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


  1. I look forward to hearing more of your journey toward the taking of vows. I do wonder why the Novice Mistress didn't treat your doubts more seriously. As if she could have known better than you yourself about the state of your soul. I would have found it difficult to know the right direction, too. Your writing of those days is filled with clarity about this momentous step you are about to take.

  2. Most of us have self-doubt when confronted with a life altering decision. I remember thinking "what am I doing here" on the day I got married. As a matter of fact, I am still thinking that same thought.

  3. Ah the eternal internal battles we fight. It always staggers my pride when I don't come out the victor as I would wish. Beautiful post Dee

  4. I feel the melancholy and the doubt you experienced such a long time ago. Your writing touches my heart -- a special gift you have. To me writing is a lonely journey, not a communal one. Read my blog tomorrow -- I finished my thoughts on Dulcy's Story. I think you will like my review. And now I want to cry again, just thinking of that cat! You do have a wonderful gift for sharing a story, Dee.

  5. That is such a dark night of the soul poem for me when I read it...and you were reading this before you took your vows. It is no surprise that you waged an inner battle all those years.

    I think when things are very important to you that you pay closer attention and, therefore, have greater memory recall years later. I can still remember some things like they were yesterday from childhood while other things are gone forever...passed from memory almost immediately, you know? You took life very seriously, so you remember well.

    Anyways, you were meant to learn what you needed to learn from the convent life. It's a piece of the life tapestry that is you. Thanks so much for sharing you memories so elegantly with us. :)

  6. I can't wait to read more of this. It is truly wonderful, the things we can remember if we take a moment to look back. I've been surprised with what I remember when I sit down and write. It seems like yesterday, and everything floods back, sometimes good--sometimes bad, but all a blessing that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.

    Beautiful, awakening poem, Dee!
    You amaze me with these stories; I love them so.

  7. What a powerful poem! As you know, I am an agnostic, but still it moved me. Thank you for sharing your story (& your soul) with us. You make me think--& yor writing is beautiful.

  8. A beautifully written and very moving post, Dee. You portray your younger self with her doubts and hopes and love of the peace she sometimes found in the convent very clearly and touchingly. Things sink in so deeply when we are young, so I'm not surprised they are now rising to the surface as you reflect back on your life then.

  9. You have shared with us the intimacy of your soul as you reflect and remember. And we are touched and awed by the power of your memory on this transforming day you describe.

  10. What can I say that hasn't already been said?
    The poem was astounding and once again, I thank you for sharing this with us!

  11. What an amazing poem. It's interesting to me that you say you resisted communal living and lived with stress, yet the monasticism and contemplative life seemed to truly call you, and in many ways nourish you. You must surely have often felt completely split open, Dee. Your spiritual journey has been complex, and your restlessness in some way is another form of calling, I think. It's not a surprise to me that you write of it so clearly. It is profound. I am always encouraged when others can admit to doubts and yet have not lost all faith. You have a special gift. Debra

  12. DJ,
    I was so indecisive and unsure of myself in the novitiate. My professors in college had gone through the novitiate, I thought, so I must be making mountains out of molehills when I disagree with this life. I so wanted to be perfect. My post on Thursday really works toward summing up some of this.

    I think you are absolutely right. When we face life-altering decisions we all have doubts. Sometimes we need to take those doubts really seriously. I finally did that seven years later. And throughout my life since I've made changes that were accompanied by great doubt. And yet I'm blessed enough today to be able to say that all has worked out unto good.

    It's so true that we picture ourselves as victors and then are disappointed when life takes a left turn. For the past years I've searched for the good in what seems like failure instead of victory. And the blessing is that I've found the good and been able to rejoice in it. I so hope this always happens for you, too, Melynda. I know from your blog that you have the gift of seeing the deep-down goodness in everyone and everything.

    Thank you for your kind words about my writing. I'm Irish and so love a good story. I grew up among storytellers and both my brother and I are always weaving a good tale out of our daily experiences, which we both see as adventures!

    Yes, it did seem like a dark night of the soul and I was a truly serious person. What kept me sane in the midst of my analyzing and pondering and worrying and doubting was that I had a fine sense of humor. I could see something funny in almost everything.

    I so liked the following that you said in your comment: "Anyways, you were meant to learn what you needed to learn from the convent life. It's a piece of the life tapestry that is you." Life truly is a tapestry. In fact, I use that word--tapestry--in the title of a novel I'm working on. I have the first draft nearly done. Such a lovely word. Evocative

  13. Elisa,
    I thought when I read your book that you, too, have a memory that is attuned to the changes you've lived and the people you've met and how their very being affected you.

    I think that the poem, which was published during World War II, speaks to all of us whether we are agnostic or Christian or Jew or Muslim or atheist. That is, I think, Fran, that it speaks to that part of ourselves which always longs for wholeness. We can take out the word "God" "Lord" whatever and still know that within us at times is this deep longing for wholeness. I try to touch on this a little in my two upcoming postings but I simply don't have the ability, the words, to do justice to the longing at the deep center of ourselves for Oneness.

    As you see so clearly, a lot of the feelings and doubts are rising to the surface. I find myself sitting here at the computer as I write the postings and wanting to embrace Sister Innocence and assure her that she was an endearing person and that I cherish her. We truly are, as Whitman said, the world we wander through. And for me right now that world is populated by all the many phases of myself throughout a long and bountiful life.

    I so like your use of the word "transforming." It seems to me that all of us have those transforming days sprinkled throughout our lives. Days of change and yes, risk, but days that often bring blessings in disguise.

    I'm glad you liked the poem. It's been a favorite of mine since Mom and Dad gave me "Hymns to the Church" for the Christmas before vows. Mom knew knew me well so perhaps she chose the book because she recognized even before I left for the convent that a battle raged within me. She was a wise woman.

    I am deeply touched that my words speak to you. After leaving the convent I saw, over a period of ten years, four different psychiatrists. They helped me discover the patterns in my life and helped me become strong enough to embrace the ones that served me well and to let go of those that no longer helped me. Then I worked hard for thirty-five more years to embrace myself. This sharing of my journey is my way of saying "Thank you" to the Holy Oneness of All Creation for the abundance of my life. Thank you for reminding me of this.

  14. Dee, your writing is always so prayerful (not sure if that's entirely the right word). I also pick up on how exhaustively you cover whatever it is you are sharing. You seem to dig deep and carefully test each word for its weightiness. Does this make any sense? I guess what I am trying to say is that you invest so much of your soul in what you share and your words are chosen with such care. We sense we are being exposed to your deepest truth and that, Dee, is an incredible gift. In addition to your beautiful words, both the poem and incredibly lovely images you have selected further enhance this post. You have received some amazing comments in response, indicating just how profoundly you have touched us all.

  15. Hi Dee .. it will so interesting to hear your story .. thank you for sharing with us .. I've come over from Inger's site ...

    Dulcy's story too sounds a very good read .. Nice to meet you - Hilary

  16. I'm so glad you liked my review. I will write one for amazon too. And I will write a correction about the paperback to be published. I'm sorry, I thought you were only going to do the e-book. Please let me know when the books will be available and I will post something about them. Plus I will order for some of my friends who love cats.

  17. Desiree,
    Thank you for your kind words. I am really trying hard to convey what I was feeling at the time. I was twenty-three, young and immature, but so serious about the life I'd chosen. Like many young people I didn't want to make a mistake. And the vows were a commitment I meant to keep. I'm pleased that the writing reaches out to you.

    It's good to meet you too. Like you, I'm a fan of Inger's site and I so appreciate her review of Dulcy's book.

    The book will be available soon. Your review was so wonderful! Thank you.

  18. The questions you ask of yourself are ones we face about ourselves even when in other locales.

  19. Beautiful post and as usual, full of heart. You are a treasure.