VIII Why Religious Life Died
The arrival of Sister Q, as I shall call our new novice mistress, who was also the force of nature behind the splitting off of our community from its hapless parent, threw the entire house into a state of panic. To say that this woman was intimidating is vastly to understate the reality. Perhaps the only two people who were not totally flummoxed by her arrival were the two of us remaining from the Terrible Three: Sister Machiavelli and myself. Sister A had been the cement among us; after she left, Sister Machiavelli and I drifted apart.
Sister Machiavelli, seeing the vacuum in the superior's life after the departure of Sister A, and sensing an ally in the new novice mistress, whom she had known before she came to the community, began to write her own ticket. From this time forward she was no longer really a novice, but in a category by herself, and a law unto herself; she always had been; now there was no longer any reason to hide. She was a very slick operator indeed, as well as being extremely bright and well-educated. She was the most political of political animals, and sashayed her way to life vows, a sure trajectory amid the chaos, even negotiating a return to England—where she soon met, and married, the Prior of a venerable Anglican religious community, much to the scandal of all parties. Although the death-agony of both communities lasted for several decades, it was prove the final blow for the English house; the American house has lingered, much reduced. By the time ex-Sister Machiavelli married the ex-Prior, it was the nineteen-seventies, and nothing was really surprising any longer. But I am getting ahead of the story.
For myself, I was anxious about Sister Q, make no mistake; my anxiety levels, always high, were skyrocketing. But I was also angry, angry that the novices and postulants who had already been through so much, who had so little stability and been subject to so much capricious neglect in their context when they should have had peace and gentle guidance, should be facing what—I suspected from the stories I'd heard—would be hectoring, bullying and humiliation from this woman coming in with her hob-nailed boots to ride rough-shod over the vulnerable. There were some particularly radiant young women in the novitiate at that time, but one or two of them were not at all sophisticated or particularly well educated, and there was one postulant especially who had real strength under her fragility, if only it were allowed to develop slowly, with support and encouragement, and whom I was determined to defend from the dragon's breath if necessary.
Sure enough. Without the smallest gesture of getting to know us, or listening to the situation in the house—which I am sure she had imagined ahead of time into one of her mental laboratory templates on file—she announced her intention to tighten up our observance. This happened at the first morning Chapter of Faults and work assignment meeting at which she presided.
This meeting was a daily occurrence every morning except for Sundays and big feasts. We all sat around a big table in the novitiate, with the novice-mistress at the head, the youngest postulant—youngest by date of entry—on her left, and me, as senior novice, on her right. Beginning with the youngest we would one by one, all twelve of us, kneel and recite our infractions of the Rule. Some of us were more honest than others—or maybe we were just stupid to be so honest, but to us, religious life was still about trying to live some kind of truth. Then we would be given some small penance, a prayer, or a task. After the last of us had recited her culpa, we would get our work assignments, or whatever the novice-mistress thought appropriate.
In recent months, the superior/novice-mistress had hardly thought of us at all, and it was clear that however briefly her body might be present, her mind was elsewhere. She may have presided at the meetings, but after the last culpa she was off like a shot, leaving us more or less to our own devices and long-term assigned work. She was jumpy and irritable—and paranoid, with good reason, given all she had on her plate within the community, and the affairs she was conducting outside of it. She took her tensions out on the people she didn't like, and I was at the top of the list, for reasons I never really understood, but partly, I suspect, because she had been an opera singer, while I had a better voice for chant. I was assigned precentrix duties as soon as I was clothed as a novice—but the assignment was given reluctantly, I could tell. By this time she could hardly bear choir; she even swatted me with the back of her hand in choir, once, for some imagined infraction about which I hadn't a clue. She began to be absent a lot. We, in the interest of self-protection, began to 'assume permission' (and neglect to report it) a lot. She must have been hugely relieved to turn us over to Sister Q.
In the event, Sister Q had it in mind to shape up the troops. She may have had it in mind, but she had no idea what she was dealing with. We were not a bunch of flighty high school girls, giggling in corners, and she was not our headmistress. We were women of varying maturity who had fought hard to get to the monastery and had been, for the most part, badly let down by a community in flux, many of whose members really didn't understand why they were living the way they were; some of whom were, frankly, mad; and some of whom were all too anxious, for all the wrong reasons, to take advantage of the upheaval—it was by now the mid-sixties—sweeping through the churches and through the world.