IX Why Religious Life Died
One of the observances that Sister Q had banged on about at the morning meeting was the observance of silence. She merely assumed, without any evidence, that we had far too many infractions of both the greater and the lesser silence.
The community at that time still observed the lesser silence in keeping with its more contemplative bent, even though it thought of itself as a 'mixed life' community, combining contemplative and active, but with the provision for a more contemplative way of living for the older professed. The lesser silence was welcome, but the way of keeping it was not. If we were working in the kitchen and had a question, we'd have to write a note, instead of adopting the common-sense option of 'necessary speech' conducted in a low voice. If the question were complicated, the ensuing discussion generated ridiculous quantities of note exchanges, and took up far too much time, often to the detriment of getting meals out at the appointed hours. Sister K was the exception; she would just barge ahead and speak quietly; of course I had no way of knowing if she ever added breaking the lesser silence to her culpa at the professed meeting—I rather doubt it. She had no time for foolishness and affectation.
I wasn't aware that anyone had been particularly talkative in the Great Silence, but then, Sister Q was the sort of person who would have criticised us whether or not the infraction was in fact being committed. Her harangue that morning had the predictable result that during that day, many of the novices and postulants started creeping around as if they were walking on eggshells, reduced to quivering blobs of anxiety. I wasn't one of them. I just got angrier.
The Great Silence that night began, as always, with the beautiful Office of Compline. As I was sacristan at the time, needing to prepare the altar for the morning Eucharist, to turn out lights and blow out candles, I was the last person out of chapel and walked, as usual through the silent house, checking doors that were supposed to be locked, and making sure lights were out. But as I reached the top of the novitiate staircase, I heard muffled sobbing coming from the direction of the sewing room. Fully aware of what I was doing, but supported by my anger, I quietly opened the door, shut it behind me—and discovered the postulant I had been so worried about, in full flood, trying to suppress her sobs with an old rag.
My appearance made her sob even harder. I asked her what was wrong, and she choked out that she was terrified of Sister Q, and now that I had come in, she would have to confess at culpa the next morning that she had broken the silence both by her weeping and by talking to me. At this point, something in me snapped. I said, don't worry, tomorrow morning you start, and I will break in and take the responsibility.
I had no idea what Sister Q's reaction would be, but I was determined to rattle her cage. If we couldn't give comfort when it was needed, or, worse, when comfort was needed because of the bullying of a superior, then I didn't particularly care what happened.* I can't remember what else I said, but finally, hesitantly, not really believing that I would do what I said I would do, the postulant calmed down and we went off to our separate cells. Normally after such an event I would have been awake all night, but on this occasion I slept like the proverbial baby.
The next morning, going through the rituals of choir, breakfast, and cleanup, followed by Terce, I could tell from her body language that the poor postulant was at the breaking point. I tried to catch her eye, but she was too wrapped up in misery. After Terce we trooped up the novice stairs to the common room and took our places around the table. I could tell that Sister Q was practically rubbing her hands in anticipation.
By now the postulant was visibly trembling, and tears were pouring down her face. But I couldn't help her: she had to start before I could say anything. Finally she managed to control herself enough to begin, and at the word 'silence', Sister Q's face darkened and she took a deep breath—at which point I broke in and said with vehemence, 'It's entirely my fault. She had nothing to do with it.'
There was a long, long pause while Sister Q contemplated this lèse majesté, and the other novices and postulants regarded me with emotions ranging from horror, to disbelief, to barely-suppressed merriment (Sister Machiavelli).
Finally, 'You will see me afterwards in my cell.' I gave her a curt nod for my assent, while relief saturated every pore. The hardest part was over. The cycle of fear was broken, not just for me, but for the entire novitiate. Whatever she had in mind, I was ready for her; my big fear had been that when the moment came I would be speechless and my mind would go blank. Now I realised that was not going to happen. Instead, a new feeling took over: I was icily calm—and somehow untouchable.
The rest of the meeting was perfunctory and quickly ended. No one looked at me as we stood up for the final versicle and response, and dispersed. I waited until everyone had departed, took a deep breath, and went down the stairs to Sister Q's cell.
* For those who remember The Nun's Story, this issue about keeping the Great Silence rigidly or speaking to patients in need in the hospital at night was exactly the same; it exposed the sado-masochistic Manichean Tridentine literalism of pre-Vatican II religious life. Another of these moments in both the book and the movie, was Sister Luke's failure to obey the local superior in Leuven, where she was studying tropical medicine, who had ordered her to fail her exam—something the superior did not have the right to ask, should never have asked. In addition, the Superior General's statement towards the end of the film, that—it was significant the way she put this—that the religious life came first and nursing second, was another of the distortions of religious life of the time, the triumph of institutionalism over patristic theology and gospel values. If the Superior General had said 'the love of God must come first' then there would have been no conflict. None of these examples has anything to do with genuine monasticism. As Anthony, the first hermit, said, no matter how solitary you are, your life and your death is with your neighbour, and beyond that, religious life is about living your own truth, not destroying or denying the gifts God has given. Hospitality and welcome in whatever circumstance was always the first rule of the desert, whatever the fast day might be, whatever the solitary's personal rule might be. Charity always comes first, especially if it means comforting someone in the middle of the night.