I’ve used the word faults and failings several times in the novitiate postings. We had to “weed them out.” Sometimes the weeding led to raucous laughter. Picture a postulant or novice attempting reverent silence when washing dishes or table waiting or doing any obedience. Picture the over-exaggeration of movement. Clap your hands over your ears at the resultant clatter and clang. Suppressed laughter breaks into giggles, hidden behind the veil.
I laughed a lot in the novitiate. It wasn’t considered a fault or failing. It wasn’t frowned upon except when it disturbed the silence of others. Faults and failings were to be weeded out, but Benedictines always valued the uniqueness of each person and treasured differences. Everything in moderation.
That’s the sticking point. Right there. I simply wasn’t moderate. I’ve told you this before. Here’s another example.
My most obvious deviation from the convent rules about silence was singing outside the laundry each Monday and Tuesday as I sorted the wash. I crooned all the Cole Porter songs. Gershwin. Lorenz Hart. Rogers and Hammerstein. Nat King Cole. Bing Crosby. Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennett.
The Novice Mistress, I’m sure, knew I weekly chose singing over silence. She never reprimanded me. Benedictines have always sung the liturgy. The magnificence of Gregorian music fills their lives. I know she appreciated the hold music had over me. And she honored it.
But one of my failings she couldn’t ignore: I was sloppy at meals.
The thing is that when we received salutation at lunch and supper, I got excited. Talking, for me, is a real treat. I threw myself into storytelling as did the novices sitting next to and across from me. We enjoyed one another.
The problem is that I’d get distracted by a good story and drop gravy on the table. Or meat juice, butter, sauce, jam, soup. So many possibilities for splotching and spotting.
When this happened, the convent required the messy person to rise, go to the front of the table, kneel, and make culpa. The penance was always the same: After the meal, I’d get a large bowl of boiling water and drape the table cloth over it to immerse the spot. Then I’d run a spoon back and forth over it until the spot disappeared, That process, of course, made doing the laundry easier for those who did the actual washing.
I became famous in my novitiate for spotting. On July 11, 1959, the feast of St. Benedict, I got through breakfast and lunch with no spotting. In fact, I made it through supper without marring that tablecloth.
Then came dessert. Plump plums in their juice.
You surely know what happened. The telling of a story. Laughter distracting me. And then . . . the splash of purple juice on snow-white cloth. Too much pure joy in the day for me to make it through with no spotting.
I rose. Walked to the head of the table. Knelt before the Novice Mistress. “Mea culpa, I made a spot on the table. Um Jesum willum, may I have a penance?” (Not sure of the spelling!)
Then, like clouds parting to emit light, the Novice Mistress beamed at me. “I’m so happy to see you!" she said. "It’s not a feast, I’ve discovered, without a visit from Sister Innocence.”
Her words left me in a stupor. She had a sense of humor.
That made, I think, all the difference in our relationship.
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