Saturday, November 5, 2011

Immoderation in High Places

The novice mistress in any convent has a staggering obedience: She must prepare postulants and novices for the making of first vows. To do this, they study the charisma of the founder, the history of the order, and the significance of living in community. In addition, they learn the specific regulations that have attached themselves—sometimes like barnacles—to that particular convent.
            Our class of eighteen befuddled the novice mistress back in 1958 and ’59. I so remember the time she seemingly despaired of our class ever becoming ready for making first vows. She called us together in the common room and told us we needed “jacking up.” She admonished us with our faults: We persisted in talking too much. We didn’t complete our work. We were noisy in chapel. We were a disgrace to the convent.
            We soon learned what her definition of “jacking up” meant. No salutation. 
            No talking at any time.
            The prioress as well as the novice mistress gave us salutation. That is, upon hearing either of them say, “Praise be Jesus and Mary,” we would all answer “Now and forever. Amen.” Then we had permission to talk.
            During this jacking-up period the novice mistress refused to give us salutation. For five weeks, we didn’t gather each evening for boisterous conversations in the common room. Instead, we sat there silently sewing or studying. When the bell rang, we silently filed out and walked to the choir chapel for Compline. Then we returned to the novitiate and to bed. The following day, we rose to the same silent routine. For five weeks we did this.
            When the prioress daily gave salutation in the refectory, we sat silent. We could hear the professed nuns at the other tables whispering among themselves, “What’d they do for her to take such extreme measures?”
            Finally, the novitiate assistant—the one who’d given me a butch haircut—spoke up. At lunch the next day, the prioress, as usual, gave salutation to the community. The novice mistress nodded imperiously and we began to talk. Whoopee!
            In my mind, this had been an almost laughable way of preparing us for vows. Indeed it would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so interminable.
            One other time the novice mistress proved to be as immoderate as I knew myself to be. She tacked up a list of faults on her office door. By each fault was the number of times she’d noticed someone being negligent.

            According to the list, she’d found a goodly number of straight pins on the floor. We’d dropped them, neglected to pick them back up, and hadn’t made culpa for this. How could we take a vow of poverty if we didn’t lean down and pick up lost straight pins?
            Some outlandish number of novices had gone up the steps without holding up the skirt of their habit. This frayed the hem. Poverty again.
            We’d failed to close the front door quietly and so perhaps disturbed the inner peace of a fellow novice.
            The list contained a variety of other faults. All culpa matters. All with a specific number. 
            Reading it, I simply shook my head.
            The list informed us that we’d receive no salutation or recreation until we'd come, individually, to her office, knelt down, and admitted our failings.
            One by one, my classmates did so. Two days passed and still the list remained with the numbers only modestly decreased. Finally I walked into her office, knelt down, and said, “I did everything on the list the total number of times you’ve indicated.”
            “Yes. I’m at fault for all of it.”
            “You certainly think you’re exceptional, Sister Innocence.”
            “I think we’re just human beings. We drop pins. We’re thoughtless.”
            “Are you going to work on that?”
            “I will.”
            “And silence? Will you work on that?”
            “I will,” I said. We looked at one another and a moment of real understanding arced between us.
            “And will you take down the list and accept that I did it all?” I asked.
            She rose, went to the door, opened it, and removed the accusatory list.
            I  do not think that my immoderate culpa made the difference. No. I suspect that other novices did the same thing. The audacity of our imaginative rebellion finally wore her down and she banished the list to her wastepaper basket where it belonged.  
            Ultimately I think she came to appreciate the resilience of our class, and we came to appreciate the monumental task the prioress had given her. We were raw recruits. She shaped us into women who graciously, eagerly, gratefully served others both in the convent and in the world. She was—and I say this with great gratitude—the person from whom I had the first inkling that I was One with all creation.

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  1. The world that you chose to be in seems odd to me who sees our creator as very compassionate and hence would expect those who love Him to be the same. How can that environment teach the love and compassion for others?

  2. I think it would have worked a lot better had she been listing her own faults & transgressions as well. And excessive virtue takes its toll too. ~Mary

  3. I have left pins on the floor. I have talked when it was not necessary & even interrupted people. I have slammed doors & let my clothing fray. I have done all this & MORE without being sorry & really caring. I am obviously not nun material & never could be. You are a better man than I, Gunga Din!

  4. Hmmm. More and more I realize that I would NEVER have lasted in a convent. But I did like the pretty habits of some of them, and I saw myself walking in a cloud of virtue. You have certainly divested me of that illusion! Enjoyed thinking about myself in your shoes, Dee. Thanks for the internal journey. :-)

  5. 5 weeks? 5 weeks of silence? I would not have lasted. Last night I ask Phil what kind of bird i would be if I were one and his immediate response was a parakeet because I chatter incessantly. haha I could not even argue with him.. It's true. You are a stronger woman than I will ever be my friend.

  6. This is so fascinating about the list! You're brave. I wonder if others did the same thing, or maybe you did make the difference. :)

  7. Excellent post, and another glimpse of a world I knew really nothing about until I started reading your blog. Quite remarkable, the stories of your life.

  8. Silence...endless silence...would be like the Chinese water torture to me. I am not silent even living alone! Even if I didn't have Karma to talk to, I have talked to inanimate objects and plants since I was a child. I hum and sing to myself. I even talk in my sleep.

    But I can fully understand her attention to details. It's having a care and love for even the stick pins in your life. I can relate to that part...touching and handling things with a kind of care and reverence. I know it sounds strange, but I almost flinch when I see people throw things, or kick things, or slam things. And I'm talking just their shoes or a book on the table or some object in their way. I never really put that into clear thought before. Hummm...your posts are always fascinating and thought provoking. :)
    But silence...I'd have been tossed out, run away, or driven a nun to murder! LOL!

  9. Oh my! How very sad that someone would think that treating people that harshly could be a good thing.

  10. What a wonderful story about a very complex woman and nearly impossible situation. I was not at all expecting the ending, and loved it all the more for the surprise of it.

  11. Another post showing how selfless you were/are .
    I still don't know how you handled all that.
    I'm way too stubborn and outspoken.
    Thanks for continuing to stop by and your support AND thinking of my son.
    You truly are amazing.
    I hope you enjoyed your break from the blogging and that your book is going well!

  12. Another truly incredible peek into convent life. Most of us "out here" would have failed miserably. I certainly would have! It is a vastly different world from the secular one into which we were all born and it surprises me that there are those who willingly choose to enter this very strict way of life even today. I can see it had a function and appeal in years gone by, when life moved at a far slower pace anyway, but in the world we inhabit now, I really cannot begin to understand what would motivate a young person to toss their life aside to embrace such austerity. That it seems to have been a breeding ground for those with obvious personality imbalances may explain some, but not all. I did not mean disrespect in this comment, but I do see there was potential for aberant behaviours to develop, or be honed to a fine art. I'm sure that explains the problem the Catholic church has had with generations of paedophiles and miscreants hiding behind the cloth. I loved the action you took to put an end to this silliness! What a spunky little person you were.

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  14. And isn't it a great inkling to have. Being One with all really puts a different spin on many of our human tendencies. Sandra

  15. Ah, Dee, what insight you bring to this convent experience. Your writing always amazes. It is witty and questioning while I feel your compassion and love. As harsh and cruel as your experiences were, I wonder if you would feel at One with creation if you had not gone through it. (I'm not condoning it, just wondering)

    My husband's elementary education in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties was in a Catholic school, especially interesting in that his mother was a public school teacher then principal. The big picture is that he did get a good education. The eight years of little pictures, however, were at the tyranny of many of his teacher nuns, especially for a boy. I can still hear the terror in his voice when he and his friends, one the son of the school's janitor, trembled in horror. There were caught throwing the forbidden snowballs at recess. Sister ranted on and on about Jesus giving his life for their sins on the cross, then, ordered the one boy to go to his father for some nails. They were in second grade.

    I bring this up wondering, after reading your post, at how many novices went on to teach after their years of training in convents.

    Your writing is wonderful, Dee, and you always compel me to think and look deeper into meanings. Much thanks.

  16. Dee, how did you survive this? I never could have lasted.