Prayer is a way of daily life for New York real estate agent

Maureen McCafferty, 74

Maureen McCafferty
Who she is: Real estate agent
Lives in: Manhattan, N.Y.

Sr. Camille: You have a great gift of bringing together a group of about 30 people of different ages and backgrounds to share in a liturgy and meal with some Jesuit priests. You keep tabs on the participants through a quiet, organizational style. How and when did this get started?

McCafferty: My connection with the group started when I met Dan Berrigan in 1985. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Joe Roccasalvo, who is also a member of this liturgy group. Joe thought Dan could help my former husband, who was dying of AIDS, as Dan was ministering to these fellows when few were. If you recall that period, AIDS patients were shunned by society. I thought Paul needed help from a priest he respected to help him face dying with more peace than he had been able to summon by himself.

Why does this matter to you?

In our very materialistic world where a harsh culture is in your face all the time, I think it's important to have connection with people who see beyond the material.

How and when did it evolve?

This group has been in existence for about 30 years or so. As far as I know, it started with Manhattan's 98th Street community, where Dan lived for many years. It was an attempt by the Jesuits living there to expand their community to include others who were interested in peace and justice.

Who are your supporters in this venture?

For a long time, the Jesuits on 98th Street then on Thompson Street in Soho provided the gathering place for Mass as well as a beautiful meal afterward. This past summer, the Thompson Street community numbered only a few Jesuits, so the society had to close the residence and the remaining Jesuits had to find other communities in which to live. Since that time, our group has been traveling around -- like the early Christians! -- gathering in different places, sharing meals, which we now bring in (not like the early Christians!).

How would you describe the participants?

The participants are actors, college professors, teachers, Catholic Workers, political activists, people involved in literary publishing, mentors. We are a diverse group.

What are you and the others seeking?

I'm sure each one would have a different answer, but in general, I think the members of the group are seeking a way to worship, pray and share with others of similar minds and hearts.

What might a visitor conclude from their interaction?

They have a great interest, respect and love for one another.

How does this form of prayer compare with regular liturgies?

I seldom go to a "regular liturgy" anymore, so I'm not the best one to ask. However, this liturgy is simple and reminds me of what it might have been like in the early church, where a small group would gather and pray together. There is a celebrant who says Mass and then begins a sharing, usually based on the readings of the day.  Others contribute as the Spirit moves, often in words, sometimes in silence and reflection.

Apart from this community, where and with whom do you pray?

Prayer, for me, is a way of daily life. It starts in the morning, when I wake up and connect with my guides, my ancestors, my guardian angels -- the communion of saints -- in Christian terms. I do some reading and meditate for about an hour before the day gets going. It's my favorite part of the day. When I'm ready to leave, I bring everyone with me as I go through the day, and we converse. When night comes, there's a prayer of gratitude for everything that has occurred -- everything. We talk the day over, and then I go to sleep.

Have you always lived in Manhattan?

I came to Manhattan from Michigan when I was 23 years old. After graduating from St. Mary's College in Indiana, I taught second grade in a small Catholic school in Austin, Texas, which served a poor Mexican-American community. It was a year of volunteer work that I loved, during which I made all of $10 a week.

When I returned to Detroit, I decided I wanted to find a job directly opposite of the experience I had just completed, and I found one in an ad agency.  They had a very disorganized manager in New York so asked if I would go there and organize him.  So I came, not knowing anyone, found an apartment and knew immediately that this was going to be the place where I was to live my life. It was not a "Mad Men" advertising agency, though! Much smaller, just the disorganized manager and me. The best thing I remember about that job is the independence I had, and also, my boss had a terrific sense of humor! We got on well, and it was a fun couple of years.

Where, with whom, and in what circumstances did you spend your childhood?

I grew up in a big Irish Catholic family in a suburb of Detroit. I had four older brothers and a younger sister. We were middle class, inching upward. Our dad was a hard-working CPA who had his own firm in downtown Detroit, and I remembered thinking, when I became aware of such things, that it was amazing he had the four boys in college at once. Dad was a quiet, very spiritual man. People loved him! Mom was a wonderful homemaker, a gifted hostess who could have 10 people show up at the door at 5 p.m. and she would somehow feed everyone. She was also a lot of fun! We still talk about her when we get together, though she passed 27 years ago.

What schools did you attend?

I went to our local parochial school, St. Ambrose, through high school. I graduated from St. Mary's College at Notre Dame in 1962, thrilled to go to an all-women's school. Later on, when I was directing the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School in the '70s, I received a master's degree from Columbia University. When I retired from my second career in the insurance business after 22 years, I went back to Columbia to be trained in mediation and conflict resolution.

Would you please describe your current family? Where and with whom do you now live?

I live by myself in the same apartment where I raised our son, so it's been about 48 years in the West Village. Our son, Christopher, lives in San Francisco, where he has a responsible position in a tech company. I have nieces and nephews who have moved to New York City and New Jersey over the decades, so they are part of the family I connect with regularly, too. I also have a wide-ranging family of friends whom I love to pieces!

Where do you work?

I am in the third year of my third career as a real estate agent in New York. I had jobs when I was in my 20s after moving to New York, but my first real career was being a Montessori teacher and then director at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School in the '70s.

When Chris got to be about 11 or 12, I realized I couldn't send him to college on my teaching salary, so I had to shift gears. Women in sales were not that common in the late '70s, early '80s, but I realized I had to work in a field where my income wouldn't be limited. I worked in the insurance business with a very good company, Equitable Life, until I retired in 2002.

After a while, I knew retirement was not my cup of tea, which is when I went back to Columbia University to study mediation and conflict resolution. I absolutely loved it! If I had been 30 years younger, that's what I would be doing today. However, many of the young people I was taking classes with were getting their master's or doctorates, and I knew that wasn't going to happen. I did have opportunities to assist in trainings at the U.N., however, and also went to Bangkok to assist in a U.N. training, which I absolutely loved.

This current career in real estate came about when I realized it connected my love of home and design with helping other people find a home they loved.

What do you consider your everyday challenges?

On a physical level, maintaining good health.

Emotionally, I try to balance taking care of myself with caring for others. This is part of the Christian message that was not passed on when I was growing up. We were always instructed to care for our neighbor, "love your neighbor," but the "as yourself" was lost in translation. Not healthy.

On a spiritual level, my challenge is to hold up my hand like a stop sign to the culture we live in so that I remain connected to the Source. The Source takes many forms, among them everyone I see on the street and in the subway.

More specifically, on a spiritual level, one of the consistent themes I work on is not judging -- myself or others.

What gives you the courage and wisdom to address these concerns?

I believe the most important relationship we have in our life is the one with our self. I have just finished reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which talks about the value of preparing for death so you can live your life well. I have been interested in this subject since the '60s, when Elizabeth Kubler-Ross began educating Americans about death and dying.

I'm quite interested in the subject of death and have been around dying people a lot in my life. It doesn't scare me in the least, and I totally believe in the value of preparation for that moment. I would like to be as conscious and aware as possible when my moment comes. It takes time and effort to grow in this fashion, and I'm willing to put in the work.

Where do you worship?

On the street, on the subway, wherever I am. Just not in churches so much.

What is your favorite Scripture passage or Bible story?

In 1996, I was sitting in my little meditation room, reeling from having helped the daughter of my companion at the time pass away from cancer. He and she were nonbelieving Jews, and it was a very demanding period. It took me three days to write a prayer that I hoped would help her to pass more easily. When I finished reading it aloud in her hospital room, she said, "That's exactly how I feel." I felt I had done my job.

In any event, I was breathless, thinking about my own work, which I had to let go for a period of time, so I was concerned about income, getting back to work, etc. Then the parable of the lilies of the field came to mind. I simply stopped worrying, realizing that I was being cared for and watched over. If those lilies were being taken care of, so was I.

Does it make in difference in your life?

Huge! I am generally not a worrier, but occasionally, that energy will start to build. I try to put a cap on it pretty quickly, remembering that I am valued and cared for. I truly believe that.

What is your image of God?

My sense of God is the creative energy that underlies the universe and is in all people and all things.

Has it changed?

Most definitely. I grew up in the Midwest in the '40s and '50s, where the Catholic church was deemed to be the one true faith and the only route to heaven. Jesus was God, and that's about all there was to it!

Can you say why?

I began to question the Catholic faith when I was in college. I grew through the questioning and through my own life experience.

What about your faith is most meaningful to you?

What is most meaningful is knowing completely that I am loved and also that there is more to life than what we experience here.

Do you see it in action?

I try to put this love into action daily in ordinary ways. Before I leave my apartment in the morning, I try to assess where I am emotionally. Am I feeling OK? Do I regard myself well that morning? When I get out on the street, I can feel where I am toward other people. If I'm not totally in love with the human race, I know I have a little more work to do.

Who most influenced your belief system? Please explain.

I don't have a lot of beliefs, but I have had some important influences.

When Paul and I were divorced back in the '70s, I understood something important about authority and the place of the church as an authority in my own life. My mother and a priest friend wanted me to get an annulment. I thought about it and asked myself, "Why?" When Paul and I entered our marriage, the intention was solid and true. The marriage didn't last. I felt no need to go to an authority (the church) that would have passed judgment on what we entered into authentically. That was the moment I became an adult.

How do you pray?

Simply. I just talk.

What does Christianity ask of you?

 To love myself and others as one.

What do you want from it?  

Continued guidance in modeling my life after the life of Christ. I'm not too interested in theology or doctrinal issues. I am much more interested in just being a good person and treating others as I want to be treated.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Accepting and loving my life as it has turned out and not as I had imagined it would be.

I also had a hand in raising another good human being, our son, Christopher.

What in contemporary Catholicism or distresses you?

How much time do we have?

Is there anything you would change?

Yes. On an immediate, superficial level, I would get rid of the outfits the cardinals wear. The garb totally separates them from the people they serve and puts them "up there" on pedestals, where they ought not to be. I would also invite women to be priests as they are naturals at serving people. This will eventually happen, but not in our lifetime. The arguments against women being ordained are too ridiculous for words, in my book.

What causes you sorrow?

When people act from their basest instincts.

What causes you joy?

A lot! Being with friends, having them over for dinner, preparing a good meal for everyone, sitting around the table afterward, just talking -- that's pure joy for me! Also, seeing my son doubled over with laughter at something I've said -- that's the best! Talking to my sister in Los Angeles on the telephone where we crack one another up on almost a daily basis, having breakfast with one of my nephews in a local diner -- these are regular moments are pure joy for me!

I actually love ordinary life, ordinary days and find a lot of joy just living. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God." I believe that.

What gives you hope?

I believe people are basically good and want to be loved.

How do you relax?

I love the movies and can count on them for a respite from real life when I need one. My taste runs from really good films to movies with little redeeming social value whatsoever.

Music is another big part of my life. I record everything on iTunes -- jazz, pop, alternative, country music -- then I blast it when the spirit moves! It's a good thing I live in a building with thick walls.

When my budget permits or I get a nice gift from my son, I love to get body work done -- reflexology, etc. Baths are a great, totally inexpensive stress reliever. One day this past month, I had had it with work, came home in the afternoon, got into the bath with a couple magazines, and two hours later, got out, ready to go again. All was well.

On a social level, I truly enjoy a good Manhattan in the winter and an icy-cold, well-made martini in the summer! Always in as nice a glass as possible!

Is there something you wish I had asked?

Not at all! Your questions have given me an opportunity to see where I'm at, and I have truly appreciated being able to respond. I'm sure there's more here than you ever wanted to know, so edit away!

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here