The Other I

September 26, 2009

An innocent question

Filed under: Life as a Nun,The English — theotheri @ 4:11 pm

England is strewn with abbeys closed by Henry VIII in the 16th century.  They were methodically stripped of their roofs and any valuables, and today they stand as haunting historic ruins, a reminder that even power seemingly backed up by the unassailable authority of God will not last forever.

What struck me about these abbeys when we were visiting one with our guests last week wasn’t this loss of power and prestige, however, so much as the process of globalization that has taken place for the last millenium.  Today it might be Walmarts and Tyotas that mark worldwide globalization.  Then it was Christianity.  By the 7th century, this included monastic life of the abbeys and convents which are now spread all over Europe and the Americas.  I recognize their layouts and the life styles they represent immediately.

They may be ruins, they may still be occupied and used for their original purpose,  or even converted into apartments or hotels.  But the monastic life around which they were originally built is unmissable.  I recognize them like the streets of my hometown, because I lived for nine years as a nun and the fundamental structure has not changed for more than a thousand years.

There is the church, of course, the cells, the refectory and kitchens.  And there is the chapter room where the community met.  Usually it was to deal with questions of regular discipline and where the Chapter of Faults took place.  I explained to my husband and guests how it operated.  One by one, each individual stood before the community and accused herself of the faults she had committed since the last chapter.  After the recitation, she lay prostate on the floor and received the penance from the superior.  Then the next sister stood up and accused herself until every individual had confessed their faults before the community.

“What did you do if you hadn’t committed any faults?” my husband asked.

That could not happen.  To pronounce oneself to be blameless would of itself be an exhibition of the great sin of pride.  Far far better to make a sin up than to stand in speechless innocence.

However, there was always several fall back positions.  One was to confess to breaking “custody of the eyes.”  Breaking custody of the eyes meant that one had looked around, had displayed interest or curiosity in the people or events around you.  In my time, there was also always the potential of confessing to “recreating in two’s.”  As young nuns we were never permitted to have a conversation involving less than three people.  Although this was never said, the obvious purpose of this rule was to reduce the possibility of homosexual attachments but confessing to breaking this rule did not seem to suggest that the sinner was a lesbian, so it was a useful fall-back in case of need.

Neither of these rules are extant among Maryknollers today.  But there are still many convents – including in America – where they are still taken with deadly seriousness.

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