Blog 10: Journal of a Former Nun
Category: Making of a Nun
“So take a lesson from the strangeness you feel/ And know you’ll never be the same
And find it in your heart to kneel down and say/ I gave my love, didn’t I; and I gave it big sometimes” –Jane Silberry’s “Love is Everything” (Sung by k.d. lang)
What becomes of love and desire in a life devoted to celibacy? The answers to this question were long and slow in coming. But hints revealed themselves that very first day I entered, August 20, 1953. They came in the form of 30+ other postulants whom I was asked to love, immediately, unconditionally–insofar as such emotional heroism is possible. I looked around our “homeroom” as we awaited our first talk from our director (Mistress of Postulants she was called then). These young women’s faces, struggling against tears as was mine, revealed our oneness. None of them was all that different from me and if I loved myself I could begin to love them.
Common experiences and pursuits united us in much the same way as they unite soldiers or medical students or builders. These began with externals as we exchanged our gaudy secular clothes for the black and white of the Postulant’s garb. The dress I had worn just a few days before when I walked in the convent door was my very first store-bought dress–neither handed down from my oldest sister or other relatives nor home-made by my mother. It consisted of a sleeveless dress made of shiny grey fabric with chartreuse and white striped large pockets and small collar and a thin belt. Nylon stockings gave way to thick black cotton ones and saddle shoes to ugly old-lady supportive shoes. Underclothes were laughable, especially the long striped denim slip. Our much-doted-on hair became almost hidden under a waist-length veil, the veil all black except for a thin strip of white revealing about three inches of hair in front and held onto the head by hooks near the nape of the neck. We did not cut our hair until the novitiate as this was the year we could leave the community easily, no questions asked.
Our bonding continued as we tried not to complain about the “horarium,” the strict hours or order of the day, relentlessly structured: 5:20, arise; 5:30, in chapel for meditation and spiritual reading whether awake or half asleep; 6:00, Mass; 7:00 a breakfast usually of hot cereal (and wonderful dark convent bread slathered with peanut butter mixed with real butter made in the convent dairy). After breakfast we attended to “chores” that kept the convent clean (the novices would handle most larger jobs handling farm work, kitchen and diet food, intensive scrubbing and chapel details). My charge was the long college halls. Donning a lavender and black hand-made apron, I dry mopped the floors and dusted window sills. Physical work quickly finished, we then went up to our bedrooms on the fourth floor–recently built to house college-age kids. There, after making our beds, we’d usually get ready for our classes, keeping silence at all times unless “charity” demanded speech. The rule of silence that I had, on first entering the convent, seen writ large on transoms above the doors, was the hardest one for us giggly, energetic adolescents to keep, but it was intended to lessen gossip. Theoretically it was intended to allow us to focus on the Divine Presence. To do that well would take a lifetime.
There were none of today’s distractions from every-day reality. No television, movies or videos, certainly no video games. We read books rather than magazines and newspapers. There was no dancing except, rarely, square dancing, nor any competitive sports, But we had each other. Jokes and stories, songs and secrets, poems and ditties–we relished them all. Since I, like everyone else had given up life “in the world,” my conversations could not include what was still in my mind and imagination–my last dates, love letters and souvenirs from those I was leaving behind. So I learned to watch others closely and to listen to the wide variety of experiences they brought.
I was fascinated by Jane. She streaked in like a ray of light one afternoon during the first week while most of the crowd were relaxing on the grasses near the garden. With white-blond curly short hair, a Betty Grable figure in a diaphanous dress with gold, green and black thin cords running through it, a dazzling smile and large worldly blue eyes, she belonged in Hollywood, I thought at first. She told us she had already finished college and teacher training and had begun her teaching career when she realized she wanted more. Her mother dismissed her idea of entering a convent and indeed kept phoning her to tell her to come home where she belonged. She was mature enough to understand and yet dismiss these pleas. She became one of the most popular postulants in our group. We could not have imagined she would one day face Alzheimer’s disease and an early death.
Evelyn was my favorite person to take recreation with. Except for some volleyball, roller skating or soft ball during the day, the major convent recreation was an evening walk around the grounds. Small groups of nuns, novices, postulants could be seen invariably stopping at the Grotto of Our Lady, sometimes singing a hymn there. A statue of St. Francis feeding the birds and of the Sacred Heart in the center of the patio were also places to focus on. But Evelyn and I didn’t care where we walked. Our love was to talk about ideas, whatever we were studying, reading or curious about. Her somewhat sarcastic sense of humor and witty comments on our surroundings was a relief to me in the midst of all the virtues and proprieties, all the efforts and niceties involved in our training. I remember one conversation: I had been translating St. Augustine’s Confessions in my Latin class. We both became so engrossed in his ideas, his elegant words but error-prone early life that we were late for prayer. Much later Evelyn left the community, an act she regretted, noting that she personally needed the discipline. She married in haste to a man she found unbalanced, as quickly divorced and then, obeying the Church’s ruling against re-marriage, lived alone for thirty years. She visited the convent just after retiring from teaching, feeling free once more, only to die shortly afterward.
As Mistress Mary Ellen continued her frequent lectures on religious life and as we continued to fill our days with prayer, our brief “office’ ( much shorter than that of priest,) and spiritual reading, we noticed life becoming easier, more natural. I remember sitting alone outside in a courtyard in a moment of leisure and thinking, “I am now a perfect human being. I am full of charity for all, clean and clear in my thought, dedicating my young life to the highest purpose, the salvation of the world.” Later, how often, as the tides of “real life” flowed in, did this boast of the young Postulant Patsy amuse me.