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


  1. I love the idea of investing objects with significance like this, Dee. One can overdo it of course, but better this than a careless taking-for-granted and even misuse of material things.

  2. Dear Dee,

    I have just caught up with the posts I've missed. i've been in and out but each post needed proper reading and I didn't have the time to do them justice.

    I haven't had the time to read comments, I don't know what others have said, but I would like to say, that this is your blog and you write your memoir as you see fit. If a particular story comes to the forefront one day, then that is the story you post.

    I will continue to read them all and I know that each will give me something to think about. I cannot follow you into an appreciation of convent rules, all I can do is to take them as something that mattered to you. My opinion is immaterial.

    I like the woman you are now, the woman who is writing this memoir. One day you may arrange these posts in a more or less chronological order (something I am doing) and they might become a 'whole' which will be valuable to others.

  3. Dee, I love the image of you going to chapel with prayer and poetry in your mind and heart!

  4. I get this. It would be like knowing your not a princess but putting on a princess gown. I never thought about it like this before. Again I would not have made a good nun. To many articles of clothing for me to remember to put on. Sigh. I may be a little bit of an air head.

  5. What a joy it is to read your post. I am so unfamiliar with this life that I find it fascinating. What really is interesting to me, is how I can see adopting similar "rituals" in one's own day, no matter the circumstances. Blessing our clothing as we put on each article, and realizing we (to paraphrase) "cloaked ourselves in possibility." I also love DJan's comment about "walking in a cloud of virtue." That, too, would be appropriate for any one of us on any given day, and a perfect response to the passage from Micah, a favorite of mine.

    That you have brought in e.e. cummings wonderful poem with your beautiful concluding paragraph.... Thank you for this very inspiring post.

  6. I was quite moved by today's post--& your quotes. I can see why the beauty & serenity of convent life would be tempting, but I, for one, could not handle the discipline. Apparently, after a few years, it became too much for you, too.

  7. Dee, thanks again for commenting on my blog. I should warn you that your comment appears under the name of as Dee Ready for some reason and therefore doesn't link back to your blog, which is a shame. If you comment as Dee (as you did on Kathy's blog where I found you) it's fine, but as Dee Ready, the link is broken.

    I've subscribed to this thread, so there's no need to come to my blog to respond. You can just post here and I'll get it.

  8. Dee,

    You are such an amazing, wonderful person. I wish I could have done something like this. I'm so impatient and flighty in many ways though. I would have been horrible at this, and I so admire you for being such a peaceful sweetheart.


  9. What a wonderful post.
    I appreciate learning about your habit and how it was placed on. While I could not have done all this with the reverence required, Dee, there is something to be said for ritual, isn't there? I rather like the piece by piece attention to each piece of clothing and the respect it brings. You have given me much to think about. Thank you, and thank you for all your lovely comments on my blog.

  10. Dee, What a lovely post! I loved the reverence you bestowed on each aspect of your dressing, and the e. e. cummings poem was absolutely perfect! It has been so enlightening to read about your experience as a nun. I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed learning more about this part of your life, that had such an impact on you.

    Thank you so much for your gracious and encouraging comments on my post this morning. I must be patient, I know. Small repeated steps toward my goal is probably my best approach!


  11. Hi Dee, I can't really understand this but regardless of my sentiments, I know I care about you, the person you are today. I can understand the need for structure and ritual, but fail to comprehend what is important in dress. Religion continues to elude me and I suppose I like it that way. However, it is interesting to hear about your past days.

  12. This was a deeply moving read! What a difference in the world if we could learn to dress each day for "walking in a cloud of virtue." Your devotion to God comes through in each and every aspect of ritual, and it's humbling and challenging. Thank you, too, for the wonderful picture accompanying a very special personal story. Debra

  13. You have allowed us a peek at what it would be like to don the wear the habit. "I had cloaked myself in possibility"...those were the shining words for me in this post. The only way we can ever be better people is in the reaching. Thanks for sharing these memories...all your memories. :)

  14. I never knew how nuns dress themselves for the day before, but now I do, and I understand perfectly how it can change one's outlook to honor and pay attention to what we place on our bodies. I too have memorized many poems (mostly Emily Dickinson) and they will appear in my mind to help me through moments of stress or moments of incredible beauty, both of which require me to understand them in order to integrate the moment into my reality. Perhaps it's my way of honoring and paying attention.

  15. Well Dee I was a little girl in a Catholic Kindergarten in Germany where my family ended up refugees after being ousted from the Czech by Russians in 1945. I used to listen to the rustle of the habits as the nuns flitted about. Ay the age of 4 all I wondered was what might by under there to make such crackling noises. And I found them most unaffectionate. I needed a hug now and them but that was left to my family. My early encounter with statues also left a bad impression.
    It was not till I lived as an au pair at St.Anne de Beaupre in Quebec that I began to regain feeling of affection for some of the nuns helping pilgrims at the shrine. I did keep the Catholic faith as an adult.
    I too go around reciting poetry and even prayers in several languages to get by. Singing is another way I calm my spirit.
    How does dress alter our inner self? Do we assume a role? I often think that we are taught that. Not so sure if it's to our benefit us less we behave wisely and compassionately.

  16. It amazes me how a simple act of getting dressed, which most of us do without much thought (other than "does this match" and "does my butt look big in this") could bring such peace and comfort to the start of a day. Lovely.

  17. This is another beautifully shared memory, Dee and it's evident that you were greatly moved by this ritual. I doubt I would have had the patience to conscientiously and diligently perform what seems to me a rather protracted (even if reverent) daily requirement (namely, getting dressed). I'm sure I would have cheated, especially in the cold winter months! Your heart was clearly fully committed to what you were doing at that time in your life.

  18. A rather wonderful start to each day, Dee. Thank you.

  19. This is a beautiful story told by a woman of great beauty, inside and out.

  20. I love the idea of starting a day with such prayerful intention. You must have glowed as you left your cubicle. I also love that your prayer included e.e. cummings. That defines you in a really lovely way.

  21. You are seriously like an Angel brought down to earth.
    Love these beautifully written posts!