Thursday, December 1, 2011

Preparing for First Vows—Part Two

The day before I entered the convent, my mother, mashing the supper potatoes, said, “Dolores, you can’t escape life by becoming a nun.”
            “I’m not escaping,” I protested.
            “You’re running away from your dad’s drinking,” she insisted, adding a dollop of butter. “You don’t like having a father you can't depend on.” I had to agree. What I did like was dangling my feet in the creek on a summer’s day. In my own world of dappled sunlight, bubbling water, and towering trees, I sat within shouting distance of our home but beyond the reach of dad’s drunkenness.

            “The thing is, Honey, people’s lives get messy. That’s what being human’s all about. That’s what’s real. Life isn’t all sweetness and charm you know.”
            Tears welled in my eyes.
            “You retreat when things get bad. You go to that dream world of yours,” Mom commented, cutting the onions for the hamburgers.
            “It’s safe there.” 
            What she said was true. I’d always wanted to live in a home where everything was hunky-dory. No drunken arguments. No knives that could end a life. No care boxes from family members who didn’t realize that dad’s drinking kept us poor.
            Resisting reality, I refused my mother’s wisdom and entered the convent the next day. There I planned on immersing myself in prayer and forgetting those violent and explosive scenes that had punctuated my growing up.            
            As early as the third century, many Christians felt drawn to a life of prayer and asceticism. Some went out into the deserts of Palestine and Egypt, away from the hubbub of settlement. These hermits, be they men or women, sought the presence of God in solitude.
            But beware. Within such a life lurks the crippling possibility of becoming self-absorbed, self-centered, and selfish. One can lose his or her willingness to engage in the give-and-take of human relationship.
            Socialists tell us that humans are social creatures. Rubbing up against one another’s messiness helps us become whole. The interplay of resolving communal differences promotes emotional growth. That community may be a committed couple, a family with children, an extended family, a monthly book club, a town, a city, a nation.
            Out of the many, one group forms.
            Those within each group must contend with one another’s foibles and faults. Letting go of our own will and compromising with these flaws is hard. Benedict was not speaking only of physical labor when he stressed the motto “Ora et Labora.” Building community takes work.
            I entered the convent unaware of this. I didn’t enter because I wanted to be part of community—which is what monasticism is all about. Instead, I entered solely to praise God. I was a loner.
            I knew I’d be praying with a group of women, but I thought we'd just pray together and then go our separate ways. Of course, those women and myself weren't always in the choir chapel. We had to interact. I was not prepared for that. So naïve. So immature. So idealistic. So dumb!
            I found the serenity I sought when praying the Divine Office. But in the daily life of the convent I met the reality of over six hundred women living together. Think of any small or large group of people—a platoon, a law office, a free clinic for the inner city poor, a union of construction workers, a fraternal order of like-minded philanthropists, a state legislature, a troop of scouts, a band of mountain climbers.

             Now consider trying to make a community out of that group. Community grows out of shared vision and the willingness to compromise and let go of self-absorption. What is asked of each community member is the willingness to place the good of the whole before the doggedness of any one member of the group.
            Yet each member of that group is an individual with mood swings, needs, and dreams that differ from those of others. Some members are mean-spirited; some, abrasive; some see only good; some see only fault; some judge others and find them wanting; some—like myself—seek an unrealistic peace.            
            At age twenty-three I sought solitude, not community. From the beginning I misunderstood the intent of monasticism. I was reluctant to embrace the rough lion’s paw of communal living. 
             I did not fully realize this until I read “Prologos” and recognized myself in the lines “My love is like a stairway in the soul—but ever and forever I am only in myself.” Could I will myself to choose communal living over solitude? Could I choose others over myself? The questions buffeted the self I’d brought to the convent. In my seven-day vow retreat I fought a battle between idealism and realism.
                                                                            (Continued on Saturday . . .)

PS: On October 30, 2009, a PBS reporter interviewed the present prioress of the monastery I entered. To see and hear the ten-minute interview click here. The video provides wonderful background on monasticism. In it, you’ll see the choir chapel where I prayed and the hallways I walked in silence as well as other features and buildings that were part of my life.

Stream by prozac1/ruin by Evgeni Dinev/community by Savit Keawtavee


  1. Sometimes we all view things so differently from how they are.

    I would have thought the same things you did.

  2. Although I've been taking a break from posting on my blog, I feel compelled to respond to this most amazing post. It is exactly what I needed this morning. I am enjoying reading of your own monastic experience, and I found the video very interesting. I also found words of great encouragement and wisdom in the sidebar essay, "Building a Monastery of the Heart." An interesting look at a layperson's view of monastic life and I found it very inspirational. Thank you so much for pointing me to these ideas, ideas I knew how to practice, but was in need of a reminder: recognizing the divine in everyday tasks and objects.

    Thank you for sharing your story with me.

  3. I can totally understand your "pull" to life in the convent. I could spend hours in the chapel, surrounded by that special Peace, losing all track of time. I wanted to remain always with Him, to do the hardest thing I could for Him. Strange as it may seem, even though I was dating Dean, I wanted to do what was the hardest thing for God. I thought, traveling through life in the convent,in prayer would be lovely, easy, floating though life like the time spent in prayer in the college chapel. So, if I wanted to do the hardest thing, travel the "highest mountain" then I would have to live a religious life outside the convent. Like you, little did I know just how hard that would be. "Lurker, Mary E"

  4. No one was drinking or being abusive in my childhood home, yet it was not a happy place to be. I escaped to America...

    I can relate to the line from Prologo you quoted. You describe your reasons for entering the convent and later your doubts so well. I sense that it must have been painful and I think it takes courage to go back, look at those years, and then share them here. Thank you, Dee.

  5. We all tend to have longings for a personal better life no matter how our childhood played out. I believe it is a necessary part of our ego, a drive to leave the 'nest' and fend for ourselves.
    I did not enjoy the interior of churches. I didn't like the smell. And I disliked being told about hell.
    I chose to believe the there must be a divine spirit that loves everything and can be found in all things. My favourite place to communicate with the divine was in a setting of nature like a forest and it still is. I do also attend communal services of various religions and respect all who try to behave in a compassionate way to others.
    I believe that there is an amazing power that can be summoned to assist us if we make the effort but there's no guarantee that it will be forthcoming.
    I love the way you are going back to recapture what led you on your journey.
    Thanks for the good wishes. Prayers do have power.

  6. Dee, every time I read I am in awe. I, too recognise the pull of one who knows the creator at first hand: who wants to stay up that mountain and put up tents and just Be in His presence.

    I love my privacy too. I like people, but I like it when they leave me alone, too. In fact I feel a sigh of relief, as if I had undone a particularly tiresome belt.

    Escape is in my make-up, though I have little to escape from in comparison to you. Wonderful writing. Thank you.

  7. Even if your mom may have been close to the truth, I know when I was that age I was just wanting some peace and was sick to death of diving into messy reality. You may have run to a monastery. I ran away to Canada hoping to find a commune. LOL! But no matter where you go, you are hauling you and your baggage with you. ;)

    I can see how your ideas of what the solitary, prayerful life was going to be like and the reality of a communal life with the nuns would not have jelled for a while. What a fascinating journey you have been on! I know what an emotional ride it is for me to write about the past. I admire the way in which you truthfully revisit and share with us who you were back then and how it felt. I consider your memories with privilege and respect. :):)

  8. What an interesting tour that video gives us--& your story, beautifully written, as always! You take us to a place most of us have never known--& I, for one, am enjoying the trip.

  9. My mother, a devout Irish Catholic and Maryknoll magazine subscriber, would always say to my sister and I that she would send for the literature for us to become nuns. I think she was facinated by the adventurous lives she thought they lived. She would say we would always have someone to look after us, have a roof over our heads and food to eat. I know she thought of it as a safe and interesting life as hers had been so difficult. Although I promised God many times that I would do just that if he granted me "my wish of the day", I knew it was not the life for me.

    A dear friend of mine went into the convent and some years later I heard she had left like you did. For reasons I never knew, she was raised by grandparents, and when she was about 8, her grandmother passed away. Most of her upbringing was done by her grandfather, who, I suspect, knew little of how to raise a girl. He encouraged her to join the Presentation Order because there she would then have a home. I often wonder what happened to Maureen Jones. I hope she had a good life and made decisions that were right for her.

    Many of us try to escape difficult/hard situations, whether it be through marriage or another avenue. Hopefully, it is the right decision but, if not, the road it leads to may bring us to the place to find ourselves.

  10. I too am enjoying the journey you are on. Although today was otherwise occupied, I came back to re-read your post so I could tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to examine your motives. You are an inspiration.

  11. I understand the desire for solitude my friend. It has been with me for so long. Yet another side of me demands my loved ones. What a contradiction we are. Human's seek comfort in one another but desire to do so without having to put ourselves out there.

  12. Sometimes, it's just so much easier to be alone because then you have no one to fail you.
    I often feel that way about everyone but my son and my parents.

  13. Dee, in one of your earlier posts, I'd typed a lengthy comment that Blogger then refused to publish and it evaporated into the ether. I had touched on the notion that a monastic approach to life could lead to selfishness and self-absoprtion. I was far more eloquent at the time, but cannot recall my exact wording. When it disappeared, I felt peeved, but later thought that maybe it was just as well it hadn't published, as maybe I'd been too direct. So, it has been interesting to read a similar perspective to my own in your words today.

    I think many of us have a desire for silence in our lives. We balance this need to a greater or lesser extent depending on our individual circumstances. There are, however, those who seem to have a need for noise around them all of the time (TVs, radios, music blaring loudly). I have always valued peace and quiet over noise and am at my happiest when I'm away from the madding crowd, in natural surroundings. The picture you found to represent your creek speaks strongly to me. In fact, it reminds me of a lovely spot in the mountains outside Stellenbosch! Those are the spaces I find myself fully alive, where each of my senses seems so very much more acute than normal. So, I can relate very well to your need of the same. I think Melynda has put it rather elegantly!

    Thank you for another wonderful expose, beautifully and reverently written, as always!


  14. Elisa,
    I know now the truth of what you are saying about yourself and others feeling the same way. But back then I somehow thought I was unique and only Dee Ready had these thoughts!

    Like you, I forget to sacramentalize the day. I forget mindfulness. You said, "recognizing the divine in everyday tasks and objects." That's important to me but often--daily--I get caught up in things and forget!

    Yes, I understand. Part of my making first vow was the decision to do the hardest thing for God--stay in the convent and give up solitude.

    What you've said is true. I am finding that writing about all this is a little hard. I so remember that youthful time and my feelings, but I really haven't examined them in 45 years.

    Since leaving the convent, my spiritual journey has led me away from a belief in a personal God. Instead I believe in the divine Oneness of all of us. In that Oneness the goodness and compassion that dwells deep down within us meets and merges and blesses us all.

  15. Dee, this is such a powerfully written post - so honest and clear-sighted about your younger self. I wonder whether you joined the Benedictines because of propinquity rather than because you felt drawn to the specifically Benedictine version of monasticism. Might you have found a more solitary order, such as the Carmelites more in tune with your personality and spirituality?

  16. Kate,
    I believe that we all feel the pull to Something or Someone or Someforce beyond ourselves. The discovery for me as I've aged is that the pull is toward our very own Being. Within us resides the force of divinity and we are all united within it. On another note, you know, I hope, what a fine writer you are.

    I am always so amazed at how perceptive your comments are. It took me a long time to learn what you've said, that "no matter where you go, you are hauling you and your baggage with you." I've hauled a lot of baggage around. Discarding some; adding more. Feeling worn out with my self.
    The joy is that with time has come acceptance of myself. And in reading your blog I know that's true for you also. So convent for me; Canada for you!

    I'm glad you're enjoying the trip. I'm enjoying it also although writing about all this is taking more energy than I suspected it would. I am trying to accurately reflect Sister Innocence.

    You've hit the nail on the head! That is, we may try to evade or avoid things that seem hard or we may embrace them thinking that hard means good. The hope is though, as you've said, that the road we've taken "may bring us to the place to find ourselves."

    Thank you for your kind words. I'm willing to examine this time of my life because now that I'm older and time seems so fleeting I want to understand the journey I've been on. And the convent was an important part of that journey.

  17. Melynda,
    You have captured the dilemma precisely. It's the yin-yang of life, isn't it?
    Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

    Yes, it's so true that staying involved with others takes real effort. So the temptation truly is to be just with people who are "safe" and who know our need to cocoon ourselves sometimes.

    I so like these words you shared: "Those are the spaces [ones in nature} where I find myself fully alive, where each of my senses seems so very much more acute than normal." And as you said, Melynda wrote about this "elegantly"

    And yes, self-centeredness, self-abosption, and selfishness can take over when our worlds collapse to just ourselves.

  18. Dear Dee, Finally I am catching up on reading your blog! I have not been reading or blogging for several days.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post (and the previous one) about the struggles you faced. I hadn't thought about community in quite this way before, and especially these words, "Rubbing up against one another’s messiness helps us become whole" made me really think about how much we do need each others "messiness" to bring perspective and shed light on our own journey.

    Thank you deeply for your loving comments on my recent post. Your words were a salve for my soul.

    I'm so honored to be a part of your world. Thank you.

  19. Perpetua,
    I had thought about the Carmelites, but as you'll see in my posting tomorrow, I realized that I missed stimuli.

    I agree with you. Relationships bring perspective and shed light on our own journey. Peace.

  20. I am amazed at what you had to say here. I guess you spent a lifetime to come to the understanding of just why you made the decision you did. I found it fascinating that you wanted to escape community, and it is hard to believe how naive we can be in our youth. I shuttered to think of living with all those women! I would not have done well.

    Your mother understood you, but she really was powerless to stop you from doing what she feared you were doing: escaping life. I wish mothers were more perfect. I wish we could spare our children from learning the hard lessons of life. Sadly, we can't. Each person must walk the path they have chosen until they realize the path is not really meant to be right path.

  21. I had a good childhood, great by most standards...nothing to want to run away from...though when I left for college I chose the school the farthest away from my home in Miami (but still in Florida). Something in me told me I needed to run...and I've spent two decades trying to replicate that feeling of "home" ever since. Only recently have I found it within.

  22. You began to learn the lesson of community so young, Dee. I sometimes think it takes a whole lifetime to really understand (if we ever do) that in order to be whole we do need to be part of one another. We aren't complete in ourselves...I personally believe God intended it that way, but oh can it be hard! I so admire the way you are able to tell your story. I often think of your posts long, long after I've read them. They stir something deep in me. Debra