Bird Undertaker of St. martin's
An ex-nun describes what led her to the convent amidst “the Troubles” in Ireland — and what ultimately pushed her away.
There had been a workshop at the motherhouse. A hotshot facilitator, known for her arbitration in industrial relations, had been brought in, at no spared expense, to speak on community issues. The workshop turned out to be a little more interactive than the sisters would have liked, and their discomfort was palpable. Eighty nuns had been divided into ten groups of eight for some “community building exercises.” The sisters chatted nervously, wondering what would be demanded of them. The chapel, refuge of the dissenters, was out of bounds. There would be no escape. The first two or three exercises proved pretty non-threatening. This woman was no fool! Then, without further ado, she went to each group in turn, threw a deck of cards into the air, and asked the group to organize them according to suit. Some clawed at the cards, others held them to their ample bosoms, determined to conceal their “hand.” I calmly turned to Zita and Rose on either side of me and asked what they had, and if we could pool our cards. Suddenly, the exercise was signaled to a halt. “You are all looking out for yourselves, except … her!” said the facilitator, pointing to me. The room fell silent as the eyes of each sister turned my direction. “Interesting, isn’t it?”
Bobby Sands was dead. Four months dead when I moved north. Many days of starvation, dirty protests, and life “on the blanket” had taken their toll and finally rid Long Kesh of one of its most notorious and beloved Republican leaders. Four months had not been sufficient to quell the ire of Sands supporters, rendering Northern Ireland a veritable snow globe of car bombings, Black Cab abductions, kneecappings, and tortures. Not to mention the nightnoise of the steel trash can lids and the street bonfires with their incandescent light.
As we approached High Street en famille that September evening, it seemed to me that the car was suffocating in the stench of burning rubber, under a blanket of coal-black soot. At the border, a young British soldier had sullenly asked the purpose of our visit north. Our nervous efforts to be effusive regarding my plan to enter St. Martin’s Convent were met with veiled derision and considerable muttering on the parts of the soldiers running the Renault’s southern plates. Dad bristled as he handed his license to the heavily armed Scouser. My dad could have been one of them, majoring as he had in the dour Scots affect. My scowling, scornful dad, who wore steel tips on his shoes and on his words. Please. No drama. Not here. Not now. After an eternity of waiting and a brief search, our entourage was finally waved on.
Over many months I would learn to take border checkpoints in stride, and distract myself from the thought that there could be a car bomb under the car in front, skills as important as veil pinning, or the communal recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. However, that September border crossing did little to reassure my father regarding the safety of his only child. No matter. I was not to be deterred — not now.
Despite what I would frequently describe as the myriad miseries of being an only child, I managed to forge a life for myself almost independently of my family. For the most part I was left to dwell unnoticed in my “interior castle.” It was there that I first became aware of a presence beyond my own. It seemed both inevitable and appropriate that, being a product of Catholic parents, convent school, and its attendant devotions, I identify this presence as God.
Not that I wanted to rid myself of “the Presence,” but, apparently, that would have been difficult to do. Once I absorbed the Presence, it took up residence lock, stock, and barrel in every cell of my emerging self — like a squatter in a long abandoned house.
Such was the state of things when my mother, Mona, died quite suddenly of a heart attack when I was ten. All her life she had been a heavy smoker. She developed asthmatic bronchitis, which rapidly debilitated her. The illness put great strain on a heart already broken by an unhappy marriage, and many years of brokering peace between her husband and her sister Winnie, who had taken us in on our arrival from Scotland. On the day of my mom’s death, I had been polishing the bedroom furniture in the room where she lay, nitroglycerin and (quite probably) cigarettes at the ready. I remember noticing that she was looking pale and had seemed tired and irritable as I pirouetted around the room, Pledge and duster in hand. Suddenly, and without explanation, I was dispatched down the street to my Aunt May’s house. I knew better than to ask questions of Winnie, or her nemesis — my dad.
An ambulance took my mom to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she passed away in the middle of the night. It was around seven o’clock in the morning when I heard my dad come home and tell Winnie, “She’s gone!” At least that’s what I think I heard. I ran down the stairs into the kitchen. They both stood there crying, incredulous, bereft. They looked at me, but before either of them could speak, I bolted out of the room and ran back upstairs. I shut the bedroom door. I shut my eyes and ears. I shut down. I had never been seen or heard or touched — except by Mom. Ours was not a demonstrative family. Our next door neighbor Lena came in. The priest came; my mom had been fond of him. I allowed their attempts to console the inconsolable. I allowed their hugs. But I did not feel them.
On the day of my mom’s funeral, we had a meal at our house. There were peas. I know there were peas — peas, potatoes, and overcooked roast beef, doubtless. When the secondary mourners left, to return to their intact families, Winnie washed the dishes and I dried them like a marionette. Putting the rat-tailed forks back in the lurid green cutlery sorter, I silently berated my dead mother. “Why did you have to die and leave me with him?”
I remained lost and afraid until the Presence found me. God was all I had. Years later, I recognize that there were people who would have been there for me. But at ten years old, I was barely keeping it together.
After Mom’s funeral, which, it had been decided, I would not attend, my dad instructed friends and family alike not to speak to me of my mother, for fear of upsetting me. Even my classmates from the convent school (all of whom had been present at the funeral) were sworn to silence, and so it was that whenever I mentioned my mom, the adults in my life would either burst into tears or change the subject. Likewise, at school, my classmates took pains to avoid me, not knowing what to say. My grades plummeted. I withdrew from friends. I curled up tighter into my ball. I braced myself.
On the street outside Powers Supermarket, Winnie and I would meet friends and neighbors. “Mona died. Heart attack,” Winnie would mime, and I dutifully acted my part, pretending not to notice as I turned to the Coty display in the window of Boles Chemist. Mute, broken and alone. Eyes tearing, shaking and sick. Had it not been for the Presence I would most certainly have lost my mind.
To God I could express all my feelings and thoughts, never worrying that they were malformed or twisted or dark. Having hosted the Presence for years, I now sought it out in churches, in parks, in communities, in books. I went to Mass, prayed the Rosary, the stations, the Angelus. Most of all, I loved Benediction, which was for me the most soothing of rituals, with its incense and Latin chants. I went to Charismatic prayer meetings all over the neighborhood and became an addict for the catharsis provided by the music and singing. For the first time, I felt connected to a family outside of the dysfunctional one with whom I lived. For me, my faith was about relationship — not rules, regulations, and dogmas. So, though many of my friends felt that their own church had alienated them from God by the tyranny of fear, I had never allowed this to happen to me. This was a miracle in and of itself, for though I was lost and broken in many ways, God had gifted me with an unshakable faith in things unseen. It was this faith that comforted me greatly at a time when I was most vulnerable and heartbroken.
As I began to heal from the loss of my mother, I felt prompted to pray for and with others who were also broken. I often took a bus to the city, where I would sit on the curb talking to homeless men, leaving them with a scarf, a sandwich, coffee, or a little money, and always a comforting word. I listened as they told of estranged families, illnesses, addictions, and rejections. All issues of which I knew I was ignorant. However, I was all too well acquainted with pain and loneliness, and in that I became a kindred spirit to family, friend, and stranger in need.
Looking at my life as high school graduation approached, it was almost a no-brainer for me to explore religious life. So not one of my friends was shocked when I announced I was going to attend a Vocations Day at the convent where we had attended school since the age of five. The day itself was prayerful and calming (if a little stuffy and formal). The sisters did their level best to be welcoming and kind, but there was something missing. I felt a disconnect between them at a visceral level. No evidence of sympathy or fondness. No fun. Sr. Annunciata had offered a welcome devoid of warmth or charm while her sidekick Sr. Columba fussed about making tea as if it were a nuisance to her. Neither of them seemed to know how to relate to nervous young women in Laura Ashley dresses and lace-up boots. The coldness of the women constantly addressing each other as “Sister” evoked memories of Communist Russian comrades. Sr. Maria, the vocations directress, corralled us into the sitting room, where we sat around a gigantic mahogany table and answered rapid-fire questions about our prayer life and romantic status.
Sr. Maria was by no means enthused about my attending prayer meetings. Not. At. All! “Don’t you think all that Charismatic stuff is a little over the top?” she quizzed. “Here, we prefer to talk to God quietly, without the hoopla.”
Starting out to answer her, it suddenly dawned on me that her question was a rhetorical one, and that surely none of the sisters at St. Veronica’s could be accused of engaging in “hoopla.” For a few moments, I found myself entertained by the rogue thought that Jesus himself fancied a bit of hoopla. In fact, I felt like reminding Comrade Maria that Jesus was the original Hoopla Magnet — eating and drinking with fishermen, driving out demons, socializing with prostitutes, befriending tax collectors, and generally provoking mosh pits. I felt certain, though, that He was now up there somewhere kicking Himself for not devoting more hours to whispering to God — NOT! After the interrogation, we did indeed have some quiet time in the spartan chapel, during which I gave Jesus a piece of my mind — quietly, of course!
The whole experience felt more than a little sterile — like a tour of an empty ER. And there had been those strange cornflake and marmalade sandwiches at supper. Had I dreamt that?
A short while later God gave me a good lead, you might say. In my neighborhood was another convent with an elementary school and orphanage attached. Some of my high school classmates had come from either St. Martin’s Orphanage or the elementary school there. Vivienne and Gabrielle, in particular, had spoken affectionately of the sisters at St. Martin’s and often went back to visit.
So I felt I had little to lose when I showed up unannounced one evening at the convent door. If the portress was a little taken aback, she didn’t show it, and soon I found myself drinking tea with the sisters and sharing the sofa with Bawneen, their old, malodorous cat. Children from the orphanage ran around slamming doors and joking with Srs. Frances and Agnes who turned out, in fact, to be biological sisters! Sr. Assumpta had her sleeves rolled up and had just come in from picking fresh mint in the convent garden. Her hair was unkempt and her brown habit had seen better days. Was that baby formula on her dress? Or cat drool?
These women seemed healthy and wholesome and had not asked me prying questions about either my love life or my prayer life. Neither were they disparaging about the convent school I had attended. It was also very obvious to me that Frances, Agnes, and Assumpta regarded Viv and Gabby as family when they asked kindly for them. I had to admit I was intrigued. I continued to visit the sisters informally and inevitably decided to enter with them officially in the September of that year.
It was hard for me to explain to my recently remarried dad that I was going to enter an order of nuns who, until pretty recently, had been cloistered. Dad was awaiting the results of hospital tests he had undergone, to investigate something in his blood that had looked sinister to his physician. Timing! Fortunately for me, however, he took the news stoically, and so I packed up my solitary suitcase, now fully intent on moving forward with my new life. I had been given a list of items to bring — four beige blouses, four brown skirts, two pairs of brown shoes, two brown sweaters, and a cardigan. I also packed some books, a crucifix, a bible, and the many cards and gifts I had received from well-wishers.
Yet the first months at St. Martin’s presented more than just the challenges of "the Troubles.” It wasn’t male companionship I craved, or the money to spend on something frivolous. It wasn’t even the personal accountability that was bothersome. By far the hardest thing for me was just living with 41 other women! The noise in the refectory was deafening at mealtimes. Long before hardwood floors became ubiquitous, the convent had them everywhere. Some days I would place myself in charge of the toaster, making many slices of toast until everyone was seated for breakfast and things quietened down a little. I had been told by my Novice Mistress that although it seemed that some of the older sisters had appropriated a permanent seat at one of the seven tables, I was to circulate at each meal to give the sisters a chance to get to know me. Very often, the other postulant, Molly, and I would be servers at meals, which began and ended at the behest of Mother Abbess who would summarily signal same with a Grace before and after each meal. Abbess Paula was a kindly woman with an appreciation for good conversation, so meals were seldom aborted or rushed — just loud, hellish loud, and echoey. Molly had come from a family of nine and so didn’t even register the chaos, but hers was not an experience shared by me.
After a year of prayer, study, and community living, I was well familiar with the diverse personalities of the sisters, having worked closely with them in their Grammar School as an intern of sorts. Carmel loved sports and played hockey like a pro. Declan spent every weekend mountain climbing and had received an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen for her work with disadvantaged youth (both Catholic and Protestant). Maria loved country music and listened to the radio every night. Molly and I envied her, as we were not allowed to listen to any music, save Catholic hymns. And no, Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” didn’t fit that bill! Barbra Streisand was also unwittingly a cause for great concern when Molly and I belted out the tracks from her Guilty album one day on a car trip. I was identified as the instigator since I could sing and knew all the words. “These songs are not in keeping with our way of life, Sister,” I was promptly told. Neither were we permitted to develop particular friendships, or PF’s, as they were known. The rationale was to guard against attachment to people. And in order that we would not become attached to places, sisters were moved from convent to convent quite frequently. So I knew that my stay at the motherhouse would be short from day one.
Among the motherhouse community was John-Louis, the third biological sister of Frances and Agnes from the orphanage. John-Lou was the cut-up of her family. She had surrendered not one iota of her personality for the sake of community conformity. One evening over supper, she graphically described the antics of a young couple she had been sitting behind on the Dublin-Newry bus.
“Oh, you could see they were in love,” she explained. “He was kissing the face off her … and you know what? I was wishing I was her!” John-Lou chortled — fully aware of the disdain of her listeners. Devil may care!
Then there was Marguerite who had failed her driving test 22 times, and Bernadette who was a wise and uncomplaining patient, despite her gangrenous feet. In her youth she had longed to be a Carmelite nun like her sister, but her hemophilia had prevented the Carmelites from accepting her. So she ended up at St. Martin’s, who were fortunate to be the recipients of her wisdom and saintliness. Bernie also had a great sense of humor and teased me mercilessly for being able to bathe her septic feet yet squirm when asked to provide her with a mashed banana and strawberry jelly sandwich for supper.
It had been 13 years since the British Army had deployed their men to Northern Ireland as peacekeeping forces during the Civil Rights marches of 1969. Events had taken a violent turn and provoked much rioting and looting. Belfast might well have twinned with Montgomery, Alabama in the ‘60s. Only the cause of the violence differed. Replace white segregationists with Protestant landowners, and African Americans with Catholics, and there you have the essence of the Troubles as they were known on both sides of the border. Six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties belonged to Britain and remained under British rule — a colony onto itself, you might say. Protestant Loyalists were content, since they had prevailed mightily over the years. But Republican Catholics, jaded from being discriminated against in the property and employment arenas, rose up against their oppressors. So began a reign of terror, as the Provisional Irish Republican Army waged guerrilla warfare against the British military on three fronts — Northern Ireland, the Free State (as the 26 counties were known), and the British mainland. Their actions provoked an unprecedented level of violence and incited retaliations by their Protestant nemesis, the Ulster (the name of the province of the six counties) Volunteer Force. Over the years of the Troubles, many innocent civilians lost their lives. Most internationally well known of the atrocities perpetrated by the sectarian factions is that of Bloody Sunday, immortalized in song by U2.
All in a futile effort to reunite with the Republic of Ireland, we sang “A Nation Once Again,” as if wishing would make it so. As if the daily violence would hasten us to unity, would bring about the peace we craved. We were delusional. We were insane.
In the playground of St. Martin’s Grammar School while I was an intern, 500 children played various games at recess in the shadow of armed British soldiers lying in the grass in camo gear. A common and, by now, unremarkable sight. It was at recess on such a day that I was approached furtively by a doe-eyed little girl with demerara freckles and a noticeably short petrol blue skirt. (Definitely not knee-length! I noted mentally.)
“’Scuse me Sister, but they say you’re the one who buries all the dead birds, an’ there’s one over there you must’ve missed.”
“Okay, what’s your name, love?” I inquired.
“I’m Leontia,” she whispered, brown eyes darting to and fro.
“Alright Leontia, let’s take a look.” The bird, a magpie, was dead all right, and had been for several days. Wings akimbo, motionless but for an occasional feather lifted by the breeze. As Leontia ran off to ask the janitor for a shovel, I surveyed St. Martin’s schoolyard which, just last week, had been the scene of terror as 24 British soldiers swooped down as part of a military maneuver authorized by an oblivious battalion chief.
Sr. Lucy, the Head, had marched on the barracks in fury. “How dare you!” she'd spat, only leaving on the assurance that such a flagrant disregard for her students would never be perpetrated again. I watched the soldiers now; their machine guns were barely visible in the tall grass, but their presence was, at the least, contemptuous.
“Lucy will have a … ” but all at once Leontia was back, shovel in hand. I dug a resting place for the magpie spirit, the stony gray soil spilling down the hill throughout.
“One for sorrow,” murmured Leontia, remembering the old rhyme. She placed the blue-black bird into the shallow grave, its wings now folded as in prayer.
“Dear Lord,” I prayed, “take this lovely creature back to yourself, who is its origin and completeness. Hold it close to your heart. We thank you for the time we shared in its beauty, and for the colors with which you painted it. May we treasure the memory of its loveliness until the day all creatures are reunited in you.”
“Amen,” intoned Leontia.
“Now, back to class, sweetheart.” I shook my head, wondering what Bruegel might have made of the scene.
I was in no doubt that I loved the sisters and no question that I would accept the white veil and take my temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I knew that this would involve moving to another community far from the motherhouse … and, thankfully, any British soldiers. The Wicklow community would be a totally different experience from the motherhouse. Though for Molly and me there were some similarities. We were still required to rise at 6:00 a.m. for meditation and to attend Mass at seven in the Convent Chapel. It would happen occasionally that one or other of us would sleep in past the six o’clock alarm. That was the morning we’d be praying that Jane Frances, our new Novice Mistress, wasn’t up before us. However, one whiff of her Estee Lauder Youth Dew on the stairs left no room for doubt. Jane Cut-The Bulls--- Frances, who didn't suffer fools gladly, was already installed in the chapel awaiting our tardy appearance and not too happy about it! After a leisurely breakfast, we left with Jane Frances for a morning of spiritual studies at the local seminary. There, we met with other junior professed priests and nuns from local religious congregations. Before leaving, Jane Frances would inspect our clothes, and we were bluntly told to change in the event that either of our sweaters was a little too patterned or frayed. Often as not, my nerves were the only things frayed as I presented myself for inspection each morning.
In the afternoons, Molly and I had coursework or housekeeping to do. Now that we were white veils we had much more responsibility, and the expectations of the community were proportionately greater. There were only twelve sisters in the house. They worked as secretaries, teachers, or hospital chaplains. A few studied for degrees in social work or psychology. Suffice to say that many of the house duties fell to Molly and me, since we were home for much of the day.
Meanwhile, my dad had become ill, very ill. He had quit his job in the chocolate factory and was now admitted to hospital a week out of every month for chemo and blood transfusions. My visits were strained, and, despite being steeped in prayer and fortified by the support of the sisters, I still dreaded being alone in his company. He raged against his illness and the rejection he suffered at the hands of Wife Number Two the very minute she heard he was terminally ill. I became the regular object of his rage. Hurting people hurt people, I knew. The knowledge didn’t console me. Not for the first time in my life, I prayed for the grace to do what I had to do. What was I doing bathing Bernie’s septic feet if I couldn’t minister to my own father? I set myself the challenge. So many years later, I am grateful that somehow I found it in me to feed, bathe, and dress him — a man rendered unrecognizable to friends and relatives by the scourge of illness, as Jesus Himself was rendered unrecognizable by the scourging at the pillar. In a final effort to come home to himself before going home to God, my father spent his last Christmas in his beloved Scotland — land of frigid fog and relentless rain. The farewell trip resulted in a pneumonia that could not be alleviated by prayer or medical intervention. “Make it stop!” I screamed at God. “Enough.”
It is a paradox of religious life that any presence of God you may have felt in your civilian life suddenly wanes once you commit to Him exclusively. It seems that the Holy Spirit refuses to be conjured into appearing on demand by prayer, meditation, or even fasting. I began to feel more and more alone amongst the community of women, with their synchronized menses and fluctuating moods. Often, conversations were gossipy and judgmental — as will happen when one’s world is small and people are anxious to deflect attention from their own foibles. What I perceived to be a passive aggressive ambience was often provoked into outright hostility, as sisters refused to extend to each other the smallest kindnesses — refusing to car pool, even though they shared the same place of employment; opting to eat out rather than taking their turn to cook; refusing to answer the door and phone when alone in the house; not washing up or putting away dishes on the grounds that, “I don’t know where they go.” All the while attending Mass, receiving communion, and praying to the same God.
A case in point occurred one day in the convent refectory with its requisite hardwood floors and ice blue walls. “A reflectory, more like,” I observed wryly, “of our intrapersonal community relationship status.” That evening, having assembled her supper from the tableau of hot foods available, Sr. Roisin was strutting back to her table (on two-inch heels) when she almost collided with Sr. Collette, an elderly firebrand who took no prisoners.
“Look where you’re going, Sister!” barked Collette. “You could hurt someone!”
“If I do,” responded Roisin calmly, “at least it’ll not be with my tongue!”
Ah yes, the tongue — weapon of choice for those en garde. Protectors and servers of the Ego, all.
Whenever I would act “as if” and speak to the now imperceptible Presence, all I could hear was “Stay close to me and watch. Watch and pray.” I did — feverishly. And I’d have bet my large wooden Crucifix that Jesus didn’t have such unChristian carry-on with the 12 disciples as I saw between the Sisters at the convent. Needing reassurance on this point, I talked to my spiritual director, Pat, a missionary priest, now in charge of a home for retired missionaries.
“Ah, no!” He laughed. “Guys are different. Just the other day I went down to the laundry and found nothing but a pair of socks going around and around in our humongous industrial washing machine. I found their owner, asked what the f--- he was thinking, and two hours later we were playing a round of golf! Done and done!”
“Thanks for nothing, Pat,” I groaned.
Over the years, and against the odds, however, I adapted to the ways of the sorority. While not entirely happy, I had established a support system of sorts and enjoyed work as a 5th Grade teacher. My father had died after a long battle with Multiple Myeloma, leaving me an orphan at 21. The sisters had been kind and patient with me as I navigated the choppy waters of the grieving process. After some time, the turbulence abated, and God saw fit to grant me safe passage, calming the storm and steadying His vessel. The teaching life had proved a refuge in those turbulent times, and I was grateful. It was like old times for the Presence and me — almost. So it was in this state of gratitude that I took my final vows. Soon after, I was asked to be Vocations Directress for the Srs. of St. Martin. I readily accepted the position, which involved welcoming women who were discerning their vocations, and walking their journey with them. For seven years I watched those women come and go. In bed at night, I marveled at their integrity, as they probed the recesses of their hearts looking for answers they already knew.
Whenever I was still for more than five minutes, the gnawing started in my gut. I succeeded in ignoring it for several months, believing that if I didn’t name it, it would go away. It wasn’t that I harbored ill will towards the sisters, who had grown me from a formless, floundering girl to a phenomenal woman. I was well aware that we are all broken, but investing in suppressing one’s true self for the sake of conformity exacts a toll. Much to my chagrin, I had to admit that I was no John-Louis. Fear of vulnerability, on the part of the sisters, was doing a stellar job of keeping intimacy at bay, and I resented it. I found myself sealed in a cocoon of prayer and ritual. It was not what I had aspired to. My colleagues at the elementary school were almost all married, and though they invited me out to dinner from time to time, I found myself ill at ease and out of place in their company. Far from being intrigued by my lifestyle, they seemed to find me quaint — as a dodo at a disco. It was tiresome.
I took a look around: any sister with a remaining shred of personality was either living as a hermit outside the convent or had formed another community of sorts with her lay friends. They had compromised. This was not why I had entered St. Martin’s. I wanted community. I wanted it in the sisterhood. A facsimile elsewhere would never appease me. I felt like Jesus hanging on the cross between two thieves. In my case, one thief stealing my present, and the other, potentially, stealing my future.
When I first said the word “leaving” aloud to myself it was with more than a little shame. I was taking down my shingle. I was throwing in the towel. I felt like a monumental failure. I didn’t want those feelings. Motivated solely by the law of diminishing returns, I resolved to either stay and try (again) to make it work, or go before I made life miserable for everyone, as Sr. Beatrix had done with her weekly emotional outbursts and cheerless countenance, before leaving impulsively and without closure.
I unearthed several “birds” I had buried. I had muted their colors, I had clipped their wings and heaped dirt upon them. Now I prayed to God to redeem the beautiful lost creature He had created and restored its vivid colors. “Heal my broken wings,” I begged, “hold me close to your heart, even as I rail against you.” And it was done … but not in a flash. For God, who loves all species of flying thing, knows that wings must mend before any attempt at flight.
In time, the Great Wingmender showed me evidence that I was indeed an exotic bird in a nest of wrens. Then came the workshop and the deck of cards incident, which had only served to further affirm my decision. “Apparently, in a group of eighty sisters, there isn’t even one who thinks like me.” I remembered the Alan Parsons Project singing something about “The Turn of a Friendly Card.” Ironically, hostile as those cards may have appeared at first, they had turned out to be friendly. I wasn’t crazy, after all. Despite the apparent Divine Intervention, it took some weeks to mobilize. Letters had to be written, meetings had to be held, questions had to be answered, and considerable spleen had to be vented. It was quite reminiscent of a broken romance.
“No. It’s not you, it’s me.”
“No. There is nobody waiting in the wings.”
“Yes. I will miss you, but yes, I must go my way now.”
The sisters were somewhat speechless at first. I might have expected as much. Later, having had time to think, they unleashed the anger masking their hurt. A moment of the emotional honesty, so long absent. Too little, too late. My announcement had coincided with the death of Princess Diana, who happened to be my age.
“Now, see!” they taunted. “She thought she had her whole life ahead of her and she’s dead!”
“We always knew you’d never stay.”
“You’ll never be happy anywhere now.”
“You’re making a mistake!”
“Mother Abbess puts way too much trust in you young sisters!”
Their stinging words, though baseless and untrue, hit hard nonetheless. Friends judged, misunderstood, blamed, speculated. I stared at the map of the world, pinned to the wall of my tiny room. “It’s going to be okay,” I told myself. “This house is not the world. I only thought it was.”
I was amazed at how much stuff one could accumulate in a room with only a twin bed, bedside table, desk, sink, and small storage closet. Van Gogh would be appalled! The closet held my few clothes, all in shades of brown and beige. Neither color had suited me. Those, I would leave for whoever came after. The shelf above held my civvies, as colored clothes were called in convent circles. I’d be needing them for my new life. Under the sink were some toiletries and half-used things. It wouldn’t take long to pack. I was headed for Dublin to a convent where my good friend Anne was Abbess. It would serve as a halfway house, where I would be welcome until I found my own apartment and gainful employment, though not necessarily in that order. I knew Anne well; we had lived together in England for two years. It was in one of the eight communities I had belonged to over the course of my time as a Sister of St. Martin. Eight communities in sixteen years. The frequent relocations had raised my packing skills to the level of a science.
The night before Anne was to pick me up, I slept fitfully, anxious to get going, yet dreading the goodbyes the morning would bring. At sunrise, I was already sitting up and waiting, in my black pants and oatmeal crossover sweater. Soon it was time — toast, marmalade, tea, tense conversation, terseness, telling tears. Nine o’ clock hugs and a few promises nobody really intended to keep. Then, they were gone, leaving me alone in the big, empty bungalow. My three black Glad bags of belongings stood like sentinels in the hallway, waiting.
I walked into each room one last time, reflecting on the memories made there. Finally, I sat in the chapel. The red votive light flickered by the small square Treasure Box, indicating God was home — like you could keep God in a box. In the quiet, a line from a favorite Gospel story came to me: “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have put Him.” Right there, it dawned on me, was the sum and substance of 16 years of convent life, and another good reason to leave.
Anne stood in the doorway, asking, as she did every time, why the chapel had been built right next to the hall door — so distracting!
I hugged her and smiled. “Yes,” I replied, “it’s time to fly.”
//Joan Cullen is a shape-shifter from Dublin, Ireland. She lives in Baldwin, New York with her furry kid, Domino.