The Other I

August 6, 2007

Convent life: resilence vs adaptation

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

I can see this blog is never going to metamorph into a coherent story of my life because I write about the past mostly when it, usually unexpectedly, pops its head up in the present.  Yesterday I talked for more than an hour to an ex-Maryknoll friend whom I have not seen in more than 40 years.  We took up where we’d left off without a break.  It happens like that, sometimes.  It is inevitably surprising for me, because my default setting is that lost friends have gone on different paths and we have little in common.

One of the many things we discussed was the difference between the two groups of women who entered the Maryknoll convent in 1958.  The main group of 64 to which I belonged entered at the Motherhouse in Ossining, New York.  A smaller group joined several months later and spent their first three years in Valley Park, Missouri.    When the two groups were brought together at the Motherhouse in 1961, our sense was that the Valley Parkers were a good deal more pious than we were.  I am sure something happened in those three years to change us differently.

We were a bigger group situated at the Motherhouse with several hundred other nuns.  So I think it was more difficult to keep track of us than it was to monitor the much smaller numbers at Valley Park.  A second and possibly more important difference was that our superiors at the Motherhouse may have been more concerned to identify those who might not have the psychological resilence to withstand the stress of living for years with the poor in a foreign culture.  After all, the shadowy presence of sisters who had been broken walked the halls of the Motherhouse with haunted eyes, unable to sleep.  The Valley Parker superiors, on the other hand, were more concerned with winnowing out those whose self-will would not ultimately bend to the demands of obedience and community control.

So the rebellious, independent sisters whose conscience was less troubled by infractions of the rule often survived the first three years at the Motherhouse, while they were asked to leave if they had entered at Valley Park.  The next six years, though were different.  The Vietnam War and Vatican II were shaking the foundations of the country and the church, and Maryknoll shook with them.  Ultimately, Valley Parkers were better adapted to a Maryknoll life.  60 of the original Motherhouse group of 64 left Maryknoll, either voluntarily or at the request of the Maryknoll superiors.

To the outsider, leaving the convent may seem comparable to graduating from college, or leaving one job for another.  In actuality, for most of us it was far more like a divorce, with the anger and blame and sense of failure and rejection that so often goes with it.  But that is for another post.

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