VI Why Religious Life Died
The basis on which the community had been founded was somewhat murky as well. There was a 'secret' which one was told only after profession. Some of us challenged this and it finally came out—and proved to be just what one might expect: some priest had made a pass at one of the founding sisters. It was just an excuse, of course, for the headstrong and domineering personality behind the split from another community to make her move, a beginning which was poorly concealed under a mythology of joint foundation with several other sisters.
All was not well under the bucolic exterior presented to incomers, and it didn't take long to pick up the tensions in the community. There was one sister who was clearly psychotic, and several others who were equally clearly in desperate need of therapy. No-one seemed to know what to do for them. The community lived on a shoestring, and while it had supporters, money was always a problem. There was an extremely wealthy New York socialite who took great interest in the community, but as always, such interest had a price. When I arrived, the decision to capitulate had not yet been made.
Into this mix came three of us, one by one, all with high-powered educations, all trained in theology, all of us able to sing and familiar with chant, all of us with as thorough a knowledge of religious life as could be obtained without having lived it, and the ardour to pursue the life through thick and thin. To put it mildly, the community didn't know what hit them, and it was probably a mercy that no one knew what to do with us, much less give us 'formation'. Living the life taught us, and taught us well. Just to put the icing on the cake, three more diverse personalities could not be imagined, but simply because we were thrown into each others' company—the novices were kept as separate from the professed as possible within reason in a small community—we were forced to develop firm bonds.
The breakthrough came one Sunday when we three were shooed down to the old guesthouse to let off steam. Under those three innocent-looking white coifs dwelt three mischievous—and one Machiavellian—minds. After glowering at one another in silence for a few moments, one of us picked up a guitar and grinning wickedly at the other two began to sing to the tune 'I wish I were single again' the words, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you'—at which we all began to roar with laughter, shrieking, slapping our sides, pounding the furniture, nearly rolling on the ground with release of tension. From that point on we pooled our common frustration and spent a lot of time inventing scurrilous but entirely harmless comic songs with which we would occasionally entertain the professed on big feast days. Sample: to the old English melody to 'Once I had a Sweetheart' (it was the Joan Baez era), we caroled, 'Once I had a sweetheart but now I've got nuns....'
Every once in a while someone undertook to give us a class. Since most of the instructors' theology was completely out of date, these were polite but wholly ineffectual sessions. The façade finally crumbled when one prickly, elderly Anglo-Catholic priest decided to take us in hand and tried to give us a class on the sacrament of confession, trotting out all the old shibboleths which had been smashed by Vatican II if not the march of historiography. We were fed up with slogans that had no referents, theological or practical; we wanted to know the reasons for everything—and in fact our reasons were often better than the 'traditional' (read post-Tridentine) ones for certain observances.
Our would-be mentor mentor made the mistake of asking us if we believed what he had presented. We three looked at each other. 'No,' we said in unison. To which he snapped, 'Then what do you believe?' and the best-trained of us, the Machiavellian who had studied with Austin Farrer at Oxford, began to speak, with us chiming in to amplify particular points. Of course it was unheard of for novices to have an opinion, much less rock-solid theology, and the old cleric stormed out of the room. The three of us were left embarrassed; we were quite open to rational discussion, but unwilling to compromise our hard-won rationales. We were certainly not willing to believe something just because some ill-advised cleric told us to. We went on with the life without further attempts by others to control our minds; given the situation with the rest of the community, benign neglect was probably the best of all possible worlds. And we did learn: from the life, the silence, the chant, the enclosure, the situation, and from one another.
We were not the only novices for long. Aspirants began to stream in, some of them more in need of closer ties than others, but most with what appeared to be genuine callings and plenty of good will and openness. But the professed community was increasingly caught up in its own problems about which we novices knew nothing. The superior/novice-mistress was more and more remote, but we could sense that something was seriously wrong. The community missed a huge opportunity with these young women; their vocations were wasted. It wasn't anyone's fault; it was an impossible situation, the times as much as the community's seemingly insoluble problems. But it would have taken only a little imagination and wisdom for the community to have acknowledged the aptitudes and vision that these new sisters were bringing with them instead of being threatened by them, and to have moved forward to the next phase of the community's unfolding. Sadly, this was not to be.
Several of the newbies crashed and burned. One left and committed suicide, something we were never told while in the community, a sorrow which I discovered later only by chance. Then the first of the Terrible Three, Sister A., left. She was simply too highly strung and too badly damaged ever to be able to trust anyone. Her defense was a wildly comic streak which carried with it the perpetual danger of making us dissolve in laughter on the most solemn occasions, even in choir. She had been the superior/novice-mistress's pet, and had both deflected this woman's more destructive tantrums, while keeping us all from taking ourselves too seriously. Sister A. was sorely missed, and her departure, by default, left me as senior of the twelve novices and postulants. By tradition, the senior novice took on some responsibility for the well-being of the others. If we had been flying blind before, we were certainly doing so now.