Thursday, January 16, 2014

Judgment in Seneca

It’s been six weeks since I last posted a story about the convent. Back on December 6, I wrote that in the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission where I discovered “just how human nuns could be and were.”
         On that mission, even as I rebelled against a superior whom I was unable to respect, I castigated myself for being judgmental. Ultimately, I despised myself for my own flaws and left the convent. But that’s in the future. For now let’s spend some time in Seneca.
         As background, you need to know that at the Mount, or motherhouse, in Atchison, Kansas, I’d worked in the laundry each Monday and Tuesday. As novices and postulants, we young nuns not only washed the bed sheets but also the undergarments of the nuns. Each garment was labeled with the initials of the nun to whom it belonged. My initials were DR3. That is, I was the third living nun with the initials DR.
         Nuns wore two undergarments: a half-slip and a torso muslin. The voluminous blue or khaki cotton half-slip buttoned at the waistband. The one-piece, muslin torso garment went from shoulders to mid-thighs. It buttoned up the front and was separated at the bottom for easy use of the toilet. The garment was unbleached, loose-fitting, and short-sleeved. 
         On an enormous industrial mangle, four novices ironed the sheets. In another room, three novices worked at smaller, individual mangles or ironing boxes. Each lifted a five-feet-long, handled, rectangular cover; placed a half-slip on the padded ironing table; and then brought down the cover to press the slip.

         Thus, the nuns wore ironed slips. But the one-piece torso garment remained un-ironed and wrinkled. That garment was ironed only for the mother superior. Doing so was a sign of the respect in which the nuns held her.
         As the youngest scholastic in Seneca, I did the mission laundry. The first time I descended to the basement, the scholastic who’d done the laundry the year before followed me downstairs.
         “Sister Innocence,” she said, “be sure and iron Sister Mary’s muslin.”
         “Why would I do that?” I asked.
         “She likes all her underwear ironed. So I did them for her last year.”
         “But that’s done only for Mother Alfred.”
         “Well, Sister Mary wants her muslin ironed so you do it.”
         “No. I don’t.”
         My words flummoxed Sister Mary Jude. “But you have to. She expects it,” she stammered.
         “She not our mother superior and I’m not doing it.”
         In the weeks and months ahead, I discovered that the Seneca superior considered herself the grande dame of the convent. During recreation each evening as we all gathered around a large rectangular table, she sat at its end with two other nuns—one who taught English in high school and one who taught seventh and eighth grade. The superior seemed to think that these two matched her in intelligence and learning. They formed a formidable clique.
         The three of them spent recreation talking about books and history as the rest of us—I think there were about thirteen nuns at Seneca that year—chatted, crocheted, knitted, and played chess or tic-tac-toe. Periodically, when I’d hear one of the three laugh derisively, I’d glance toward the head of the table and note their condescending smiles and superior airs.        
         That’s when I really began to judge and that was truly the beginning of the end for even then I chastised myself. Yet I still continued to rebel. 
         Next week, we'll return to Seneca and I'll share the soft-boiled-egg battle-of-wills with you.


  1. This was interesting. It is hard to not judge, yet it is so human. Rebellion is a dangerous thing.

  2. My eyes have been opened by your very interesting piece. I don't know why, but I'd always assumed nuns/ sisters of the cloth didn't have the same emotions and negative expressions that plague the rest of us. Knowing my rebellious nature, I wouldn't have lasted very long at all. I can't wait to hear how this all plays out! (And a side note- I haven't yet gotten to start reading your wonderful novel, but I hope to start this evening or tomorrow, barring any more interruptions!)

  3. Wow even cliques at a convent, doesn't really surprise, but I wouldn't have suspected it

  4. I love your stories about the convent--but then, I love EVERYTHING you write!!

  5. My heart leapt when I saw a post from you. And how right it was. The judgement issue is one I struggle with. We need to make judgements about people every day - who needs help (whether they ask for it or not). Some judgements are safety issues - for ourselves and for others. And yet the idea that we shouldn't make judgements and that all judgements are negative and bad continues to this day.
    Your judgement? Harshest always when it comes to judging yourself.

  6. I'm curious about how Sister Mary -- took your rebellion. And it does sound like a bunch of old biddies with little sense of grace and love. Or is this just one side of them? Interesting little tidbit here, Dee. Makes me want to know more. :-)

  7. Being judgemental is something we all deal with from time to time. I have found that as time goes by I have become less so as life has taught me to embrace more of what I did not understand.

  8. This is eye opening. I too thought the nuns were above the normal emotions and cliques the rest of us lived with.Your resistance really surprised me. I am eager to hear how this turns out also.
    By the way, I am so glad you are back posting. You have been missed.

  9. You know I'm a rebel. Nuns wouldn't know what to do with me. The "nun clique" sounds like the public schools I attended. If one wasn't in a clique, one didn't stand a chance.


  10. I, too, am happy to have you back. Being judgmental was easy to give up--about twenty years ago. It took me a long time to realize what I didn't know probably would change my opinion.

  11. Glad you are back, Dee.... Gads---amazing how 'political' RELIGIOUS people can be... SO--she was trying to be the 'master of the universe'.... No wonder you rebelled. I'm sure I would have also.

    After working in churches for 25 years, I know about ministers and leaders in churches who are put on pedestals ---and act like 'gods'... But they are not someone who should EVER be on a pedestal. Seems to be a 'power' thing...

    AND---I know how 'political' and mean-spirited Christians can be to each other... You'd think that they would practice their Christianity at all times... BUT--the 'human in them' comes out and it can be UGLY... NOT FUN...

    Sorry you went through that.

  12. You really have to think about perspective before you judge

  13. It's a treat to see you back contributing stories of the convent, Dee. I think you were really a bird needing to be set free from the cage, my friend. You think too broadly and have to open a spirit to be confined and it shows when you share so openly. I hope the new year brings you many more writing and publishing opportunities, Dee. It's good to hear from you. :-)

  14. Sometimes it's the little things that can tip the balance, Dee, not the big ones. I can so easily imagine your determination not to give Sr Mary any special treatment and I'd have felt the same. Cliques are a besetting human weakness and I for one don't fin d it hard to accept that even nuns have them, as I've seen too many in other aspects of church life. As always, a fascinating post.

  15. It is so comforting to have you back in the blogging sphere again, Dee. Welcome!

    Ah. Judging others. This is something I deal with on a consistent basis. If practice made perfect, I'd be a god by now. Instead, I just keep on practicing tolerance of others. I look forward to your continued posts, dear Dee, and reading about " the soft-boiled-egg battle-of-wills".

  16. Welcome back. I do not judge any one, but believe me I have been judge by people who have nothing to do with me. So, I do not pay attention to them. That's all.

  17. I love that you have always had such a strong sense of justice and you refused to iron her garments just because she wanted them that way. I guess you learned that everyone is human, you included. It is hard not to judge and I wonder what that clique provided for them that they so desperately needed in their lives.

  18. It’s good to have you back, Dee.
    At the same time, It’s good that you take the time away from blogging that you need. You truly have a balance in your life which I envy. I must take lessons from you.

    Perhaps your early convent life taught you this balance?

  19. I'm so glad you are back and I look forward to hearing more about how you will discover your true self. Most young people rebel, as you did. It just never occurred to me that nuns would do this also.

  20. Glad to see you back! :)
    The world was so black and white to me when I was younger...and black and white leads to a lot of judgments...and youth have a lot of passion and energy--LOL! I would not have done well in the convent. ;)

  21. I think I would have lasted fifteen minutes in the convent. Really enjoy your writing about your convent years and look forward to soft-boiled eggs.

  22. I too had no idea that nuns would be so cliquey. I don't blame you for refusing to iron Mary's "knickers" but I don't think I would have been so brave.
    You're a born story-teller - I can't wait to read the rest.