Friday, October 17, 2014

Seesawing in the Convent



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. 

45 comments:

  1. Congrats on getting the first draft done, always awesome when that comes due. Things will sure nag at us until we give them their due.

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    1. Dear Pat, thanks so much for your congratulations. And yes, the stories kept nagging at me until I sat myself down on the chair before this computer and let the words come. Peace.

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    1. Dear Fishducky, thank you! I'll keep posting little postscripts on this blog about progress. Peace.

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  3. I remember what it was like. It was a whisper-worthy scandal as us students speculated on why one of our favorite nuns left the convent. Maybe she couldn't endure us any longer? Maybe she'd fallen in love with a priest (the only males we knew of that nuns might have access to!) It must feel really good to have finished your book. I look forward to your next post!

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    1. Dear Molly, it feels wonderful to have finished the first draft, but already I've remembered five stories that aren't in that draft. So when I begin to edit, I'll need to add those stories and probably more as they come to mind. With most of my writing I do several drafts. Once I did nineteen. We'll see what this convent memoir demands. Peace.

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    2. Dear Molly, I forgot to say "thanks for stopping by!" Peace.

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  4. If I can be of any assistance with the memoir, please let me know. I love your writing so much.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, thank you for your offer of assistance. I'm think that the drafts are going to take maybe three or four months, so sometime next spring I may be putting out the SOS signal! Peace.

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  5. "when you put your hand to the plow, you never look back." That does not take in consideration the rocky, un-tillable soil that you were dealing with.
    I am so happy you have finished your rough draft and found it interesting the stories you all ready know need adding. It is a long process and your book is the plow you need to hang on to. This is worth it.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, I don't think Mom had any idea how hard obedience was for me or how living in the convent had become oppressive. Whenever she and Dad visited during the years I spent there--once a year they came--I talked only about the good things. And there were good things to talk about.

      I am going to hand onto the book and plow forward! Peace.

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  6. If you want my help, I'm ALWAYS available to you!!

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    1. Dear Fishducky, thank you. I'll remember that. Peace.

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  7. Like the patient spider at her work, there is a draft. Congratulations. I guess you have put your hand to this plow; at least to the end of the field.

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    1. Dear Joanne, I suspect that writing a book is like your weaving. Lots of prep time and then the actual work and then, ultimately, the completed project all woven together--thread or words. Peace.

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    1. Dear Jo-Anne, I think so too! Peace.

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  9. I think it is quite an accomplishment to get something so intimate and once-painful and intense into words and on paper. Even though there will be polishing and additions, you are on your way! I hope you have a happy little celebration!

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    1. Dear Cynthia, I'm celebrating by taking a watercolor class for four hours today--Saturday--and another four hours next Saturday! Peace.

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  10. If your mom had been stronger and had left her abusive husband, I wonder how that would have changed your path in life. Women then, though, had few alternatives and were ingrained with the teachings of the church and society. However, she raised a brave daughter who questioned authority and would want to be in control of her own destiny.

    Congratulations on finishing your draft. That is another accomplishment that you can add to your very interesting life.

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    1. Dear Arleen, it's so true that women had few alternatives at that time. I learned after her death that Mom had planned on leaving Dad but never felt that she could find a job and support her two children.

      As to questioning authority, I really don't think I did that much. Instead I just didn't do what I was told to do. That vow of obedience was my Waterloo. Peace.

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  11. This is all good news. And I think your writings about the convent are always very interesting and heartfelt.

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    1. Dear DJan, yes, good news. Thanks for your words about my convent writing. Let's hope that once the manuscript is edited and polished an agent will be interested in it. Peace.

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  12. Oh Dee, how different our lives have been. How great that you finished your draft, your stories from your life as a nun are very special and I think a book will find readers.

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    1. Dear Inger, if we all got together--all the bloggers that you and I mutually follow, I bet we'd discover just how different all our lives were and are.

      I so hope you are right about readers being interest in a convent memoir. Peace.

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  13. We do need to rely on that primal instinct, or else...
    Your story is remarkable because in all we are taught, disobedience is way up there at the top of the sin chart. I'm awed at the strength of your character. Looking forward to reading that book.

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    1. Dear Rosaria, thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I seldom thought of disobedience as a sin. I knew I'd made a vow to be obedient to the superior's commands and the rules of the convent but my definition of sin was pretty narrow. Not much fit in that bucket!

      I so look forward to getting the manuscript polished. Then there will be the task of finding an agent and then an editor/publisher. But I do so hope that one day you will be able to read it. Peace.

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  14. With my folks it was--you made your bed, you have to lie in it. Similar saying. But you knew your survival was at stake.
    So glad you finished a first draft!! Congrats! Yes, let it sit for a while and then you can start working on the editing drafts, but that is a huge accomplishment! Hurray! :)

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    1. Dear Rita, yes, a similar saying. I do feel that getting that first draft done of the convent memoir was a "huge accomplishment." It was the hardest, because most personal, writing I've ever done. And it is really a rough form because it's mostly stream of consciousness. Peace.

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  15. Congratulations on finishing that first draft, Dee. I'm sure it will change and grow as you redraft and polish, but whatever its final form it will make truly fascinating reading. You describe so well the anguish you went through as you sought to leave the convent ahead of the flood that marked the late 60s.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, I've never used the word anguish when talking about that time, but actually the word is one that applies. So I'm going to write it on a piece of paper and put it with the pile of notes I'm collecting about what I need to add to the manuscript when I begin to publish it. Thanks, Perpetua. Peace.

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  16. Hi Dee. Like your other commenters, I so enjoy your convent stories and look forward to what may come with the memoir. Congrats on reaching this place in its progress. My view on leaving "the plow" is that this life gives us times of leaving, and they are tragic, in the sense that we become sundered from others, but they do happen. Relationships die. Our weaknesses and those of others sometimes make continuing together impossible. I've gone through this in the context of faith communities, and it is painful. Seeking to turn toward the truth and what is real brings healing. Whenever that can be done, all creation rejoices. I'm glad your journey continues in peace.

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    1. Dear Deanna, your wise words really do epitomize the learning I've experienced throughout my life about relationships. It really is true that for thing there is a season. Peace.

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  17. Your struggle was truly remarkable. For outsiders, non religious at that, it is unimaginable how freeing oneself from the pressure of accepted behaviour must be.

    And to start all over again with the guilt of haven broken ones vow must be doubly difficult. I hope you found peace.

    Being able to write about it must surely have given you a clearer perspective..

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    1. Dear Friko, I did find peace, but that took many years . . . many, many. And yes, writing about those eight and a half years in the convent did give me a clearer perspective, both on why I entered in the first place and why I stayed despite growing distress over the life. Peace.

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  18. The more I read of you convent life, the more I see it as a film script, or a TV serial. I wouldn't be surprised if the book isn't optioned.

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    1. Dear Annie, I suppose all things are possible, but right now all I'm hoping is that I will find an agent who will want to represent the convent memoir. Finding someone to represent my writing is being so difficult that sometimes I feel that I should simply give up on this dream of being published again. But, somehow my spirit always revives and I continue sending out those query letters to agents. Peace.

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  19. I'm so pleased that you've finished the first draft of your book, Dee. I think your story is so interesting, and I really do remember what a big surprise it was when we began to occasionally hear of nuns leaving the convent life behind. It was a little shocking at the time, probably because we knew that the original decision to enter had not been made lightly! I'm glad to learn more about the sequence of events behind your decision, because it's very clear you knew you needed to leave, but hadn't yet learned to respond to your own needs…you've come a long way since then! You have a very rich story. I'm going to be so interested in reading your whole book! ox

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    1. Dear Debra, I hope that the manuscript will turn into a published book. First I need to get that agent. I'll begin to send out query next spring--I hope--when I have the final draft of the memoir completed. Peace.

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  20. You're such a great writer. Congratulations!!

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    1. Dear Keith, thank you. Right now I'm needing to hear that I write well. If only an agent thought the same thing!!!! Peace.

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  21. Glad to hear you completed the first draft, Dee. Phew! Good luck in the next step of revisions.

    Such a complicated decision leaving the order was, and all-the-more so in the time you made it. I think you are a very courageous woman, Dee, and an example to all.

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    1. Dear Penny, thank you for your kind words. When I think of that young woman--still thirteen emotionally--who walked down those halls and asked to leave, I, too, admire her courage. As I've written the many stories for this on-line memoir about my childhood and the convent and even later, I've found myself discovering that indeed I did and I do have courage. For many dismal years I thought I was a real milquetoast kind of person with no back bone. But this blog has helped me appreciate my life and myself. Peace.

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    2. So wonderful to hear that, Dee. You have been courageous and an example, which just keeps growing as your words form on paper. :)

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    3. Dear Penny, thank you. Peace.

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