The convent itself has changed greatly since I lived there between June 1958 and December 1966. But I suspect that human nature changes ever so slowly over years, decades, centuries, and millenniums. The limbic system, which controls our basic emotions, remains part of our brains.
So nuns living in community still find themselves human in their response to what can be the tedium of the day and the intractable personalities of other nuns. After all, the convent is a small universe populated by women who do not slough off their flaws, strengths, foibles, and gifts when they enter.
I’ve written about some of those foibles before. Today I’d like to write about Sister Barbara, who epitomized for me what living the five Benedictine vows could mean.
With the vow “conversion of morals,” a nun challenges herself to smooth the sharp edges of her own being. She commits herself to embracing the wholeness of human personality. She champions the Gospel mandate to love even when loving demands patience and perseverance.
Most of the nuns with whom I lived tried hard to live that vow, no one more so than Sister Barbara who oversaw the laundry. Each week for the first eighteen months I spent in the convent I got to work under her patient supervision.
She was, as the saying goes, as old as dirt. She had seen countless postulants and novices come and go. She knew that often we were lonely for our families. That learning to live in community was difficult. That trying to still the rebellious voice within ourselves took years of self-tolerance.
Deep wrinkles scored her face, mapping the peace that came from centering her life in hope and gratitude. Her voice, cracked with age and gentled by prayer, accepted everyone who crossed her path, whether we be fickle or devout, silly or serious. Her eyes were as freshly blue as the first rain shower. Her smile reflected the still voice of Oneness that dwelt in the deep center of her being.
There was in her a gleeful joy, a simplicity, a peace that had no axe to grind, no complaint to lament, no sorrow or shame to glower the day.
In her presence I felt that she’d come to the laundry after having sat under an apple tree with her God, drinking a mug of dark, hot coffee; munching on the crusty heel of bread still warm from the oven; and chuckling over the ups and downs of life.
Together, they wondered about simple things—the pure voice of a postulant during choir practice, the blush of a winter sun setting, the laughter of children who lived just down the hill from the convent, the scent of beeswax candles in the sanctuary, the nourishing taste of prayer, the worrisome news of a nun whose cancer had been diagnosed the day before.
For me, Sister Barbara walked in beauty. She had looked upon the face of Jesus and rested within the deep wellspring of his love. And so, whenever I returned to the Mount after being out on mission, I sought out Sister Barbara. I wanted to gaze upon her face because it held for me the promise that if I followed the mandate of Micah 6:8, “ . . . to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God,” I, too, would embrace my humanity and open my arms and my heart to the pain and joy that resides in each of us. She gave me hope that I, too, could become authentically human.
The lyrics of John Denver’s Perhaps Love
always remind me of those convent days
when Sister Barbara’s love encouraged me to embrace my vows
and to walk, as she did, the trail of beauty.