Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Preparing for First Vows—Part One

Today, let’s visit the last week of December 1959. I’m preparing to take first vows. My parents came yesterday with my Christmas gift—a book of poetry by Gertrude von Le Fort. The Novice Mistress presented it to me just this morning as I began my vow retreat.
            I reread, over and over, “Prologos” from Hymns to the Church. I cannot move beyond that first poem, which reflects my own melancholy. I’m not sure why I’m uneasy with taking vows. Three times in the past eighteen months I’ve spoken with the Novice Mistress about leaving the convent. Three times she’s assured me that if anyone has a vocation I do.
            Yet why this dis-ease?
            In a few minutes the community will gather for prayer. I sit in the choir chapel awaiting them. The stained-glass windows cast their jeweled light on the book lying open on my lap. Perhaps, I think, this poem, which touches the ache within me, offers the key to my release from doubt about the taking of vows.


                        Lord, a dream of Thee lies on my soul,
but I cannot reach Thee for all my gates are barred!

I am besieged as by armies, I am locked in my everlasting solitude.
My hands are broken and my head is bruised in trying to escape.
All the images of my spirit have become shadows.
For no ray falls from Thee into the depth of my loneliness.
It is lighted only by the moonbeams of my soul.

How did you come in to me, O voice of my God?
Is it only the cry of wild birds over the waters?
I have carried you to all the mountains of hope,
but they too are but my own hilltops.
I have gone down to the waters of despair,
but they are not deeper than my own heart.
My love is like a stairway in the soul—
but ever and forever I am only in myself.

I can find no rest in my many chambers,
the stillest of them is like a single cry.
The last of them is yet but an antechamber,
The holiest of them is like an awaiting.
The darkest of all yet like a song of day!

The words that leap from page to heart are “My love is like a stairway in the soul—but ever and forever I am only in myself.” I’m sure there’s a clue there. I gaze at the chapel windows. Those on one side illustrate the life of Benedict of Nursia, whom historians call the Father of Western Monasticism. Those on the other side reflect his Rule for communal living. That ancient treasure has guided the lives of innumerable women and men since he first wrote it in the early sixth century.
Those windows prompt me to ask the questions that might guide me through the quagmire of myself. “Why did you enter, Dee?” “What have you found here in this monastery in Atchison, Kansas?” “How does it differ from what you were seeking?” “Are you content here?” In the next two postings, I’ll share with you what I discovered while on retreat all those long years ago.
Some of you have expressed amazement at the memory I have of this life in the monastery. I tell you, I, too, am amazed, but I suspect that the very life I lived then makes memory palpable. As you know from past postings, in prayer, peace pervaded my innards. Despite that, I lived constantly with the stress of resisting communal life. A battle waged within. That stress, I think, is the reason I so well remember those long-ago days and the conundrum of them.
                                (Continued on Thursday . . . )

gates by Simon Howden/moon by Dr. Joseph Valks/castle by prozac1

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Daily Life in the Novitiate—Part Three

Benedict of Nursia—born circa 480, died in 543—realized his vocation in a cave at Subiaco, Italy. He founded his first monastery in the beginning years of the sixth century. Scholastica, Benedict's twin sister, began a convent for women shortly after the first monasteries were established.
            Thus, for nearly 1,500 years, Benedictines around the world have been chanting the Divine Office and keeping alive the light of learning.  In 1852, three Bavarian nuns braved the tempestuous storms of the North Atlantic; made port; settled at St. Mary's, Pennsylvania; and established a school for young children.

          Five years later, a group of these intrepid pioneers sailed up the Mississippi to establish a a convent in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Six years passed while they set down roots. Then, in 1863, the abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Atchison, Kansas, invited them to come and teach the children of this frontier river town. 
          Seven of the Minnesota nuns traveled by train down to Missouri, crossed the river, established a convent, and began to teach children from both the neighboring farms and the burgeoning town. Sixty years later, in 1923, they opened a college for women. 
           It was that college from which I graduated in May 1958. It was that Atchison convent I entered a month later. There, I praised the God who I believed had beckoned me to the life of a nun. Back, back, back, I could trace the path that had led to that chapel in which I prayed.
            In her comment on Tuesday’s blog, Susan said she found herself wanting “to be a part of that time where focusing on God was a full time involvement.” I’d never before thought of that time in that way. But the words ring true to me. Daily I focused all my attention on God. And if, today, I view God and life differently from then, that does not negate the purity of my intent when I was twenty-two.
           Yet always, during those eighteen months in the novitiate, a thread of indecision ran through the tapestry of my intent. In my next two or three postings, I'll share with you the doubts that riddled me as the idealism of my youth warred with the reality that was the convent.
            The truth I share with you today is that, despite everything, each evening at Compline I let go of doubt and settled into the peace that spanned those fifteen centuries from Benedict at Subiaco, just forty miles from Rome and the Tiber, to Dee Ready in Atchison, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Missouri River. That centuries-old peace permeated the very words I chanted to end the day.
                                                                       (Continued on Tuesday . . .)

PS: If you'd like to see one of the stained-glass windows of the choir chapel,
click here. It will take you to the convent web site. 
The window on that page depicts Scholastica and Benedict at prayer.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Daily Life In the Novitiate—Part Two

As a postulant and then as a novice, I prayed the Divine Office. Psalms made up the basic structure of this ancient prayer, which we chanted, in Latin, several times a day—at Prime, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Matins, and Compline.
            To pray we sat or stood in stalls in the choir chapel. The straight-backed stalls had a narrow, separating partition on each side. Each stall’s seat was hinged so it could be lifted upright to provide more room for standing.
            A small, freestanding kneeler sat on the floor in front of each seat. I kept my diurnal, from which I chanted the Office, as well as my missal, used during daily mass, in the cubbyhole of my assigned stall.
            Four stepped tiers of these stalls stood on both sides of the chapel. The nuns on one side faced the nuns on the other as we prayed. We chanted the psalm verses antiphonally—first one side, then the other.
            Stained-glass windows depicted the life and rule of our founder—Saint Benedict of Nursia. These exquisite works of art cast jeweled light onto the satiny wood of the choir stalls and the gleaming polished floor.
         A wide aisle ran down the chapel’s length, separating the tiers on each side. I often knelt in that polished aisle during Compline and, with others, made public culpa. I’d bow my head and silently ask forgiveness from the community for diminishing the praise offered that day to God. This happened when I—

·      Giggled. A fellow postulant with whom I shared the same sense of humor sat next to me in chapel. Little things set us off, like the way a nun sneezed or even the way she blew her nose.
·      Banged the kneeler.
·      Mangled a Latin word.
·      Chanted off-key. My ear simply didn’t recognize pitch.     
            When all of us were in good voice, the chanted prayer lifted our hearts beyond things like public culpa, giggling, and noisy kneelers. Our bodies cast weariness aside. Peace anointed us.

                 That is the truest thing I can say—that the choir chapel was a place of peace. For nearly a hundred years before I entered, women had prayed there. Their praise had become Presence.
            Whenever I was in that chapel, I could feel the Oneness of all those who had gone before me, all those who would come after, and all those with whom I then lived. While in that chapel I became One with All Creation. For this I will be grateful the whole of my life.
                                                                     (To be continued on Saturday. . .)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Daily Life in the Novitiate—Part One

The convent I entered on Thursday, June 26, 1958, still stands. The nuns there continue to reverently live the Benedictine motto of “Ora et Labora.” They pray and work, reaching out to their community and to the world.
           Back in the summer of 1963, the convent celebrated its centennial. Sister Chrysostom, a fine musician, wrote the words and music to a glorious song we sang that day. Its first stanza proclaimed our jubilation.

The Lord had given us a song to sing.
From the summit of our mountain we will sing it.
The glory of His praises, the glory of His praises,
who has shaped the overflowing years,
the overflowing years to peace.
Let there be laughter in the songs we sing.
Let it be measured to the lilt of prayer,
old in its beauty and in beauty new,
with gladness fair.

Much has changed and yet much abides as the convent now nears its celebration of one hundred and fifty years. The nuns are still drawn to a celibate life of service. And they remain steadfast in the living of their vows.
            So here am I back in June of 1958. Twenty-two years old, just graduated from college. An idealist who longs to serve others by becoming a nun. As I said in last Saturday’s posting, I felt giddy with the possibility of embracing this life. 
            For last Saturday’s posting, Rita commented that I’d attempted to explain “the sensation of being nothing and everything simultaneously.” Young and impressionable, I felt I’d experienced the Oneness of being fully Me while simultaneously becoming totally Other. In a real sense, I lost myself. It's why I entered a year later. Through prayer I hoped to become both Self and Selfless. Does this make any sense? Probably not. Yet it was what my idealistic soul sought. 
            In another comment, Manzanita reflected the romanticism of my youth. She said about herself: “I had raw yearnings for something to satisfy my soul, be it the unrequited adulation of a troubadour or wandering the world in a saffron robe with my beggar’s bowl. I wanted to make a difference in the world, I wanted to save. I longed to be one with God.” That is an apt description of who I was. I wanted to meld the idealism of Don Quixote with the selflessness of Philip Neria saint who appreciated laughter.

        For the first six months after entering back in 1958, I was called a postulant. During that time, I wore black lisle hose and oxfords, a pleated black skirt that fell a little below my knobby knees, a long-sleeved black blouse, a white-collared black cape that fell to my thin wrists, and a black veil sewn to a comb anchored in my flyaway hair.
            As a postulant, I lived in the novitiate. A paved road separated this rectangular, two-story, brick building from the main convent where the scholastics and professed nuns lived. I attended classes on the first floor of the novitiate. In the office of the Novice Mistress I made culpa. That is, I admitted some flaw or fault—like losing a straight pin or talking while doing dishes.
             I slept in one of the second-story dorms of the novitiate. The rule allowed no speaking in those dorms or in the halls and bathrooms. Both day and night, I practiced custody of the eyes by not staring at whatever or whomever I passed. The hope was that by doing so, I’d center my mind on spiritual things.
             Each morning, a bell summoned me to the choir chapel. During the remainder of the day that same bell announced meals, classes, prayer, and recreation. In the evening it rang for Compline, the final prayer of the day.
            Afterward, the eighteen postulants, I among them, and the sixteen novices returned—in silence and in single file—to the novitiate. We untried postulants would live in the novitiate for eighteen months; the sixteen novices had already been there for a year. They now wore the habit and a white veil. They would be making first vows in six months.
            In profound silence, we climbed the steps to the second-story dorms—one for the postulants and one for the novices. We each filled a basin with water and set the ceramic bowl on our individual bureaus. All sound was muted: the tread of house slippers, the drawing of cubicle curtains, the finding of a comfortable position on the lumpy mattress. When all was still, the Novice Mistress turned off the light. During the summer all of us were asleep before the sun set.

            The next morning the routine began again. The bell rang. We drew the curtains around our beds, washed in the basin’s water, emptied it, donned our clothes, and began the day.
            My life was one of obedience steeped in prayer, work, and silence with a goodly dollop of laughter. Living in that convent, I knew moments of lighthearted camaraderie and profound felicity. I also knew hours of doubt and loneliness. 

                                                                       (To be continued on Thursday . . .)

PS: In reading other blogs, I’ve noted that when a reply to a comment appears on that blog, a thread is formed. A conversation begins. There’s an exchange to which other readers can be privy. A fellow blogger helped me reach this realization and I’m grateful to her for pointing it out. So beginning with today’s posting, I’ll respond to comments here on my own blog instead of individually by e-mail or on the commentator’s blog. Hope you find this engaging!

The photographs are all from the following site:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Invited into Oneness

In preparation for the story of my taking first vows, I’d like to reprint four postings that may have been written before you began reading this blog. The first of them explains what led up to my entering the convent. The other three present general information about life in the novitiate. 
             You’ve now read several stories specific to the novitiate. I hope these “old” postings will put the specific ones in context.
            Following these four reprints,  I plan to end my novitiate postings with the taking of first vows. After that, I’ll post stories about my growing up, my growing older, and my coming home to myself. I'll  intersperse these with stories about my life as a scholastic and as a professed nun.  Today, let's begin our countdown to the five vows I took on January 1, 1960.

The convent I entered has stood high on a hill in a river town for nearly one hundred and fifty years. When I mention this convent, strangers often ask, “Why’d you enter?”  “Why’d you leave?” “Why’d you stay so long?” “Did you ever laugh?” “What was it like?” “Do you miss it?” “Are you sorry you entered?” “Are you sorry you left?”
            Those last two questions are easy to answer: I neither regret entering, nor leaving. The others require explanation that will come in future postings. Today, let’s talk about why I entered.
            My family never encouraged me to think about entering. Nor in sixteen years of Catholic schooling had I ever felt drawn to a nun’s life. Their habit looked hot for summer wear. Their shoes old-maidish. Convents had no sofas or easy chairs. No going barefoot. Always being in the company of another nun when leaving the grounds.
            It seemed to me—when I thought of that life at all—to be too much togetherness and no coziness. No comfort.
            I was used to my own creek and spending long summer days there. Listening to the stream’s burble. Dangling barefoot toes in water cascading over strewn rocks. Feeling the sun’s warmth on my eyelids. I liked leisure. It seemed to me that nuns had none.
            On April 10, 1957, the college students elected me student body president. I was a junior, majoring in English and minoring in mathematics, history, and philosophy. On that April day, all the supposed negatives of convent life became as nothing to me. I had, some would say, a transcendent experience.
            I came into the math class that day ready for differentials. I sat down, opened my textbook, and settled my mind on increments.
            Suddenly I knew Light. It inundated the spaces between my pores. Light within light. Above me. Below me. Before me. Behind me. Within me. Through me. 
            Yet there was no me, only Oneness. I was one within Light. Light was one within me. We two became One.
            I may have breathed during those fifty class minutes, but breath wasn’t necessary. Lost in Light, I felt no passage of time. It lost itself in Now. Nowness dwelt within and about me. Nowness became All within All.
            The next thing I knew was a tap on my shoulder. A voice saying, “Dee, are you all right?” Then the tap became a shaking. The voice more urgent. “Dee? Dee? Are you okay?”
            It was then I breathed. A shudder. I emerged into the day slowly as if from deep sleep. All movement, all moment had stilled within me. I had no desire to regain momentum. I welcomed timeless silence.
            Her voice persisted.  My eyes focused and I saw my friend’s concerned face. Awareness pressed upon me. I was in a math classroom. I was a junior in college. It was the 10th of April. 1957. Wednesday.
            Yet all had changed.  
            As we walked down the hall, Barb asked, “Dee, do you need to go to the infirmary? Your face’s flushed.” I assured her all was well. I needed only to walk on the campus and find breath again.
            My senses seemed finely tuned. The shimmer of sun on tulip yellow. The richness of pine-scented loam. The sough of wind riffling ginkgo leaves. And on my lips the taste of gratitude. “Thank you. Thank you for Mystery.”
            The next day I asked Sister Imogen, the college dean, what I needed to do to enter the convent that stood next to the college.            
            A year later, after graduation, I entered. Giddy, I walked with the other eighteen postulants into the refectory. There I witnessed the beaming faces of novices and scholastics. I wanted to shout, “I’m here! I’m home!” The Light shone bright within me. I felt beautiful that day. I knew Joy.
                                                            (To be continued on Tuesday . . .)

The photo is from the following site:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Homeless Angel—Part Two

As promised, today’s posting is by a guest—Elisa Hirsch. It is a continuation of her Thanksgiving story about a time in her life when she trusted herself to the future. Tomorrow will witness the publishing of her memoir about her son Zeke's death and the grief that followed. In this poignantly honest memoir, she candidly shares her sorrow, her confusion, her anger, her despair, and the journey she and her husband took to forgiveness and renewal.
            Elisa is gifted. At the end of her story today is a link that will take you to a video on YouTube. In that video, she doesn’t just play the violin. She makes music. And her husband, Cade, does the same with the guitar. I met Elisa through the blogging world in late July of this year. Since then I've laughed long and hard when she recounts the antics of her children. Elisa, her memoir, her blog, and her music have gifted me in the past four months. This Thanksgiving I feel gratitude for that gift. It spans the distance between her home and mine.  

A Homeless Angel—Part Two
Elisa Hirsch

 I didn't want to go home. My shift wasn't supposed to end for a few hours. As I thought of that, I remembered a book my boss had asked me to read. So, before leaving, I put the book ("Illusions") in my pocket, got into my car and drove around. Everyone's lights beamed. I saw them through bright windows. They laughed and ate big mouthfuls of potatoes and yams. I wondered for a second, what it would be like to visit with them, or even with my own family if we could erase the past weeks. I wondered if the rich saints in the windows would embrace me like the homeless man had.
                I turned and went a few blocks over to where the rooftops sagged and the paint needed refinishing. The houses were small and faded with age from owners who had no money to fix them up. I pulled my car to a stop, clicked off my lights and watched one family. Tears filled my eyes. They had nothing—NOTHING. I knew because of the old furniture, crappy clothes and how skinny they were. Yet they danced around the front room and laughed. I couldn't keep from sobbing through my tears. I'd been wrong to think they had nothing. I'd been terribly mistaken because that family had love.
                As I sat there, it was a bit funny because for the first time in months, I felt peace, all because I became a peeping Tom. I no longer wanted to be the one in the window. It was nice being on the outside. I learned from their joy and happiness. I could dip into a thousand memories and none would have the power to hurt me.
                I drove around awhile longer. Slowly everyone's lights started going out, one by one until darkness overtook the city. I thought of driving to the mountains, but who knows what kinds of animals lurked there at night. That's when I decided to go to Sugarhouse Park.
                Lampposts doted the pathway there, reminding me of Narnia. A huge canopy of trees hid a tiny stream which ran through a clearing and past a long, bony bench.
                The year before, I'd go there with an ex-boyfriend. We'd somehow show up at the same time. We'd sit on that bony bench and talk about all sorts of things, for hours, even though we hadn't planned on meeting there at all. After a while we'd forget our problems and laugh together. That was before the night when he gave me his dad's ring—before I realized he was doing drugs.
                I dusted snow from the bench. When I sat down, things didn't feel right though, like death watched me from the shadows and peace couldn't stay. My heart missed something, more than Thanksgiving windows could offer. I wouldn't admit what it was, so I pulled out "Illusions," the book I kept in my coat pocket.
                I opened to one of the first pages and read the marked section. Each word affected me. It talked of a crystal river where strange creatures clung to the bottom. I stopped reading and looked at the stream rushing past. It glimmered under the lampposts and I felt as if inside the book.
                I read on. Every creature clung hard, but one bravely hoped for more. It wanted to journey along the river, although that meant letting go and leaving everyone else behind. So with courage as its only baggage, the valiant creature let go, and ended up finding adventure and himself, down the rushing waters.
                I shut the book and closed my eyes. Maybe that's how I could find my worth. I wouldn't be searching for it, I would be experiencing it, moving past the judgment and the criticism from people at church and the kids from school.  I would be wonderful like that homeless man, finding my worth in the unexpected.  I looked up at the night sky.  As long as I had God, maybe everything would be okay.
            Thus the journey began, before I left with Cade (my husband for over ten years now) and became a homeless street musician in Hawaii.

For more information about Elisa and her upcoming memoir, please visit ecwrites.com
To hear the music Elisa shares with the Universe, 
please click on the following link 
and listen to one of the songs she and Cade played in Hawaii.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Homeless Angel—Part One

Recently I asked a new friend to guest post. I’m so pleased that today and Thursday, she will share two Thanksgiving stories from her own life. 
              In Elisa's own blog, which she calls “The Crazy Life of a Writing Mom,” she daily entertains and astounds me with stories about living with four creative, rambunctious, and delightful children: “the Scribe,” “Hippie,” “Zombie Elf,” and “Doctor Jones.” They range in age from one year to nine. Yet four is really five. For Elisa’s second child died when he was only a few months old.
            This coming Friday, November 18, Elisa’s book about Zeke will be published. In this wonderfully honest memoir, Elisa recounts Zeke’s story and her own. When I read The Golden Sky, it touched the span of sorrow, aftermath of loss, that I’ve encountered in my own life.
            These two postings relate stories from Elisa's life before Zeke entered it. I hope they evoke your own stories of gratitude and graciousness.  
            For more information about Elisa and her upcoming memoir, please visit ecwrites.com

A Homeless Angel 
Elisa Hirsch
It felt weird sitting at the Thanksgiving table with my family. I didn't eat much and I doubt anyone noticed because awkwardness pervaded the air, and made me inwardly happy to leave. I had Thanksgiving "dinner" at noon with my family before going to work at a diner.
            When it was time for me to leave, my sister nudged my mom and said something about me trying to get out of doing the dishes. She worried, wanting me to have a good work ethic. I chalked the concern up to her pregnancy; didn't she know I was on my way to work? I just walked past my mom who said something about me working too much—even on a holiday—and I left them with the dishes. It was terrible of me, but I battled depression while they worried about holidays, family time and dirty silverware.
            The diner didn't need me long because apparently all the scheduled waitresses wanted to work for amazing tips on Thanksgiving and I'd just volunteered for the shift. It was true though, the tips were unbeatable. But although money flowed like water from the fountain of youth, that's not what I remember the most. I remember an old man I waited on.
                He looked homeless, but happier than I felt. The man had nothing except a fading olive jacket, torn clothes, and shoes that practically talked as they flapped from their soles when he came into the diner.
                "You can go home now," my middle-aged boss said. Her cherry lipstick shone brightly against her pale skin and her blue eye shadow gleamed in the diner's flickering lights.
                "Okay," I nodded. "I just have one more order to bring out and I think I'd like to eat something myself." I placed my own order, walked over to the homeless guy, gave him some coffee, and brought him his "garbage hash"—the diner's specialty, a mixture of potatoes, scrambled eggs, sausage, peppers and ham.
                "Are you expecting anyone on this beautiful Thanksgiving?"
            I winked and he shook his head.
            "Well, neither am I and I just got off. Would you mind if I eat with you?"
            He beamed, showing some missing teeth. I hoped the tooth fairy gave him extra money for those 'cause one was a frontie. I grabbed my food (which already waited for me), untied my apron, took off my nametag, and sat down.
                "I'm Elisa," I said.    
                He smiled and dug into his food. "No you're not; you're an angel." He continued talking around a mouthful of potatoes. "I been savin' for this day. Always savin'. I hate spending Thanksgiving on the streets. Sure I could go to the shelter, but that'd damn near kill me. I want to be with civilized folk on a day like today."
            He put his hand to the side of his mouth and some egg clung to his beard. "Some of those homeless people are crazy! They get worse around the holidays." He peered at me, took his cloth napkin and stuffed it into his collar. "But look at me now. I'm sitting in a diner, with the prettiest waitress in the whole damn town."
                I stifled a laugh. Sometimes flattery can be a beautiful thing.
                The homeless guy tapped his fork on the table. "And you, why are you here, eating with a grumpy old coot?"
                "You don't seem very grumpy to me." A grin split my face.  "I just thought it might be fun. It's not everyday that I get to eat Thanksgiving dinner with a gentleman."
                We ate. We laughed and smiled. He told me about his life on the farm, about his parents who didn't have much. He told me about Vietnam and how things had gone wrong for him when his buddy died. Through it all, that old man showed me something. He showed me that life is what you make it.
                After we finished eating, I hugged him, this huge hug. I couldn't believe how skinny he was. His puffy coat made him look healthy. He was really like a squeaky toy that's huge until squeezed, before it slowly puffs back up again. A few tears went down my cheek.
            "Take care," I whispered because he was one of the realest people I've ever met. The people at church and school, even my family, most of them held nothing compared to that homeless old man.
               "You too." He grinned down and hobbled toward the bus stop in front of the diner. A couple waitresses watched from the window. They gabbed and pointed, probably thinking that guy was some relation of mine; they had no idea that I'd just dined with an angel.

Elisa’s website is http://ecwrites.blogspot.com

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Splotching and Spotting

I’ve used the word faults and failings several times in the novitiate postings. We had to “weed them out.” Sometimes the weeding led to raucous laughter. Picture a postulant or novice attempting reverent silence when washing dishes or table waiting or doing any obedience. Picture the over-exaggeration of movement. Clap your hands over your ears at the resultant clatter and clang. Suppressed laughter breaks into giggles, hidden behind the veil.
             I laughed a lot in the novitiate. It wasn’t considered a fault or failing. It wasn’t frowned upon except when it disturbed the silence of others. Faults and failings were to be weeded out, but Benedictines always valued the uniqueness of each person and treasured differences. Everything in moderation.
            That’s the sticking point. Right there. I simply wasn’t moderate. I’ve told you this before. Here’s another example.
            My most obvious deviation from the convent rules about silence was singing outside the laundry each Monday and Tuesday as I sorted the wash. I crooned all the Cole Porter songs. Gershwin. Lorenz Hart. Rogers and Hammerstein. Nat King Cole. Bing Crosby. Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennett.
            The Novice Mistress, I’m sure, knew I weekly chose singing over silence. She never reprimanded me.  Benedictines have always sung the liturgy. The magnificence of Gregorian music fills their lives. I know she appreciated the hold music had over me. And she honored it.
            But one of my failings she couldn’t ignore: I was sloppy at meals.

            The thing is that when we received salutation at lunch and supper, I got excited. Talking, for me, is a real treat. I threw myself into storytelling as did the novices sitting next to and across from me. We enjoyed one another.
            The problem is that I’d get distracted by a good story and drop gravy on the table. Or meat juice, butter, sauce, jam, soup. So many possibilities for splotching and spotting.    

            When this happened, the convent required the messy person to rise, go to the front of the table, kneel, and make culpa. The penance was always the same: After the meal, I’d get a large bowl of boiling water and drape the table cloth over it to immerse the spot. Then I’d run a spoon back and forth over it until the spot disappeared, That process, of course, made doing the laundry easier for those who did the actual washing.

            I became famous in my novitiate for spotting. On July 11, 1959, the feast of St. Benedict, I got through breakfast and lunch with no spotting. In fact, I made it through supper without marring that tablecloth.  
            Then came dessert. Plump plums in their juice.
            You surely know what happened. The telling of a story. Laughter distracting me. And then . . . the splash of purple juice on snow-white cloth. Too much pure joy in the day for me to make it through with no spotting.
            I rose. Walked to the head of the table. Knelt before the Novice Mistress. “Mea culpa, I made a spot on the table. Um Jesum willum, may I have a penance?”  (Not sure of the spelling!)
            Then, like clouds parting to emit light, the Novice Mistress beamed at me. “I’m so happy to see you!" she said. "It’s not a feast, I’ve discovered, without a visit from Sister Innocence.”
            Her words left me in a stupor. She had a sense of humor.
            That made, I think, all the difference in our relationship.

All photos from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Joyfully Donning the Habit

Thank you all for encouraging me to simply meander through my life and, as a dear friend has repeatedly suggested to me in the last fifteen years, “go with the flow.”
            I plan to write two more new postings on the novitiate. On the last Tuesday of November, I hope to conclude this section of my convent life with the making of first vows. Then only the muse of writing knows what part of my life I’ll visit with you.
             Today, however, I want to share the joy I experienced in wearing a Benedictine habit. In a recent comment, DJan said this about her youthful impressions of the habit: “I did like the pretty habits of some of them, and I saw myself walking in a cloud of virtue.”
            DJan hit the nail on the head there. For I, too, liked the thought of “walking in a cloud of virtue.” Much of the time I was too aware of flaws and faults to feel virtuous, but when I donned the habit early each morning I felt as if I put on the beauty, the simplicity, the graciousness of Yeshua—which is the Hebrew name I now use for Jesus, who was, above all, a devout Jew.
            We eighteen novices slept in a dorm. Each bed was within a cubicle made of four vertical pipes supporting four horizontal ones so that we could draw our four white curtains to obtain privacy from one another as we dressed and washed. The bell would ring each morning to summon us to prayer. Each of us would immediately rise from our narrow beds and draw those curtains.
            On my bedside bureau was a large ceramic bowl, which I’d filled with water the night before. After sponging my body, I put on my undergarment, or chemise. It covered me from shoulders to knees and had upper-thigh legs into which I stepped. Next I stepped into my cotton underskirt. Then I began to “put on my habit.” 
             First came the habit itself—a floor-length dress of several yards of black serge. I kissed it and quietly murmured a prayer in which I beseeched God to help me live that day mindful of Graciousness. I kissed my cincture—the belt that girded my waist. I kissed my scapular—the long piece of clothing that covered both front and back of the habit. I kept my folded hands under that scapular during the day so as to avoid distracting others. The only time my hands “flashed” were when I was using them to hold my diurnal at prayer, to do my obediences, to converse, or to eat.

Regular viewers of this blog have seen this photo.
It’s the only one I have of me as a novice.
The wreathe was worn only on the day I received the habit.

             Now I began to cloth my head. First the small cap onto which would be pinned the coif, then the short inner veil, and finally the long outer veil. I kissed each and said a prayer appropriate to that article of clothing.
              I handled each article of clothing reverently, like a vessel of the altar. As I clothed myself, I pictured myself putting on the virtues that Micah, the Hebrew prophet, had asked all of us to wear: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
             Finally I stood, fully clothed, ready for the day. Throughout grade and high school and college, I’d memorized many poems. Most mornings, as I walked to chapel, my hands under my scapular, my eyes cast down so as not to distract others from their thoughts and prayers, I silently recited a poem by e. e. cummings that summed up my feelings for the day:

            I thank You God for most this amazing
            day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
            and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
            which is natural which is infinite which is yes

            (i who have died am alive again today,
            and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
            day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
            great happening illimitably earth)

            how should tasting touching hearing seeing
            breathing any—lifted from the no
            of all nothing—human merely being
            doubt unimaginable You?

            (now the ear of my ears awake and
            now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

You see, I felt then as if, somehow, I had cloaked myself in possibility. I hoped that when others looked at me they might see, not me, but Yeshua. At that distant time and still today I believe it is he who has taught me the height and depth and breadth of being wholly human. Alleluia.

Biblical quotation from The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Poem “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e. e. cummings, copyright 1950