St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican
When last I posted a story from my life in Dayton back in the late ‘60s, I shared with you several perceptive comments that Dr. C., a psychiatrist, said to me as he discerned the patterns of my life. During that time I also tried to officially leave the convent.
When I’d asked to leave in early December of 1966, the Mother Superior thought that my taking a leave of absence rather than being released from my vows would be best for me. I can’t remember exactly how she proposed this, but she must have been thinking that I often acted impulsively and that I’d changed my mind more than once about leaving.
In June of 1965, after teaching high school students in Baileyville, Kansas, for a year, I’d arrived home at the Mount and immediately asked to leave the convent. The Prioress called and asked my mom to come and persuade me otherwise. Mom came, talked about how she’d stayed married to Dad despite his drinking, and said, “Dolores, when you put your hand to the plow, you never look back.” I stayed.
But a year later, in June of 1966, after teaching another nine months in Baileyville, I’d once again entered the Prioress’ office, knelt down, and asked to leave. My second request startled her even more than the first. After all, only a handful of professed nuns had left the convent in its previous one hundred years and so my persistence was historically atypical.
Vatican Two, an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, had taken place in Rome between October 1962 and December 1965. Pope John XXIII had encouraged the prelates to open up the Church to renewal. I knew little about the council, nor what this renewal implied. Nor did I know any professed nuns who’d left the convent. To leave after making final vows just wasn’t done at that time.
But I had become so desperate that leaving seemed my only recourse. I can’t remember how or when that drastic option—actually leaving the convent—occurred to me. I can’t stress enough how in December 1966 that was a radical idea. A year later leaving became more widespread.
I attribute my decision to that deep down survival instinct in me. It was leave or endure a breakdown. At the time, nuns who suffered from extreme mental illness were sent to a hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa. My fear was that I’d be sent there and would spend the rest of my life sitting by a window, facing the sun’s warmth, totally incoherent.
The Prioress suggested that I take part in the convent’s June retreat and then make my decision. I did this, and sure enough, because at heart I love the idea of monasticism, I went into her office afterward and said, in my usual dramatic and grandiose way, “I’m staying. And if I ever again ask to leave, remind me of this. I’m committed to staying.”
St. John’s Abbey Church at Saint John’s University in Collegeville
Within a day or two, I traveled to Collegeville, Minnesota, where I had been pursuing for two previous summers a graduate degree in Benedictine Spirituality. When I returned to the Mount in August 1969, I began teaching religion and English literature in the Mount Academy attached to the convent.
But summer school had only bandaged the woundedness of my spirit. Once again, it began to fester. Once again I seemed to shatter into shards of myself. And so late one evening in early December 1966 I walked down the shadowed halls, entered the Prioress’ office, and asked to leave.
Next week I’ll explain a leave of absence and how that worked out in the two and a half years I lived in Dayton. Peace.
Postscript: This past Monday I completed the first rough draft of my convent memoir. I’m putting it aside for several weeks. Then I’ll read it to discover exactly what I’ve written. Editing and polishing will follow, through probably two or so more drafts, until I have a final manuscript. I’m feeling a real sense of accomplishment.
Photographs from Wikipedia.