A Right To Be Merry
Updated: Aug 3
Friday Book Pick: A Right to be Merry
by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
Not by computer, nor by word processor, nor even by so much as a typewriter was this fantastic little book written. It was by hand, on the backs of Christmas cards, that the manuscript A Right to be Merry was originally penned by Sr. Mary Francis, Poor Clare Nun of the Colettine Reform. It was a creative ploy to raise money for a leaky roof, in obedience to the Abbess, Mother Mary Immaculata, that the young Sr. Mary Francis entered a writing contest “for unknown authors” in the hope of securing the first prize of $1000. Sister Mary Francis set out to write about the only thing she knew well, Poor Clare life, and in her wonderful witty fashion, she told the story of the beginnings of the Poor Clare foundation in Roswell, New Mexico.
The book did not in fact win the contest, because it never made it to submission. The reason it was not submitted can be chalked up to a sudden stroke of unexpected Divine Providence. At a dinner party in her home one evening, the author's aunt showed the first chapter of the incomplete book to her dinner guest, the famous author and publisher Frank Sheed, who said, “Get me the rest of that book and I'll publish it.” Publish it he did, and so it was that A Right to be Merry became the best seller of 1956. The roof of the Poor Clare Monastery in Roswell did get fixed with the help of the book, but not the help of the contest, and a brilliant writer was discovered.
Today’s recommended book is authored by a real nun (by which I mean a cloistered religious woman) about a nun’s life—real nuns, really alive. You may wonder what relevance such a book could have for you. If you decide to pick up A Right to be Merry, you will have the satisfaction of learning firsthand what this mysterious vocation is really all about. If you thought the life of a nun particularly lonely, you will come to see what “no one who has not lived in a cloister can understand, just how intertwined are the lives of cloistered nuns.” If you think cloistered life covered by a pall of dour solemnity, this idea will be cast aside as you find yourself helplessly laughing aloud at the spilled sewing kit scramble on the train platform…followed by the surprised discovery the four nuns made that one of them was carrying a case of beer aboard the train unaware, because a concerned uncle had quietly bequeathed it to them at Chicago’s Dearborn Station at the beginning of the historic setting out for the new foundation in Roswell. Your amusement will continue at the description of habit fabrics not living up to the dignity of their intended hue under the relentless gaze of the New Mexico sun. Or the description of the dedicated patching efforts to sustain the life of a well-worn habit (perhaps taken to an extreme), resulting in the over-mended garment actually falling from the form of its wearer! Or the very funny moments when the author describes what was going on in her mind. Such as the time she assumed a sister’s black habit was an indication that she was doing public penance! When in fact it was yet another fabric issue (which I can attest, seem to plague all religious communities attempting to look more or less alike). Your smile will continue to emerge, as myths about cloistered life, such as that the sisters dig their own graves or that they sleep in their own coffins, are neatly set aside in the course of reading. But my very favorite humorous description is when she describes the eating habits of Poor Clares. The “food substitution” explanation is so funny a shtick that I will let you read it for yourself, lest I spoil it. To both love a thing and revere it intensely, as Mother Mary Francis does the Poor Clare life, and yet to have enough mirth and perspective to not take oneself too seriously in that very life, is a rare blend that Mother Mary Francis seemed to possess in perfect equilibrium.
When you get to the chapter, “What do they do all day?” you might find yourself wondering how you could possibly have lived a meaningful life without the night Office. Mother Mary Francis’ own deep love for her Poor Clare life and customs come through the pages so strongly that the reader comes to see the life as she sees it: a beautiful, essential, mystical call to live in the very heart of Holy Mother Church for the sake of the whole beloved world.
On May 19, 1964, the Roswell Community chose Sr. Mary Francis as its new abbess. And she served as the beloved Mother Abbess of her devoted sisters until her death on February 11, 2006. The funeral Mass of this bright Clarion light was celebrated by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez on what would have been her eighty-fifth birthday, February 14, 2006.
Whether it’s A Right to be Merry or any other of her several books, plays or poems, reading Mother Mary Francis puts one in direct touch with St. Clare of Assisi, her Holy Mother and mine, and for that reason above all others, Mother Mary Francis will always be a favorite of mine.
Mother Clare, CFR