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:


  1. Ah, the pictures and the feeling of the convent are perfectly communicated here, Dee. Thank you for sharing this time, and I think the feelings you had at the time are no different than I would have had. The quiet and peacefulness of that life appeals so much to me, but the restrictions also tease out a little rebellion as well.

    I am glad you are sharing these times, I think it's germane to who you are today.

  2. Dear DJan,
    Like you, I think that youth is a time both of idealism and rebellion. I took the mix of those two into the convent and often found my inner self warring between seeking perfection and ignoring the restrictions.

    As to today, my inner self continues the war between accepting the status quo of my life and embracing that which is different. We can be such contradictions!

    Peace to you today. Dee

  3. A lot of the desires I had were similar, but I was born outside the box and would never have been able to conform to the rigid rules no matter how hard I may have tried. I love to hear about your experiences and all the details of life back then for you. Knowing the path your soul traveled tells us so much of what made you who you are. :)

  4. Such a life would require enormous self sacrifice and great self discipline. While I have always considered myself capable of both, I would have failed hopelessly. For one thing, the mere thought of waking up to wash in a small basin of cold water would be enough to divest myself of any inclination to pursue such an existence. As DJan has mentioned, the pictures you've selected illustrate perfectly the sense of peace and calm that such an existence was attempting to engender in all of you. I value self elected silence and solitude, but would struggle to have this imposed upon me. Yes, there's contradiction in all of us :)

  5. Dear Rita,
    Being born outside the box sounds intriguing to me. I was able, I think, to conform externally, but internally, as I remember it, I was at war much of the time. The Novice Mistress even had to ask one of my college professors-=the woman who'd been my mentor--to talk with me about my refusal to follow a tradition that seemed foolish to me. When my mentor pointed out that these rules had been good enough for her and all the other professors I esteemed, I caved in! You see, I idolized this woman! Peace ever and always, Dee

  6. Dear Desiree,
    I understand the resistance to imposition of rules and ways of being. But I was so young that the thought guiding me was "If it's hard, it must be right." That's the old martyrdom gene in me.

    I think what would have attracted you, Desiree, would have been the beauty of the flowers on the altar and the music and liturgy and the loveliness of the convent grounds. Beauty speaks so to you.


  7. When I read these post of yours it always makes me think of the movie The Sound of Music. You remind me of Julie Andrews. She wanted so much to do right and help others yet her calling was elsewhere. I think in the sharing here you have taken on that role. I love it!

  8. Dear Melyna,
    Julie Andrews--Wow!!!!! And thank you for seeing this blog as a calling for sharing my life. I so enjoy doing this!

    Peace to you.

  9. The peace of the silence of the daily routine draws me--I want to be there, be part of that time where focusing on God was a full time involvement. You have written it so beautifully.

  10. Dee, you have expressed your youthful idealism so clearly and tenderly. I'm certain there was nothing you rebelled at that your wise Novice Mistress hadn't seen before.

    I too am very drawn to the ideal of a life of prayer, service, silence and even self-discipline. Rules can seem deeply restrictive, but if they are actively and willingly chosen they can paradoxically lead to great freedom.

  11. Hello All,
    I'm getting the hang of this responding to comments by commenting on my own blog. I wait until there are a couple or more and then I do a comment on them within one I add. I am so slow when I'm dealing with technology! S-o......S-l-o-w!!!! So we begin...

    Dear Susan, I so like your expression of "focusing on God" as a "full time involvement." I've never thought of the convent that way but indeed that's how it was for me.

    Dear Perpetua, I'm sure you're right about the Novice Mistress. She'd seen rebellion from every class and every postulant and novice and I suspect that she sat in her office and chuckled a lot. I truly agree that restrictive rules if we willingly choose them can lead to freedom. I hope to write about that a little when I post something on the vows I took.

  12. Wow! Imagining life through your eyes at this time--it must have been magical!

    And what a great idea about commenting.

    I agree, youth is a time of idealism and rebellion; I see that so much through my past actions, especially when I ran away.

  13. Dear Dee--

    I don't mean to be irreverant--although it most certainly is irrelevant--but I couldn't help wondering how a loud snorer would have treated during those nights of silence. And if someone belched or (heaven forbid) passed gas, would they be allowed to say, "Excuse me"?

    In all seriousness, your post was fascinating, as always.

  14. Golly, ora et labora, or 'betet und arbeitet'.
    My father's favourite bugbear.

    Betet und arbeitet, he used to say, best way to keep the masses stupid. You had to live in his world, the world of church and fascism and communism, to understand. Europe and Germany, in particular, were difficult places to survive in.

    Nothing was as easy and straightforward for me as it was for you. I had a great aunt who was a nun and a communist grandfather on the other side.

    You had to be there.

  15. Dee, this was a lovely trip back in time. I can just imagine the joy and the hope highlighting your life and, at the same time, the difficulty of conforming to all the rules (I would have struggled mightily at the prospect of no morning hot shower!) But, at the same time, I can agree with Perpetua that rules freely chosen can lead to great freedom. I have several dear friends who are still in the convent and another close friend who is a former monk and they all talk about the sense of freedom with surrender and all get frustrated when people focus so much on celibacy which, all three contend, is such a small part of what the religious life is all about.

  16. I enjoyed the pics as much as the story on this.
    I could never have lived like that, but I appreciate reading how you did. ~Mary

  17. I have such respect for you, Dee, to have answered a profound and uniquely special calling and to also have embraced it with such a sense of dedicated purpose. I particularly key into your memory of living in "obedience steeped in prayer, work and silence"--and then your delicious laughter. It seems to me a rich life--the pace slowed down without so many unnecessary distractions--and therefore really lived in each moment. I am really enjoying your descriptions and through the quality of your writing, getting to know you! Debra

  18. I'm back to enjoy reading all the comments generated by this post, Dee. What a joy! So many opinions and so much sharing. This is GREAT!
    Big hug, Des xo

    PS I'd so love to send you a Jacquie Lawson ecard for Thanksgiving and another in time for Christmas. I have done so for other blogging friends for whom I have email addresses. I do not have yours.

    I want to wish you a Joyous and Blessed Thanksgiving, Dee!

  19. Okay, I'm with Fishducky's line of questioning. All I can picture is myself in the situation trying to stifle a giggle when someone cut wind.
    As you can tell, I'm not in a deeply profound mood today. Silly is the way to go today!

  20. Hello Again.
    Elisa, I truly believe that some rebellion is necessary to mature and move from childhood to adulthood.

    Fishducky and Stephanie! Oh you two would think of that. The truth is that is someone "cut wind" all of us would have giggled--into our hands so as to stifle the sound a little, but giggling nevertheless. Whenever we tried to be particularly "holy" or quiet every sound sounded so loud that we got the giggles. A lot of giggles and a lot of making culpa for that. But the Novice Mistress understood! She, too, giggled. And, I suppose, made culpa to the Mother Superior.

    Dear Friko, I so look forward to reading your memoir. Then I'll learn more about your father and his views of the masses and more about the varied people in your family who espoused differing beliefs. I hope that as you write your memoir you are experiencing, as I am, greater understanding of all those family members and also of yourself.

  21. Dear Kathy,
    I so agree with your nun and ex-monk friends. The vow of obedience, not celibacy, was the hard one for me. I hope to post next week my thoughts, at the time, on the vows. Your comment helps me marshal my thoughts for that posting. Thank you.

    Dear Mary,
    I wish I had photographs of that time in my life, but I have only a handful and they've mostly been posted already. So I chose to download four free photographs that I hoped would set the mood for the posting. I'm glad they spoke to you.

    Dear Debra,
    I'm so glad that this posting communicated to you the richness of that life. That's partly why I was always so torn while living it. I valued the silence, the music, the prayer, and the nuns, but I found obedience so hard. I'd always sought solitude as a child and the convent continued that. It's only as I've aged that I've realized the joy of spending time with friends. What a gift they have been to me. Peace.

  22. Oh, Dee, I just read my friend fishducky's comment above. Only she would try to picture that scenario. I finished the book and loved it, thank you for writing it for Dulcy. Back to this post, which is so far from anything that ever entered my youthful mind back in Lutheran Sweden, where almost no one ever even went to church. I think I have now found that place of quiet and peace here in the country. My younger self, I'm afraid, was preoccupied with thoughts of seeing the world, boys, and just having fun. You are a wonderful writer and I am looking forward to more of life in the convent.

  23. Dee-
    Sorry I have been absent for so long.
    But I find your blog to be like a home.
    I can always come here after a crazy day and find some cheer and peace.
    Thanks for sharing and being you!

  24. What a profound experience! Thks for sharing it with us. I've read a few books about it and see a movie or two but it seems very far from me. My brother in law "almost" became a priest but decided against...and went on to meet my sister and marry her. He relates they had to look at their watch or tie their shoes when the majorettes went by in the Christmas parades in that town. No peeking. :)

  25. Dear Inger,
    I'm so pleased that you enjoyed Dulcy's book. I soon hope to put upload it on Amazon as an e-book and to become an Amazon bookseller so as to get Dulcy's story to other cat lovers. I'm glad you enjoy the convent stories. Fran, of course, punctures this "ideal" view with reality. I hope to do that also in a couple of postings soon.

    Dear Jenn,
    I'm glad that this blog brings you cheer and peace. Soon I'll start posting again about my childhood and there's some real dysfunction there!

    Dear "Healthier and Wealthier,"
    The life is "far from me" now also. The "ideal" met "reality" when I made first vows and went back out into the world. That's when I truly realized that the life was not for me. I can just see your brother-in-law fighting that temptation to "peek" at those majorettes!

  26. I am so struck by that feeling of being simultaneously infinitesimally small and infinitely expansive. I have experienced that a few times in deep meditation and it is so seductive because of its comforting connectedness. It's no wonder you wanted to explore that! I love thinking about the notion that strict guidelines and rituals might lead to spiritual enlightenment. I'm not sold, but it is intriguing.

  27. Dear Kari,
    I'm with you in all this. What I mean by that is that as I'm writing these postings I'm grappling with why I entered the convent and why I left. Some 45 years have passed and I've really never explored all this. So I, too,
    am intrigued by the phenomenon of freedom emerging from austerity.