Alma Mater

Two statues depict different versions of Alma Mater, learning’s nourishing, bountiful mother. The bronze sculpture at Columbia University is a dominant goddess, garbed in voluminous robes and a laurel leaf crown. She holds a book on her lap and a scepter in her hand. My favorite is the bronze statue of Alma Mater, a humbler version, at the University of Havana in Cuba. The sculptor formed her as young, beautiful, simply dressed, head bare, and hands open in welcome.

Sister Theona (whose name meant “The Good God”) taught me from 1961-1964. My Alma Mater, she was neither dominant nor laurel-crowned, although I cannot remember her without a book. Neither was she young or beautiful, although her hands were graceful and open. Sister did not necessarily occupy a favored space for every student at Our Lady of Angels Convent in Portland, Oregon. For me, though, her influence was, and remains, unmatched.

As an eighteen year-old, I had cemented my learning domain by taking shortcuts and spending quality time with the mirror, American Bandstand, and the telephone. I learned from Sister Theona that study walls are simply threads. A snip here, a snip there and what do you know? An academic world opens wide.

I remember the phrases she wrote on the blackboard:

It is not the event that makes us happy or sad, but the thoughts we build around it.
Live the questions (Rilke).
Husband the moments.
Correlations, anyone?

The last phrase was at the heart of Sister’s belief about learning. Correlations assume each academic discipline connects with another. One truth nourishes the next. Correlations promise entrance into a Wisdom that is intelligent and agile, unstained and secure, just and prudent.

Sister Theona (the Good Goddess) probably continues to ask, “Correlations, anyone?” Undoubtedly she expects a deluge of related ideas, even from God.