A cloistered order in my home town offered a summer program for girls on the cusp of big decisions, so off I went.
I didn’t completely lose my fascination, though. When high school was over with its Friday night angst, I decided to try something different. A cloistered order in my home town offered a summer program for girls on the cusp of big decisions, so off I went. I packed up my meager possessions, said good-bye to my cats and shared a sad moment with my dog, Murphy, and “got me to the convent.” The first thing I noticed was how cold the place was, the second thing was how quiet. When the big door closed on the outside world, the sound was downright scary. I was ushered to a large room (a “refectory,” I learned) and was soon joined by a few other girls. Looking around, I thought they all looked a lot more devout and determined that I and there was no doubt that the freckled red-head with the downcast eyes would make a great nun. Mother Clare materialized from somewhere. Just a faint clatter of wooden rosary beads, but not so much as a swish of wool serge or the faint tap of sandals on a stone floor announced her presence. Spooky!
She welcomed us (I wondered when was the last time she had spoken) and explained how we would be living. In silence. With chores. In meditation. Kneeling. Arising at the appointed hours of worship, one of which was at 3 a.m., for pete’s sake. This was, perhaps, going to be a little more of a challenge than I had bargained for. We were shown to our room – singular: room. There was a row of cots, each with a small pillow, a white waffled bedspread and a suspicious sag in the middle. There was a tiny cupboard beside each bed, but no lights. Next came the clothes we would wear: a brown smock thing with white apron, black cotton stockings and the sandals. There were showers at the end of the hall with the scent of good old Ivory soap and a few white towels on a stool in front of each. Where’s the toilet? I suddenly felt an urgent need. “Just there,” said our guide, pointing at a door next to the showers. One door would apparently suffice.
We would be permitted a visitor on Sunday afternoon for ½ hour. And there would be a half hour during the week when we could speak. Mostly, we didn’t. There was no TV or radio, and the music was provided by the other-worldly voices of the sisters, singing Gregorian chant. Sometimes, there would be a sound from outside the walls: a loud motorcycle, a car horn. But these intrusions into an utterly quiet world were rare and unwelcome. One of the girls, unaccustomed to sandals, stubbed her toe on a rock in the garden and came very close to an un-nun-worthy expletive, but only got as far as “Sh…”
You might think this is an ideal escape, but it’s not. The problem is you will find yourself inside your own mind, and that can be a very difficult place to be.
You might think this is an ideal escape, but it’s not. The problem is you will find yourself inside your own mind, and that can be a very difficult place to be. You can learn to meditate, of course, but only the most adept are able to shut out all intrusions. There has to be a conscious effort to close the door on something, and bang! There goes the meditation. Now, where was I? It just doesn’t work that way. Silence is not too difficult to learn (even for me) and what is called the “habit of prayer” really does become a prayer, helping the prayer novice to close herself off from worldly intrusions.
So I guess I’ll just create my own hermitage. I would never make it as a cloistered nun. Those women are stronger in every way than I could ever be. Besides, I learned the hard way, being in a cloister is no escape; it is a reality on a different plane and only those with extraordinary willpower and self- control survive the experience. What I can do, though, is what I learned in the cloister: I can ignore what I can’t control and do my best to control those few things that I can. And I can absolutely richly enjoy those gifts I’m given, from the bright red blooms on the Christmas cactus to the achingly gorgeous sound of nuns singing Gregorian chant, not to mention the angelic voices of VOCES8, the incomparable British a capella ensemble which will be here on March 1, 2020, at Temple Beth-El.
– E Doyle