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.  


  1. This is such a beautiful post. It made me remember when I was young and felt that I needed to be perfect in every way, and how unhappy that need made me, since of course I wasn't. I found walking and later running to put me into that same space of being at peace with myself. Polishing a floor would have done it, too. Thanks for the post, Dee.

  2. Those small tasks really do bring us peace, don't they? I'm so glad you had that experience. I love these posts because you are opening up a world that I know nothing about.

  3. "It was there that the beauty of simply being human enveloped me." What a lovely, quiet & completed feeling that line gave me. You write so beautifully, Dee. You make your reader feel the same emotions that you did.

  4. There is something about not being able to physically engage ourselves in any other way that allows us to let go of that grip we have on thoughts, isn't there? I know that when I am doing something with rhythm and humming sounds I also feel particularly peaceful. This makes me wish I had a floor polisher!

  5. Perfection, as one may view it, can never be met, because we keep upping the standards for ourselves. I often wonder why I wasted so much time in this pursuit, instead of appreciating all the good that was within me.


  6. I LOVE this.
    There's just something so special and magical about letting go and gaining peace :)

  7. This has a rather Mother Teresa feel to it.
    ps opps, she is a Saint :o

  8. Your posts are always so interesting and thought provoking. I think many of us chase perfection because we think it can fulfill us, only to find out it can't. Definitely a blog worth reading.

  9. Ahhh! I spent years chasing perfection, too, and fell waaaay shorter than you ever did or could--LOL! In fact, I don't think I started to quit beating myself up until I hit 40--despite constant, unrelenting proof of my extreme lack of perfection--LOL! I still beat myself up about certain things to this day. Have been spending this year working on forgiveness...of myself and others. I think I am becoming much less of a silent bully. ;)

    I have always found peace in monotony. Whether it was washing dishes, kneading bread, driving on a road trip, sewing, mass producing cards...I think a floor polisher sounds perfect for finding peace. :)

    Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why, when we know we are a grain of sand on the beach, do we want to be the mountain? Why does that make me smile?
    Lovely, lovely post. :):)

  10. I really enjoyed this post, a vivid reminder of how hard it is to be young. (Sure, as Bette Davis said, growing old is not for sissies, either, but most of us have somehow managed to learn a few things by then.)

    Anyway, cheers, thinking of you! :)

  11. Beautifully written and a perfect last sentence. Thank You.

  12. I will forever appreciate the people who prepare spiritual places for services as a result of this post.

  13. Lovely post, Dee. How wonderful to find such peace in the ordinary and to discover beauty in simply being human (and imperfect).

  14. Suberbly written, Dee! You have conveyed the sublime simplicity of these tasks and their mesmerising effect on restoring your inner sense of calm, perfectly!

  15. Your blog and writing has just a great voice, and it is always so full of wise thought. You must write a book!


  16. I too find many monotonous tasks spiritually rewarding and meditative. Ironing is one, sewing and washing dishes are all calming activities for me. I've enjoyed this post and with imagining you in this peaceful and contemplative place.