop. I didn't learn it from the way the church presented spirituality, the dogma and all that-you know, it was God out there, very proscribed. But I'd read a book called God Within Me that really opened my eyes. It was written by a French Jesuit named Pere Plus. I was just starting out as a nun when that book came across my path, and I just said, "This is it. God's here inside me and needs to be trusted." I shouldn't say the church didn't talk about that, but there wasn't a lot about it-although if you read some of the Psalms (book in the Bible) and other prayers, they speak about the promptings of the Holy Spirit within. That just resonated for me.
Ann: And you continued to develop that, you just enriched it year after year after year.
Sr. Annette: I did, I did. I've created this program-I guess you'd call it an organization, it's really a collection of workshops and programs and retreats that I designed-and I call it "Fulcrum." I use that word because a fulcrum is that balancing center-I always think of a seesaw. The fulcrum is the balancing piece where the two ends of the pole can sway and have life but still be held by the center. I think of the great Psalm, "The Lord is my rock…" The Lord is that which is the center point, and that center place in our bodies, the heart in this chakra system. The center is the seat of unconditional love and of the divine, ever-present love energy that holds everything together. And at the same time, the center allows for flexibility-of the yin and the yang, the two poles of life, the light and the dark.
Ann: Even though you have the center, you're always dealing with the two poles, so really there are three points.
Sr. Annette: Maybe that's what the Holy Trinity was about.
I just finished a Margaret Wheatley book in which she talks about life-life is messy and unpredictable. It's really a book for organizations, to help them change the way they run. Wheatley describes a circular modality, where everybody feels some ownership. You know, when you put in a new kitchen it's not enough for the owner of the house to decide how the kitchen will be designed. You need to bring in the person who cooks in that kitchen; they have a point of view. That's her whole point, that everyone should be involved in some way-and it's messy; you don't get things done as quickly.
Ann: But then people really stick around, because they're invested and they feel a part of something.
Sr. Annette: We are all interdependent, what happens here affects what's going on at the other end of the world. I really believe that. We're part of all that's alive. There really is an order, and there is chaos. And if we can stay centered in our own divine essence, it gives us the fulcrum, it gives us the point where there is some stability. And the rest will follow; it will take place through the divine order. But we collaborate with it according to the stirrings that are within us.
That's what was so attractive about the book. I saw it as a spiritual tool as well as psychological and creative. I like the notion that the best teacher is the teacher who calls the essence of the truth out from inside the student; the best teacher is the one who finds a way to help that emerge. That's what I love about the Progroff method, that in the stillness, and using the structure of the journal, something gets loosened that's been trying to emerge. It's always connected to the meaning of life. And so the answer's in here.
Ann: Have you ever lost faith with Catholicism?
Sr. Annette: I think I lost faith when I moved to New York City. In a way I lived in a secular environment, because I was not living in the convent; I lived alone in an apartment on West Fifty-seventh Street, and I had a higher management position in a national arts organization.
It's complicated. When I say I lost faith, what I mean is that the raw question came before me, "Who am I? Who am I really?" I was out of the familiar parameters of convent life, where, in a sense, the church and the sisters almost defined who I was. And then I got to New York, and this work, and it was like I was fifty years old going on eighteen. I didn't know who I was. That psychological piece came right up to the front of the stage, and that was the piece that took all my energy. I prayed, but I was questioning a lot: Who is God? And what is this about, the Credo that we say in the Mass, that goes way back to the Nicene Creed? How much of that do I really believe? I was really questioning.
But did I lose my faith? I never lost faith that there is a divine power. Was it the God of Israel, of Isaac and Jacob? I don't know; I wasn't studying theology at the time. I was asking, "Who is this God?" And I was asking, "Who am I?" It was a time of tremendous turmoil.
Ann: Did you investigate any other spiritual paths? Did you study any other religions at that time?
Sr. Annette: There was a Buddhist zendo that had just started up in Riverdale, and I got involved there, and I was very taken with the whole eastern modality of prayer. I sat Monday night and did zazen, and I did some extended retreats. I was very interested in Buddhism. But that goes along very well with the journal program too. And I saw many similarities-there's a book I have called Jesus and Buddha, and on the left side are all the sayings of Jesus, and on the right side are the sayings of Buddha that come from the same belief. I got very caught up with cosmology, and Matthew Fox, and creation spirituality. But I look back and see that I was really searching for home in a spiritual path.
Ann: So you didn't feel that Zen and Catholicism were in conflict with one another?
Sr. Annette: No, I didn't feel they were in conflict, but I hadn't quite made the connection yet.
I'm fascinated by world religions. I went to India to explore the Buddhist sites-to those original sites up in northern India especially. I remember reading the Upanashad, which is about Hinduism, and I just think there's so much that is holistic in the Hindu approach to living the life of the spirit.
At my age now, I read a lot. I've got all kinds of books on religion, but I just don't feel like taking courses. I haven't stopped studying, but I use a form that feels good for me, rather than enrolling in a course in theology. Many of my friends in my community have such a relish for taking courses! It makes me curious: Am I denying myself something? My order just sponsored a big week up in Canada, exploring new ways of looking at the Eucharist. Two dear friends of mine were there, and they said it just got under their skin. For the first time, the idea of the Eucharist got under their skin. With the input they were getting from scholars and the experimenting they were doing with the ritual itself during that week, they realized that it's all about body. It's all about using the body-the washing of the feet, which is part of that Last Supper, of the Eucharist, of breaking that bread. It got me excited, and I thought, "Oh gosh, if that ever comes around again I'd like to do that!" Because Catholicism is in my genes, it's the path that made me who I am today.
Ann: So it's still alive.
Sr. Annette: Oh yes! But to go to church on Sunday, and see some man up there-I don't mean to be totally irreverent, but we haven't come around yet to ordaining women, and there's the whole luscious feminist approach to God and spirituality, which I love! It really speaks to me. So I don't go to church. And yet, I think if I had this new perspective on Eucharist-well I don't know if I would go to church, because the kind of experimenting they did was with all the women, they just changed the form. Changing the form is heretical, but it's being done. And that makes sense to me.
Ann: Church can't be a structure or a building. It really is that core piece that keeps it going, the connection with the divine.
Sr. Annette: I know there are many Catholic churches that have extraordinary vitality, and lay people are out there doing these things. And even their Eucharistic services are full of joy and a lot of new music, and they're very exciting. Somehow I haven't found that in my experience. But I find that joy and excitement when women gather, when women are telling their stories and agonizing and exploring. I think that gathering is sacramental, to use a real church word. A sacrament is defined in the catechism as an outward sign instituted by God to give grace. And the gathering of women is an outward sign that brings grace into every spirit, into the circle. All of that is happening, and there's no stopping it.
Ann: Tell me about your spiritual heroes, people who have strongly influenced your life.
Sr. Annette: As soon as you said heroes I thought of Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, became a beacon for me. She's like Leonardo da Vinci: she was an artist, she was a medicine person, she was bold, she stood up to the hierarchy. She was powerful, Hildegard of Bingen. And another of my heroines is Julian of Norwich. All these women mystics are now emerging after being hidden from us for centuries. Hildegard was German, and Julian of Norwich was English. Dorothy Day is another very big heroine. My heroes are people who stand up for justice, for what is right. I think, in a way, Mother Teresa has done that.
Among the saints, I've always loved the Little Flower, Teresa of Lisieux. She was made out to be sanguine, a soft-type person. But when I read one of her biographies, she was all about fierce love-I mean loving God fiercely. And dreaming dreams beyond anything you could ever imagine: Here she is, a cloistered nun, and she's dreaming of changing the whole world, of being this missionary to the world. In fact, the church named her as the Patron of the Missions-and she never left her cloistered convent!
Her writings came out after she died, and when you read them you see that this woman was worldwide in her thinking and her prayers. And the way she loved, the kind of love that she showed God! It was in very religious language, but if you pierce through it… There's a new book that came out about her and a lover-again; this has just been uncovered in her writing. Now they speak about how she had this loving friendship with a seminarian who was becoming a priest, and they kept up a correspondence. It's very interesting, some of these pairs-like Francis of Assisi and St. Claire-were very close friends…Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross… They probably had to wrestle with the sexual piece of their relationship, or resolve it in some way. Now in religion we're bringing together these things that were considered opposites-sex over here, spirit over there. We're exploring sexuality and spirituality, and the oneness of those things. That's very powerful, that really speaks to me, and I really put a lot of my own energy into that in the early nineties.
I would also say Jerry Jud is one of the people who's a hero in my life, and he's still living today. Jerry questions, explores, takes chances. He's a retired minister in the United Church of Christ and a graduate of the divinity school at Yale, and he's still affiliated there. He's a learned man, a deep questioner and explorer. He created this retreat center, and he just pushed to the cutting edge of spirituality. He brought together many apparent dichotomies, yet they all flow out of the same source. That's what a mystic is: A mystic is one who sees oneness, the unity of all. All things come together in that unity of being. Even in our own path, the mistakes we make and the tragedies that happen in our lives, all of it is part of this oneness, of this pattern-and the mystic sees all of that.
Ann: Can you cite any profound spiritual experiences that you've associated with birth or sickness or death? Maybe you could talk about what's happening in your life right now, because I know you're going through another rebirth.
Sr. Annette: I am, I am going through a rebirth. It seems in all the changes in my life there was a lot of ego, "This is something that I want to do." There's good ego and bad ego-and sometimes ego seems to be the driving force, but always underneath there is this palpable sense that I'm being led. There's this energetic spiritual stream leading me. Every once in a while, it's downright awesome. I'm thinking of retiring to Colorado and moving into a whole new life …I didn't seek that out. My friend Paul is out in Colorado, and it's his vision… We were at a journal workshop, and in the midst of the workshop everyone was writing, and all of a sudden he left his seat and put this piece of paper in front of me. And the piece of paper said, "Why not come out and retire with us in Colorado at our retreat center?" And something went through me that felt like it was telling me, "Pay attention." And this happens quite often.
There's some kind of a mechanism that guides us. I think we all have it, but for me it's just such a beacon, it's just so alive in me. Some people who don't believe in God see that as some inner force, but I see it as my partnership with this divine movement. This is God inside me, this movement is just stirring in me, and it's very real and loving. At this time in my life there's a lot of changes, a lot of turmoil, but I feel safe and protected, I just know I'm being led. There's some anxiety, but in the depths of me, I know everything's the way it's supposed to be. Julian says, "All is well, all manner of things are well." And I just feel that.
One time I was in a crisis in a relationship, with Paul. And then I felt I was dying. He was not just someone I fell in love with; he was truly my spiritual conduit. I was suffering because I wanted him in a way that was not possible. I was in therapy at the time, and I called up my therapist and said, "I will not get through the night." And he sent me to the drugstore to get something! I didn't go to get it, it was interesting. But that was the longest night of my life.
That was a very pivotal moment. And then something happened. I went to see Dr. Albert Ellis. I really don't like his way of therapy-it's Rational Emotive Therapy-but I once watched him work with someone at an open evening. And it was pretty gross, but something in me said, "Go see this guy."
It cost a hundred bucks to have a session with him. He reminded me of Citizen Kane; he was sitting way at the end of the room, and I had to walk a mile down to where he was. And I sat there and he just looked at me, sort of over his glasses, and said, "So what's your problem?" And I shpieled out this whole thing, what I was going through. And he was very quiet and then he said (he has this funny nasal voice), "Where is it written in the universe that everybody has to do things exactly the way you want them to do things, that everybody has to be the way you want them to be? Where is it written in the universe…?"
He was going on like that, and suddenly it just clicked! What clicked was, "Yeah! I'm only in control of me! I can't change this other person." And it was a major opening for me. And I remember saying, "Thank you very much doctor."
And he said, "Is there anything else?"
And I said, "No that's it!" I paid my hundred bucks for twenty minutes or so. I went galloping down Madison Avenue, and I just thought, "This is it, this is it, this is it!"
I remember stopping in church, saying, "I got it! Now I got it!" I got it, and then I had to incorporate it.
Ann: So let's shift. I want to know what spiritual practices help you on your path. What do you do to stay centered on that fulcrum point?
Sr. Annette: The most important time of the day for me is the very early morning, so I'm up at 5:30 A.M. I go to bed at 9:30 P.M. or so. In the morning, I light this big candle and I read the scripture of the day. It's interesting-I don't let go of that. There's a missalette that I get from Canada, and I go through the reading for the day. The readings come from the New Testament and from the Old Testament. I'm finding Jesus in a new way. Not the child's way I had of understanding Jesus, but Jesus as this energy. Jesus the man and Jesus the avatar and Jesus the great healer, the one who accepted everyone in an unconditional way. He never seemed shocked at any sinners; it's quite amazing. I'm just curious about it all; I feel something new opening there. I think it's just from reading his words in the morning as I do.
And then I write in my journal, and that is very powerful. I have journals going back twenty years. Sometimes I'll pull out one of the old ones and just think, "Who was I at that time?" It's so helpful for me to see what I was struggling with or what was happening at a particular time. If I were to go through those journals I know I'd find moments of great enlightenment.
I also feel I've had some breakthrough in spirituality through a new relationship with my body, and that's very big. I have exercises that I do in the morning that have to do with breathing and movement of the body. It's very powerful. I do this every morning, it's very important to me. And then I meditate. I have a little altar in my bedroom, and I sit on my Zen pillow, and I sound my gong and light a candle and incense, and I just sit. I don't do anything in particular but breathing. I stay with the breath, and in the Catholic tradition I might use a type of centering prayer, maybe just stay with a word or a thought. But I don't even do that half the time. Sometimes when I'm very busy in my head, when I'm in a lot of turmoil, I'll start chanting. But I make myself sit there for a half hour every morning, and sometimes it's an effort. It positions the day, and I set an intention for the day. At night I won't close my eyes without coming up with at least three things I'm grateful for in the day-that's really important.
And I'm also fed by preparing for and teaching my workshops. About two weeks before the workshop I'll start poising myself. I'll pick up on something: I was walking the track the other day and I remembered Jerry saying, "Let your pelvis lead you." As soon as I think that, my gait changes-it has more lilt, and I'm going faster. I'm moving with a certain bounce. And I thought, "We're going to go out and take a walk; I'm going to bring that exercise to the workshop." Or someone will send me a new tape of music, and it's just the right music for some kind of a presentation that I'm thinking of doing. I just find myself being open-it's a matter of clearing space to allow in what resonates for me. The space is the key, to empty out so that something new will come in, so that I'm not just looking at my notes and the old ways I've done the work.
Ann: So in order to help people grow when they come to your workshop, it's important for you to be in the process of growth yourself.
Sr. Annette: For me the work is all about process. I'm using an Anne Wilson Shaef book, which I love, Living in Process. Process is the unfolding of everything, of life-living in the now, living in the present. Noticing-being very alert and allowing life to unfold. There's nothing passive about this, it takes a lot of practice to let things unfold rather than positioning yourself to set goals and have expectations. Now I'm not saying you can't have any goals or expectations, but you have them softly, you have them knowing that things could change any minute. I love that saying, "loving deeply and holding lightly." You just hold lightly, no clutching, no clinging.
Ann: You have a very strong community still with your church?
Sr. Annette: I have a very strong community with the sisters, with the sisterhood. Most of us live alone now, in twos, we don't live in these big community clusters. But each region gets together twice a year, and then the whole province gets together, and now we're beginning to do a lot of inter-province meetings. There's a lot of interaction, I feel. I'm also part of this new community in Colorado. I feel part of the Timshel community, I get there at least twice a year, Jerry Jud's community. I feel a part of the Shalom community. We've coined a phrase, "relational circles." There's a relational circle where people know about your life, you've told your story a bit, you know there's a level of trust. When I was considering this big change, moving to Colorado, I thought of Timshel, I went up there and talked to them. And then there's another kind of community, a community of friends of like mind. Maybe you don't see them a lot, but you've cried with them and you've laughed with them.
Ann: And there's a real desire to be involved in one another's lives if there's a need at any moment. You know that whenever you tap in, the door is open. But that takes an investment.
Sr. Annette: It does take an investment, that's very important.
Ann: Now these other questions are quite big questions, but as a Christian, you do believe that there's life after death?
Sr. Annette: I do believe there's life after death. When one of our sisters died, Sister Margaret Murphy, I stayed at her coffin for quite a while. After the burial, for about two weeks I knew she was there. I could ask even little things of her, like, "Find me a parking place," and it would be there. It was the most palpable feeling. And even bigger things, "I really need to hear from so-and-so," and the phone would ring and that person would be there.
Suzanne Breckel was a very good friend of mine. Before she died I went to say goodbye to her up in Albany, and she said, "Play me some music." I played "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," and she loved it. She died the next week, and I went out for dinner here in New York that night, with a friend, and she had a glass of wine, and I said, "I want to drink to my friend, Suzanne Breckel," and the pianist started playing "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." This was at a bar-the bar pianist!
My dear friend Anne Wang, I really prayed to her this morning-I said "Fix this! I'm in this dilemma about whether I'm going to be able to go to Georgia," and she fixed it! Before she died she had asked me to do her memorial service. Because of a very large commitment at work I wasn't going to be able to do it, and then I prayed for it to work out, and they moved the memorial service to suit my time. I did not ask them-they asked when I could come, and I gave them a date and they said, "Fine, we'll change the date."
When someone close to me dies I have a sense that they hover. They don't just get whisked away through a tunnel and into bliss. I have a friend whose husband died, and I think he hovered because she kept him hovering. She called him in-she had his urn right there in the bedroom, she still has it there, he's been dead four years-and she would get this tingling in her cheeks when she would be thinking of him, or when she would want to converse with him. But now that's gone. She says, "I think he's on his way now."
Ann: She may have done something to release him, because we can hold that energy to us.
Sr. Annette: I believe that. In the Catholic tradition, you come before God and you're judged, and then God decides what the next step is. I'm ashamed to say I don't really know if we believe that God sends the same soul back, or if that soul still has something to learn on the other side …I don't know all that. But I do believe we're reincarnated. I feel that I've been here before. The soul is eternal, and maybe there are souls who choose not to come back. I think we participate in those decisions, I feel we're in partnership with God.
Ann: What is our place in the world?
Sr. Annette: Our place in the world is not to take over and control, with new technology and all of that. There is such a thing as cause and effect, and we make certain decisions that affect other species and other living forms. Our place in the world is to co-create with God. Each generation does that in its own way.
There was an interview with little children on television recently, asking them, "Why do bad things happen in the world?" The one that struck me was this little kid who said, "Well if bad things didn't happen, it would be boring." And you know, that's profound! It would be boring-if everything were light, light, light, and there weren't the contrast. There are forces of darkness and chaos, the awful tragedies that happen. But all that is part of the mix. And richness can come out of that; otherwise it would be boring, like the little child said!
Sr. Annette Covatta is a joyous, compassionate spirit with the order of The Sisters of The Holy Name. She is an internationally known spiritual teacher whose program, Awakening the Heart, is profound. She also teaches Ira Progroff's: The Intensive Journal Workshop and resides in Colorado.