The Other I

September 15, 2007

Convent life: trying to get out

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

I think, in truth, I spent most of my years in Maryknoll trying to get out.  This might seem like a simple process for most rational people since all I had to do was literally walk out the door.  But I was convinced that I had a vocation.  And a vocation isn’t something one chooses for oneself.  A vocation is a calling from God that comes only to a selected few, and as I saw it, I could say either yes or no to God.  So getting out of the convent meant finding some way of getting a message from God that He didn’t want me there any longer.

During the Novitiate, my strategies were pretty transparent to everybody but myself.  I found strange lumps that I hopefully took to the nurse.  It was a normal breast bone.  I developed headaches.  The infirmary gave me an anti-depressant that had the atypical effect of turning me into a hyperactive wreck unable to sleep at night.  I came down with a suspected case of appendicitis (or I thought perhaps stomach cancer) that was cured with a laxative. 

Throughout these exhibitions, the novice mistress remained unimpressed.  “You want to go home,” she said with total clarity, “because you want to take care of your younger brothers and sisters.  But your father is remarried.  They do not need you.”  She was right, of course.  Obviously the ill-health strategy was not going to work.  I would have to think of something else.

Before we were accepted to take our first vows we were asked to fill out a questionnaire.  I don’t remember what was on it, except for one question which asked “Have you been happy while you have been at Maryknoll?”  My best friend told me she’d answered no.  “Phyllis!”  I said in as much sincere surprise as I would have felt had she announced that 2+2=3, “That’s the wrong answer.  They won’t accept you.”  Her response was quite reasonable:  I don’t think being happy is the point.

I was right though.  Phyllis was not accepted to take vows.  And I remember thinking that if only I had said that I wasn’t happy, instead of giving what I knew was the right answer without any reference at all to how I really felt, I would have been sent home too.  Instead, I resigned myself to answering God’s call to be a missionary nun.

But it was going to be a bumpy ride.  The 1960’s had started.  We had Pope John XXIII and the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War for starters. 

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