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.