Friday, January 11, 2013

X Why Religious Life Died

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I was momentarily lost, having rarely found it necessary to go to the professed part of the house, where in any event I would only have been allowed to speak to the superior. But in the heightened mood that now possessed me, I could have located a mouse in a blacked-out mausoleum, much less a force of nature such as Sister Q. 
She had taken over two adjacent cells, using one as her office. She was sitting at her desk, sideways to the door, which was ajar; she pretended to ignore me. I rapped softly, as was the custom, to get her attention. After a moment she looked up to study me, as if I were some loathsome creature that had just crawled out from under a rock. She then motioned me to come in, and gestured towards a chair beside her desk, facing her.
She glared at me for a long moment. Finally, in a voice dripping with contempt, 'What is the meaning of this?'
I met her glare with what I hoped was an adequate version of a basilisk eye, and replied, not caring if she heard the iron—and irony—in my voice: 'She was crying. In the sewing room. I heard her on my way up last night. It would have been cruel to ignore her. They are terrified of you. The professed too.'
Sister Q absorbed this information—and my tone of voice—while a look of consternation crept across her face, replacing her usual rigidly controlled expression. As a headmistress she had been accustomed to receiving the perfunctory accolades, however forced and insincere, that someone in her position is accorded; evidently she had long ago forgotten that the person in authority is always the last to know. She had assumed all her life that she was loved and adored—anything else was inconceivable—that she was smarter than everyone without exception; that she was the exception to all rules; that any problem could be resolved by behavioural conditioning (read manipulation by her). She heretofore had conducted her bullying with impunity.
I continued to meet her stare with cold, concentrated fury—and she blinked first.
'Tell me,' she said.
I gave her a thumbnail sketch of each person in the house (except for Sister Machiavelli, whom she knew from earlier days, and with whom she was already conniving), and described the general atmosphere of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) chaos. I spared no-one, including myself. One by one her illusions were skewered and deflated. Occasionally she would nod as if to confirm the truth of what I was saying. I did not, of course, know about the superior's sexual adventures, but her erratic and often irrational behaviour, and the dark undercurrent of deceit (there are no secrets in a monastery), had broken through even Sister Q's denial. She had known many of these women a lot longer than I had, but evidently she thought my analysis was not wide of the mark. 
And she also must have seen me as a threat because, when I finally fell silent, all she said was 'I'm making you my secretary'.
I stood up and left, hoping she did not see how badly shaken I was by my own audacity, and wondering what being her secretary could possibly entail. I dreaded being anywhere near her. 'Bad vibes', was a term not yet current in our small world.
As it turned out, being her secretary amounted to not much. The impact of our conversation was that she more or less lost interest in the novices and the community. My best guess is that she had agreed to become novice-mistress because she thought it would be a doddle, that she could ride rough-shod over us the way she always had over everyone else, and get on with her private machinations. But when, after our conversation, it dawned on her that in addition to the in-house problems she would also be required to participate in the community's transition to the brave new world of post-Vatican II religious life, she realised that her tenure was not about to be a quiet little picnic in the country—just another village fête where she would be celebrated and fawned upon—and lost interest.
She would not be the first person in authority to abandon ship  when the going got rough (while retaining membership in the Order and whatever cachet went with that): far in the future, when I was consulting for RC communities, I was to encounter more than one person who was happy to have control of the novices as long as they appeared healthy, were not much trouble, and remained more or less malleable; but who abandoned them as soon as they started falling apart—as novices invariably do—refusing to go with them through the process by which they faced whatever inner demons they harboured and came out the other side, transfigured.
One monk summed up by saying: 'I can see what I have to do to sustain this,' meaning  not only his own benefits from the work of silence, which he had been practicing for six months, but also helping the novices for which he had responsibilty, 'and I don't want to suffer,' the last five words negating his entire vocation. It almost goes without saying that he, like our superior, was engaging in sexual adventures, and had been for years. Neither of these people, as it turned out, had ever really had a proper novitiate in which they learned the basics; each of them had been so formidable that they were allowed to skate through the various steps of initiation with little self-knowledge—and with disastrous consequences.


Anonymous Susan Law said...

This series is fascinating - both your own story and your analysis of religious life. For a brief period in the late 60's, when I was in my late 20's, I was a postulant in a Carmelite monastery. Fortunately for me, it was a house where sanity and real vocations were the norm. Even so, I recognize the issues you describe -

I'm looking forward to the next posts. I'm also trying to put together something on my thoughts regarding what you've referred to as the two epistemologies. I'm sorry I'm such a slow writer/thinker.


1:46 am, January 13, 2013  
Blogger Valerie Stark said...

So, she made you her secretary! Reminds me of the adage: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Sadly, much of this rings true, even today. What is even sadder is that many younger religious (younger being under 60 years of age) hold some of the same attitudes you describe here.

12:57 pm, January 13, 2013  

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