I will love you even when my love of you is ended.
I will desire you even when I desire you no more.
HYMNS TO THE CHURCH
Gertrude von le Fort
Even as a little girl I wanted someday to become a nun. The sisters came to the little town where I lived only once a year, for two weeks in June. How could I know I wanted to join them and live their way of life? I really knew nothing about them. These women in their long dresses and veils mystified me, filled me with awe, and at the same time instilled in me that kind of shyness born of fear. It probably was the mystery of them that drew me, that held me, that never really let me go even when I almost chose to end my life to find a way away.
Here is the story of my fourteen years with the sisters--from mid-1958 to early 1973. During this era many young women entered and subsequently left convents. We became Catholic Sisters in one world, and left the sisterhood in another. Viet Nam was happening. Cultural transformation was happening. Our contemporaries in the society outside the convent protested or embraced the changes taking place, not only in the world at large, but in the Catholic Church. The rigid Pope Pius XII died and was followed by the old but charismatic Pope John XXIII who called an ecumenical council in Rome--the iconoclastic Second Vatican Council which paved the way among Protestants for the Emerging Church Movement of the new millennium.
My contemporaries in religious orders and congregations of that era reeled with excitement and confusion. We were just learning what it meant to be Catholic women with vows when the secure structure beneath us began to give way. We stood on quicksand. It actually took years to realize what was happening, years of thinking we knew who we were and then realizing at some moment in time that we really were not what we had thought. It didn't matter on which side of the changes we found ourselves, we discovered ourselves in the situation described by T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets: "Last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice." Some of us left that life because the life we thought we chose no longer existed, others left because the transformation we anticipated wouldn't happen fast enough. And possibly some of us, feeling caught in a cultural and religious whirlwind felt we could no longer breathe in such a wind, and left merely to survive.
For me it was centrifugal force. I think so, anyway. I'm an old woman now and I've never gotten over it. This memoir is one I've written many times in many ways, but its final form is the result of letters from my mother written to me at least weekly during all the years I spent in the convent. Many of these letters she sent survived. When she died in 1993 I organized them and put them in plastic page savers in a loose-leaf notebook. I read them once again as I worked. We went through those years together, she and I. Our hopes, our confusions, our sufferings, sometimes our realizations correspond. It was in the spaces between our letters that I finally found a way to write this memoir.
Here's the blurb I wrote for advertising this new book:
Caught in the turmoil of renewal resulting from the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a young nun and her mother struggle to understand and live their faith in a new and often unfamiliar religious world. Sister Christin, eager to implement the new directives from Rome, finds herself with theological vision but without guidelines, wisdom, or life experience to create structures for living that vision. "No one knows how to do this!" Humorous and sometimes tragic results ensue. Her mother, Alyce, proud of her daughter but at the same time concerned for her welfare at such an unstable time, encourages and warns her of possible dangers through letters and occasional visits to the convent. As the two women exchange these "words in their fingers," the reader will experience the effect their church in turmoil has upon the lives of each of them.
This is a memoir of a turning point, a thin place in the texture of an ancient institution, of a surrounding culture on the edge of a new understanding of the world, and of the souls of even the most common women who lived through those times and attempted to influence the outcome. For the human soul, it was an edge both terrifying and tender.