This project's goal is to give each family member and myself just 10 minutes of unconditional positive regard every day. All attention is focused on the other person for those 10 minutes and only positive comments or thoughts are allowed. Just 10 minutes often becomes much more. Try it and see. You'll find the Just 10 guidelines on the right side of this blog.

Friday, December 31, 2010

What Dreams May Come

Last night, Sister Felicity showed up in my dreams.  I'd gone to bed thinking about how I felt when months ago, I read her obituary.  Reading it, I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.  My anger remained alive and well even though she no longer walked this earth.  Troubled by such ancient anger, I feel asleep thinking about how to let it go.  My waking self didn't have many answers but my sleeping self was busy working things out.

In my dream, I'd heard some of the Sisters, including Sister Felicity were going to be in town.  I dressed up in a habit even though it was long after I'd left the convent.  I wanted to flaunt it just to irritate Sister Felicity.  Initially, it did but soon, I discovered that one of the Sisters for whom I always had a special place in my heart, had suffered a traumatic brain injury.  She was left with the mind of a two-year old.  She was with Sister Felicity and her small band of nuns.  I took the injured Sister out of church, where she was misbehaving and took care of her just like I would have taken care of my children when they were young.  In caring for her, my anger left me. I forgot about my personal vendetta and became very interested in what was being done for this Sister, now child.

At the end of a long dream, I bid them all a sincere goodbye and asked Sister Felicity to have someone contact me now and again to let me know how they were all doing.  She looked at me, with the face and mind of 30 years ago, smiled and said, "Yes, I'll be happy to do that.  Take care, Carol."  Sister Felicity and I finally established a truce for a greater good.

Anger still burns within my human side.  There are things worthy of good clean anger.  Yet, anger is a two-edged sword that can easily slice into one's peace of mind if it is allowed to get out of hand.  Anger often tells us something is wrong.  It causes us to rally our defenses against a perceived threat.  It can energize and motivate.  It can fuel a passionate intensity that can burn brightly and light the way for others.  It can also destroy much of the good we humans carry within us.  It can interfere with our sense of justice and reason.  It can blind us to the unpleasant truths about ourselves.  At its worst, it can cause us to implode and block us from achieving what we were created to achieve.  It can fuel a fire within that makes kindness and gentleness kindling, leaving only a bitter old shell of what we might have become.

Anger itself is not bad.  It simply is.  How we allow anger to transform us makes all the difference.  Letting go of anger is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do as a human, especially a human coming from a long line of rather dour German American descendants who show anger more easily than any other emotion.    The Sisters themselves were largely from a very similar background and mind set.  "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a standard practiced in their homes when they were children.  They were a product of their environment.

Stepping outside the box each of us was born into is no easy task.  Opening our minds to other ways, new ideas, causes us to leave our comfort zone.  We desperately search for something familiar to grasp.  Opening one's mind and broadening one's world, considering other ways of doing things is not for the faint-hearted.  Giving up is easy.  Clinging to one's believe system with a blind fervor that views differing viewpoints as a threat betrays fear, fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.  It's very hard to let go. 

Last night in my dreams, I understood how hard it was for these women to change.  I was almost impossible for them to consider alternatives.  They had too much invested in the way things were.  They were filled with fear.  This fear could only be calmed by adhering to a rigid belief system, a belief system that had clear enemies.  To them, I must have been perceived as a threat.  Playing a scapegoat was familiar to me.   I also had a terrifying habit of asking "why" and wanting to understand.  Questions in a closed system pose big problems.  Questioning authority is an even more dangerous thing.

Sister Felicity wasn't evil personified, although there were moments when I actually wondered if she might be. She was a product of her environment.  I was perceived as a threat.  Eliminating that threat wasn't as much a personal reflection on me or my worthiness, it was a reflection on her and the system.  I couldn't see that then.  It was too close to me.  I was too hurt and angry.

Last night my anger dissolved when the Sister I had admired had become a child that needed me.  Children make mistakes but we love them anyway.  Last night as Sister Felicity walked in my dreams, I came full circle.  My experience in the convent makes a lot more sense to me today, long after I had given up on trying to understand it.  Thanks, Dream Sister.  I hope you slumber well in heaven.  Prepare a bunk some where near for me.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Saints and Sinners

Sleep did not come easily last night.  I lay awake and struggled with what I should write about next.  Remembering my experiences has made old wounds painful.  I'm sure that my recent attack of shingles and its lingering impact on my physical equilibrium are based on a deeper psychic wound.  How do I purge myself of this sickness that lies dormant in my soul?  Why does this still affect me so?

My experiences in the convent has been the most difficult thing I've ever gone through because I had so much invested in becoming a nun.  Despite whatever psychological reasons predisposed me to choose to enter a convent and despite whatever I was running from in life, I entered with a very idealistic motive.  I wanted to contribute something to the world.  I wanted to touch other people's lives in a positive way.  I knew what it was like to be an underdog, to not fit in.  I easily empathized with other people's pain.  It was that pain, I wanted to ease.  I wanted them to know and to feel that they weren't alone.  God would always be on their side.  They were deeply loved.

While my emotional health was rapidly crumbling under the strain and the mind games that were implemented to "break me down" I never believed that God had given up on me.  I did, however, begin to give up on myself.

Remember, I wasn't the most stable or happiest of young ladies.  I carried an exagerated sense of guilt and shame.  This is precisely what made me a good target and a good victim.  Sister Felicity and Sister Christine has smelled my "blood in the water".  They knew exactly where and how to strike to to do the most harm.

Am I perhaps slightly paranoid?  That is a question I asked myself then and now.  It's very difficult to believe that women professing to follow Christ in living a good and holy life would be guilty of some of the things I have mentioned here.  Even if stripped from the emotional lens through which I view the past, the facts speak loudly for themselves.  How I wish what I am writing about was not true.

Last night as I lay awake trying to decide what to pull out of my memory next, I realized that there are many things that were said to me that remain forever obscured by time and by the trauma of those words.  The "Grand Inquisitions" of which I spoke are hopelessly clouded.  I can only remember sitting in front of them while, three woman took turns telling me how awful I was.  I have no solid memory of what was said.  I only vaguely remember how horrible it felt.

Last night, long after midnight, I pondered why a woman, who was head of an entire order of over 180 women, would take time out to collect several other Sisters and drive across town on an evening to tell one little novice how worthless she was and not once but on at least 3 different occasions.  What good did she possibly believe she was serving?  If I'd been an employee or a student and had witnesses or better yet a tape of the event, I could have taken them all to court and won a lovely settlement.   I was some one even more important and less powerful.  I was a simple young woman who genuinely wanted to follow a religious life.  They should have been fostering my good qualities.  If I really wasn't nun material, time would have revealed that to me.  I saw a lot of women who weren't nun material that had been nuns for years.  It didn't make sense. 

My motives should have produced a nurturing and encouraging environment.  Instead I received the polar opposite.  "Why" haunted me for many years.  Over time, I realized that I will never understand all the "whys" of it.  I've worked hard to let it go.  Reliving it now isn't easy as witnessed by last night's bout of insomnia.

I did take my impossible situation to God.  That God whether real or imagined helped sustain me.  I chose to continue to believe in God probably just to spite the meaner nuns.  I will always hold open the notion that God may have been a figment of my imagination.  Knowing the twists and turns of the human mind, it seemed a real possibility.  I prefer living in a universe with a God and my personal feelings seems to connect with a power beyond myself.  But as far as proving God is real or gives a rip about humanity, I can not.  I couldn't then and despite the fact that I was living and dressing like a nun, I never felt it was right or ethical to impose my belief system on any one else.  Saving the infidel wasn't my thing.  Getting to know the infidel, being friends,  I'm all about that.

Maybe I clung to this belief in a benevolent God in order to feel superior to the craziness I saw all around me.  Living with the Sisters was a much worse environment than growing up in a non-demonstrative home with siblings who seemed forever locked in combat of one kind or another while our parents hovered in the distance.  I prayed to God that "He would use this hell to make me a saint".
I realized that to spare myself false arrogance I also had to add,  "Oh, and don't let me know I am a saint if I ever become one."
Saints who knew they were saints must not be saints at all.
Crazy, probably, but given the circumstances, it became my only solid lifeline in a vast ocean of crazy.

I knew I was a sinner.  Thinking that sainthood might be within reach while I walked this difficult path seemed my only hope.  I'll never know if and when God might answer that prayer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Not Smart Enough

As second year novices, we began attending Portland State.  I was taking general college survey courses to add to about a years worth of college work that I had done prior to entering.  It came time to discuss which area we wanted to study and prepare for a teaching certificate.  I wanted an endorsement in English and to teach high school.  This did not serve the Sisters needs.  I also wanted to minor in Theology.  I could see that a lot of the Sisters really didn't have a very good basis in this area.  We were religious after all.

The Sister who coordinated the education for all the Sisters met with each of us.  My meeting didn't go anything like I expected.  When I expressed my interest in English and theology, I was immediately shot down.  She laughed at me and said, "What makes you think you're smart enough for either of those subjects?

I was stunned into silence.  I was living at the convent, keeping its crazy schedule and also going to school.  I was bringing home straight A's and my GPA, that first year was 4.0.  If I hadn't proven already that I was "smart enough" I didn't know how.  After scoffing at my misguided ambitions, I was told that theology was a useless degree and that I would be teaching grade school.  Inside,  I felt like I'd been sentenced to Siberia.  My closest friend in the convent was on track to teach high school history.  We'd talked about how fun it would be to team teach and use our subjects as companions to learning.  We wanted to open up new worlds to our students and both of us felt very passionately about our subjects of interest.  I hadn't expected they'd want me to teach elementary school. 

Summing up the courage to protest, I made a plea to study English and unknowingly opened the door to the first of the punishments for reporting on Sister Christine.  After consulting with the Grand Poobah, Sister Felicity, it was decided that I would be sent to Our Lady of Good Counsel.  It was a convent that housed the Sisters who staffed Christ the King grade school and La Salle High School.  I was going to be observing English teachers so I could see what was required and to prove to me that I couldn't do it.

At first, I viewed this "assignment" as a mixed blessing.  I would be away from the craziness in Formation but I'd also be away from any friends.  I would be isolated.  I'm sure that this was the intent of the powers that be.  I also knew that I could easily become an English teacher and that I was definitely smart enough.  Part of me was anxious to prove it.

Our Lady of Good Counsel was staffed by a handful of final professed Sisters.  The head of the house was a distant and extremely difficult to read woman who never made eye contact.  It's very likely that she had what we now know as Aspergers.  Also, in the house was a very temperamental Sister who can only be described with the words "Super Bitchy".  She was a holy terror and I tried to avoid her at all costs.  You could never please her and never knew when she'd lay into you and "rip you the proverbial new one".

The remaining three Sisters were composed of one adorable and gentle first-grade teacher who was very kind, a kindly older Sister who had some grasp of the "lay of the land" and a Sister who taught at the high school but was rarely there.  It was pretty obvious why she made herself scarce.  The role of Cinderella seemed to be cast for me the day I moved in.  The older Sister was my fairy godmother and tried to protect me from the wicked step-sisters when she could.  The kindly first-grade teacher was an older Cinderella who commiserated at length about the evil deeds of the step-sisters.  This commiseration was actually hard to bear.  Knowing that a fully professed Sister was still victimized daily was a frightening reality.  Was I looking at my future?

As for my school assignment,  it was soon obvious that I was basically useless.  The students soon sensed that I was being punished and we quickly bonded.  A few of the younger teachers became friends.  I got along well with most everyone and was soon well liked.  The Sister who was teaching there acted jealous.  I began to help some of the students with their work when possible just so that I'd have something to do.  Being away from the mother house, I thought I might escape the attention of the powers that ran my world.  This was not the case.  They hadn't forgotten about me and soon decided it was time to really rock my tiny boat. 

Memory fails me as to the reason for what I would call "The Grand Inquisitions."  Not long after I was settled in to a daily routine and finding kindred spirits among the faculty at La Salle, I was summoned to a visiting room at Our Lady of Good Counsel.  There sat Sister Felicity, Sister Christine, and another Sister associated with Formation.  I was placed in a chair a few feet in front of them and the three of them began telling me how awful I was.  I left in tears hoping that this would never happen again.  But it did, only then with some advanced warning, I tried to assemble an advocate on my team.  Unfortunately, my advocates never knew how to respond to the situation.  It was probably too surreal to them.   God knows it was surreal to me.

After a few months of this, I was a nervous wreck.  I suspected trouble everywhere.  I felt completely powerless and trapped in some bizarre nightmare.  I wanted it to stop but this nightmare just  seemed to keep on going.  I came down for breakfast one morning, not yet awake.  I don't wake up in a bad mood but I'm not very chatty first thing in the morning.  The resident "bitchy" nun shouted at me,
"Don't you have anything to say to me this morning?"
Inside I searched my brain for the answer.  I couldn't remember any obligation to report to her.
She let out a huge sigh of disgust and said,
"You're supposed to greet me.  Don't you know how to say, Good Morning, Sister."
I mumbled a meek, "Good Morning, Sister,"
and quickly sat down.  I had completely lost my appetite and wanted to excuse myself so I could slink away and cry but I knew that would not be met with approval so I choked down some cereal that tasted like sawdust.
Later, the kind Sister apologized for the mean one's remark.  The kind Sister rarely stood up to the mean one.  We were doing our best to try to live with our wicked step-sisters.

At this time, it may be said, that I was not smart enough to leave.  I certainly wasn't smart enough to tell them where they could shove their good morning.  I was not yet ready to really understand that I was looking at my future.   It would take time before I was able to find the courage to leave this nightmare and no longer be complaint.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Crescent Moons of Shame

As long as Sister Zelda's main enemy was Sister Emily Marie, my life was a bit easier.  As I anxiously waited for the fall out of my reporting Sister Christine, I watched more drama unfold between Zelda and Emily Marie.

In the Formation wing of the building, there was a large rec room at the end of a long hallway.  There were a set of swinging doors that opened into the room at the end of this hall way.  One day, I was in the rec room when I heard the thunder of running footsteps.  Sister Emily Marie, hit the doors, slid slightly and did an amazing U-turn and ran the opposite direction.  Sister Emily Marie's expression told me that she was running for her life.  In hot pursuit, the larger and much less agile, Sister Zelda came thundering after.  Sister Zelda's  legs pumped madly as she tried to maintain her balance and execute a turn.  Her black nun shoes made a huge black skid mark on the floor.  She came flying through those swinging doors and landed on her side.

She wasn't down long but up and running after Sister Emily Marie.   Fortunately, Sister Emily Marie was able to elude her pursurer.  I sat stunned into silence for a while.  Then decided I just had to find someone so I could tell them what had just happened.  As I headed out the doors, I met Sister Felicity.  Felicity spied the huge skid mark on the otherwise perfectly waxed and shined floor and demanded to know what had happened.  Never one to rat out a colleague, even a rather frightening and sometimes despicable one, said,  "I don't know, Sister."

I felt sorry for Sister Emily Marie.  Later when I should have felt sorry for myself, I felt shame instead.  Sister Zelda seemed to require an enemy among the ranks.  It was soon my turn to fill that role for her.

I have no memory of what we were arguing about that day in the rec room.  We were alone.  No witnesses anywhere.  Zelda was hopping mad at something I said.  She raised her arm to strike me.  I was tiny then.  Sister Zelda outweighed me by close to 100 lbs. but I had grown up with lots of siblings who had often engaged in hand-to-hand combat.  My reflexes were lightening quick.  Before she could hit me, I had firmly grabbed both wrists.  With tears in my eyes, I begged her to think about what she was doing.  In my fervor and iron-like grip, my fingernails happened to pierce the soft skin on the inside of her wrists.  I had emerged unscathed.  Zelda had signs of physical attack.

Zelda didn't have live by the same code of honor as I.  She was quick to rat me out and make me look like the aggressor.  After all, it was a bit hard to believe that I could have held off my Amazonian-built classmate. A little adrenaline can do wonders.  She got sympathy for her cuts and I received another nail in my coffin.  The powers that be were now convinced I was unstable.  In fact, I heard one of the Sisters say that
"Insanity runs in her family.   Old Sister Mechtilde was her great aunt.  Remember that Mechtilde spent the rest of her life in the state hospital."

Had I had my wits about me, I would have bailed at this moment and said, "The hell with all of you."
I didn't.  I felt terrible that I had hurt Sister Zelda, even though it was a clear case of self-defense.  After all didn't Zelda bear my "crescent moons of shame" on her arms?  Unfortunately, getting someone to believe me didn't seem possible and I began to question myself and of course my sanity.  I had to be at least slightly crazy to stay.  By then I had invested a significant amount of time not to mention, blood, sweat and tears.  Part of me knew that I wasn't what they were making me out to be, in fact, at times, I knew that I was probably the sanest one there.  Unfortunately, when you're trapped within a crazy system and things happen that defy logic and reason, it's hard not to fall prey to the "group think"   Ah, the Stockholm Syndrome again.
"Patty Hearst you did what you had to do in my book.  I get it!  Rock on, Patty, rock on!"

Monday, December 27, 2010


Obedience is one of the three vows, that I took as a Junior Professed. 

(Junior Professed was another "grade" or stage in the succession to Final Vows. It took about 8 years to reach that final step. Up until then vows were temporary and for a specific time.  All the women who had not yet made final vows were considered part of Formation.)

The code of Canon Law defines obedience as:

"The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ who was obedient even unto death requires a submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions."

I apparently stunk at keeping it.  I can see now that I really did.  That's very ironic given how obedient and compliant I was all through school.  I can count on 2 fingers the amount of times, I was actually "reprimanded" in grade school by one of the Sisters.  Even then, they knew my record and my behavior and their reprimand was surprisingly mild.  They could really haul out the big guns on the normal trouble makers.  All they had to do was say my name and give a cross look and I was obedient putty.  Pleasing them meant everything.  That desire to please didn't end when I entered the convent but my ability to do so was so damaged, that I began to lose my sense of self.  As a school girl, I'd always known how to please the Sisters.  As a young religious, I could never seem to get it right.  Who was I and what had happened to the girl I was?

Once the epitome of obedience, now I was labeled a rebel and an insolence and arrogant one at that.  I'm sure there were moments when those attributes did describe how I felt.  After all, my Formation Director/Boss had gotten away with fondling me and making me the bad guy.  I often felt a righteous rage.  I also felt a profound sorrow.  The lofty ideals that had once filled my head and beckoned to my heart were crashing down to earth and bursting into flames.  While in the convent, I witnessed my innocence die.  There are moments, even now, when I wonder if the aftereffects would still be as profound, if there had been an actual physical violation.  My mind was raped on a daily basis.  As dramatic as that sounds, it feels so true as to be very disturbing.

There is still anger in me over many of the things that happened there.  I doubt that any of the perpetrators were acting freely.  They were victims of the system and the process.  They were damaged and often dangerous because of that damage.  They saw nothing wrong in teaching lessons and reprimanding us harshly.  Personal attacks on our character, our intellect, our looks, our singing were a daily occurrence. 
I was often told,  "This is for your own good."
I wasn't able to see it.  It looked pretty bad to me.

"Moved by the Holy Spirit, they subject themselves in faith to those who hold God's place, their superiors. Through them they are led to serve all their brothers in Christ, just as Christ ministered to his brothers in submission to the Father and laid down his life for the redemption of many. They are thus bound more closely to the Church's service and they endeavor to attain to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Decree on Renewal of Religious Life, 14).

Sounds like a great ideal, but what happens when corruption sets in?  What should a moral individual do, when he is commanded to act in an immoral manner or to ignore an immoral situation?  Would my keeping silent have been the right thing to do?  I will never be able to answer, "yes".   
Maybe I've always been a closet rebel at heart.

Actually, in the end, I could thank the Sisters for teaching me something about the vows in the strangest and most backward way.  I could not accept that I was arrogant and disobedient. If there were any external signs of that it was to conceal my lack of self-esteem and confidence.   Digging deeper and doing some secret reading on my own,  (Remember we had to get every book we read okayed.) I developed my own understanding of obedience.  Years later, when it came time to write our marriage vows for our wedding,  (My first wedding was a civil ceremony in our backyard.  The second was a quiet blessing by the Church.  Both times, the same groom.) I decided to include obedience in the vows I wrote for our backyard hippie wedding.  Not because I'm not a capable and independent woman but because the root of the word has power and meaning to me.  I know that it sounded old fashioned.  Part of me probably included it as a sign of protest for all those years when those defining obedience seemed to be missing the point entirely.

 β. The old Lat. form was oboedire.—Lat. ob-, prefix (of little force); and audire, to hear, listen to. 

To listen to my spouse, to listen to my life and the people in it and to try and hear God in those human communications seemed the best way to understand obedience.  At least it was and is the best way for me.

Real life in the real world has taught me more about obedience than I ever learned in the artificial enviroment of the convent.  Life has a way of handing us all sorts of things that are beyond our control.  We don't need to create artificial circumstances for obedience.  Life does that for us.  Those things that happen to us that are outside of our control provide us with a wonderful opportunity.  How is this experience serving me, a greater good, God, Allah, Vishnu?  If something is beyond our control, the best way to deal with it is to accept it.  It's easy to curse fate, become bitter, blame other people, even blame God.   Over the years, I have done all of these things.   It's much more difficult to learn to surrender and accept what life and ultimately what God has dished out for us.  The challenge is to find God within the experience and to emerge from it a better and stronger person. 

"Watering sticks" was a collosal waste of time and human potential.  It missed the point.  To demand obedience from others, a person must be worthy of it.  It must serve a greater good.  It must help the obedient become a better person.  Watering sticks in a blind obedience is foolish.  It does nothing to glorify God and everything to protect the hierachy and their positions of power.  It completely misses the point.
For me obedience means "to listen."  God knows I need all the practice I can get in this department.  He seems to be serving up lessons every day.  Lately, I end my day with the same prayer, 

"I surrender.  This is out of my hands.  I can't let this ruin me. Help me find a way to see the good in this situation. Help me accept what is."
Since God is "up all night anyway"  I figure it's His job to worry about it.  I'm kept very busy working on the surrender and maintaining a helpful attitude.  This is what obedience means to me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Rosary Wars and The Stockholm Syndrome

After reporting Sister Christine's indescretions, Sister Felicity had gone to Sister Christine and had reported my insolence.  Slowly, they began to make my life hell.  It took them a little while to cook up the perfect punishment.  In the meantime, life continued as normal. . . which means anything but normal.  We were all living in a cracker factory.  That can really warp one's sense of reality.  Those of us trapped in Formation, knowing that things weren't right began acting out.

The Rosary Wars symbolize everything that was wrong with Formation.  When you treat young women like children, they'll act like children.  Even at the time, there was a small part of me that knew that what we were doing was ridiculous.  That did not stop the Rosary Wars.

One of the Formation's tasks on our lengthy horariums, was to gather together after lunch in the chapel and recite the Rosary together.  Reciting this rosary made the tensions within Formation palpable.  Sides and alliances were formed faster than on an episode of Survivor.

(Rosary:  The Rosary is a traditional Catholic devotional prayer.  Specific prayers are said corresponding to specific beads on a Rosary.  It is considered a devotion to the Blessed Mother but focuses mainly on keep events in the life of Christ. There are differing views as to its exact origin, often attributed to St. Dominic. Prayer beads are a very old form of devotion in other religious traditions as well.    Saints and popes have emphasized the meditative aspects of the rosary and encourage its use in a respectful and reverent manner.)

Memory fails me as to which camp each of us fell into.  The camps matter little.   The fact that we were so polarized within convent walls is still rather surprising to me, considering why each of us had entered in the first place.   One camp was lead by Sister Emily Marie who was the focus of Sister Christine's affections.  The other camp quickly formed in opposition.  One wanted to say the Rosary quickly and get out of the chapel and on to other things.  The opposing camp wanted to say the Rosary slowly and with devotion.  Well, in this case it would have been mock devotion.   Everyone was too mad at the other side to be capable of devotion or even prayer.  We were engaged in a war with words, the words of the Rosary.

One person or group lead the prayer and the remaining people respond by concluding the prayer.  One group would start out fast or slow depending on the camp with which they were aligned.  The opposing camp would finish the prayer in the opposite way.  The changes in speed were enough to make a listener or participant motion sick.  We lurched through the Rosary like crazy nuns and I think we probably all were.

We had no power.  That point was driven home daily.  Our world was upside down.  Schedules and rules were of primary importance.  What those schedules and rules sought to protect seemed to lie forgotten.  I'd like to think that at this point, I began to suffer from the "Stockholm Syndrome."  After Patty Hearst was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, she seemed to adapt to the situation by taking on the cause of her captors.

Here's how Wikipedia defines this Stockholm Syndrome:

Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings towards their captors that appear irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, essentially mistaking a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness

Now, we weren't under threat of our physical life.  No guns were pointed at our heads but I firmed believe that we were engaged in a fight to save our souls and psyches from further damage.  Building up a young Sister's self-esteem with positive praise and encouragement was unheard of.  We were constantly reminded of our failures, our weaknesses in a concerted effort by the hierarchy to break us down and then rebuild us as good little nuns.    In the meantime, I think that all of us walked those halls with damaged and badly battered psyches.  This wasn't a job to us, this was our life.  To be doing a poor job of living it was emotionally devastating.

Sanity would occasionally insert itself but for the most part we were all compliant in maintaining a high level of crazy.  We went along with the program even when we knew in our hearts that the program was wrong or deviating from its original intent.  When I entered, I was probably more damaged than some of my colleagues who seemed to have developed varying degrees of denial, etc. to adjust to life within the convent.  Depression began to blossom within me as I struggled to become what I believed I'd been called to be while still knowing that sometimes, well most of the time, we were completely at the mercy of a system gone mad.  I desperately, struggled to find something, or some one to hold on to, something that would anchor me in the insane maelstrom of swirling whack.

Quiet prayer time in the chapel was a comfort.  God was still the sanest one in the building.  Time spent alone with this God was reassuring.  Even then, I knew that I might be kidding myself as to what or who this God was and what he was communicating to me, but if it was an illusion, it was a good one to hang on to.

I also had a couple of good friends among the young Sisters.  We would often secretly meet and share horror stories.  We would often laugh and make jokes at the sake of our captors.  It was a survival mechanism but not a bad one under the circumstances.  That friendship became a lifeline and kept me alive.  In time, that friendship also because too enmeshed, too unhealthy.  No, it never got sexual as did some of these close friendships within the convent but I think we all knew that we were losing our perspective at some point.  Our balance in life was off.  We stumbled around in a dizzy hazy trying to find something to believe, trying to find ourselves.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Love, Sex and the Single Sister

Sex was not something that was discussed in the convent.  Not discussing it didn't make it disappear.  Religious women take solemn vows promising chastity, obedience and poverty.  Chastity meant abstaining from sexual acts.  Nuns are still human beings with the same biological drives as the rest of the species.  Of course, the intensity and direction of this drive varies as it does with the rest of humankind.

Had sex been a topic of discussion, it may have helped.  Once we sat in a class with some of the older Sisters.  It was a general class taught by an unusual little priest who began life as a Buddhist.  This class ended up being very informative not because of the topic but because of the older sisters.

During this class, I discovered that one of my former grade school teachers, who'd always barked orders at her charges with a frightening authority, didn't know that Kings was a book in the Old Testament.  (She was the teacher who dwelt on Moses for so long. Guess Moses obscured the rest of the Old Testament in her mind.)  Imagine my shock when I fully realized that Sisters and teachers could be wrong or ignorant.  It seems silly to believe that they would somehow know everything about their religion.  Not knowing that Kings was in the Old Testament was and still is very surprising.

The second thing I learned was quite amusing.  Somehow our little priest lecturer mentioned French kissing.  (I have no idea how this related to his topic.)   St. Michael, a delightful old nun who still wore the old habit, (wimple and dress down to the floor with the large wooden rosary at her waist) innocently asked for an explanation of what French kissing was.  Sister Zelda was all too eager to explain it.  Sister Michael recoiled with all the shock of a squeamish seven year old girl who still believes boys have cooties.

A lot of the Sisters from previous generations had entered the convent when still quite young.  Sometimes, it was their parents who made the decision for them.  Large Catholic families of yesteryear did sometimes tell some of their children that they would become priests or religious.  Even the next generation of Sisters sometimes entered the postulancy while still in high school and as young as 14 or 15.  This was the case with our new Formation Director, Sister Christine.

Sister Christine had never dated.  How much she actually knew about the facts of life and reproduction, I'll never know.  I wasn't about to sit down with her and discuss it.  During puberty and beyond she had been in the company of women.  Maybe females were the focus of her sexual orientation.  Her sexual orientation doesn't and didn't matter.  Acting on it with an inferior was sexual abuse.  Granted Emily Marie and the rest of formation were not children.  Emily Marie was of the age of consent but Sister Christine was our boss.  She had authority on her side.  Despite her fragile appearance and behavior, she was considered the authority over Formation by the rest of the convent.  Maintaining the structure of power became all important in maintaining the order.  Saying "no" when were were supposed to be obedient to our superiors was a moral and legal dilemma.  Sister Christine was abusing her power.

No matter your orientation,  there are areas that you do not touch unless invited to do so by the touchee.  I had not given Sister Christine the green light to "cop a feel" on the basketball court.  The other larger issue was simply this:  When you make vows of chastity, you need to abstain from sexual behavior.  If you fail to do so, you stop doing it and try harder to avoid "near occasions of sin" because that's what it means to make a vow.  (Notice I didn't even mention "sin" which is how this behavior would be viewed in a Catholic context.)

Just as in marriage, a vow is made to commit to another person exclusively.  To engage in an affair or sleep around violates the exclusivity of the relationship.  As a religious, a vow is made to God to abstain from sex so that one can devote one's entire focus and energy to serving Him.  Sexual desire doesn't disappear.  Maybe if the Sisters had been able to discuss it openly, they might have had a better way of dealing with their sexual feelings and energies.   Talk about sex was hidden with elegant and distant references.  The nuts and bolts were missing and that could easily caused the vow of chastity to fall apart as it had for Sister Christine.

No matter how you view sexuality, promising not to and then doing it anyway repeatedly, isn't how things are done.  It is very human, however, and to this day, I feel empathy toward Sister Christine.  She was not off this world in more ways than one.  She was a product and a victim of her stunted past and her present environment.  She was thrust in a position for which she was not prepared or emotionally equipped to handle.  She cracked under the strain and acted out, seeking comfort in the arms of another.  I can not hate this woman.  I didn't then.

When I went directly to Sister Felicity, the top of the chain of command, I tried to delicately describe the situation.  I explained that Sister Christine seemed to be under a lot of stress and with the hysterectomy, etc, her behavior was unusual.   I said that she had engaged in inappropriate contact on the basketball court and that she was spending a lot of time alone behind closed doors with Emily Marie and that it didn't look good to the rest of Formation.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


The people who carry the greatest potential for harming others are often those who are the most broken.  A person's broken parts rise up and obscure the truth or rational thought.  Good decisions are lost in a frantic effort to cover their brokenness and try to keep it a secret from the world.  The people who carry the greatest potential for greatness are also those who are the most broken.  Unlike those that harm, this type of broken person has become strong in all the broken places.  They see the brokenness in others and in themselves with clarity.  They touch us in our broken places and we are healed and broken all at once.   They can transform our lives.

Sister Christine walked through time and space like a fragile reed.  My questions in classes would often leave her flustered.  That left me feeling angry and ashamed of myself all at the same time.  She was broken and all her energy went into hiding that fact.  She shouldn't have tried.  Broken was carved on her forehead.

She really tried to assume her new role as Formation Director.  She tried to do a good job but she was confused and lost.  After having a strong mother figure at the helm who made us feel like enchanted children, having someone who desperately needed a mother herself was unsettling.  Of course, Zelda was determined to find a way to push her out.  At least that is what she said.  Zelda often acted like a minor character in a soap opera.  Her paranoia was entertaining, at first.  Zelda was convinced that Sister Christine had something going on with one of the new postulants.  I thought Zelda had to be dreaming or smoking weed out in the Sister's cemetery during her free time. 

At least when Zelda had an enemy, other than myself, my life was a bit easier.  So, I humored her and participated in a stake out of Sister Christine's room to see if the postulant in question would show up.  She did and she didn't come out of the room for hours.  It didn't look good but we still didn't have any proof.  I pointed this out to Zelda who was then determined to build a case.

All the previous intrigue and personality conflicts were minor when compared to the possibility that there was a lesbian relationship between the two women.  At this point, my world began to crack as it began its journey to upside down.  Young and naive, I was convinced this couldn't be happening.  Zelda was often a bit dramatic and not the smartest tool in the shed.  Talented, yes, but smart, no.  She did possess an animal cunning that I envied.  I had always preferred a more direct route.  This would prove my undoing.

About the time, this new possibility was coming to light, Sister Christine also found out she needed a total hysterectomy.  I tried to attribute some of her unusual behavior to hormonal imbalances.    Well, I did try.  The evidence just kept mounting against her.  She did have a special rapport with this postulant, Emily Marie.  Emily Marie had been in a branch of the military.  She gone to high school at the Valley, the girl's school that adjoined the Motherhouse campus.  Emily Marie knew a lot of the Sisters and had been attracted to religious life after she served her time in the military. Emily Marie was earthy and had some real world experience that many of us hadn't had.  She was "close talker" with a nervous giggle.  It hadn't taken long for Zelda to develop an almost instant dislike to her.  Just as quickly, Sister Christine seemed to be enchanted by Emily Marie.   

At this point, I was Sister Mary Carol and Zelda. . was Sister Zelda.  (I doubt there is a religious order any where that has a Sister Zelda but I so love calling my classmate that, I'm using it here.)  We'd made first vows, Zelda and I.  We were wearing the white veil of the first year novice.  Our horarium was so filled with cleaning that we often skipped our time in the chapel for quiet prayer just to get things done.  Being good housekeepers was taking precedence over learning how to pray.  Prayer wasn't something the Sisters provided a lot of guidance in.  It was a "seek-on-your-own" system.  Maybe they felt that God would somehow inspire us as we sat in silent prayer in a quiet chapel.  Often I feel asleep out of exhaustion.  I knew God was cool with my sleeping but I was very afraid that one of the Sisters would catch me and "rat me out."  The walls often had eyes and ears and of course mouths that were all to eager to blab to the person in charge.

That person in charge of Formation was Sister Christine.  The circumstantial evidence continued to mount against her.  We spent more time focusing on what might be happening than anything else.  I finally spilled the beans about our suspicions to my friends, Sister Deborah and Sister Philip.  At first they were as skeptical as I had been.  Soon they were also on the look out for proof.  Collectively, we were planning a coup, hoping to usurp our leader and gain back someone worthy of following.  A basket ball game provided us with personal experience that things were not as they should be.

Sister Christine and Emily Marie like to play basketball for recreation.  Recreation was a time after dinner allotted for Formation Community building.  We all had to do something together.  Not doing it wasn't an option unless we were sick or had some other pressing matter.  Hopelessly non-athletic.  I hated playing basketball.  Previous basketball games had felt a little too touchy feeling.  Big on denial, I had ignored my feelings.  This evening we'd dressed in gym clothes and headed out for the old school gym to play.  Basketball quickly became a breast groping session.  There could be no more denying what was really happening.  No one needs to block with both hands firmly planted on each breast of a fellow player, especially when that player is me.

I yelled  "TIME OUT"
I marched off the court with the basketball and said, 
"That's it, FOUL! 
I looked right at Sister Christine and said,
"You know that's not part of playing basketball.  This is an excuse for body contact and I'm saying, NO!"

I'd drawn my line in the sand.  Little did I know that none of our Superiors would want to hear what I had to say.  I would soon be in major trouble.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tangled Memories

At this point in the story, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember the order of many of the events.  Initially, there were some very happy days.  Despite the crazy schedule and the monotony of the mundane cleaning that occupied so much of our time, there were happy times as well.  Occasionally, Sister Angela would procure a van for all of Formation to go on an outing.  A trip to Baskin Robbins became a magical thing after being cut off from the world we had known.  There was a lot of good clean fun and laughter.

One summer a small group of us went to see "Kiss Me Kate" at the amphitheater in the Rose Garden.  It was a beautiful summer's day that faded into a wonderful warm evening.  We enjoyed a picnic on the grass and a afternoon and evening free from schedules.  At these times, deciding to enter a convent seemed like a great idea.  We enjoyed an easy camaraderie.  We seemed to share the same purpose.  To that purpose we each had decided to dedicate our lives.  Collectively, this made us stronger, more sure of ourselves. 

In the early days, with Sister Angela at the helm, there was a different spirit in Formation.  Things were not perfect.  Zelda's dramatics and special privileges were difficult to ignore.  Some of the rules still seemed archaic if not down right stupid.  Yet, at this point in time, no one doubted the others sincerity.  There was an atmosphere of respect.  We'd formed an island in the larger convent.  It was a happy one.  Maybe that's why a decision was made to change the Formation Director.  We would lose Sister Angela.  Sister Christine would be taking her place.  None of us in Formation welcomed this change.  We each felt dread.  We anxiously awaited Sister Christine's installment with smiles painted over clenched teeth.  She seemed a very unlikely candidate for this position.  Timid, easily flustered, those of us who had crossed paths with her in the past, did not have fond memories.

Sister Angela had been the Formation Director for some time and did not want to leave her post.  Obedient, faithful nun that she was, she did not protest and did as she was told.  It wasn't easy to say good bye.  Once she left her position, we would not be allowed to talk with her about anything at length unless we had permission.  Permission to talk to one of the professed Sisters was not given easily and was often denied.  The convent believed that talking to too many of the other Sisters would be too confusing for the young Sisters in Training. 

She was a beloved boss, a kind boss and yes, a benign Svegali with an amazing charisma that captured the imagination of a handful of idealistic young women.  She had become the idealized mother to all of us.  I believe that each of us was looking for a loving mother.  Our mothers in the real world were not ours alone.  We had to share them with siblings, jobs, the struggle to provide for their children and the worries that created a chasm between us and what we sought. 

Each of us wanted a mother like the Blessed Mother.  We weren't yet ready to grow up.  We were a small handful of Peter Pan-like girls.  Life had robbed us of something precious.  To compensate for our loss we filled our lives with ideals, promises and Utopian dreams.  The real world had some how left us feel inferior, inadequate and unlovable.  The convent was a way to make up for that lack.  Having a benevolent, older, maternal presence was something that we each longed for and found in Sister Angela.  For a brief period of time, we all seemed to enjoy each others company and the atmosphere of hope.  Any personal doubts or suspicions were easily denied.  That was all to end with the coming of Sister Christine.

Sister Christine was not the devil personified.  She was a very anxious and conflicted women who probably needed a mother more than we did.  Leadership did not come naturally.  When she took over the small class for Postulants, populated by only Zelda and I, it wasn't long before I'd find arguments or questions about the material that would throw her into a cesspool of frustration.  Floundering in the quagmire, her weakness frightened me.  I was often the cat to her mouse.  No, it wasn't the kind thing to do.  It may not have been the right thing.  Certainly, I was acting out because this new director was not the leader/mother that Sister Angela was.  Sister Christine's uncertainty spread like blood in the water.  There were moments when we were sharks, pretty young sharks with a habit and a cherubic smile. 

We'd learned very quickly that "a good nun is a happy nun."   I could swear that I heard those exact words on many an occasion.   Negative emotions or expression were highly suspect.  The unwritten rule against them was strongly enforced.  We kept us practicing our smiles.  We put on smiles as camouflage and entered the new and uncharted waters of Sister Christine's Formation.  Clinging to that smile, I wanted my aching cheeks to convince me that all was right in my small convent world.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  I would soon find out how wrong things could be.

Watering Sticks

Even though I felt like I didn’t belong, I was determined to belong.  The first few days were a blur as I tried to adjust to a radically different life.  After a few days both, my classmate and I were given an horarium.  An horarium is a Latin term for schedule. ( ) This schedule accounted for every minute of our waking day.  Not only were we to follow our schedule, one of the postulants’ jobs was to ring a buzzer every hour on the hour during the day to remind the Sisters who were within earshot to turn their minds toward God.

This schedule got old really fast.  We were given an hour a day to pray in addition to attending morning and evening prayer with the Sisters and Mass.  The rest of the time we were cleaning or in classes.  Postulants and First Year Novices were to stay close to home.  Second Year Novices and Junior Professed usually took classes at Portland State in preparation for a degree and teaching certification.  Postulants and First Year Novices were there to be indoctrinated.  It was an intense time for training us how to be religious.  Classes were called “Instructions“.  We spent a lot of time going over “Perfectae Caritatis Pope Paul VI's encyclical on religious life.  ( )
We also spent time learning about the particular history of our order and the order’s unique charism.  Charism is a religious term for gift.  In this case, it referred to the particular ministry of the order.  The Sisters of St. Mary were primarily teachers.  There were also a few nurses who staffed the Maryville Nursing Home directly behind the Motherhouse. (The main house or base of operations for the Sisters.  I would soon label it “The Bastille“.)

At this point in the story, with the introduction of terms and encyclicals with a sprinkling of Latin over the top, I know that some readers will begin to feel like they’ve entered a strange new world.  That is exactly how I felt.  Granted I was raised Catholic and had twelve years of Catholic school behind me but nothing prepared me for what my life was rapidly becoming.   It was extremely disorienting.  Keeping up with the horarium and getting everything done well on the schedule was extremely difficult.  We spent a lot of time cleaning.  Floors, bathrooms, stairs, dishes all required a daily and perfect cleansing.   The chores were to be rotated among the younger Sisters .  Some how I usually ended up cleaning the stair well by the chapel. 

Four flights of stairs and landings plus ledges and railings were to be cleaned daily by me.    This job was to leave the stairway spotless.  I was to sweep each individual step on my hands and knees with a small whisk broom and dust pan.  I hated this job.  It took forever.  My knees soon showed the crosscut pattern of the metal stair edges.  It would be so much faster with a regular broom. Innocently, I suggested that I use a regular broom instead.  You would have thought I suggested we all slap on some makeup, grab a pack of smokes and go bar hopping.  Apparently, I was completely missing the point.  This task was to humble me.  It was to increase my reliance on God.  Questioning the method was almost blasphemy.  If my “Superior” was to instruct me to do anything, I was not to question or think of a better way, I was simply and silently to do it. 

The example often used to illustrate this point was this:  “Your Superior tells you to water a  dead stick in the ground.  You know the stick is dead.  You know you could water it for the rest of your life and the stick will not grow but you do it anyway, without question because that is what you’ve been told to do.  If you are to vow obedience you have to live it.”

As a questioning soul of the 60’s and 70’s, this story always raised a red flag.  What if your Superior was Hitler and  he was telling you to exterminate an order of Catholic nuns?  Of course, this was a ridiculous and blasphemous example so I knew enough not to use it but I kept it in my head.  I spent a lot of time watering sticks the first year.  It was a skill I never mastered.  I continued to question and my questions gradually made me less popular, less accepted among my Superiors.

Instead of using initials I'm going to give the other people in this story names.  These names are fictitious so as make some effort to conceal their identity.  Classmate, Z is now, Zelda.  Formation Director A. is now, Sister Angela.  Sister F will be Sister Felicity.  It will make it easier to read and a lot easier to write.
My sense of humor and maverick spirit did find kindred spirits in most of the other young women in formation.  Sister Deborah and Sister Phillip.  soon became close friends.   Their friendship was a safe harbor in an increasingly upside down world.  Laughter was good medicine.  It helped me cope.  Having friends helped even more.  As for my classmate, Zelda . . . at first we both tried to be friends.  We were too different from each other.   No amount of prayer and sugar coating could force something that wasn’t meant to be.  Zelda was always Sister Angela’s favorite.  Sister Angela didn’t even try and hide it.   She admitted  it with some embarrassment.  As a result, Zelda got lot of exceptions and accommodations.  She’d been a fine arts major and was allowed to bring her tools and have her own workroom space to work on her projects.  When a friend married a brother, she was allowed to leave the convent, dress in a bridesmaid dress and be part of the wedding.  She was allowed visits with family members at times other than the Sunday’s that were designated family visits.  These same privileges were not extended to me.  Asking for exceptions usually resulted in my receiving a lecture to humble or shame me.  It’s no wonder that I would soon mistrust Zelda, the Golden Girl.

When we entered as postulants, there was a young lady who was a first year novice who would not be there much longer.   She always appeared troubled and nervous.  She waged a battle against a bad case of psoriasis.  I knew it was triggered by stress and she seemed to have tons of it heaped on her.  My classmate took a quick dislike to Sister Eloise.   Zelda often had private talks with Sister Angela.  After one of these talks, Zelda, told me that Sister Eloise didn’t belong in the convent.  She thought that Sister Eloise may be a danger to Sister Angela.  She whispered, “Sister Eloise is unstable."
Apparently, the mind games had begun.  Zelda would play me a while longer.  Even then, I felt for Sister Eloise.  Something didn’t seem right.  I didn’t like what was happening but I was still new.  I had no idea what had happened before we came.  But Sister Eloise nervousness and occasional odd remarks troubled me.  I passively watched as an odd drama unfolded.  Sister Eloise was the bad guy.  Zelda was the cowboy in the white hat.

When Sister Eloise didn’t show up for breakfast one morning, it was no surprise to later be told that she had left the convent.  One day she was there and one day she was not.  No goodbyes.  She was spirited away in a shroud of mystery and what seemed like shame.  This was a disturbing development.  Zelda said, “Good riddance.”

It took me a while to figure out many of the “whys” of the convent world.  Some, I’ll never really understand.  The convent was structured much like a branch of the military.  Formation was boot camp. There was a hierarchy or change of command.  There were exercises.  All jobs and assignments served the greater good or the whole.  The individual’s needs were always secondary to the needs of the larger whole.  Indoctrination and participation in a “group think” mentality was essential if the organization was to continue.  Insubordination was not to be tolerated.  Protecting the group think mentality is central to maintaining the system.   

Surprisingly, this “group think” mentality is not necessarily bad.  There is a time and place for it.  There are people who are well suited to participate in this type of organization.  Unfortunately, there is also room for abuse and corruption in a system as closed as this.  While I understand much about the structure and hierarchy of the convent, it was not a system that I could easily accept.  It seemed archaic and obsolete in the early 1980’s.  The rules often seemed to be more important than the values they were said to protect.
Compassion and  justice were often lost for the sake of maintaining the order.

Not all religious orders are like this.  It isn’t like this for all the people who entered the order I did.  This is what it was like for me.  I bring my bias to the telling of this story.  In the telling, I have already alienated one acquaintance who must find my account a betrayal of what she believes about Catholicism.  I regret offending anyone.   It is not my intent.  I’m just telling what being a nun was like for me, how it changed me, what I believe.  You are free to draw your own conclusions.  I will not apologize for telling the story.  I won’t sugar coat the details.    Over the years, I’ve known some amazing Catholics.  I’ve also known some amazing agnostics, a handful of atheists who were good people, a few peaceful Muslims, some great Jews, and a whole lot of assorted flavors of Protestant.    People are people.  Many are convinced that their brand of truth or religion is the only one, the accurate one. 

While there is much about Catholicism that I truly love, there are a few things I question.  I don’t question lightly or easily.  Most of my extended family are practicing Catholics.   I love them dearly and respect them greatly for their steady faith.    I often wish that things could be easier for me.  I wish that my experiences in the convent hadn’t altered what I believe.  I wish that I wouldn’t stubbornly cling to what I believe to be true in my heart.  Yet, I do. 

I can not ignore who I am, what my mind questions, what I choose to believe.  It is not done thoughtlessly or with indifference.  In my heart of hearts, I have always believed that God gives humans an intellect and expects us to use it.  The God-given intellect must question, must apply reason, it must apply critical thinking skills to the problems of faith, ethics and life.  It is what the intellect was created to do.   My questions do not arise out of disrespect.  They simply arise.  Once asked, they beg an intelligent and thoughtful answer.  To say, “This is what has always been done” or “Water the stick because you’ve been told to do so by a Superior” doesn’t provide any answers.  It does betray fear.  If the real reason or rationale can not withstand one person ‘s scrutiny, than maybe it’s time to rethink what been done and why.

Rules can never supplant love and love must be the point of religious observance or we have all lost our souls.

My choice to enter the convent alienated some of my old friends.  When I left the convent, one friend told me that she could no longer be friends with me because I’d turned my back on my vocation.  Now, as I tell my story, I have offended an acquaintance who did not like my view of the events of my life.  To be on the receiving end of this “friend dumping” isn’t pleasant but it isn’t a great loss either.  Many friendships come to a natural end.  They do not last forever.  Life and situations change and friends often change with it.  Maybe it would show a greater sensitivity to other’s feelings if I were less candid about my own.  It’s more fun and more honest to tell it like it is.  I let the words fall out because they feel right to me, at the moment not because they are right or the definitive truth.  The truth is not something that belongs to me alone I just carry a piece of it as does everyone.  This is my story.  The telling is tainted by the lens of my perception and the passage of time but the essence remains.  It is mine.

My love of a good story led me to study English in college.  In studying literature, in reading countless stories, I closed the book or finished the poem and left a little richer inside than when I began.  Each character in everything I’ve ever read, fiction and non-fiction alike has given me the gift of a broader understanding.  Sometimes that understanding is very different from mine.  It may be an understanding that I find wrong or immoral but it is an understanding nonetheless.   

Of my readers, I ask only this, learn what you can from me.  You don’t have to agree with my view.  You don’t have to like what you read but don’t be afraid to read and learn what it was like for one young woman to enter a convent and leave almost 3 years later.    My truth is not a threat to you, unless you see it that way.  If you do, then I fear for your world.  It is too easily shaken. 

Walk in my shoes for a little while and you will have a better idea of what it’s like to walk in my shoes.  Ask yourself what you might do differently or what you believe and I have helped you to think and question.   Ask yourself, if someone told you to “Water that stick” would you?   Use my story to understand your own story and you’ll prove my telling worthwhile.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Evenfall and Carol's Chrismas

Evenfall is another word for twilight or gloaming.  It describes the time when day gives in to dusk.  A certain slant of light that casts longer and longer shadows until shadows are all that remain.  Evenfall also describes the way I've been feeling as I relive the convent years.  When several annoying incidents ignited my fuse this last week, I was surprised at how intensely I felt frustration.  Trapped in evenfall, I did not connect my retelling of the convent years with my awakened frustration.  Trapped in evenfall, it took a while to see the truth.

At first, I attributed my anger and frustration to an odd blend of mid-life endocrine short-circuiting and being a Crusader of Truth and Justice.  Alas, super heroes are not real and even if they were, I am not one of them.  (Although I'd secretly love to be Wonder Woman.  She's got a hot body and fabulous bullet repelling bracelets.  Oh, then there is that amazing invisible plane.)  I began to step back from the rabid woman I was becoming.  (Now we're talking "Bride of Wolfman."  Don't think there was one but there should be.) Realizing that my frustration was not proportionate to the event, I had to ask myself some hard questions, mainly,
"What the heck is wrong with me?"

When I began relaying my tale, I went into it knowing that it would stir up old feelings.  Yet, when I'm really getting into the story, I start acting out in real life without remembering that fact.  Humans capacity for denial is truly amazing.  It is one thing I do extremely well.  Stumbling around in evenfall, the shadows deepening, I began cursing the darkness.

So, in the hectic days leading to Christmas, I forced myself to take time and really look at how the past was affecting my present.  It's a bit like Dickens," Christmas Carol" except that this time the Ghosts of Past and Present were caging fighting in my head.  Author of my own life, it was time to put an end to the senseless fighting within.  I took pen in hand and wrote out my frustration on pages of notebook paper.  Evenfall was over.  Night had fallen but I was within a soft white light that carved out a safe spot in the darkness. 

The Ghost of the Past stepped out of the darkness and sat with me.  It spoke these words.
"The past is over. It is not the now.  Don't let me haunt you. Learn from me instead."
The Ghost of My Present joined the past in the light.  They had forged a truce for my sake.  It told me,
"What is past is past.  Don't let it ruin the now.  Let the past enrich it."

After visiting with these two ghosts, I was not able to conjure a visit from the Ghost of the Future.  Right now the Past and Present are enough and all that I can safely handle.  The frustration that had burned so brightly was now only a smoking ember.  A peace that is long associated with Christmas filled me instead.  The Ghost of the Past and the Ghost of the Present are guiding me home in the evenfall.

This little personal crisis necessitated a personal Just 10 in order to regroup.  I'll resume telling the story in my next blog entry.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not a Particular Friend

As I knelt below Sister F.'s solid frame, I was not alone.  Another postulant knelt beside me.  Our Formation Director aglow with an eager happiness assured us that Z. and I would be the best of friends. Soon after, in a formation studies class, we were warned of the dangers of "particular friendships." PF's (my code for particular friendships) hinted at sexual relationships.  The Sisters had been warned of the dangers of PF's for years.  Some had a religious devotion to avoiding friendships of any kind lest it should lead to a PF.  Others seemed to disregard the admonition entirely, and develop odd, mutually dependent relationships.  The signs often pointed to something more. 

Our Formation Director, Sister A. was a tiny bird-like woman.  She fluttered about the young nuns like a hummingbird flutters around sweet nectar.  Dainty, lady-like, charmingly innocent, we all wanted to be like her.  We, two postulants had the company of several novices and a junior-professed or two.  Sister A. was the sun around which we all revolved.  We all wanted the approval of our benign Svengali.

Sister A. had been given an extra dose of pixie dust from behind heaven's gate before coming into this world.  Years later, there is still no doubt in my mind that she was 100% genuine.  She was human and imperfect but a wonderful nun, nonetheless.  In the days ahead, I discovered religious women are not all well suited for the religious life.  This didn't cloud the fact that there are people who are well suited.  Men and women can live honest and sincere lives dedicated to something greater than themselves.  These people were the reason I stayed as long as I did.  It was possible to live a genuine religious life.  These examples were flawed humans who never lost sight of that fact which is exactly why God made himself known through them.  They never forgot they were human and in need of saving.  When you're convinced you're saved and God is broadcasting His will through you to the people below, you're going to strike fear and suspicion in this woman's heart.  (Which explains why my dislike of Sister F. aka "The Grand Poobah" was so immediate and sadly, persists to this day.)

My road was destined to be different from the start.  This was not the place for me.  Ignoring my deepest and smartest self, I was convinced I was going to make it work.  It took almost three years for me to accept the truth.  Occasionally someone will ask, "Would you have made a good nun?"
In time, with the right teachers and guides, the answer is a strong, "Yes!  I would have rocked as a nun."
But it was not meant to be.  It was the wrong time, the wrong convent, the wrong people, the wrong me.  Things happened as they should.  The trauma, the injustice, the heart break all served a greater purpose in the end.  I was forced back into the world and into the life I was meant to lead.

As I knelt beside my fellow postulant and classmate, Z., I wanted us to be friends.  I needed a friend in this huge and frightening place.  As life became more challenging, I would desperately try to win her over so that I could have some sort of lifeline to sanity and hope.  Z. and I could not have been more different.  Z. was not a lifeline to anything.  She became my albatross, a curse instead of a friend.  She held up a standard and made it clear that I fell short, at least in the convent world.  In the real world, Z. would have been a fun house mirror, a terrible distortion of reality.  She was capable of great cruelty and deceit.  I grew to hate her. The feeling was mutual.  No danger of a particular friendship here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mortal Combat with the Grand Poobah

Falling asleep that first night in a dormitory, that I would later christen, "Pink Purgatory", was not easy. Dawn came early.  It opened onto the day that I would be officially accepted into the order as a postulant.
Being a postulant was the first step, a holding tank of sorts, preparing the entrance, the postulant, for the religious life that lie ahead.

With little sleep, I rose early to join the community in praying The Angelus, The Divine Office/Morning Prayers and to celebrate the Eucharist, a morning trifecta of prayer.  It all felt surreal.  I half expected the colorful stain glass windows to drip off the walls and puddle on the floor in a thousand bits of light.  My head felt heavy, full of the changes and the new rules brought within the last 24 hours.  Anxiety wrapped around me like an evil second skin.  Tears pooled just behind my eyes, desperately wanting to escape in a Niagara of regret.

I had knowingly and with full intent, walked right into the center of my greatest fears.  Once in the center, I was overwhelmed.  Surely, I must be crazy.  This doubting of my sanity was to have no end.  It's a doubt that grew until it swallowed me whole.  Sanity, a distant island that I could never reach.  Sanity lost became only a vague and broken memory.

My official acceptance into the order was marked by a simple ceremony in the Formation wing's Recreation Room.  A simple, sterile room that attempted to resemble a real home but always fell tragically short of ever reaching its goal.  The couches were uncomfortable.  The TV used only for the news and then only 1/2 hour a day.  The floor was too clean, too shiny to show that real people lived there.  The bookcase was filled with older books crafted for spiritual reading and direction.  We had to get permission before reading anything.  A voracious and adventurous reader, I'd dived into Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut.  Now, I had to ask to read old books by Bishop Sheen (before he became a Cardinal, and I'm not talking ball team.)  This need to get permission to read had yet to be discovered on this morning but the pall cast on my life the previous day hinted at trouble ahead.   The walls seemed to sigh, betraying a deep and troubling sadness.

A terrified postulant knelt below a plump Mother General.  (Mother General was the highest rank in our little army of nuns.)  At first glance, I thought she resembled the Grand Poobah from "The Flintstones."  My opinion never changed.  Behind her back, I often called her Grand Poobah and Queen Bee.  Mother or Sister F. bustled in slightly behind schedule and a bit breathless.  She oozed a sickening, fake sweetness like  old asphalt oozes road tar on a hot summer day.  Our mutual dislike was almost instantaneous.  Her eyes betrayed her as she searched mine.  We were both fakes and we were on to each other.  Our pretense must remain hidden from the world.  Immediately, we were a danger to each other.

After a brief prayer or two, I knelt at Sister F.'s feet and received a simple silver crucifix.  I would wear this symbol of religious life from that day forward, for better and for worse.  At the conclusion of this ritual, hugs were dispensed.  Still kneeling, I awkwardly hugged Sister F's knees and immediately felt I had committed an unforgiven faux pas.  The die was cast.  From that moment on, Sister F and I were locked in an odd conflict, neither of us fully understood.  I could only pretend to respect her and she could only pretend to vaguely tolerate me.  On that day, I'm also sure she made up her mind to drive me out.  (Lest, you think I'm paranoid, dear reader, just wait.)

An imperfect world lay behind me, one from which I longed to escape.  Now, I ran into a world that held up a standard of perfection.  Underneath this standard lurked political intrigue, power alliances, sexual alliances, blackmail, and more.  Nothing had prepared me for what would soon reveal itself.    On this day, a shadow covered the sun.  I shudder when remembering the feeling that something had walked over my grave.  Part of me would die within convent walls.  This death was not a joyous mystical melting into the expanse called God.  It was a painful, slow and agonizing death that saw the end of innocence and of hope.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Black Shoes

While I was receiving indecent proposals at the grocery store, I was also frequently teased about being good nun material.  The deepest part of me knew that I wasn't nun material. When I thought seriously about entering the convent, it was always accompanied by a horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Yet, somehow this chasm of gnawing doubt became easier and easier to ignore.

I'd dropped out college at the end of my freshman year,  I was working and living at home but there was a lot of tension between all of us.  When things erupted in a physical confrontation with my father, I fled.  For over a month, I lived in a spare storage room at my boss' house.  Then I moved in with one of my grandmothers.  Gram and I had always been close.  After she died in 1984, I discovered how close we were.  Even ten years later, I'd think about something and want to call her and tell her only to have to remind myself that she was no longer a simple phone call away.  We never talked about anything deep or even anything very personal.  She was usually in a good mood and being with her always made me feel better.  (My daughter is very much like my grandmother.  I am especially blessed.)

Both my grandmothers always lived within easy walking distance.  I would often show up hoping for a cookie or a slice of freshly baked bread but more than that I was looking for their companionship and a little attention.  They always were happy to see me.  They both told wonderful stories if you spent enough time directing them back to where their stories waited.  They needed an audience, to feel young again, to see themselves through younger eyes and I needed their wisdom, their humor, their honesty.  They always had something good to eat and my stomach, mind and heart loved their company.  I didn't always appreciate it back then.  I was afraid to show them how much they mattered to me.   I was afraid to acknowledge it to myself.

When I first moved in with my maternal grandmother, I needed her.  She was there for me as she had always been.  We never talked about why I left home.  She never asked.  I never said.  There were so many things that were never said.  In time, I realized that just as I had once needed her, she was now needing me, relying on my company.  Frightened, I tested the limits.  She never scolded or reprimanded me.  She would lie awake at night if I wasn't home and wait until I came in before she could fall asleep.  If I tiptoed in at 2 or 3 in the morning, a small quiet voice would call out to me as I passed her bedroom.
"Carol, are you okay?"
I always replied, "Yes, Grandma.  Go to sleep.  You don't need to worry about me."
"Goodnight", she'd say.
"Goodnight,  Gram.  Get some sleep."

I might have been out late at 19 and 20 years of age but I was still a good girl.  I wasn't sleeping around.  I rarely drank and only once remember driving after having too much champagne at a wedding.  Once sober, I was upset with myself for being so careless.  Driving home at 1 a.m on country roads with a light snow falling,  I hadn't met a single car.  So fascinated was I by the snowflakes, I drove about 20 miles an hour all the way home."
I can still see beautiful snow flakes dropping out of the night sky and melting on my windshield on that Dec 29th, 1978.

Grandma's waiting up for me was both touching and frustrating to a late bloomer like myself.  I thought myself old enough to have passed the stay-up-and-worry-about-me phase.  As time passed, my life felt stagnant.  As much as I loved my Grandmother, I also wanted to live my own life.  I wanted to go to college, to travel.  I didn't know how to have my own life without hurting her.  We never spoke of this out loud.  Maybe things would have been different if we had.  As it was, the odd pieces of my life began to assemble into the perfect storm.

One day as I walked up the hill to Mt. Angel Abbey, I struggled with the idea of what to do with my life.  I looked down at the black shoes I was wearing and thought to myself,
"I could wear black shoes.
I could wear all black clothing.
I could become a nun.
I could do this."

Those black shoes with the faint white stitching and the smart t-strap are captured in a snapshot in my mind. I see them now almost as clearly as I saw them that fateful day when the decision to enter a convent was based on my ability to wear a pair of black shoes.  My desire not to enter was as strong as ever.  I decided  to accept what I had been fighting inside.  I resigned myself to the decision not with a happy heart but with a sense of duty and obligation.  It wasn't what I really wanted but it seemed like the way to solve a bunch of problems.  I didn't see this then.    I'd convinced myself that it was the right thing to do without listening to my heart,  the signs in my life or the voices of doubt that whispered in my head.  After all, didn't I usually make the right choice?  Didn't I do what was expected?  Wasn't I the good Catholic girl?

I'd never come close to dating in high school.  Very shy, nerdy, a smart girl didn't make me an attractive option to the young men in my world.  I'm sure I appeared aloof.  People probably thought I thought I was better than they were.  Sometimes, I actually thought that but I know it was a defensive way of dealing with the profound feeling of inadequacy that lie under any feelings of superiority.   The convent offered me a way out.  I could get an education.  I would gain a level of respect in my Catholic world.  I could leave my Grandmother's house with only the best of intentions.  She couldn't argue with me or try to hold me back without going against much of what she believed about her faith.  Once my mind was made up by those pair of black shoes, there was no turning back.

As my family said a final goodbye in that fancy convent parlor, I knew I was making a big mistake.  I wanted to stop all the social niceties and say, "I was wrong.  I'm going home with you."
But, I didn't.  After they left, I thought about calling them and begging them to come back and pick me up.
"I don't belong here.  I was wrong."
I didn't.  The resulting embarrassment and humiliation would be too much to bear.  I had my pride.

Following a beaming formation director, I carried my small suitcase through the cloister doors.  Up the flights of stairs, she lead me to a simple, dormitory divided into smaller sections by curtains the color of pink Pepto Bismol.  My stomach lurched at the sight of them.  I was not a quitter.  Out of my suitcase, I pulled a simple black skirt, baggy black cardigan and white blouse.  I slowly changed into my new clothes.  Carefully, I slipped my feet into a pair of black shoes and walked into my new life.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Only The Good

While working at Ditter's,  I had Monday and every other Sunday off work.  On the first Monday of the month, I had a standing appointment with a Benedictine priest in a small town several towns away.  "Only the Good Die Young" seemed to always play on the radio on my drive to Mt. Angel.  Mt. Angel shared a similar German-Catholic background as did my home town of Sublimity.  Mt. Angel had taken it up a notch or two and was home to both a Benedictine Abbey and a Benedictine convent.  (One for men and one for women respectively.)  The Abbey educated many of the secular priests for the local archdiocese.

I was still very young when my parents first took us there on a Sunday drive.  High atop a small hill, with buildings that resembled castles, it captured the imagination of a little girl who still believed in fairy tales.   A long and gently curving road cut through a forest of tall pine trees before arriving at the top.  Even then, I thought the drive up the hill was like a journey.  It hinted of medieval quest.  At the top, the Grail, a peaceful oasis, a land set apart.  It captured my imagination and my desire to remain forever innocent.

Hit by a lot of changes in a short time, I found solace in monthly meetings with Fr. B.  Kind and gentle with a ready laugh our meetings were a combo of spiritual direction, counseling and laughter.  I always left feeling better about myself than when I arrived.  It felt like a healing place.  These talks with Fr. B. did more than make me feel better, they also renewed an interest in theology.  Twelve years of Catholic school had helped lay a good foundation.  Theology became more than a cerebral exercise and more an affair of the heart.  I smile to think of what type of theologian I might have become.  I suspect someone on the lines of Teihard de Chardin.  The "divination of the cosmos" always had great appeal to me.  Maybe that appeal had its basis in my use of dried cow pies as toys when still a tot.  God's little "ripple effect" through all creation.  (For the curious, more about Teilhard de Chardin can be found here:  )

What I didn't know then and what I know now only after a lot of experience is that I was desperately looking to religion, my faith, to fix what I thought was terribly wrong with me.  It was a mystical bandage of sorts slapped over a hidden cancer underneath.  Hidden cancers have a nasty way of becoming big problems later on and this was not an exception.

While there were bright spots in these years before the convent, depression often held my in its cold and deadly grasp.  It tainted my world.  It had threatened my life only to be foiled at the last minute by something that seemed close to divine.  There seemed no way to exorcise the depression that I too often denied.  I layered denial and good behavior on top of it while deep within it flooded me with its poison.  I turned to God, to religion for a fix.  That in itself is neither good or bad.  We all bring our baggage, our weaknesses, our sins to the altar.

The problems begin when we deny they exist, when we engage in behaviors desperate to hide the weakness within.  It is this weakness, these sins that we must freely place upon the altar.  The good we do is often tainted by desire for recognition, fame, the desire to be loved.  The only things that are truly ours alone, that beg to be offered to a higher power for their wretched worth so once acknowledged and sacrificed, their ashes can become the fertile ground for growth.  This is the place where weakness makes us strong.  To make this sacrifice requires that we walk to the altar with eyes and arms wide open.  Before God, we stand with only our weakness, our frailty to offer Him.  Goodness already belongs to Him.  We simply have to learn how to get out of the way of this goodness.

When I heard, "Only the Good Die Young, " blasting out of the radio, I didn't hear singer's argument to Virginia to get her to have sex with him.  (An old argument by the way.  See Andrew Marvell's "To a Coy Mistress" .)    I heard "Only the Good Die Young."  The dark part of me wanted that to be true.  I stumbled through life with a psychic armload of broken glass.  Everywhere I went I left a trail of blood.  It felt like the road to atonement.  On this road I walked into a convent and created my own perfect nightmare, exquisitely tailored to result in the maximum of inner torment.  The dark part of me secretly aspired to die good and young.  Since ending my own physical life was wrong, then offering myself on the pyre called, "goodness" seemed the best way to end my life without killing my body.  I had so much to learn.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Live and Let Die

To someone who has been cleaning the sour milk out of the bottom of the grocery dairy case, a job as a file clerk in an x-ray clinic sounds like a big step up on the ladder of success.  To some one who has been a file clerk you know that this isn't as big a leap forward as it might sound.

When I found myself implicated in a scandal, I left my job at the grocery store for a job as a file clerk.  I liked my new co-workers but it wasn't the same.  Eager to leave one soap opera, I soon discovered that I landed directly in the middle of another.  This time, I didn't play a major role.  It was just a walk-on part but even that was too much for me.

The office manager of the clinic was a suave ladies' man.  The receptionist and he had worked out an elaborate system so that an almost endless parade of girlfriends could be channelled through the building without ever running into each other.  For four months, I stood at a huge hanging file case and filed patient records.  A young co-worker on vacation never returned.  Somewhere in Idaho or Montana, a motor home pulled out in front of the motorcycle she was a passenger on.  She hit the motor home and died instantly.  Her husband called the office the very next day to ask about her life insurance policy and how much she was worth.

Paula was one of the kindest people, I had ever met.  Her death left a big hole in the heart of the office.   My boss started to train me to take over her job responsibilities.  It was a step up but it didn't feel like it.  Maybe some of it was survivor's guilt.  After all guilt was something I did extremely well.    Instead of dealing with patient files all day,  I answered phones and talked about billing and insurance.  More than one person would find themselves in tears as they told of their health scare and their inability to pay.  I couldn't hear their stories without feeling bad about their situation but I had a job to do.  I tried to be as kind as possible.  I hated it.

The new and glamorous aspects of my office job soon evaporated.  I missed the simple work of my old job and the variety.  I missed my co-workers.  I missed the innocence of a simpler time, of a friendship that I valued only to have it become something else entirely.  If hell has a business office, then I was in it.

At this point, I have to say that depression doesn't make sense.  My life really wasn't hell nor was this job yet it felt that way.  Depression seems to be less an illness of the mind and more an illness of the soul.  Joy and happiness was sucked out of my world leaving a dark and painful void where my heart used to be.  My feelings, my depression, wasn't justifiable.  Life really wasn't that bad and I knew it.  It felt unbearable and so I sought help.  I began to see a psychiatrist who was a short distance from the office.  I kept it a secret from almost everyone.

He was a wonderful, kind older gentleman.  It was easy for me to make him laugh.  He offered talk therapy at a time when psychiatrists still did so.    Now, they are mainly prescription writers.  He found me charming and delightful and reflected back to me a better part of myself.  The depression still had a vice grip on my soul.  I'd learned how to fake it.  Inside I felt like dying.  I wasn't able to completely fool him because I didn't want to.  He prescribed an early antidepressant.  It had a lot of side effects and was very sedating.

The first day I took it I was almost a zombie.  All day long I was caught up in the music playing in my head.  I heard "Live and Let Die" with full symphony orchestra.  No note was left out.  It played in an endless loop and was so loud in my head, I could hardly hear people speak. After months of feeling so miserable, this numbness was a blessed relief.

Slowly, my body began to adjust, the sedation eased.  The pain crept back in.  Alone, with a weekend before me and a bottle of wine,  I swallowed half a bottle of pills fully intending not to wake up again.  Fate was unbelievably kind.  I've never had the stomach for alcohol.  I didn't think the wine would disagree with me so violently but it did.  I woke up vomiting and that probably saved my life.

It took a few hours to realize what I had done but when I did I was horrified and ashamed.  In between attacks of violent vomiting, I heard these words in my head,
"Carol, your life is a gift.  You can not reject it.  You must live it.  You are deeply loved.  Believe that."
My first reaction was to argue with this voice.  As the haze slowly began to clear and my protests lost energy, I knew on the deepest level of my being that the voice inside me was right.  It seemed that my imaginary playmate was back.  This time, invisible and inside my head but real enough to make a difference in my life, at least for a while.  I didn't tell the doctor what I had done or anyone else for a very long time.