Last week I shared with you the gift of a cache of letters and documents—eight in all—that I recently discovered in my safety deposit box. Among the documents was the “Permission for Exclaustration,” which you read last week.
Several of you who left comments noted how formal it sounded and that’s true. It was in a sense a legal document that permitted me to leave the convent for a year. I’d professed a vowed commitment to that convent on January 1963 and so this document was a formal recognition of that and a permission to leave the Mount for a year and live beyond the convent itself.
The vow I’d taken—along with poverty, chastity, obedience, and conversion of morals—was one of “stability.” That is, I would be a part of that Community of Benedictines for the rest of my life. I was walking away for a year and so I needed permission to depart the convent and leave the Community.
This week, I’m sharing with you the following letter that Mother Mary Austin wrote to me on December 23, 1966, the day I signed the above document. That was the day before I left the convent.
Late as it is, I cannot resist writing a brief note to you. In my own name and that of the Community, I wish to express my appreciation for the contribution you have made to our apostolic work.
Even though you are leaving us, please be assured that the Mount Benedictines are not breaking their bond with you. You will be included daily in our remembrance of the “absent brethren.”
Know too, Sister, that I have faith in you as a person. I believe that you are trying sincerely to bear witness to Christ in the way that seems best for you. Know also, Sister, that if after you have tried to live outside the convent and find that you would like to return, we will gladly welcome you back. In the interim we will always have a prayerful and loving remembrance of you.
I hope you will find the peace and happiness that you are seeking. God bless you through the coming year. Please remember me and the Community in your prayers.
With love in the Holy Child,
Mother Mary Austin OSB
I don’t remember Mother Mary Austin giving me this letter. My memory of her attitude has always been that she was deeply annoyed with me. And she was annoyed on the evening of December 5 when I’d sought her out and said I needed to leave. But it’s clear from this letter that her annoyance was only momentary and perhaps she felt it only because she was powerless to give me peace from my torments. It was only in myself that I could find the happiness I sought.
I had become, in today’s parlance, somewhat of a zombie. I taught my high school religion and English lit classes enthusiastically. I participated devoutly in the monastic prayer of Benedictines. I listened intently to the students asking for advice.
I did all that was asked of me and yet I felt nothing. I was simply acting the role. It was a performance. I had lost between ten and fifteen pounds; I had no appetite; and I wasn’t sleeping. Truly I walked as the living dead from Thanksgiving on.
So I suspect now that I gave only a cursory glance at the document I signed on December 23 and at this letter from Mother Mary Austin. I’m not sure why I kept them or the other six documents I’ll share with you. I was acting on “autopilot” for many months after leaving and somehow these letters and documents must have held meaning for me even though I never again read them.
Note that at the end of her letter, Mother Mary Austin—of the Order of Saint Benedict (OSB)—asked me to remember her and the Community in my prayers. The truth is that rather quickly I ceased attending Sunday Mass and seldom prayed. I felt I was drowning in despair. I suppose my only prayer was “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord. Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Psalm 130)
I did sorely miss the many friends I’d made in the convent—women who laughed a lot and showed compassion toward all and cared with deep concern about our world. Many of them are dead now, but I’m still in touch with several nuns who became dear to me during those convent years.
I think the truth may be that I was in such anguish for many months after leaving that I drew in on myself—except for when I had to put on a performance of normality at work and with the new friends I’d made at the Loretta Guild for Working Women.
I tell you now that I figuratively died during that time. I existed merely as a puppet, although I don’t know whose hand animated me. Many years passed before—like Pinocchio the marionette—the current of life pulsed within me.
I always think of that when I read newspaper stories about the Magicicada cicadas of eastern North America. They spend most of their life underground. Then after thirteen or seventeen years the mature cicadas emerge and live for several weeks, singing their unique song.
I, too, finally emerged from the dark loam of uncertainty. I left the convent in 1966 between my 30th and 31st year. But I think I did not truly live as a whole person until 1976 when I met Doctor Nimlos, who literally saved my life.
For everything there is a season. Peace.
PS: These past two weeks have not been—for me—the season for blogging. I’ve had two bouts of pink eye, a cold, and a sinus infection. I’m hoping that by next Monday I’ll be back to my routines. Peace.
Photographs from Wikipedia.