Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seeds of Doubt Amidst Great Joy

Most of the women in the convent I entered back in 1958 taught in Catholic schools. Each August they traveled by car or train to the mission where they’d spend the upcoming nine months.
            The postulants, I among them, stayed home, living in the novitiate. It housed eighteen postulants, sixteen novices, the novice mistress, and her assistant. On Mondays and Tuesdays, all of us did the laundry for the convent and the adjacent college. On the following weekdays, we attended classes in the novitiate and did our other obediences.
            During the eighteen months I spent in the novitiate, I learned to live with silence so as to be open to the Spirit.  Each evening, however, the schedule allowed for forty-five minutes of recreation. All the postulants and novices talked, laughed, sang, played games, relaxed.
            Everyone practiced silence during our communal meals in Lent and for breakfast throughout the rest of the year. On big feast days, we celebrated, chattering at every meal. Those celebrations were joyous occasions. Much laughter. Delicious food. Glorious singing.
            No postulant was allowed to speak unnecessarily with those nuns—both scholastics and professed—who’d made vows. This was because they might unduly and unwittingly influence our decision about whether to stay or leave.
            Those eighteen months separated us from the world. We saw no television. Read no newspapers or magazines. Listened to no radio. My family could visit only once a year. I could go home to visit only if there were a death in the family or a severe illness. Once a month I could receive and read letters from the “outside world.” The Novice Mistress handed us these letters on the first Sunday of the month and gave us salutation. That is, she gave us permission to talk.
     The task of the Novice Mistress was to teach us how to embrace and live a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability—the five vows that I was preparing to profess. The history of these vows and the meaning of them appealed to me. I wanted to live a life of poverty, to live unencumbered by “stuff.” A life of chastity meant I could devote all my time to serving others. The nuns became my family. The students I would teach would be the children I would never have.
            Conversion of morals meant I was going to open myself to wholeness. Stability meant I was making my vows in this particular Benedictine convent and would stay there for the remainder of my life.
             Eagerly, I embraced the theory of those four vows.
            Obedience, however, was problematic. I willingly obeyed the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the sixth century. But newer rules troubled me. They often seemed foolish. This reluctance to put aside my will watered the seeds of doubt that grew within me for nearly nine years.
            As postulant and novice, I studied the history of the Order, learnt what the vows meant in practical and spiritual terms, discovered the beauty of the liturgy and the Divine Office, and gradually grew in gracefulness. I practiced prayer and work. Ora et labora—the Benedictine motto.
            Prayer was both praise and labor. Work was both labor and prayer. Through the example of the professed nuns, I learned to welcome each moment and baptize it as holy. To live, as the Buddhists say, in mindfulness.
            Through daily silence, work, and prayer, I endeavored to sacramentalize—make holy—the day. It became a praise offering to God. A thanksgiving for Graciousness. Each night when we met in the choir chapel for the last prayer of the day, I felt gathered into the embrace of a God who was giddy with love for me.
                                                                       (To be continued on Thursday . . . )


  1. I love the idea of "a God who is giddy with love for me." I believe God is giddy with love for all of us.

  2. I would never make it. I can't stay quiet for one day, much to my husbands dismay. haha
    I would have issues with that and the obedience thing. I question everything as you have now found out my friend. This was def interesting for me to read. Thank you for sharing.

  3. This is amazing, and so intriguing. I always wondered what it would be like to go through this. Now, I feel as if I can see it through your eyes.

    P. S. Thank you for your comment today. You have such a wonderful and sweet nature. Your comments always make my day.

  4. This is both interesting and informative. You are giving us a fairly intimate overview of what makes up life in a convent and what drove you to, firstly, choose that way of life and, secondly, to elect to leave it. I see it as a privilege that you have entrusted us with this information and look forward to the continuation of your discourse.

  5. I went to a Catholic school and had at least one nun as a teacher. They were a lot less sweet than you were as a postulant.

    There is worldliness and intrigue in convents too.

  6. This is so interesting. I can hardly wait to read more. I never would have made it for many reasons. Primarily, I knew I wanted marriage and children. Oh, and I'm not Catholic, but I still would not have made it.

  7. Great post, Dee. I enjoy learning about your life and all the experiences that make you such a special person! I'm not certain I could pass the 'quiet test', but I do love peace and prayer.

  8. Thanks for sharing more about convent life. It is something I know little about. I have to admit it has never remotely appealed to me, I guess because I knew I'd want children. Yet, I can see the appeal when you write about your experience. I'm looking forward to the rest of the story.

  9. This is so interesting ... so thought-provoking ... It seems always to be about obedience -- within or without a convent!