Susannah “Sudie” Malarkey is a Dominican Sister who lives in San Rafael, California. She is currently in the midst of her 90th lap around the sun.
We talk to Sudie about her spiritual upbringing, her experience of religious life, her hopes for the Golden State Warriors, and what she hopes COVID-19 can teach the world.
What’s the difference between a “Sister,” which is how you describe yourself, and a “Nun”?
We don’t use the word “nun” anymore, because “nun” is usually used for women who go into a contemplative order and they don’t have contact with the outside world. Our community is very active and engaged with the world in which we live. Not just teaching but in services and outreach to the needs of the human community wherever we find it.
What was your spiritual life like as a child?
I grew up Catholic, loving the churches’ ceremonies, loving the structure of mass on Sunday. I loved the singing. I loved how my grandfather would walk me up the aisle, and put a nickel into my hand, and when it came time for the collection, I could put my nickel inside.
My mother taught me that there were many different ways of experiencing the Catholic faith. She liked the monastic tradition. She chose to immerse herself in the early monastic way of sinking her roots into the heart of the Psalms in the Old Testament and New Testament and not bother about doctrine. Whenever we would come to Mother with a doctrine question, she would say, just go back to the source. Go back to the source. You know, don’t worry about doctrine. This doctrine is simply a way of trying to get a handle on the mystery of our lives.
I remember when I was 10 or 11, my school friend Judy and I decided we were going to have our own little monastery. There was a little wooded place out in the school playground and we would go in there and just be quiet. And the kids would be playing, and we would be playing with them, and then we’d say, “It’s time – let’s go to our monastery.”
I was always attracted, as my mother was, to a more contemplative, more experiential grasp of what really is essential to my life spring, and not dealing so much with all the clutter of the details, staying in the flow.
When did the idea enter your mind that you might like to dedicate yourself to spiritual life and become a Sister?
I got the opportunity to go to a Catholic boarding school in high school, and I was very excited because any new adventure is just opening another door for me: give me one and I’ll take it!
I just had a wonderful opportunity at boarding school to experience the faith that I felt in a way that was consistent with the way these Dominican sisters were living. Well-educated, very liberal, very open, very warm. And I began to see that if I wanted to follow this deepest inclination in my soul, I could live a life like this.
They had found a way to live freely within a structure, and it’s the only way that I could imagine living – without the sense of: “This is wrong. This is right. This is what you do. This is what you don’t do.”
What was your path to becoming a Sister like?
It was at the end of high school that I began to think, what do I really want to do to pursue a greater reality? And I felt I could do this in religious life. I told my mom that this is what I’d like to do. At the time I was living a “normal life” and had boyfriends and just enjoyed all the elements of social life. So Mother said, “Well, I think it’d be better if you had a year of college first.”
So I applied and was accepted to Manhattanville College. During that year, I was supposed to have taken advantage of all the cultural opportunities in New York, but I kept getting campused for misbehavior, smoking in the wrong place, that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time in the bridge room playing bridge.
I did well in my studies, but I didn’t like biology because I didn’t want to cut up any animals. So we were going to cut up frogs one day in biology class, and I didn’t show up, so they sent me to the Dean of Studies, Mother Westin.
Mother Weston said, “Well, you know Sudie, you have to take Biology and since you’ve overcut, you’ll have to take it again next year.” And that’s when I told her. “Uh, Mother Weston, I won’t be here next year. I’m going to be joining the Dominican Sisters in August.”
And she looked at me and I was standing up, leaning against the door of the office. She said, “Come in and sit down,” and she proceeded to tell me that there was no way I would make it in the convent.
She said, “We’ve never had a freshman here with such a record of breaking rules as you, and I know you’ve probably broken them innocently enough, but you’re very undisciplined and you know, in convent life, you really have to pay attention to the rules and it’s going to be hard for you.”
So I thanked her and left, but I went and joined the convent anyway. And then Mother Weston wrote me and said, “Dear Sudie… How happy I am that despite your unpromising months here at Manhattanville you have persevered, no doubt without some strong support on the part of your novice mistress.” So, in other words: you’ve made it, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you!
Was religious life ever constraining for you, as a free spirit?
My essential spirit is basically liberal and free. And I look for whatever it is in life’s situation that is consistent with what makes me who I am.
And if something isn’t, I tend to ignore it.
And by ignoring it, I’m usually breaking rules.
And when you break rules, you suffer the consequences.
But as I grew in my own personal life and religious life, I found I was able to express the freedom that I experienced in a way that was positive, so that people responded positively to it.
Little by little by little, I think I just defined my own way of being in the convent, my own way of being in my own faith life. Just simplifying it, simplifying it, peeling off things that no longer were consonant with what I felt a good human life was.
Do you find that other people do that same thing for themselves?
They don’t, and, you know, I’m always shocking people. I have to be very careful.
I think that applies to people everywhere and all walks of life, whatever system they’re in, they buy the whole system.
They buy the whole system and no system is adequate. Because we’re not system people. We’re constantly being created. Life is constantly being created. It’s never a closed book. So you have to open yourself to that creativity that comes through you, through your heart, your soul, your mind, and follow that lead. There’s no book or doctrine that can limit your potential to be a reflection in your own human form of God’s wonderful creativity.
How would you define God?
The source of all creation, beauty, good, and infinite possibility.
God is the web of everything, all interconnected, full of potential for greater connections and greater creativity. I think God is the source of all creativity, whether it’s just the unfolding of the universe, the unfolding of our lives, that to me is where God is present. Not in any shut doors. There are no shut doors.
As I’ve been hearing you speak, I’ve been thinking about how if the way you see spirituality and religion was universal, how many more people would feel like they have a home in spirituality. Spirituality and doctrine is, for a lot of people, inseparable.
Yes. Isn’t that a pity? I mean, the God of this creative universe, you know, how would that same God want to put you in a box, any kind of a box?
What is daily life usually like for you and the other Sisters in your community?
Our days are very normal because everybody has a job except for people who are retired. But even for the retired sisters, as I am, we have jobs that we do. We are a community of twelve. About half of us are retired and the other half are active, either in administration or in service work: doing volunteer work with the homeless, lots of things like that.
We always meet at 7:30 in the morning in the chapel and we have a nice quiet morning prayer together, which involves some meditation. We do meditation, there will probably be two or three songs. We read the New Testament and reflect upon the gospel of the day. And then we have petitions.
We meet again for prayer in the evening before supper, and then share our dinnertime together.
What are petitions?
A petition is asking for something. Asking God, the Spirit, however you want to conceive of the creator of this whole enterprise, to bring a creative spirit to the beings that need it the most.
We pray for the victims of the virus, we pray for their families, we pray for the inspiration of our leadership to lead us well.
Anything that is on somebody’s heart, it could be a special intention. I have a good friend who’s very ill and has a lot of pain problems and I’ve asked the spirit of healing to be with her and for her to be able to receive it. So, people can be very personal, very specific or they can be general. Anybody can say whatever they want. And we all listen and keep it in our hearts and try to nourish support for that particular intention.
What is life like for you and your community right now, in the midst of COVID-19?
We can’t interact with anybody. We have to stay put. It has been good, in a way, because instead of being out and about doing things, I have a lot of time to myself for writing letters and reading and walking. I’ve been walking 2 to 3 miles a day. I love to exercise.
I love the beauty of this time of year, it’s spring here in California and it’s gorgeous everywhere. So instead of heading out to do good work, I’m taking care of my own soul and my own body. But we are all feeling terrible, obviously, about the effects of the virus on our country and our world.
This is a really unusual experience in which the whole world is grappling with the same thing at the same time. What do you hope the world learns from this?
I think what we’ll learn from it is to come together and talk openly and about the issues that this human community and this planet are dealing with.
Thomas Berry says the human community and the earth community are one community and they either go together into the future, responsive to the needs of both, or they both perish. Our prominent economic beliefs of the world are that the human community is the only community and the earth can just move along with us and do what we tell it to do. And that’s not how community works.
Every time I see that we pull back on some collaboration with other nations about the health of our planet, I think it’s so stupid. The health of our planet is the same dynamic that keeps us healthy.
The pandemic is teaching us that this is one community, human and planet, and the whole system is very connected. To think that we are the only part that matters brings down the whole.
That’s my philosophy of life. I’m just as concerned about the rabbit outside my window right now as I am for myself: is he able to find a home? Can he feed his family?
I know that you and your community are all big Golden State Warriors fans, how does everyone feel about the NBA season being canceled?
We feel it had to be canceled and we’re sorry about that, and we hope that the Warriors stay strong and come back with as much capacity as ever to beat the Portland Trailblazers!
I know you don’t describe self-describe as a “nun.” But what misconceptions do you think people have about nuns and Sisters that maybe you’d like to dispel?
Gosh, maybe that we’re afraid of life, and we run away from life and lock ourselves up with a bunch of other women and turn into old maids or something.
There used to be movies that showed Sisters as being very gaunt and withdrawn from the world and just not human. My life is just as fully human as anybody else’s. I’ve made a choice to have a celibate life, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have affections and friends and love people and people love me.
I didn’t give up any of my humanity. I have received a lot of opportunities to engage with my own spirit and soul and capacities. I engage with other women and men in meeting some of the educational needs, spiritual needs, and physical needs of the world in which I live, an extension of God’s spirit in the world.
How would you describe yourself?
I’m a Scorpio! [Laughs] I think I’ve been just blessed with a healthy family life, a healthy physical constitution, you know, a fairly good mental ability to deal with whatever comes. And just someone who enjoys life, enjoys people, and looks for ways to keep connecting.
What are three adjectives that your close friends would use to describe you?
Stubborn. Confident. Generous with my time. Caring. But you know … a mind of her own.