V Why Religious Life Died
There is an old saying that you learn to be a monk simply by living the life. There are two problems with this adage in the present day: the first is that there are very few places where what is meant by monastic life exist: that is, a context of beauty, silence, Office with chant, liturgy, enclosure used to keep distraction out, not as a prison for form's sake, letting each person get on with his or her own mystery as he or she learns to live in community and solitude simultaneously. The second problem is that the would-be monk must be truly drawn to the life, having thought it through to the best of his or her ability, committed to seeking God alone, and already an acute and empathetic listener and observer. There is little in today's culture that fosters such people.
The community I first entered both did and did not fulfill these requirements, and the way it did fulfill them was more or less by default rather than intention, though of course it was a few years before the cracks yawned wide. The external elements were all there: silence, office, beauty, mostly sensible habit (though not sensibly worn, that is to say, one was never allowed to wear anything else even when it was dangerous to do so). The biggest difficulty was the amount of unstarched linen that enclosed one's head—unbearable in hot weather; I can't imagine what people did in those days when most communities had headdresses that were starched to board-like rigidity. With permission, most of us shaved our heads. Not being given permission was a warning sign that you might be on the way out.
I settled happily into the life, though it was not without its traumas. One of those, as with many novices, was not only dealing with my own past history but also with parents who were determined, whatever it took, to get me out of there. Another was that I attracted the enmity of the novice-mistress who also happened to be the superior of that house. What I did not know at the time was that she was having an affair with a priest outside the community; she eventually left altogether to live with another woman. But her departure was far in the future. The community was very middle class and not inclined, as I was to discover, towards accepting anyone who had been culturally deprived, no matter how strong her vocation.
The community numbered about twenty in the house, and forty in total, mostly ordinary women with ordinary educations and little knowledge of theology, much less theology of the religious life. There were one or two great exceptions to this rule: one was at the house I was in; the other was not to arrive for a couple of years. For most of these women, religious life was something they wanted to do; they had take on a lifestyle that agreed with them. They were content to be guided by occasional visits from the male community nearby to which they were loosely attached. The men weren't particularly happy about this, though those monks assigned to us tried hard to be sympathetic, and were usually benign. It was refreshing to have a male viewpoint. However, this tie with the men's community was broken after Vatican II, along with a good deal else. By the time the ructions were over, there were only two or three left of the original sisters, and the community, like so many others, had become more or less a revolving door. It has now dwindled to a single house, with those remaining unable to figure out what went wrong.
[To Be Continued]