Wednesday, January 16, 2013

XI Why Religious Life Died

After my conversation with Sister Q there was a lull; but none of us was fooled. She continued to retain the title of novice-mistress, and to preside at our meetings, but beyond that she made it clear by her behaviour that she was more or less unavailable. We were aware of more comings and goings than usual among the professed, especially Sister Q, but we were mostly ignored. One by one, novices packed their bags and left, defeated by the general disintegration and lack of any vision or way forward. 
One of the professed swam the Tiber and went to an RC community. One went to a mental hospital; one fell apart in-house, and sequestered herself in her cell with a pair of (very smelly) kittens; one, who had a compulsion that bound her to open any closed door, became more and more agitated as she yanked each one ajar with increasing vehemence. Most of the remaining novices simply went through the comforting routine of the day, trying to stay sane, aware that the professed were winding themselves up tighter and tighter. Some were better at this than others.
In the middle of this mess, one of the juniors, Sister G, came up for profession. She was controversial not because she was a diva, but because she was so exceptional in her ordinariness. To say that she was physically unattractive is to put it mildly; she knew it, which made her even more awkward, though she tried hard to smooth over the rough edges. She tried too hard, that was part of the problem. When she was still a novice and was coming to novice recreation, many of us inwardly groaned if she began one of her interminable and banal tales; sometimes we failed her badly—and even more our selves and the life we were trying to live—in private when she wasn't there. 
But she was intelligent, she had a good heart, and she was faithful to the life and loyal to the community almost to a fault. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever for her not to be accepted for profession. The unwritten rule was that a person was not received for temporary profession if there were any major doubts about her suitability for final profession. Sometimes people panic after making commitments: the temporary vows gave them some breathing space.
The afternoon of the vote she rejoined the novitiate as we grouped together in the common room, united behind her. No matter how each of us might feel about her personally, we all supported her courage to go forward into the unknown, to commit herself to a community in flux, whose future, financial and otherwise, was uncertain. Being underdogs ourselves, we also supported her as a fellow-traveler. 
From my point of view, this vote was an acid test: if they didn't accept her, then they were not a monastic community but rather a sorority—an attitude which unfortunately had become the norm after the Reformation; it is one of the main causes of the death of religious life. Communities are like ecosystems: they need diversity. If they become mere aggregations of the like-minded, they are doomed.
It would have been totally wrong to turn Sister G down: she had lived her novitiate and her juniorate in sincerity and truth, and with a good heart; she had put up with a lot with great grace. There were no grounds for dismissing her. I had long had the feeling that, as happens far too often in communities, she had been accepted for simple vows simply because everyone was too embarrassed to do otherwise: it had been more of a default than a positive vote, letting the situation slide, putting off addressing it until suddenly they woke up to the fact that this woman was now going to be a permanent, voting member of the community. There was no reason she should not be.
The vote should have been perfunctory, but the Chapter meeting—the sisters who lived in other houses already had voted by mail—dragged on and on. The more time that passed, the more intensely we supported Sister G, who, being no dummy, was acutely aware of the significance of the long wait, becoming more awkward by the moment, while we became more and more supportive. In those hours of waiting with her, we forged a bond that went far deeper than any sense of community we'd had up to that point, and Sister G's courageous attitude made us respect her all the more. The longer we were made to wait, the less our regard for the community of the professed.
Finally she was summoned to the Chapter. After so many hours, our relief and joy was somewhat muted; she burst into tears, then got hold of herself and went off to be received. If she had been turned down, she would have been told privately. Her profession day also was somewhat muted; a decade later, she left the community.
But this was hardly the end of the community's throes. Suddenly the novices were subjected to a battery of tests. One or two of us had studied psychology and knew the tests and their error rates; what were tests going to tell the professed that our years spent living with them had not? We cooperated because we had no choice, challenging the person administering them whenever possible, which person was highly amused instead of being insulted. In any event, testing was not the way to discern a vocation; it was only useful for weeding out extreme mental illness and even then it was not difficult to beat the tests. The testing was, in fact, a kind of displacement activity on the part of the Chapter. Unable to find direction for themselves, they took their frustration out on the novices. All of us came through with flying colours, of course, but the mood in the novitiate was darkening.
Then it was my turn to come up for first profession. I was torn: I knew the life was all I wanted but I also knew that the way it was lived was going to change, and not for the better. Professed were already jumping onto post-Vatican II bandwagons of one sort or another. Sister Q departed for New York City and seminary, having somehow finessed taking the Graduate Record Exam; she was bound and determined to be one of the first women priests whether anyone else thought she was suitable or not. 
Ten years later, when I was doing my second novitiate as a solitary, she wrote to ask if she could come to see me. I was gobsmacked, but I had no reason to say 'no'. We sat in my hermitage; after a silence she said, 'I'm trying to find a place to do my dying.' It turned out that this was more a bit of self-dramatising than an expression of self-knowledge; there was no immediate health crisis, only the intimations of mortality that come with late middle age. She said that she had been ejected by the community—but she was still in vows, so I wasn't quite sure what that meant and didn't ask.
By this time virtually all the people I had known in the community had departed, and the community had changed beyond recognition, of which more later. It became clear that Sister Q hadn't come to see me because she thought I had anything to offer—she still thought she was sui generis and couldn't imagine why anyone would reject, much less eject, her—but rather because she envied my 'alongsider' status while I was waiting for profession, and wanted to finagle something similar for herself. As I had no long-term prospects and, indeed, was to make my solemn and irrevocable vows in a state of homelessness, I was not in a position to offer her much of anything. I had little doubt—and this proved to be true—that her predicament was only a temporary setback. But I offered her what comfort I could, somewhat appalled at the whole situation without quite knowing why, not just her apparently tenuous position in the community, but the fact that she had come to see me at all.
The new novice-mistress, Sister C, was a wonderful Hispanic woman with a great gift of common sense. She hadn't been professed very long, but she had a real knack for understanding what we needed in the context of all the upheaval. We discussed my situation without tension. I realised that I was not in a position to make a decision, that either the community was crazy or I was, and I was pretty sure it wasn't me. She assured me that there was no doubt whatsoever about my vocation, but that given the current state of a foundering community, the future did not look good for someone with a contemplative bent. But there were no other contemplative communities in the Anglican Communion that weren't burdened by the history of having a misogynist male or series of males in their background, or who weren't afflicted with the competitive class-and-manners disease.
I knew I couldn't commit myself, yet I also knew I couldn't leave. Not yet, anyway. I asked for an extension to my novitiate, and, reluctantly—because my family had instilled in me that seeking help was letting the side down—I asked for some therapy, even though I knew the finances of the community were now stretched to the breaking point.


Anonymous Merri-Todd Webster said...

If you were to fictionalize this series as a memoir/novel a la Seasons of Death and Life, I would read the heck out of it. It has been utterly fascinating.

8:35 pm, January 16, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks, Meri-Todd: it's been instructive to write. If I weren't working on the most important book of my life I'd break off and do just what you suggest. But this other project takes priority. Maybe next year!

10:09 pm, January 16, 2013  

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