The Other I

June 20, 2007

The convent I left

I was a nun for nine years, so it will take a few more postings to describe my life there.   I do want to correct the impression that the convent I was in was the traditional, closed, stuffy uptight place so many people think convents are.  Orders of nuns and the rules under which they live are varied, and there was much about Maryknoll, even fifty years ago, that was a breath of fresh air. 

Part of the problem then was the often unbridgeable disconnect between the young sisters and the older nuns in charge.  Many of the young nuns came to Maryknoll with educational levels years beyond those of the older nuns.  And the world was changing faster than almost anybody in authority could cope with.  In universities and schools, in politics, in churches and families, traditions were in upheaval.  If the Maryknoll superiors sometimes tripped up, so did thousands of professors, presidents, politicians and parents.  The Maryknoll superiors were trying, but often they could not understand what was happening, and even when they understood, they rarely knew how to communicate with us.  Nor often were we listening, because we thought we had more to tell them than they had to tell us.

After Princess Diana died, the Queen, who had been socialized by the Second World War where people kept a stoic facade in public and mourned in private, was stunned by the response of hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in anguished mourning.  To her, this display of emotion no doubt looked self-indulgent and vulgar.  It is extraordinary to me how quickly she grasped that society had changed.  For several days she remained holed up in Scotland, looking as if she would never budge from a self-satisfied puritanism.  But I doubt very much self-satisfied is what she felt.  Looking at the subjects in her kingdom in a totally new way is closer to what I think now.

Many of the nuns in positions of authority at Maryknoll were like that, though the learning curve was less apparent at the time, and lasted for years.  Actually, it probably never stopped, because it was an order that engaged with the world, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian, and continues to struggle to understand.  Today, hundreds of nuns and ex-nuns remain friends, and return to the center Motherhouse in Ossining New York regularly.

But what was it like?  We usually rose with a bell at 5:30 am, had an hour of silent meditation before saying the Office in the chapel together and attending Mass.  Then we gathered for breakfast before beginning our assigned work for the day.  All of this was done in silence, and even during meals, we listened to reading, sometimes religious, sometime educational or inspirational.  Work was sometimes manual, sometimes study, and was punctuated with periods of prayer.  Music was an important part of the liturgy, and choir practice a significant part of the weekly schedule.  In the evening we had an hour of “recreation” when we talked and played games.  The discipline of the routine suited me well, but I chaffed against the constant oversight of authority.    

No, I didn’t belong there, even under the most modern of rules, and am very glad events did not construe to keep me there any longer.  But it wasn’t the way most people think of convents, and there is a lot about my experiences there that stood me in good stead when I returned to what we used to call “the real world.”

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