In this time of the apostolic visitation, which is intended to investigate the "quality of life" of women religious in the post-Vatican II era, I'd like to share with you the story of a woman religious who died just this morning, in Dubuque, Iowa--one of the best people I've ever known. Sr. Louise French, B.V.M., taught philosophy to Jesuit scholastics and countless other students for many years at Loyola University Chicago. During this time when many are debating the "quality" of women religious in this country, I'd like to tell you a little about one woman. This is from my book My Life with the Saints, from the chapter on St. Thomas Aquinas. Forgive the length, but she deserves it. The story starts after I've told the reader how worried I was about the prospect of studying philosophy...
Many of the other young Jesuits had similar fears. Happily, our worries were assuaged by the second-year men, all of whom responded to such concerns in precisely the same manner. There was, we were told, a legendary member of the faculty who did an excellent job of navigating young Jesuits through the rocky shoals of philosophy. If we knew what was good for us, we would sign up for all of her classes, no matter how inconvenient they might prove for our schedules. The week after I arrived another Jesuit made this point more succinctly.
"I have two words for you to remember during philosophy," he said dramatically. Then he paused. I thought he would say "Study hard" or, perhaps, "Pray always." Instead he said, "Those two words are: Sister French."
Sister Louise French was a member of the religious order called the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a longtime member of the philosophy faculty at Loyola. In a sense, for generations of Jesuit "philosophers" (as we were then called) she was the philosophy faculty, teaching, among other courses, "Ancient" (an introduction to philosophy beginning with Aristotle and Plato), "Classical Modern" (continuing on with Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and the like), and a course on Aquinas (more about that later).
The redoubtable Sister French stood all of about five feet in her stocking feet. I should point out, however, that she was never seen in her stocking feet: Sister always appeared in class perfectly turned out, wearing simple but elegant dresses usually adorned with brightly patterned silk scarves. (She would receive more than a few of these scarves from legions of grateful Jesuit graduates.) Her hair was always done in a soft, upswept white coif and her eyes, so help me, twinkled.
At this point in my life I had scant experience with any real-life nuns, or, to use a more contemporary term, "women religious." In my childhood I had run into a few at our local parish during C.C.D. classes (a sort of Catholic Sunday School). But apart from seeing "The Nun's Story" and "The Sound of Music," and bumping into a very few during my novitiate years, I remained completely ignorant about religious life for women. As a result, I arrived in Chicago carrying the same stereotypes about women religious that many Americans hold: sisters compassionate, of course, but they were also a little clueless, rather uneducated, somewhat naïve and perhaps even silly.
Sister French was none of those things--except compassionate. She had completed her Ph.D. in philosophy at Saint Louis University, and by the time I met her had enjoyed a long and distinguished teaching career. (No one was sure exactly how long, but we used to joke that saying "Sister French taught Aristotle" could be taken two ways.) Her intellect, memory and grasp of even the most mind-bending philosophical proofs were nothing short of astonishing. As all great teachers do, Sister French could make even the most difficult concepts seem easy: this was one reason why she was so valued by the Jesuit seminarians. After completing one of her courses, you understood the material: to use a term from her beloved Aristotle, you apprehended it.
The other reason we valued Sister French was Sister French herself: she was a patient, gentle and caring woman. If you were having a tough time grasping a thorny philosophical idea, she'd invariably exclaim, "Oh, you know this already!" by way of grandmotherly encouragement. It was a testimony to how much she was trusted that, no matter how utterly lost you were in Aristotle or Plato or Kant, you believed her: all would be well. It was for her compassion, then, in addition to her teaching skills, that the young Jesuits eventually made her an "honorary Jesuit" at a special ceremony that included an official-looking certificate.
My time at Loyola turned out to be one of the happiest in my life. Much of this had to do with the good friends I made there--so many young Jesuits from all over the country. But, thanks to teachers like Sister French, the studies themselves I found engrossing. This was a pleasant surprise. I could almost feel my mind expanding as we tackled questions I had never before reflected on or even considered. (I certainly hadn't done so in college.) What does it mean to be good? Can we prove there is a God? How does one live ethically? How do we know what is real? Why do we have free will? How do we come to "know" something? What makes us happy? And my favorite cosmological question: Why is there something rather than nothing at all? (Try that on your favorite atheist.)
And we read and read and read. Sometimes, in fact, it seemed like all we did during those two years was read. And I liked what I read: Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine's Confessions, Descartes' Meditations, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Nietzsche's On the Geneology of Morals, Heidegger's Being and Time.Andwhile Kant I could have done without, it was astonishing how much more interesting I found philosophy than, say, accounting or finance. During that first year, I also decided to take Ancient Greek as an elective course and quickly found myself reading the Gospel of John--in the language in which Saint John had written it. How marvelous it was to be able to identify the Greek letters, to sound them out--hearing the Gospel almost the way it was heard 2,000 years ago--and to understand what I was reading! I couldn't imagine education being any more enjoyable or satisfying....
During our first summer break at Loyola, two Jesuit friends and I decided we would get a head start on the next year's work by taking a reading course with Sister French. When we asked for her suggestion of a topic she said without hesitation, "Aquinas of course." So during that sultry Chicago summer Peter, Ross and I spent the days poring over the Summa, concentrating on the sections on God: outlining the relevant passages on long sheets of yellow paper; turning over in our minds Thomas' questions, objections and responses; and discussing his work in lively meetings, all under the careful tutelage of Sister French.
During one meeting in Sister French's tidy office, it dawned on me that this teacher--this Catholic, this woman religious, this good and kind person--embodied what Saint Anselm meant when he talked of theology as fidesquaerens intellectus: faith seeking understanding. How God can draw us to understand him through reason. How learning and erudition could coexist with humility and love. I began to understand how the life of the mind is not divorced from the life of faith. Most of all, thanks to Sister French, I began to understand what Thomas Aquinas meant in his Summa when he wrote, "We can testify to something only in the measure that we have shared in it." And in realizing these things, it seemed to me that I had received a beautiful gift.
Louise French, BVM, R.I.P. and thanks.