How I Got Out of the Convent
A very slight shift it was, but it put me on a new path that began to diverge away from exterior obedience and increasingly towards hearing and trusting my own inner guide.
I was raised a Roman Catholic, a warm world full of symbols and color and ecstatic images of devotion, love, and noble aspirations. But there were some traps. The idea that had its jaws around me was the teaching called “original sin” and the consequent need for salvation. This belief tells us that as soon as we’ve taken a breath into the world we are sinful because our ancestors ate an apple when they were told not to; that the almighty creator-of-all required the horrible death of his son to make amends for this; that suffering is a noble way to show our love to this almighty power who is still said to be loving and merciful. The glorification of suffering was the spider web that had me trapped.
For various reasons, by the time I was a teenager my mind was a mess. I lived in a dual world. During the schoolyear my life was a small farm town, high school class of 44 students; summers were spent at a camp for rich city girls, a camp whose mission was to make Christian leaders out of us, champions of great deeds in the world. I felt I was unable to succeed well in either place, but that I did have something to give to the world. My talents seemed in academics. I loved to learn, and felt especially attracted to subjects like literature, philosophy, theology – instinctively searching for ways to look at life that might help me feel happier. I had not yet discovered psychology, and any self-help books I encountered were based in the Christian trap-story (sacrifice, unselfishness, noble suffering).
My one hope, what attracted me, was to go to a great place of learning – our state university – where I could be challenged academically as I felt capable of doing. With trepidation, I placed the secret longing of my heart before my father. He quickly said “No. You’d just be a little fish in a big sea. You’ll be homesick like [his] sister was at a big state college” (though she stayed and finished there!). Thus quickly my dream was snuffed out. I knew nothing about scholarships, there were no counselors in our high school, there weren’t even jobs in our town of 500 people! So now I had to find another path to a future.
I became ever more religious, praying for guidance. In those days (the 50’s-60’s) women did not choose to live unmarried. My dad referred to two single sisters in our extended family as “the old maids,” even though they were teachers and had traveled all over the world. Perhaps because neither of my parents had ever seemed happy in their marriage, I did not see myself getting married, and even less did I have any interest in raising children. How to avoid the pressures to get married?
I often heard mention in passing of a holy spirit, the “Holy Ghost”, who was said to bring us wisdom and comfort, guidance and courage, but our religious practices did not relate much to this promising presence. Most of our practices emphasized our sinful state and the incredible suffering it took for Jesus to rescue us from this. I thought “If God is the almighty and loving father, he would help me see a path, like my father would if he could, imperfect as he [was].” Becoming a nun seemed an option, a possible but unclear path to the academic and service work I longed for. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of wearing odd clothes and being separated from the world that so interested me, but it was a path that would protect me from pressure to marry. Another appealing feature of the convent at that point of my life was having someone else responsible to make decisions for me!
I looked over the different orders of nuns and chose one based on their lifestyle, not their work. One goal I had identified for my future was to try to be a saint. Saints were the best! The path of the saints had been laid out before me as the example par excellence of a person dedicated to doing good. Another trap door? The saints not only did great deeds helping the poor and suffering, but to qualify for sainthood one had to suffer a lot oneself, maybe die for the cause, sacrifice much, be misunderstood and humiliated. If the saints were happy and their lives went smoothly, it was not advertised.
This order was a missionary order, teaching and healing in Africa and South America. I had no interest in being a missionary but I didn’t notice this at all. These nuns lived the simple life like St. Francis of Assisi: they got out there and mowed their own grass, chopped down trees on the wild wooded hills around them. They did not have private swimming pools and roller rinks as some American orders did but they recreated by singing (they were Italian), applepicking and whatever simple joys they could create.
The summer before I entered I took college credit classes through my longed-for university in a camp-like setting. My roommate was a wonderful friend but some kind of atheist or agnostic and this was a surprising experience for me. In addition, I dated all I could. With every guy I kept thinking “This is my last kiss, – forever!” It was just some kind of luck that kept me a virgin to the end of the summer.
By the time I entered the convent in the fall, I hardly knew if there was a god or not. But I thought “I committed to try this, and it will at least be an ‘interesting experience’ to add to my list of interesting life experiences.”
However, one does not trifle with God. Once there, I found that everyone else took my “calling” seriously, and took “God” seriously, and I did not see an easy way out.
The thinking about vocations to the religious life was another trap. It was felt that God calls us, not that we chose Him. One enters the convent feeling that perhaps she is being called to do this. It is, of course, a great honor to be called to this special life; sometimes nuns are called “brides of Christ.” And how could one say ‘No’ if God himself were calling? If after all, God is not calling one to this, God will make his will known by a sign: one might get sick, or one’s parents die and one must go home to take care of the siblings. I kept watching myself for sickness but nothing happened. No sign came that God did not want me here.
We were allowed to “consult” about our calling. There was a nun in our nearby house who was considered wise and holy so I asked my superior if I could go talk with Sister Angelica. Mother Superior approved.
I went. Sister Angelica asked me, “Do you like to pray?” I answered truthfully, “Yes.” I loved to pray at that time, to have quiet time from emotional pressures, to try to find a clear path, asking for guidance from that Father and/or Son who I was told loved me so much. “Do you want to spend your life serving God and helping other people?” she asked. “Yes. Yes, I do,” I answered. “That’s exactly what I want to do with my life.” “Then it sounds like you’re called to be a nun,” she told me.
You see, there was a general thought among Catholics at that time that lay people were called by God to populate the earth and carry on commerce. Anyone called to a life of prayer and service was being called to be a nun or priest or monk.
So I returned and continued to try to answer the call to be a nun. But life in the convent was hard for me. A severe curvature in my lower back has always made it difficult for me to stand on my feet for long; kneeling is particularly painful. Being young, I just did whatever I had to do, but convent life was exhausting and painful for me. Also, I was only the third American to enter this order, and no other girls entered at that time with me, so I was alone in my classes and training. This was especially hard the second year when I had become a novice, wearing the habit, and spending most of every day alone with my novice mistress. The nuns were wonderful people but the life was hard, lonely, and tiring for me. I quietly past my twenty first birthday in the convent.
Every now and then I’d see another wise, holy person and ask if I could go consult with them about my vocation. They would always ask the same kinds of questions: “Do you like to pray?” (Yes….) Do you want to spend your life serving God and helping other people? (Yes…) “Then, it seems you’re called to be a nun.”
At one point we were all doing a silent retreat; I asked if I could talk with the retreat master about my vocation. Of course this was approved and I went in to try again for some clarity in my endless feeling of confusion. This priest was experienced in counseling nuns. He just asked me one question: “Are you happy?” This was easy to answer. “No,” I said. “Then you’re not called to be a nun,” the priest said simply.
I was out of there within twenty four hours. I thought I was just obeying the priest. But as soon as I was home, I could feel my body relax and my spirit begin to lighten. I felt health and strength coming back. Then it began to dawn on me that I had known all along that I did not have this vocation. Even my body knew. Something in me had kept me searching for the way out; I would never have stopped asking wise, holy people until I found one that said what I knew but could not say – this was not the life I was called to.
It would be many more years before I found my way through all the ideas that supported exterior obedience: to people, beliefs, practices, ideals, that did not give me strength to be true to myself. It was like swimming through underground channels trying to find an open path, a way that felt natural, joyful, and affirmed me. I did at last find my way up to to the sunshine.
While I don’t expect to be happy every day of my life, I’ve learned that a general sense of well-being is a sign of doing the right thing, and conversely any situation that drains and pulls one down is a “sign from God” to change something. Never in my life was I taught this – that to be happy was a sign of doing the right thing.
For me, God the father and God the son did not save me but kept me ensnared, focused on them. It has been that quiet Holy Spirit who has been with me all along and still speaks inside my breast, affirming and nurturing me with the unfaltering dedication of a mother, She has guided me home.
– Published in Acupuncture for Your Soul, Wheatmark, Tucson Az, ed. Rae Jacobs, 2016.