My last post ended with me being kicked out of scouts. I was told I’d never be one. Today’s is about being a real woman.
This happened in my first year of the Scholasticate. Those three years were meant to give me a chance to see if I really wanted to be a nun. They also gave the professed nuns a chance to see if they really wanted me among them. In other words, was the life for me and was I for the life.
In the ceremony that began the Scholasticate, I’d taken five vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability. I meant those first vows. In three years, I hoped to take final ones.
I’d spent the past school year in a terrifying classroom of fifty-five seventh-graders. One student had thrown a knife at me when I had my back turned and was writing on the chalkboard. The blade barely missed my hand.
The students themselves weren’t any safer. When the girls passed out class work, the boys jabbed their behinds with compasses. The girls yipped and yelped as they reeled down each aisle, trying to avoid the compass points.
In early June, I’d come home to the convent, exhausted. When the Scholastic Mistress told my convent class of eighteen that we had to “turn” our habits that summer, I panicked. I could face knives, but not thread and needle.
At recreation, I asked two friends if they’d turn my habit while I did their obediences. One tablewaited in the summer refectory; the other worked in the scullery. They also polished the halls of the four-story building. All that sounded like a walk in the park to me next to the ordeal of turning a habit.
To turn a habit was to make the back become the front by changing the sleeve openings, the yoke, and the hem. The back of our daily habit had become shiny and threadbare in spots from our having sat on it for two years. The long, narrow scapular of black serge we wore over the habit—back and front—would cover the shine. Turning would keep the habit whole, not holey. Turning was beyond my capabilities.
My two friends thought they got the best of the deal. They actually liked to sew. Both of them had probably been great girl scouts. When the Scholastic Mistress heard my plan, she nixed it. I’d turn my own habit.
“I don’t like sewing,” I explained.
“It’s your habit, Sister Innocence. It’s your duty to take care of it.”
“I’m not good at sewing.”
“You’ll get good.”
“Believe me, I can’t sew no matter how much I try.”
“If you don’t learn how to sew, you’ll never be a real woman,” she said.
“I don’t want to be a real woman if that means sewing,” I countered.
She held up her right hand for silence. This brought me up close and personal to her veins, wrinkles, and liver spots for I was actually kneeling as we talked. That was our body’s attitude when we asked a permission of the Novice Mistress, Scholastic Mistress, or Mother Superior. Also when we made culpa for faults—like not lifting our habit when we climbed the steps. That dragged the hem on the stair edge and frayed it—a fault against the vow of poverty.
I closed my mouth. I’d taken the vow of obedience. I’d lived it out on mission at a school where the kids toilet-papered the clothesline when I was doing the laundry and threatened to rape me if I didn’t let up on them in class. Surely turning a habit couldn’t be worse than that.
Let me be the first to tell you. It was. That summer I had to do it all by hand because the personality of a sewing machine continued to evade me. I had so many needle pricks in my fingers and left so many drops of blood on that black serge that my friends felt sorry for me and surreptitiously helped whenever the Scholastic Mistress wasn’t looking. We were downright sneaky.
Years have passed and I’m fairly certain that letting others define us is hazardous for our emotional growth and contentment. The Scholastic Mistress defined a woman as a female who could sew. Upon leaving the convent, I discovered that many people—both women and men—defined a woman as “married.” Or, even better, “married with children.” I didn’t then, I don’t now, fit those definitions.
The truth is I’m not particularly concerned about “being a woman.” Being either male or female is of little interest to me. What is important is becoming an authentic human being. I’m gently greeting—day by day—the Oneness that lies deep down in the center of myself. I choose to let this Oneness define me.
What I know for certain is that I never become a scout . . . or a seamstress.
Surely Dante considered sewing one of hell’s worse torments.