Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Hiatus

Dear Friends,
Because life has gotten somewhat complicated recently, I am feeling overwhelmed. Nothing is coming apart in my life nor have the acute rotational episodes of Meniere’s Disease returned. So truly all is well except that I’m feeling too much stress. That adversely affects my health, so I must take care.
            What this comes down to is that I’m going to take a hiatus from blogging for the next couple of weeks. I’m going to stay away from the computer and simply go down into the deep center of  myself and rediscover the peace in which I choose to live.
            So I won’t be posting, nor will I be reading blogs and commenting. I hope to get back in touch on Tuesday, November 1, two weeks from now.
            I wish all of you the peace that surpasses all understanding. And may the coming days be filled with possibilities for you and your loved ones.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Assembly Line

Today, I meant to complete the story of my life in the novitiate by sharing my vow-taking day. But three other stories about those eighteen months came to me this morning—full-blown. Here’s one about another obedience: washing dishes.
            A group of six novices does this task for a week at a time. Then we have two weeks off. Before our first time, the novice mistress gives us three guidelines for doing dishwashing perfectly: No talking. No noise. Treat the dishes as if they are vessels of the altar. Reverently. Gently.            
            Now this is, of itself, noisy work. Dishes clatter; metal doors clang; tray wheels squeak. Even more so when the work is done hurriedly so as to be completed before the bell rings.
            To appreciate the stressfulness of this obedience, picture this:
            At the end of a meal, the nuns use a small piece of bread to wipe off any food left on their plates. After the meal, we six dishwashers remove our scapulars and outer veils and don aprons. We each do, as quickly and noiselessly as possible, one of the six steps of dishwashing.

            That is, we . . .
1)    Gather and stack dirty dishes in refectory. Place stacks on tray. Wheel tray down hall, round corner, down second hall, into scullery.
2)    Fill deep, metal, box-shaped sink with soapy water. Plunge stacked plates, cups, saucers, and desert bowls into soaking water. Remove dishes. Swipe with rag.
3)    Place soapy dishes, one by one, in large, square, metal rack with six-inch sides and latticed bottom. Open side door of rinse “oven.” Push in rinse rack. Pull down door. Release lever to start rinse water. Immediately begin process again until all dirty dishes are washed.
4)    Wait for scalding hot water to do its work. Open “oven” door on other side. Pull out rinse rack. Be careful not to burn hands. Move rack down metal track and around corner to drying area. Wipe dishes while waiting for next rack to rinse.
5)    Wipe dishes. Stack on tray.
6)    Return dishes to refectory. Place clean dishes on tables for use at next meal.
            Making undue noise in the convent was evidence of carelessness—a culpa matter. The first time our group washes dishes, I stand ready at the end of the metal track. I carefully lift a plate from the rack. Wipe it dry. Place it reverently on the tray.
            Aware of passing time, I wipe and stack a second plate. I carelessly clatter it against the first. I kneel to make culpa. I rise. Having lost time, I now grab another dish to wipe. I turn toward the tray and try to place it soundlessly on the stack. It clatters. I kneel. Make culpa. Rise. Clatter. Kneel. Rise. Clatter. Kneel. Rise.
            Baffled by such foolishness, the five other novices mutter, “Stop it! Just wipe the dishes! We’ve got a class.” I put aside my thirst for perfection in all things and begin to clatter until all the dishes are wiped and put away.
            From then on I become a dynamo wiper. Noisy but efficient. Of course, each evening of those seven days I am in the office of the novice mistress making culpa. I’ve discovered that it’s easier to make one culpa a day then to be quiet during that day’s three dishwashing sessions.
            That woman thinks, rightly I suppose, that I’m incorrigible. And yet, she wants me to stay. Go figure.
            And for a laugh about an assembly line, please double-click the following site. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uztA6JCKB4s&feature=related It’s Lucille Ball’s comedy routine I thought of each time I wiped dishes. I could hardly keep from laughing whenever I remembered her and Ethel. The only thing that could have made the routine funnier is Lucy making culpa!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Saintly Suffering

In your comments on Tuesday’s posting, several of you expressed puzzlement as to why the convent didn’t give me permission to leave when I asked. Please let me explain: I had not taken final vows, so I didn’t need permission from the canonical representative in Rome nor from the local bishop nor from the convent prioress.
            I could have left at any time simply by saying to the novice mistress, “I want to leave on Tuesday. Please give me permission to call my parents so they can come and get me.” Had I been decisive in my desire to leave, I would have been home the following Tuesday.
            I wasn’t. My message to the novice mistress was ambivalent: “I’m not sure I should be here.” That of course opened the door for her assuring me that my place was in the convent.
            The truth is that my theology was so flawed that I’d embraced the mistaken notion that God sent difficult situations, fatal illnesses, chronic pain, mental anguish to those He especially loved so as to forge them into saints. As I’ve said before in these postings, I wanted to be a saint, so I expected to suffer. 
             In fact, I yearned for suffering to as to achieve my goal—sainthood.
            This thirst became clear the day I delivered an evening meal to a nun I both loved and respected. She had been my mentor in college. Even then she’d suffered from heart problems. When I came into her infirmary room, she carefully edged herself into a seated position. I felt overwhelmed by tenderness for her. To me, she was sanctity personified. 
            As she began to eat, I forgot the stricture that said novices were not to speak with professed nuns and blurted, “The reason you're so holy is because you suffer so much!”
            She looked at me as if I’d spoken gibberish. “That’s foolishness, Sister Innocence.”
            “It can’t be. We hear about martyrs suffering all the time. And they’re saints.” The fact seemed indisputable to me. Suffering made saints.
            “Sister Innocence, suffering in and of itself is worthless.”
            “But . . .”
            “No ‘buts.’ It’s not the suffering. It’s how you choose to live with it if you can’t make it go away.”
            “But . . .”
            “Believe me suffering has no intrinsic value. Who would choose to suffer?”
            “Well, I would if it'd make me a saint.”
            She took my hand in hers. “Seek life, Dolores. Always seek life.”
            She tired then and I left her room. Had I listened to her, I would have soon left the convent. But instead I thought that by staying—despite suffering persistent, malignant, incessant doubtI might become like her—a living, walking, breathing saint.
            I trusted the wisdom of the novice mistress. I mistrusted the words of my mentor. To compound these two mistakes, I never listened to my own wisdom. Instead, I stayed and made first vows. My posting on Saturday will be about the deep contentment of that day.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Was It Worth It?

As both postulant and novice, I keenly embraced the Benedictine way of life that for fifteen centuries had been centered in prayer. Being beckoned to pray the Divine Office seven times a day was, for me, always, a joy. Chanting those ancient psalms, bowing, kneeling, raising my voice in praise and thanksgiving, petition and sorrow for myself and all people everywhere hollowed me. I became One with all creation.
            And yet. And yet. The embrace was not wholehearted. Doubts niggled me.
            I missed simple things: Stretching out on a couch. Leaving the light on and reading into the early hours of another day. Wearing jeans. Devouring the newspaper to learn what was happening in the Cold War and how the Yankees were faring.

A college picnic when I was a senior—a few months before entering the convent.

            I missed, too, going into a public library and selecting historical novels to read. Watching television comedy shows. Discovering if any new comedians had come forward to take the place of the magical team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco. Talking with my mother about the conversation I’d overheard on the streetcar. Giggling as my brother imitated Elvis Presley. Going to baseball games.
            I missed looking up information in the World Book Encyclopedia. Receiving letters from home more than once a month. Visiting with my old classmates to view photographs of their weddings and first children.
            I sorely missed making my own decisions about what to do with my day.
            More than anything, however, I missed sitting with Arthur by the wide brook on our farm as it rushed unhesitatingly toward the lure of the Missouri River. Listening then with a heart open to the great Mystery that lay within and beyond me.
             Often during those eighteen months in the novitiate I wondered if the prayer life and the life I’d relinquished balanced one another out. In simple terms: Was it worth it?
            Three times I asked to leave. Three times I was told that if anyone ever had a vocation it was I. Three times I stuffed my doubts and longings into the inner pocket of my psyche and embraced again the Benedictine life.
            I spent as much time as I could in the college and the choir chapels trying to find the deep center of myself where Divinity dwelt. In silence. In solitude. In Oneness. 
             Trying to divine the way.
            I hadn’t made any vows and yet I was inexorably moving toward them. After the eighteen months would come the three-year commitment of first vows. And then, four and a half years after entering, would come final vows. Perpetual vows. Vows for time and for eternity.
            That scared me. Did I want this life forever? Did I never again want to sit in an ice-cream parlor, enjoying a hot-fudge sundae? Did I never again want to lie heedlessly on the grass, staring up through a maple's leafy branches at a meandering cumulus cloud? Did I want always to be told what to do and when and how to do it? Did I want to have to live on mission with nuns whose presence I hadn’t chosen?
            I knew, even then, just how lucky I was to sit and work and pray next to a novice who shared with me the same sense of the ridiculous. She and I could bet on and giggle at the chutzpah of a grasshopper trying to bound from the mown grass to the top of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima as she stood on her stone plinth in the side yard of the novitiate.
            She and I laughed our way through those eighteen months, making culpa often, saying innumerable Our Fathers, doing extra obediences, chuckling even while we tried to weed out our flaws and faults.
            We got in trouble together because so much—whether in the choir chapel or class or laundry—tickled our funny bones. We met on the same wavelength.
            So there I was—longing to be anywhere but in the convent, laughing at the foolishness of some of the things we did, and lamenting my own waywardness.
            And yet smitten by prayer.
            That time was, for me, a holy muddle.         

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Novice Tablewaiting

The front of the college chapel where I polished the floors
and spent considerable time while in the novitiate.

As a novice, I served meals to the community. I probably tablewaited about thirteen weeks during my novitiate year. I was supposed to wait on the head table of the prioress for two of those thirteen weeks.
            I didn’t.
            Instead, I served only one meal.
            Here’s why.
            Picture my first day. I’m serving the prioress and her six administrative helpers. They sit facing the other nuns, who are seated at three vertical rows of tables.
            First I wheel the spacious serving tray with its bowls of food and coffee pot down the long aisle between two of these rows. I’m shaking nervously. Standing behind them, I reach between the seven nuns to place the hot food on the table. They pass the bowls and serve themselves.
            Sound engulfs the silence of that cavernous room. Silverware clatters. Chair legs rasp the wooden floor. Wind soughs through the open windows. But no one speaks for they have not been given salutation.
            This din of speechless sound diverts me. For a moment I gaze at the morning sunlight warming the courtyard cannas.
            The prioress clears her throat. Quickly, I pick up the hot coffee pot from my serving tray. I almost drop it because my hand is trembling so. I reach down for the her cup, stand behind her, pour the steaming hot coffee, and shakily place the cup next to her right hand.
            Without mishap.
            I’ve done it! I can do this. I can! I can!
            I move to the left and reach forward for the second nun’s cup. She seems old to me for I’m only twenty-two—my body supple, my face smooth. She wears wrinkles and thick glasses. She’s slight and bent.
            I stand directly behind her, hold the cup near the back of her head, and begin to pour her coffee.
            Just then, I hear a western meadowlark through the open windows. Its fluty whistle draws my attention toward the courtyard again. For a moment only, I forget what I’m doing.
            That’s when it happens.
            I pour steaming hot coffee down her back.
            She breaks silence and yelps. Who would have thought that such an elderly nun could shriek so loudly?
            Her chair topples over. Serving dishes teeter. Food spills onto the pristine white tablecloth. Silverware clanks. An empty cup tumbles onto the floor and shatters.
            I stand poleaxed.
            I’ve burnt a nun.
            I Have. Done. This.
            I’m. Out. Of. Here. For. Sure.
            The prioress immediately says, “Praise be Jesus and Mary,” thus giving the other nuns permission to talk.
            The nuns answer, “Now and forever. Amen.” Then they begin to chatter among themselves. The room buzzes with astonishment over what I’ve done.
            I want to run down the long aisle between two rows of tables—my veil flapping behind me, my knees churning—and hide in the novitiate closet among the brooms, dust cloths, mops, and buckets.
            Instead, I clumsily try to swipe the liquid off the nun’s habit. She moves sideway to evade my fumbling hands. I kneel awkwardly before the prioress to make culpa for my carelessness. She sends me to the kitchen to get rags and mops for cleaning the table and floor.            
            Never again did I serve the prioress. I was an accident waiting to happen.
            When I made culpa to the novice mistress that afternoon, she sent me to the college chapel to consider my faults.
            The truth is, I spent a lot of time there while in the novitiate. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Peace at the Deep Center of Myself

As a postulant and then a novice, I had several convent obediences. The ones I remember best are sorting the college and convent laundry twice a week; cleaning a second-floor lavatory three times a week; waiting on tables and working in the scullery once every three weeks; taking meals to the nuns in the infirmary on my assigned weeks; and assisting the sacristan daily with her work in the college chapel.
            The sacristan happened to be the same nun who had given me my first convent haircut. We both liked and respected one another. I knew that the butch haircut was her way of trying to put the vow of obedience into perspective for me. Also, I think, she wanted me to stop trying to stand out so as to win the love of others.
            Early in my convent years, I set myself the task of becoming a saint so as to assure that love. I thought, quite erroneously I now know, that saints were perfect in every way. So I aimed for perfection.
            But always that inner voice counseling rebellion tripped me up. No one asked me to leave because I rebelled quietly. Often within myself. I never complained out loud but I muttered within.
            No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t measure up to the standard I’d set for myself. And the truth is that I, myself, not the convent set this impossible standard. Being an assistant sacristan for a year kept me in the convent despite my failure to become a saint. It was in the sanctuary that I found peace from my tormenting mind.
            The sacristan’s job was an important one. She took care of the vessels of the altar—the chalice, the monstrance, the paten. She saw to the washing and ironing of the altar clothes—those that draped the altar and those used within the Eucharistic Liturgy. She darned and aired the vestments worn by the priest. In addition she arranged splendid vases of flowers for the main altar and the two side altars.

The interior of the college chapel.
            My obedience as her assistant was to help prepare the main altar for services. I also dusted both the numerous incised, marble columns that supported the altar railing and the fourteen carved Stations of the Cross that lined the side walls of the nave. Most importantly, however, I ran a polisher on the marble floor of the sanctuary and the thick linoleum aisles of the nave.
            I’ve never been particularly strong physically, but that didn’t matter for this obedience. The polisher was a dream to operate. Lightweight and efficient. I ran it once or twice a week. Its motion—back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the smooth floor—mesmerized me.
            While polishing, I could feel peace take root in the deep center of being. The silence of the Universe inundated me and I felt profoundly satisfied with where and who I was. In and of itself, polishing that marble floor became prayer. 
            Through many years, thousands of young women who attended the attached college went to Mass in that church. In the summer, the nuns teaching on various missions in the Midwest returned to the Mother House and prayed there.
            All that prayer. All that graciousness. All that wholeness and holiness had left its mark.
            It was there that I let go—for a little while—of my need to be a saint. To be different from everyone else. To be special.
            It was there that the beauty simply of being human enveloped me.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Another Gift

Life in the convent returned to normal the day after the ceremony in which eighteen of us received the habit, our white novice veil, and our new name. That is, except for one thing—the haircut.
            All of us had not had our hair cut for six months. Thick and long hair could bulge out the paraphernalia on our head and the coif fit so tightly that we couldn't let the hair trail down our neck.   
            Picture this on top of the bundled hair: the white, close-fitting head covering shaped like a surgeon’s cap; the two top corners of the starched coif pinned to that cap; the strings of the starched forehead ban tied around our head; and the white veil draped over all this and secured with a hatpin.  
            If someone had a cowlick, as I did, all these layers of cloth could truly bring on a headache. And yet I resisted that haircut out of sheer waywardness. Perverseness. Contrariness. Or maybe I just wanted to draw attention to myself. I don’t know.
            What I do know is that seventeen novices went into the office of the assistant novice mistress, sat down, and had their haircut.
            Via one of them, I sent her the following message: “Thank you very much but I don’t want a haircut.”
            I received back the following order: “Get in here. Now.”
            So shortly before we were to go to chapel to pray Matins, I ambled nonchalantly into her office. She motioned me to take off my headgear and place it on the table. After I did so, she invited me to sit down. “Sister Innocence,” she asked, quite amiably, “do you think you’ll make first vows in a year and become a scholastic?”
            “I don’t know. It’ll depend on whether the nuns think I have a vocation.”
            “I think today we have the first indicator for why they might blackball you.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Resisting having your hair cut doesn’t bode well for taking the vow of obedience.”
            “Now I’m going to cut your hair shorter than anyone else’s.”

              I said nothing, fearing the worse as I watched long locks fall to the floor. When she’d finished, the assistant novice mistress said, "Remember, Sister Innocence, pride cometh before the fall." Then she directed me to stand before the mirror and look at my haircut. I kept my eyes closed while preparing myself to see a shorn head.            
               Finally I looked.
               The one-inch-high hair on the top of my head stood straight up. She’d given me a “butch” haircut.
            Suddenly I began to smile. Broader. And broader. And broader. For much of my life I’d thought I was adopted because no one saw any resemblance in me to other members of my family.
            And yet. And yet. Here I was with this butch haircut and . . . I looked just like my brother.
            I wasn’t adopted. Hurray and hallelujah. I belonged with my family even though I didn’t resemble any of them.
            The assistant novice mistress stood bemused by my beaming face. Just then the bell rang for Matins. Quickly, I reassembled the headgear, skewered it with the hatpin, and turned to thank her for the haircut. With joy blossoming within, I opened her office door to leave. I'd never seen anyone look so dumbfounded.
            Gleefully, I raced out of the novitiate, across the driveway, and into the convent basement. Walking as fast as I could, I mounted the steps and hurried down the main hall to the chapel. No running. As quietly as possible, I entered the chapel just as Matins began.
            I’d need to kneel before the novice mistress the next day to make culpa for being late. But this didn’t faze me. If I hadn’t resisted the haircut, I never would have known I wasn’t adopted. As the book title says, “O ye jigs and juleps!”

Credit for Photo: 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Becoming a Novice

After being in the convent six months as a postulant, I received the habit and became a novice. Before the ceremony, each of us who’d entered together in June 1958 picked three names as possibilities for what we’d be called as nuns. I picked Mariah, Shawn, and Blain.
            The novice mistress nixed all three.
            “You’re not a wind,” she said about the first name. “You’re here to stay.”
             She felt that Shawn was too masculine for my personality.
            Blain reminded her of chilblains and ice. “You’re not a swelled-up sore and you’re not icy either.” She shook her head at the image.
            I simply couldn’t think of any other name that hadn’t already been taken by the more than six hundred nuns in the convent. So I told her to give me whatever name she thought suited me. I really didn’t care. After all, a rose by any other name and all that.
            On January 1, 1959, I received the habit and my new name in an ancient ceremony steeped in ritual and beauty. Each postulant knelt before the bishop. He blessed our clothing. We then went into a side room and disrobed.
            Several professed nuns stood by, ready to help us dress. We’d already memorized the prayer to say as we kissed and then donned each article of clothing: black serge habit, leather belt, scapular, small skullcap, coif, forehead band, and white veil. All was solemn and sacred. I felt I stood within and on holy ground.

Here I am on the day I received the habit and the white veil of a novice.
On my head is a white wreath of celebration.

            Clothed in our new Benedictine habits, the eighteen of us processed back into the sanctuary where the bishop sat in front of the altar. One by one we knelt before him. He gave us our religious name and blessed us. For time and for eternity I was to be called Sister Innocence.
            After the ceremony, the nuns served a lavish meals for the novices and our parents. Mom and Dad and I laughed and shared stories of our lives—theirs at home, mine in the convent. I told them about the names I’d originally chosen and how surprised I was by the name Innocence.           
            My parents had their own name story to share. The previous Sunday, they’d brought my Christmas gifts to the novitiate: a long flannel nightgown sprigged with pink rose buds and the book Time Without Number by the Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan. The novice mistress put the gifts in a cabinet and then said, “Mrs. Ready, Dolores is having a hard time finding a name to be called as a nun. May I tell you the name I’ve chosen for her and see what you think of it?”
            “Say that again. Slowly.”
            “Euchareena. I think it’s the perfect name. She seems to have a special devotion to the Eucharist. Besides that, the word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’ and she’s filled with gratitude.  What do you think?”
            “I’d like to be able to pronounce her name,” Mom commented.
            Dad finished the story while Mom shook her head over the name’s absurdity. “She didn’t know if your mother was kidding or not,” he said. “I told her that Euchareena seemed too old-maidish for you. Your mother agreed.”
            Thank heavens for mothers and fathers who speak their mind.
            Despite my indifference to the name I was to receive, I wouldn’t have liked Euchareena. To me, it sounded like a squat piece of worm-holed furniture. Or a rotund gourd with bass strings that croaked like a frog.  
            I didn’t understand why the novice mistress thought Innocence fitted me, but truthfully anything would be better than Euchareena. Many years later a co-worker told me I was “without guile.” Maybe that novice mistress saw in me something I hadn’t recognized or realized. I know only that I came to love the name.