Sunday, December 16, 2012

VII Why Religious Life Died

We were not, however, entirely without guidance, for in the community lived Sister K, who was one of the founding sisters—or at least was the first to come to the community after it formed and broke away from its parent, and she came in her middle age. By the time our cohort entered, she was already elderly, but she was to live for many more years. She was tall, slender, with a natural and unself-conscious dignity, even elegance—but for all of this she managed to fade into the background. The other sisters were alternately in awe of her, jealous of her, exasperated with her, forgetful of her, but if anyone in the community knew what monastic life was about, it was Sister K.
She came from Southern aristocracy, and a plantation where, as one sister put it, if she wanted a full grown tree moved two feet to the right, it would be done by the next morning. But there was nothing in evidence of this background except for the grace with which she carried herself, and her unfailing quiet courtesy no matter how rude someone else was. She had not had much formal education—girls in her day were 'finished'—but she had an acute and wide-ranging mind and had educated herself to a very high degree.
She missed nothing that happened in the community, but kept most of it to herself, working in the background to keep the peace, if not directly, then by example for those who could see. She had the important job of cellarer, not the accounts end of that job, but the kitchen end. She trained all the novices who came in the art of bread-making and other skills vital to feeding the community, and for those who cared to pay attention, she had much to teach simply by the way she lived. She should have been novice-mistress, but the prima donna who was the superior and held that job as well was too full of envy, and too power-mad to have the sense to appoint her. The rule of the community allowed for senior members to withdraw into more silence and solitude, and she followed this option as fully as she could.
For some reason she took a particular shine to me which, far from spoiling me, made me shape up and fly right. It was rather, as Louisa May Alcott put it, like falling into the web of a very strict spider. But she was not a bit like Aunt March: far from devouring me, she brought me life. She could read me like a book, and when things were going badly, occasions which were far too frequent, due, in part, to my hyper-acute pickup mechanism, she would appear in near proximity, seemingly by accident, occupied with some task, silent, or, muttering under her breath a few words of encouragement about detachment and peace. She somehow, against all the negative pressures I was subject to, made me realize that I had dignity and worth, that there was no doubt in anyone's mind about my contemplative vocation, no matter what exterior signals I was receiving. In fact, I realise now that she made me understand that this was precisely the problem, as no matter how much I tried to hide and be 'normal', it aroused jealousy and fear in others. She gave me the courage to drink always from that wellspring; that whatever happened, I should believe in that source and no other.
By the time I became senior novice by default, she had been transferred to another house, but I leaned on what she had taught me, and her deeply insightful wisdom. At the same time she was transferred, there came the news that the founding spirit behind the community was going to come to our house and take up the post of novice-mistress. The prima-donna thankfully by this time had thrown up her hands over ever being able to do anything with us, and in any event, was preoccupied with her affairs outside the community, something we didn't know about overtly but sensed as a dark deceit, an undercurrent that was unsettling to say the least. There are no secrets in community.
This was news that filled us all with dread, not only because of the stories we had heard about the formidable nature of this woman, but, even more, that she was the follower of a particularly behaviorist school of psychology, which was the last thing our flock of highly intuitive novices needed.


Blogger Ultra Monk said...

I am enjoying reading your story. I find it personally hard that even having been out of the convent for almost 10 years, the ideas from monastic life stick with me. And it seems I still need to sort out why I was there at all. It dramatically affected my life.

5:25 pm, December 16, 2012  
Blogger happy pearl said...

Your account is a real deja vu experience for me, albeit in another field. My first teaching post was at one of the best girls' schools in the country, and was ruled by a female control freak of the worst order. I was too creative for her, but she put up with me because my results looked good to those who mattered in her eyes, but I challenged her repeatedly. Eventually she started wearing me down, and after a particular turning point, she told me to find another post(in state schools you couldn't do that unless the person being fired had committed a crime - I would have to agree to move and then wait it out for the remaining 8 months of the year until the education authority could find me another post the following year - if one existed). I responded in kind, and she then forbade every member of staff to speak to me, but didn't tell me of this - in a boarding school, where I had to live with these people. I found out about it because one member of staff kept me up to date and supported me through this - the one Jewish member of staff in a school which prided itself on its high Christian ethos.

Sorry to burden your blog with my saga, but it still burns, even thirty five years later, although I made it my business to make contact with that head in an effort to reconcile ourselves before I took on the church work I am now engaged in. I found I felt terribly sorry for her- my life had moved on, but she was mired in her little controlled world until the end of her life. My forgiveness was real, because I completely unexpectedly felt such compassion for her, but I am aware of some wonderful, creative girls whose lives were permanently blighted during their teenage years under this controlling horror.

Professed, professionalism - two words with the same root. These related comcepts demand so much more from one who is taking them on, and when we fail in our professionalism, the damage is huge - far more so than in that crime and immorality that bedevils so much of our world ar present.

4:05 pm, December 17, 2012  

Post a Comment

<< Home