The spiritual journey of an incisive mind

Maureen Flood, Nun, 1935-2005

Sydney Morning Herald, January 13, 2006

ONE of Maureen Flood’s most vivid memories – and a defining experience in her life – came at St Vincent’s Church, Redfern, when a frail Aboriginal woman arrived, as if from a long journey.

She looked ill, tattered, torn, weak and hungry. She asked a nun: “Sis, do you reckon I could have a bath?”

“We ran a lot of hot water, carefully undressed Mary and lowered her thin, black body into the bath,” Flood wrote later. “She was smiling as if all her dreams had come true. While we sponged her she kept reaching her arms out in the water as if to embrace it.

“Then she would cup her hands, fill them with water, slowly lift them over her head and let the sparkling shower fall all over her. All the time she was repeating a kind of chant, ‘Beautiful water, lovely water, lovely warm water’.

“As we continued to bathe this beautiful woman’s body I was overwhelmed by a sense that this was indeed the body of Christ in our hands. That moment taught me more than I could have learnt in many years of contemplation.

“Daily contact, conversation, laughter, many tears and great sorrows shared with Aboriginal people in and around the St Vincent’s community have coloured and dictated my life, my thinking and my theology ever since.”

A second epiphany came through Harold, a homeless Aborigine who asked Flood if there was a blessing in her prayer book for him. She read him a blessing. After a long silence, Harold asked: “Don’t you want me to read a blessing for you?”

She wrote: “My world turned upside down; in that instant many of my assumptions and presumptions were totally shattered. Harold read a blessing for me and I have never received a greater one.”

Maureen Flood died a pauper on Boxing Day, four days after her 70th birthday and 40 minutes after Kerry Packer. She had suffered from dementia but was prepared for death. In her last essay, published last year, she wrote: “My life is coming to an end. The path ahead is not so long. I walk in darkness yet the darkness is luminous.” At her birthday party she had led celebrants in singing Paddy McGinty’s Goat.

Maureen Patricia Brigid was born in Gunnedah to Ted and Cora Flood. She was one of five children; the youngest, Lesley, was run over and died at four years.

Ted’s brother, Francis (Frank), was one of 10 Irish patriots, including Kevin Barry, hanged by the British in Dublin’s Mountjoy jail during the Irish war of independence. When Sister Monica, a Bon Secours nun, told Frank on his last night on Earth in 1921 that she would pray for him until 9am the next day, he said: “I will be in Heaven shortly after eight and I will pray for you.”

The men’s bodies were exhumed in 2001 and reburied with state honours. Maureen’s nephew, Sean Flood, a Sydney barrister, was a pallbearer.

A peace treaty probably saved Ted from the hangman. He came to Australia, where he and Cora ran country pubs.

From Gunnedah, the family went to Inverell, then Tamworth. They returned to Ireland on holiday for a year after World War II but Ted died at 47 soon after their return, when Maureen was 16.

Dyslexia hampered her at school but she became a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney before joining the Blessed Sacrament Sisters in Melbourne, a very strict, enclosed, contemplative order who adored the Eucharist for an hour every day and night.

If the young, kneeling women felt themselves dozing off during adoration, they would stand. The nuns made all the altar breads for Victoria, requiring hard, manual work. And the order’s leaders taught that dancing was a mortal sin.

“It was organised in such a way that you got a full night’s sleep once a week,” Flood said. “I thought that if you were going to give your life to God, you had to do the hardest thing.”

She became the order’s regional superior in Australia before travelling to Rome in 1981, as deputy superior general of the Blessed Sacrament Order. She had overcome her dyslexia and was to prepare programs for Vatican Radio, including a series on human sexuality, and for the ABC, write several books and earn a Sydney University master’s degree for a thesis on spirituality in Judith Wright’s poetry.

Rome opened her eyes; she began to lose her faith in the church and take a keen interest in feminism. Recognising the limitations of her order, she was to describe herself as “the best possible nun of the worst possible kind”. The order is left now with only 10 members in Australia and about 330 around the world.

Back in Australia in 1987, she gravitated to Father Ted Kennedy’s community in Redfern. “I knew that the Eucharist is broken bread for broken people but in my whole life I’d had very little, if any, direct contact with poor, broken, dispossessed and unjustly outcast people,” she said.

“I knew I needed to go somewhere beyond the walls that insulated our lives and limited our vision and understanding.”

She found the celebration of the Eucharist at Redfern to be prayerful, joyful and open to the unexpected. She said: “The air we breathe, the land on which we stand, is laden with the suffering of generations of the dispossessed original peoples of Australia. The overwhelming spirit of the community is of longing for justice and reconciliation … Surprising as it may seem, running beneath and through every layer of this situation is a constant overflowing river of laughter.”

Sister Vianney Hatton said at Flood’s funeral: “The Redfern years challenged and exhilarated her and she found her true spiritual home among the oppressed and needy, especially the Aboriginal people … She was never other than a daughter of the church, but she came to eschew mediocrity and the institutional structures that bound rather than freed people. She was equally intolerant of hypocrisy and patriarchal oppression.”

Hatton said that, in the last years of her life, Flood let go of rigid belief systems and discovered “the original depth hidden within our own Catholic tradition”. She could blend a free spirit, a decisive nature, a deep respect for life, a love for adventure and an uncompromising sense of integrity.

She was saintly, but perfection was not her goal. She had her shadow side. Particularly in later years, her friend said, Flood “battled her demons and faced her terrors and fears with great courage and honesty. We all know how difficult we found it to see the deterioration of her incisive and mystical mind.”

She had also found spirituality in poetry. Her thesis on Wright, finished in 1997, ends with a personal reflection in which she wrote: “The death of God came as a great shock to me.” She was talking of a transcendent God. Hatton believes her sense of the presence of a personal God had died. Her certainty had been stripped away; her faith had become a belief without knowing.

Flood wrote in her last essay: “I believe that Jesus was an amazing prophet, a messenger from God.” She thought his life and teaching “simple and profound”.

She had long lost her youthful piousity but found inner peace. She wanted “quiet time, to talk to the angels, look at the sky, look at the trees. And getting rid of stuff. I adore getting rid of stuff.”

Women such as Maureen Flood entered convents in a different era. Years later, many found themselves in unpaid community work, which they embraced with enthusiasm and grace. Their spirit of self-sacrifice is not always common today.

Yet a sense of fun sprinkled her spirituality and self-sacrifice. “I’m a little deranged,” she would say in later years. And, at a St Vincent’s storytelling session after her death, a friend told how Flood had said: “If I believed in reincarnation, I’d like to come back and have lots of sex.”

Tony Stephens

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