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ISSUE 82: The Secret Life of Nuns

"Last Picture 2/19/09" by Lordan Bunch. Courtesy of Schroeder Romero



I

THE CONVENT

As the alarm clock goes off, I pull the thin comforter up around my neck and slowly take stock of where I am. The room is small and slanted, decorated with a few pieces of mismatched furniture, everything in tan or chestnut brown, bland but comfortable. I could be anywhere, lying on this foam-padded twin mattress. Then, of course, I remember: I’m in a convent, in Houston, Texas, and must make my way downstairs in time for morning prayers or likely be considered an infidel.

I traveled here, arriving just yesterday on an early flight, to answer a question that I’ve had for years: Why would a woman make the very specific choice to marry God? I’m imagining a certain kind of woman—let’s say a woman like myself, in her mid-thirties and smart and not hard-up and with a few options in life. Why would she choose to live with his many brides and very little privacy and pooled resources; to abandon any and all romantic partners, along with the possibility of ever again touching someone else’s naked body; to set aside every personal need and closely held ambition in favor of the needs of others? I wanted to understand who this woman was—call her a nun or a sister or a woman religious—and why I’ve harbored a fantasy about her since I was a young girl.

Maybe it’s thanks to my mother’s rigid Catholic upbringing, as a Cuban woman of Spanish descent packed off to a convent school in New England. Maybe it’s the Forties and Fifties films I consumed constantly as a child. Maybe it’s an innate sensitivity, this attraction, something built into my DNA. Whatever it comes down to, I have some powerful ideas about nuns. Two strong, competing images come to mind when most people hear the word, images from opposite ends of the spectrum: there’s the wizened older woman, scowling in black, who spreads guilt and misery through the parochial school classroom; and then there’s my head trip. My vision is both romantic and austere: a beautiful woman who’s stripped herself bare, who’s wrapped herself in dramatic robes and strapped her head into a wimple and veil and cloistered herself away on lunar-landscape-quiet monastery grounds. In this vision, the nun—played on-screen by a reed-thin Audrey Hepburn, or maybe Deborah Kerr—stalks the long, blank corridors in silence, spending her days in punishing self-denial. She is self-isolating and special, tapped by forces larger than herself to live a life far more difficult, more macho in a way, than that of anyone she knows—a life of diamond-hard clarity. By the time I was in college—my identity firmly fixed as a liberal, feminist, free-thinking New Yorker—I read Butler’s Lives of the Saints and met the women whose radical acts, and preposterous thresholds for pain, became the stuff of mystical revelation. What makes this unshakeable curiosity strange (or stranger) is the fact that I have never been a true, practicing Catholic—the occasional mass on high holidays, putting out a nativity scene at Christmastime. That’s about it. And yet even now, in my apartment, I have a two-foot-high tin print of a nun, in the full habit, kneeling with a large crucifix in her hands and a single thorn embedded firmly in her forehead. As she contemplates—what? Sacrifice, purity, rigor?—a cherub floats above her, ready to place an entire thorny crown around her head. This is propped atop my bureau, next to the mirror I glance in every evening on my way out—usually to meet some other skeptics at my local whiskey bar.

And so I have moved into a convent: this house on White Oak Drive is one of a string belonging to the Dominican Sisters of Houston. I chose this order because of Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century Dominican saint and the godmother of my fascination with nuns: a defiant child who had her first vision at the age of six, by her twenties Catherine had become a magnetic spiritual leader with a large band of followers and the ear of the pope.

But now that I’m here I have a confession to make: I am already disappointed. Nothing about this place is what I expected. In the newly gentrified Heights area of town, the convent, named Las Casas after a Dominican friar, stands two stories tall, boxy and simple, finished in cream-colored siding with a mauve trim and low-sloping gray-shingled roof. A few steps lead to a bare porch and the front entrance, which is rarely used; a driveway on the left leads back to a matching garage and curtained double doors that open onto the communal sitting area. Inside, none of the furniture looks as if it was personally picked, or has any sentimental value, but was chosen instead for cost and efficiency—the way a dorm or rec center or any consensus-decorated place feels. This is some anonymous suburban homenot the stuff of my girlhood fantasies of convent life. The only romantic flourish, the one reminder of the purity of my circumstances, is the persistent, haunted sound of the mourning doves in the trees outside.

At 6:30 a.m. on the dot, still in sweatpants and socks, I pad quietly down the tan carpeted stairs and into the living room where we gather for prayers, a handful of women in our sleepwear. I settle in beside Sister Kelly, my age, seated on the blue pincushion of a sofa; we are flanked on either side of the room by Sisters Adrian and Julie, our pair of septuagenarians in flannel bathrobes. The room is dim, lit only by side-table lamps; periwinkle valances float above the venetian blinds, still closed to the day. A huge remote control lies on the coffee table next to a crucifix and a bowl of plastic Easter eggs. On the mantel stands one of those tall mechanical clocks trapped under glass, hemmed in by folk-art angels, and hanging above it is a large replica of a Constable-esque landscape. Nothing here is cinematic or Spartan. The textured walls, when we recite the psalms, won’t echo with centuries of tradition.

Adrian and Julie, in their comfy chairs, have been sisters for over fifty years—they entered straight out of high school. Even though she’s had to replace both knees and a shoulder and wears a Velcro walking boot for a recent sprain, Adrian exudes the graceful air of some kind of dream grandma: her lovely white curls; her air of neatness and gentle order; her way of sitting with her delicate, plump white hands folded in her lap just so. Julie has more of an unfussy, tomboy’s demeanor: her brown curls are cropped close to her head, and she wears oversized men’s shirts, usually denim. And then there’s Kelly, a novice, with her thin brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Since, like the others, she goes without visible makeup, I can clearly see the mole in the center of her cheek and a slight ruddy color to her nose. She has a round body, stacked like the Venus of Willendorf.

Together the women, as if on cue, crack open their leather-bound prayer books. I slide closer to Kelly to look on with her.

Turn your ear to me, O Lord, we say. Consider my cries for help . . .

Everyone speaks through the fog of sleep.

Shelter those who love your name . . .

Julie folds her hands underneath her chin as she prays, giving her a childlike appearance. I see that, and I know that I should set aside my ideas about heavy robes and stark hallways and profound, medieval silences. Because even without the trappings, these women know how to pray, simply and clearly.



II

THE NOVICE

I head out back with Kelly, who’s on her way to teach a biology class at San Jacinto Community College. All kinds of things grow in the backyard: a fig tree, with its tight little fists of figs, still green and gumdrop-sized; a vestments-red amaryllis plant; a bush of bright white gardenias. Pecan trees overhang the driveway, dropping furry strands of pollen throughout the spring. Right now the back porch is covered in shells picked clean by the squirrels. The morning is clear, and the light is strong and flat in the wake of the weekend thunderstorm that flooded parts of the city with over six inches of rain. I slip into the passenger seat of her old sedan, and we pull out into the unremittingly flat sprawl of Houston, six hundred square miles utterly devoid of meaningful public transportation.

I want to spend time with Kelly because, on the simplest level, she’s my generational counterpart, and perhaps I can learn something from the story of how she entered this life. Perhaps she can help me to imagine if I could ever, in some parallel universe, end up in a convent myself. All along the ride, as we pass yet another new condo development in faux Spanish-villa style, Kelly chatters happily about her family. They’re still mostly in Bridge City, settled there for several generations. Her father, recently retired, was a chemical engineer for a series of companies across the bridge in Port Naches; her mother a homemaker. Kelly herself was a well-behaved, bookish kid whose fondest memories of high school include spending her Saturdays taking part in state scholastic competitions. As far as faith goes, her background is pretty textbook: her mom is a “cradle Catholic”; her grandparents regularly cooked for the parish priest and helped clean the church. Kelly and her two brothers went to catechism class and to mass every Sunday simply because that’s what was done. But in the summer before her senior year at Rice University, Kelly experienced a trauma: her first episode of full-blown depression. Her biochemistry studies had led to a lab internship in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, along with two dozen other undergraduates from around the country. In such a socially claustrophobic environment, far from home, Kelly soon found the minutiae of lab work more than she could bear. “The isolation, the pressure, working with no breaks,” she says in her unrelentingly polite tone. “I basically went off the deep end.” She sank into a dark place. “I spent more and more time alone, until I began actively avoiding people.”

When Kelly returned to school, she began seeing a counselor for depression and turning to prayer and to other Catholics on campus for help. She started her graduate studies in plant genetics, but felt directionless. Finally, while praying every day and night for an entire week as part of a “church mission,” she heard something. “I’ve never been one for ‘God spoke to me’ talk,” she warns. “But I heard this voice in my ear saying, ‘Why not be of service to me?’ And I thought, I think that means becoming a nun. What?” She saw an ad in the parish paper, announcing student meetings for women considering the religious life, clipped it out, and began carrying it in her wallet. The religious life slowly began to make more sense than a life in science.

“Ninety percent of scientific research is failure, and I don’t like failure,” she says. “It was too much uncertainty for me.” When I point out that most people would consider faith the least empirical thing out there, Kelly has an answer. “With science, it was my research that I had been designing, while the religious life is very much about God. My projects, my plans, might have failed; God’s plans, God’s projects, will not fail. So there’s more of a safety net, I guess. It’s outside of me.”

While I’ve been fascinated with nuns since I was a young girl, it’s as an adult that I relate—instantly, on an almost primal level—to Kelly’s discomfort with the uncertainty of our best-laid plans. The responsibility of making our own choices is what makes a person anxious and sick with worry: that nagging, up-all-night feeling that you might have made the wrong decision, that other people are making better decisions than you, that someday you’ll be found out as a fraud who actually has no idea what she’s doing, that you’ll wake up one morning and have no energy left for your work, and no store of belief left to draw on.

When Kelly officially began “discerning,” her parents were shocked. Her mother, for all her devotion, was especially scared and upset: keeping your head down and following church guidelines is a far cry from donning the habit for the rest of your life. “They were very afraid of me giving up my will, my choices, my hopes. They thought I’d be locked inside a convent and never see the light of day.”

Kelly’s parents weren’t wrong. There are two broad types of religious communities for Catholic women: “active” communities, in which the sisters remain engaged with the world, as teachers, social workers, even activists; and “contemplative” ones, in which the sisters are cloistered. The contemplative communities really do require their postulants to make a break with their families and most traces of their mundane selves; and before Vatican II, so did the active communities. They were restricted from home visits for the entire first year (their family could visit one Sunday afternoon per month), and permitted one day at their family home each year after that. (The active communities, like the Houston Dominicans, lived under the same unbending, isolating rules until the Sixties.) This was just what Kelly, who knew nothing about active sisters, thought she wanted at the time.

But her first visit—with the Vincentian Daughters of Charity in College Station—changed her view of what was possible as a nun. They were an active order that wore street clothes and chose to minister to and live with the poor. A part of Kelly was triggered that wanted to be “of service,” that had always taken more satisfaction in helping other students with their lab research than steering her own. She began to realize that she could become a nun while also reaching out beyond monastery walls. By the time she finally had a chance to visit a community that lived up to her fantasies of the “locked-up” religious life—a Franciscan monastery in Amarillo—she was surprised by what a bad fit it was. When Kelly overheard a novice there ask the prioress for permission to take a shower, she’d had enough.

All the while, Kelly had been in touch with the Dominicans in Houston, meeting with the vocations director and going on one of their retreats. Their combination of a centuries-old teaching ministry and social activism was something she could live with. Her visits transformed Kelly from a young woman with escapist fantasies into, quite possibly, a real nun. She’s now in her second year as a novice, and this month she’ll take her temporary vows, dedicating herself to the community for the next three years. Her final vows—a lifelong commitment and “marriage” to God—will follow after that.


 

III

THE ORDER OF PREACHERS

During my evenings at Las Casas, sneaking off for rare moments of privacy in my room, I began reading more about the story of how these nuns landed in Houston. It’s an epic that goes back eight hundred years, far beyond their blander circumstances today. In the early thirteenth century, the Spanish priest Félix de Guzmán, dubbed Brother Domingo (or Dominic), in his white tunic and black hooded cloak, his hair shaved into a perfect bald cap (tonsure, they call it), headed into the region of Toulouse to preach against the Cathar heresy. The Cathars were a nightmare for the church, espousing a radical brand of Christianity that had been gaining traction for nearly a century. They rejected the material world, sex, pretty much the entire human body, and even the Catholic Church as Satanic; and, perhaps just as radically, they allowed women to administer their sacrament. Led by bands of impressively ascetic priests and nuns, their self-denial also commanded the respect of many Catholic religious, including Dominic. In 1206 he had a vision that inspired him to found a convent in Toulouse for nine Cathar women he’d recently converted. There they lived the strictly cloistered, contemplative life that their Cathar practice had prepared them for—now on the side of the church. He created the first group of friars ten years later. This was the beginning of the Dominican Order: the Order of Preachers.

When the Dominican Order finally crossed over from Europe, six hundred years later, they settled in Springfield, the small Kentucky town where Lincoln’s parents were married that same year (1806). At the time, Catholicism had no meaningful hold in the United States—certainly not in the South—and an American from Maryland, ordained as a Dominican priest in the English province, petitioned to bring the order across the ocean. Once the first Dominican house was established in Kentucky, where Catholics were desperate for priests, a call was put out for women to join. Four stepped up immediately, establishing the first American convent in 1822 in the Cartwright Creek area of Springfield. They cobbled the place together from a twelve-by-fourteen-foot log cabin, and their first school from an abandoned stillhouse.

Over the next fifty-odd years, a string of other Dominican convents was established, in Somerset and Columbus, Ohio; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Adrian, Michigan; and San Francisco. When financial troubles forced Columbus’s Congregation of the Sacred Heart to close, the homeless community relocated to Somerset, leading to two groups of Dominican sisters in one town. The recently appointed bishop, an overbearing man who went out of his way to micromanage the sisters, announced he would force Sacred Heart to combine with the senior Somerset community. At the last minute, however, in the summer of 1882, the Sacred Heart sisters were invited by the visiting bishop of Galveston, Texas, to pack their bags and head south. They were forced to adapt from the moment they arrived in Galveston: an ironing board served as an altar, until one could be built from an old piano crate; the infestation of mosquitoes left them covered in itchy welts after their very first night; and they quickly realized how powerfully skeptical the locals were of their arrival. The Civil War had ended less than twenty years before, and these women had been brought in by a bishop who was Catholic, and only recently appointed, a Northerner who had two brothers who’d died fighting on the Union side. Now here he was importing a crew of sisters, also from the North, who within five years would open a free school for black children.

In spite of the controversy, it was a force of nature that drove the sisters from Galveston less than twenty years after their arrival: in 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history tore through, killing 8,000 people and demolishing the city. Wheels were set in motion to relocate to Houston. Finally, the sisters broke ground for a new motherhouse (or headquarters) on Almeda Road in 1925.


 

IV

THE PRIORESS

When I first arrived in Houston, I went directly to the motherhouse, now part of a compound of squat buildings, spanning roughly a city block. The place is marked by that combination of pale brick and glass that’s associated with Sixties renovations—nothing gothic or stone, no structures that bring with them echoes of Europe—surrounded by black iron gates that are electronically locked around sundown. I came here to check in with the prioress—or “Mother Superior,” in the old-school parlance. When I first saw Sister Carol, she was in the passenger seat of a blue sedan pulling up the drive, slowly cruising by at the speed of a parade float. The car came to a stop, another sister at the wheel, and Carol threw open the door, stepped out, and stretched to her full height—maybe six foot two. She took a good look at me. “Alex,” she said loud and clear, in a booming voice cut with an East Texas lilt. “I feel as if I know you.”

At seventy-five, Carol is flush with life and exudes a generous authority. Tall and lean, with short waves of white-and-gray hair, she wears pressed slacks, a blazer in a black-and-white pop pattern, and a thick gold cross. It takes a moment for me to realize who Carol reminds me of, and then I see it: Eleanor Roosevelt. She has the same soft face—the soft chin, apple-round cheeks, and knobby nose—paired with an unexpectedly penetrating gaze. The archetype of the Fifties-generation “active” sister, she has that solid, no-nonsense quality, and a faith that bends to accommodate and absorb whatever skepticism comes her way.

Growing up in Houston in the Forties, Carol’s memories of the city are of a place more “like a small town: you never locked the house, you’d leave the keys in the car. I remember never being afraid out at night.” Unlike Kelly, she is an only child born to nonreligious parents. They lived from paycheck to paycheck, her father working as “a company man” for Western Union and her mother as a teacher. “We were poor, but I never had a sense of it.” There were few Catholics in Houston at the time—in Texas, they were mostly in Beaumont and Port Arthur, close to the border of southern Louisiana. Carol had no Catholic friends until the third grade, when the family moved and enrolled her at St. Agnes, run by the Dominican sisters. Since her family didn’t practice, she began riding her bike to mass on her own, for reasons she still can’t explain. “It was all in Latin in those days—I’m sure I didn’t understand it. It was probably some kind of mystical feeling.”

None of the women I meet this week give me the “revelation” story I expect and kind of hope for—apparently, it doesn’t really happen that way. When I asked Carol, a clearly devout woman, now serving her second term as prioress, what led her to enter the convent, her eyes didn’t gloss over as she recounted some miraculous dawning of awareness. “It wasn’t anything spiritual and all that,” she said simply. “The leaders and the popular girls” in the class ahead of her had entered, and another group of seven from her year were poised to become postulants. “We all went to the convent. Because in those days you went to college, we used to laugh, for an MRS: that’s where girls went to get smart men. There was no Peace Corps; there were no professional women; there was none of the women’s movement at that time.” Women could work as nurses, teachers, or secretaries, she said, “and that was only until you got married.” And while Carol describes her family as a happy one, married life seemed limiting. “At home my mom was a great cook, but she didn’t like it,” she says. “She read all the classics—I always remember her reading—but it didn’t look like she was excited about being a housewife.”

Her young teachers at St. Agnes were another story. “The nuns, they were happy. Great teachers, and interested in things.” Besides, she admits, “because I was much taller than the other girls, I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I’ll ever get married.’” Carol graduated from high school in 1956 and that same year, along with nineteen other eighteen-year-olds—Sister Adrian included—entered the convent. She entered to be able to do more; not for a moment did she consider the cloister.


 

V

DISCERNMENT

In the small reading room by the motherhouse offices, under a framed map of “The Texas Dominican Trail” from Somerset to Galveston, Sister Pat—still slim and agile in her seventies, her androgynous gray hair brushed back from her face—tells me about the formation process for women religious. As the vocations director for the past seven years, she’s the gatekeeper, the first nun you must contend with on your journey into the novitiate. In this role, Pat is calm, practical, and decidedly reserved; she has the professional air of someone who’s seen plenty and developed a deep trust in her own intuition. Within minutes of our conversation starting, I have the distinct feeling that she has already decided which of several categories of “young woman curious about the religious life” to slot me into.

“A lot of them want to know, ‘How do you really know?’ I imagine the morning of a wedding—” She stops. “Are you married?” she asks, looking at the ring on my left hand (it’s on my middle finger).

I tell her I’m not.

“I always look for rings,” she says. “Anyway, everyone’s into numbers, competition, ‘we want to get as many as this other group,’ but I encourage people to check places out. Stay a weekend, see who you’re comfortable with.”

I say that I’ve only recently understood how prolonged and rigorous the process of entering is: however many years of discernment and community retreats; weeks spent completing the application; a year living within the community as a postulant; a “canonical” year of study in St. Louis, packed off with other novices from around the country (with numbers down, communities pool their resources); a second year of novitiate, living in a convent and working in your local ministry (usually teaching); temporary vows, for at least three years; then, in the end, final vows and wearing the ring, a sort of wedding band, that announces your marriage to God.

The application alone is extensive and rigorous but most discerners will never even make it that far. Pat is amazed at how extended the discernment process has become for the women she meets today—a real hesitation to commit. “I call them ‘professional discerners.’” Kelly’s entrance represents the end of a particularly frustrating period for the sisters: before her, there wasn’t a new applicant for seven or eight years, and at thirty-three she’s a good deal older than the postulants of Pat’s day. The next youngest of the vowed sisters turned fifty-five this summer, and their median age is now seventy-six. In the boom of the Forties and Fifties, Pat tells me, the entering class of postulants was regularly as many as twenty girls. One huge building housed all the novices, and the young women were trained at an in-house Dominican college. But by the mid-Sixties, the influx was slowing to a trickle. Now the Houston community takes in just one or two women every couple years.

Two gigantic shifts in the Sixties led to the shrinking numbers: one was the obvious change in options open to young women out in the world; the other was the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. Designed to help the church adjust to modern times—an out-of-character move that, no surprise, raised hell with more traditional Catholics—the council’s statements included the “Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life,” which called for a simplification of the way both men and women religious dressed, prayed, lived, and worked. It was a shift toward a more accessible, down-to-earth life, and many were turned off. Over the last several years, the more traditional communities—those that have preserved their habit, lifestyle, and more isolated existence—have been experiencing an uptick in new postulants that the active communities simply have not.

“I think a lot of them want some kind of sign,” Pat says of the choice to wear the habit. “They want people to know.” She also cites “that romanticism,” as in (and this almost makes me blush) “those old nun movies, you know, all that parading around looking the same.” The cloister was never an attractive choice for her, as it wasn’t for Carol or most of the other Houston Dominicans. “Some say we can be in the world but not of the world,” she says. “Well, that’s not the way Jesus worked. So we like to be a little bit more involved here—and freer.”

The active Dominican sisters who stuck it out after Vatican II—particularly of the generation now in their seventies—were drawn deeper into the social activism the order’s women are known for. It’s something I see in action over the course of the week. I accompany Sister Ceil, the Dominicans’ “promoter of justice,” to a grassroots press conference announcing an immigration rally (Ceil also represents the sisters in the fight against sex trafficking, and at death-penalty vigils at the state penitentiary in Huntsville); and I visit Sister Maureen at Angela House, the transitional center she’s set up for women just exiting prison (a former cop and counselor, Maureen also works with victims of sex abuse by clergy). I also learn about the Dominican sisters’ long history of political engagement. Back in 1987, they declared the motherhouse grounds a public sanctuary for El Salvadorian refugees, potentially risking prison themselves for harboring illegal immigrants. And over the last ten years, Dominican sisters in Colorado and Michigan have done prison time for breaking into nuclear facilities and spraying them with blood in protest.

In the summer of 2012, in a more constructive—and certainly more ambitious—move, a collective of active sisters joined forces to promote the fight against poverty and to protest Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Organized by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the national membership group for the leaders of all active American communities, the twenty-nine-city bus tour was dubbed, bluntly, “Nuns on the Bus.” It garnered huge amounts of press. (At the press conference this week, a local organizer introduced Ceil to attendees, excitedly, as “one of the Nuns on the Bus!”) This past June, the same sisters wrapped another major tour, this time to forty cities, in aggressive support of immigration reform. Stops included Ellis Island and the former slave market in Charleston, South Carolina.

In light of all this work the sisters are doing, the fact that younger women, in 2013, are more interested in the contemplative communities is shocking. What’s even more shocking is how I can relate to them: when I’m honest with myself, the strange, exotic, locked-away life appeals to me more than the idea of the renegade activist nun. And my fantasy of the cloister is one I’m having trouble justifying.

Perhaps it’s that the active nun’s life makes too much sense—it has a clear link to my identity as an ambitious woman who has built her life around work she believes in—and their ministry reminds me far too much of the grand plans and striving of so many people I know. There is no clean break with my life, none of the transcending-of-the-world that I associate with a nun’s calling. In other words, the active sister’s life does not provide the escape from the mundane that I’ve always imagined the cloistered life would. These women’s determination to confront the world—to work with people who have close to nothing, people who’ve been exploited more deeply than most of us can imagine, people who stand to lose their families and homes because of politics—runs completely counter to what I fantasize religion might one day provide me. Part of me wishes I were a bona fide believer, simply in order to rise above my anxieties and petty concerns and inevitable defeats and unchecked desires—never mind the true problems and tragedies of the world. Isn’t a nun someone who gets to transcend this mess, and even be rewarded for it?

What the women without habits are doing, their “calling” as social activists out in the world, is obviously useful, while that of the cloistered sisters is not. The contemplative life replaces the pragmatic with the romantic, the sense of being special and apart, tapped into some kind of secret knowledge that gives your life meaning—knowledge inaccessible to everyone else wandering around outside the monastery walls. Its layers and layers of ritual create a space in which each action becomes uncommon, almost superhuman.

Depending on your disposition, you can see these rules and rituals as a terrible constriction, or you can see them as freedom through constriction, finding meaning through submission, giving up the suffocating sense of boundless personal choice. I can imagine the relief of becoming one of many women dressed alike, completely covered, naturally graceful, respected for the purpose your life has taken on but not responsible for it, with only the pressure of learning to follow rules that have been in place for centuries. The relief of that, of knowing that my job is to empty my head of mundane anxieties and competition, to hold my hands just so, to avert my eyes, to maintain silence. My actions, day in and day out, would be supported by centuries of history, centuries of believers—the millions and billions that came before me. I would not drift, I would not question my every move—because my decisions would not be my own, but the decisions of the centuries. I’d empty myself out, make myself a clean vessel, and fit myself into that deeply worn groove. I’d wake up before sunrise and feel the fabric of the habit as I slipped it on, and the veil as I tucked away every strand of hair, just as women had done eight hundred years before me.

In articulating this feeling, this fantasy, I’m struck by how ridiculous it sounds. How could I picture choosing the cloister over the life of someone like Sister Ceil when everything in my background and beliefs, my respect for nerve and drive, tells me she’s heroic? And what do I actually know of the realities of the contemplative life?


 

VI

NATURAL SELECTION

At San Jacinto College, I follow Kelly into the fluorescent-lit classroom where she’ll be giving a genetics lecture. A banner of the periodic table hangs on the wall and her notes are projected in Powerpoint onto a screen at the front of the room. There are about twenty students in attendance today, in neat rows of desks, and since it’s a community college, Kelly gets a wide mix: there are always a few single mothers and maybe three or four recently returned veterans each semester. They’re polite kids, all in some variation of new jeans, sweatpants, or khaki shorts. One young guy sitting at a desk near me wears a tropical-print baseball cap backwards; a girl in a tie-dye tee that reads berrylicious has her highlighted blond hair in a headband studded with flower appliqués.

Today Kelly is prepping them for the upcoming final, twenty percent of which will be on the topic of evolution. There’s population genetics, the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and three stripes of natural selection. To illustrate directional selection, she gives the hypothetical scenario of a community of mice that move into a cave: the white mice, because they stand out against the rock walls, are eaten; but the dark ones, better at blending in, manage to survive, making the population darker over time. Other examples are more dramatically tailored to grab the students’ waning attention—as with her notes on genetic drift: “zombie apocalypse: CATASTROPHE!!!!!” I can’t help but interpret all this talk of evolutionary changes within a population, and population survival, in the context of the sisters’ situation. On the one hand, they’ve self-selected out of the evolutionary race entirely; on the other, their selection can be viewed as directional: now that they’ve moved into the “cave” of the contemporary world, which strain of sister has a better chance of survival?

I’m also struck by the fact that Kelly has chosen an area of focus that requires someone who’s taken a vow of chastity to talk about sex all class long—even if it’s a clinical, impersonal, bio-driven version of sex. She brings up sexual dimorphism, a form of selection that results in different physical characteristics in the sexes of the same species. Flipping to a slide that shows contrasting photos of both sexes of the peacock, she points out how the female is the tame, mousy brown counterpart to the luxuriously plumed male. “In most species, the bright and showy are the males,” she explains. “Humans have sort of switched that around.” She refers to the female peacock, in a light, deprecating tone, as “kind of dowdy.”

But this “dowdy” appearance is what Kelly, like the other sisters, has chosen for herself, and her lesson plan is all about the primal, species-perpetuating dance she’s completely opted out of. I glance back at the Berrylicious girl and somehow know that she won’t be making the same sacrifices. I’m willing to bet the house that her future holds a string of boyfriends, an early marriage, a few kids, and the pursuit of plenty of material comforts to complete the picture. Meanwhile, Kelly has removed herself from any kind of Darwinian competition, and denied herself many of the material rewards of her species’ evolution.

After the lecture, Kelly drives us to a dive-y Vietnamese lunch spot in a shopping center nearby. The place is brightly lit and mostly empty in the mid-afternoon, a good place to talk. Waiting for her banh mi, she wants to set the record straight: yesterday Kelly had announced, “We’re a little bit brain damaged, the ones who choose this kind of life. A little bit touched in the head”—a statement that struck me for its black humor and stone-cold honesty. Now she tries to be more specific, searching for words. “Let me clarify: all individuals are in some way touched in the head. There’s no such thing as a perfectly normal,” she says, using the word, like “religious,” as a noun. “But religious are created in a certain way. Like, in order to live a vow of poverty, you have to be fundamentally less attached to your possessions. That’s part of my personality and my makeup. I believe God called me; God created me in a way that makes religious life possible. Because there are men and women out there who are not suited to this life. I was not called to marriage. I figured that out young.”

I ask Kelly how she ruled marriage out so early on. She proceeds to outline her terrified-teen-boy’s definition of intimacy. “The idea of two people, of you and one other person, and that one other person being with you all the time and knowing all of the intimate details about you—I understand for most people that is a comfort. It’s a goal; it’s what they want. Me, I’m going, ‘That is creepy.’ It would drive me up the wall. I just don’t need that.” But still, I press her, what would make a person swear off sex, or any romantic relationships, by their late twenties? I ask if she’s dated.

“I’ve been on three dates,” she says. “So I can’t tell you I tried a whole heck of a lot.” Kelly wondered for a time if she might be asexual. Then, in grad school, she made a number of gay friends; and so, in a last-ditch attempt to explore her possibilities, she asked a woman out. Neither of them had ever considered dating women before. “It was doomed.” More importantly, there was still no tension, just a vague feeling of friendship.

The official, technical church stance on homosexuality is that being gay is not itself a sin, since that person was still created by God. The phrasing is that gays were made in the disordered image of Christ—“which is too darned close to disfigured,” says Kelly. “It hurts.” What hurts more, of course, is that the act of gay sex is considered a sin, creating a heartbreaking paradox. “God made us not to be alone. God created us as halves of a whole, and we’re not complete until we find that other half, and that’s true of the human condition, straight or homosexual.” While Kelly is not driven by this hunt for completeness—she is, after all, one of those “touched in the head” and tapped for religious life—she sympathizes with that need. “You’re not going to tell me that an all-loving God is going to make someone that way and then tell them it’s a sin.”

While I’m relieved to discover that, in theory, she embraces the spectrum of sexuality, I can’t relate to Kelly’s tepid desires. (She now considers herself a “non-practicing” bisexual.) And while I’ve never been particularly “called to marriage,” I completely embrace the intimacy and emotional risk that come with having a romantic partner-in-crime. Besides, I ask her, how is convent life, with its lack of privacy, any less “creepy” and exposing? “A lot of people join religious life because of community,” she says, but as a self-proclaimed “introvert” she joined “in spite of it.” Still, Kelly viewed it as a half-step toward relationships with other people. When she needs time to herself, she does what I do: she hides away and reads in her bedroom. Her bookcases are lined with Sherlock Holmes and sci-fi stories.


 

VII

COMMUNION

 That night, around the small kitchen table at Las Casas, we pick over appropriately frugal portions of chicken, in a marsala sauce Kelly announces was “bought with coupons!” To satisfy my curiosity, I turn the conversation to when Adrian and Julie first entered the community—back in the Fifties, before Vatican II, when the rules were far stricter.

“Back then,” Adrian says, “we wouldn’t have been able to have you here tonight. Lay people: you couldn’t be around them.”

“Back then,” Julie says, “Kelly wouldn’t have been able to drive her car.”

“Back then,” Kelly says to the sisters, “I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you. You wouldn’t have been able to talk to a novice, right?”

Silence was an issue, and the loneliness that came with it. Julie mentions how when they were novices, in the old motherhouse quarters, it was particularly hard for her because the high school friends who’d entered before were forbidden to speak to her. “They knew who I was, but we couldn’t talk. You could talk to someone at meals—and then only if they were sitting directly across from you, or within a particular radius.” She gives me a knowing grin. “It was about learning obedience.” One of the ultimate forms of obedience back then was submission to something ominously known as The List: once professed, and given a new name, sisters were assigned to a ministry, sometimes in another town, with no specified time frame, without consent or warning, and subject to reassignment at any time. They only knew their fate when a list was posted for all to see. Tears were guaranteed.

“Today there’s a lot more ‘Where would you feel most comfortable?’” says Adrian. “Nobody ever asked me that; they just put me there. But that was your obedience.”

“I think y’all were crazy,” Kelly says—forgetting she’s the only woman at this table who seriously considered the cloister.

Everything changed with Vatican II. The silences became reasonable, more meditative than forbidding; family visits became freer; services and prayers were translated from Latin to English; the sisters’ religious names were swapped out for their birth names; and the women, weighing the needs of the community against their own, gained a say in what their work would be, and to what part of the country it would take them. But it was the most seemingly superficial change that, for the nuns, proved the most contended and closely watched. Back then, even the active Dominicans wore the full habit—the wide-sleeved white tunic, the scapular, the black veil that hid their cropped hair, the rosary belt—marking each woman as a bride of Christ. These clothes set them apart from the rest of the world, from those who hadn’t made the same sacrifices. Without the habit, anyone on the street might mistake them for any clean-scrubbed layperson in modest dress. With Vatican II, once the habit was up for debate, everything seemed up for grabs. At that point, Adrian and Carol had worn the habit for about twelve years, Julie for ten, the older sisters for decades. Most of them had few other clothes.

Books of Dominican clothing were passed around like mail-order catalogues from J. Crew; sisters came in to model every possible variation on the tunic and veil; when sent off for summer training with sisters from other communities, they’d eagerly check to see who’d shortened their sleeves and hemlines or allowed a glimpse of hair. Fashion concerns that had left these women’s lives long ago were suddenly relevant again. They tried a shorter habit with a white jacket; then the knee-length princess-dress cut that was in vogue in the Sixties; then street clothes with a veil and pillbox hat; and finally they gave up the veil altogether. “You had to learn to live the life without these outward signs that set you apart,” Adrian says. Some of the eldest sisters, the ones who’d been wrapped in the Dominican habit for half a century, refused these changes and continued to walk the halls trailing their long robes behind them, like visitors from another era.

The change was alternately terrifying and thrilling—“You get kind of caught up in the excitement of it, of being different,” Adrian says—but it was the beginning of an irreparable separation, a schism, between those who believed in the “outward signs” and those who were ready to become more accessible to the people they served. Many of the sisters I spoke with referred to this period, elliptically, as “the hard time,” or “the time when people were leaving”—because their friends, mostly of Adrian and Julie and Carol’s generation, departed in large numbers. It was a disappearing act. “Your best friends would leave the convent, and they’d make them leave in the middle of the night so you couldn’t say goodbye,” Carol had told me. “It was hard. They were probably afraid we were all going to leave.”

I ask Adrian why she thinks so many women left at a moment when their lives could have become easier, freer. “When you live your life like this, and you know what it is to be a ‘good religious,’ you don’t go to the left, and you don’t go to the right—you stay right down the middle. You stay controlled. But when a lot of those structures are lessened, and you’re free to add other things to your life, then some people see other things that fulfill them.” In other words, for some sisters, the questions opened the existential floodgates. Some experienced full-blown crises of faith; some nuns and priests fell in love, paired off, and started over together. Adrian herself found the shift exciting. “You were part of the change, and you had choices,” she says. “I felt like if something is going to live, it’s going to survive all these ups and downs. You have to work on it. It isn’t just having the rules and regulations, it’s living them.”

But living these rules without the outward signs seems, in some ways, more painful. I imagine it would be easier to give up a personal life, to deny yourself through the sisters’ vows, if you were living in an austere, alien setting, your surroundings and your dress a constant reminder of how special you are, how separate from the rest of us indulgent, less disciplined humans.


 

VIII

THE SACRAMENT

The next morning, I join the sisters at mass in the chapel on the motherhouse grounds. In keeping with the rest of the place, the chapel is boxy, all brick and glass panels, with rows of aluminum-frame chairs rather than pews, and a tall, Sixties-abstract, stained glass window behind the altar: St. Dominic leading a band of followers, both men and women. Sunlight streams in through the image, streaking color with it. Adrian, who sits next to me, points out that the faces of many of the followers were deliberately left blank, “because they are all of us.” I look around and see Carol, also seated nearby, in a denim checked shirt, and other sisters in casual clothes. Mass is decidedly informal—save for the older women, who wear carefully coordinated black skirts and cardigans. Only one sister, the frailest in the room, sits hunched over in her seat in the full habit, a clear holdover from the old days.

When it’s time for the women to receive the sacrament—the purpose of the mass—a priest comes up the center aisle, rolling a Medline walker in front of him connected to a tube that snakes up the side of his vestments. He’s perhaps in his seventies, and ailing and slightly hunched over, and once he blesses the host and the wine (“the body and the blood”), and the women slowly line up to take the host from his hand, I am struck by how arbitrary this is. How is it that this community of women—capable, experienced, and intelligent, each having given decades of her life to the church—needs this one man to intercede, to hand them the sacrament that connects them to their faith? How is it that without him on the grounds, there could be no mass? I feel frustrated on their behalf—and on behalf of Carol, specifically. The second-term prioress of a nearly 130-year-old community, someone who’s given fifty-six years and counting to the religious life, she will never have the chance to give the sisters the host. She will always have to step aside.

Later, I walk the winding corridors, past the hall of gilt-framed oil portraits and studio headshots of the prioresses over the years, an entire history of women steering the way, to meet with Carol in her office. We discuss the Dominicans as, by definition, an order of preachers and teachers and “seekers of the truth,” and how that search has led inevitably to activism. Then she turns abruptly to the subject of the Vatican.

“See, the nuns are in trouble as it is. With the Pope. I don’t know if you’ve followed the whole thing.” I tell her that the story, as it’s unfolded publicly over the last year, has been hard to avoid. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican reprimanded the active American nuns (as represented by the LCWR) for not taking a vocal stance against gay marriage and abortion. The nuns countered that they were too busy doing what’s usually considered God’s work: fighting poverty and advocating for the radically underprivileged. It’s a tense face-off that’s continued under the newly appointed Pope Francis.

“The thing is, the nuns, we’re with the people. We know men who love each other; we know women who would never want to have an abortion but find themselves in a terrible situation. See, they don’t know that—they’re just sitting up there making rules. So we don’t speak out. It’s not out of not believing in it—everybody here is pro-life!—it’s maybe believing in people a little bit more than that.”

For the Dominican sisters, there’s a precedent for independent action: in the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena, regarded by the sisters as the other founder of the order, developed enough of an influential following that she won the ear of Pope Gregory XI, even daring to give him guidance on clergy reform and to push him to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome. The precedent goes back even further: women assumed leadership roles in Christianity as far back as the first century. After Jesus’ death, a new, radical, Christian order was created, of groups of men and women living and traveling chastely together, preaching together, putting aside differences in gender in favor of something much bigger. House churches run by women led to the spread of early, female-run Christian communities: the first celibate female communities in Christianity. An urban virginity movement was sparked, in which newly declared virgins could take on a public life that was beyond the reach of married women: they kept their own homes, traveled the city to perform acts of charity or meet with other devout women, and occasionally even dressed and wore their hair like men. But then came the lockdown. From the second through the early third centuries, the church set its hierarchy in place, aligning with the existing socioeconomic structures of Rome. Independent worship was pushed aside for prescribed services led exclusively by male clergy; virgins were no longer spiritually gender-neutral but “married” to Christ, “brides” that had to cover themselves with veils. In this way, a generation of female preachers was suppressed and absorbed into the social status quo.

In similar fashion, as we all know, the sisters today must consistently answer to the men of the church. Right now, the Vatican is prepared to make good on its threat to send three bishops from Rome to America to rewrite the constitutions of the sisters’ communities, and determine their speakers and appropriate activities. “It’s censorship, that’s the bottom line,” Carol says. “Now, these are educated women. Many, many of them have been presidents of colleges—excellent women. We are not stupid. So we can’t do this.”

In August, the leaders of the active communities of sisters across the country will gather for the LCWR’s annual meeting to decide what action to take. The most dramatic possibility that’s been discussed would be to sever ties with Rome. “Nobody wants to do that, really, because then we would not be connected to the Catholic Church at all,” says Carol. “We would be on our own.” But this is something the LCWR could do. Representing 57,000 Catholic sisters in America, they have nearly 1,500 members (elected by their religious orders) and their own, ultra-competent leadership—plus, they had the foresight to keep their finances (mostly membership dues) separate from the church. But the focus now remains on trying to “educate” the Vatican about the work the sisters and their communities are doing, in the hope that a compromise might be reached. Nothing like this has ever come up in the history of Catholicism in this country.

“I stay Catholic,” Carol says. “I’ve loved it—even during the hard time. And at my age, I feel like I do better just trying to make changes the best way I can.” She pauses for a moment. “If I were younger, it would be a challenge. I often look at Kelly and I think, Would I do this again?”

Carol laughs. “I hear you’ve been asking everybody if they’d ever considered joining a cloister.” I confess that it’s true. “You want to know what it’s like? You ought to go to Lufkin.” There’s a monastery there, of twenty-three women, about a two-hour drive away: the Monastery of the Infant Jesus. She makes a call, prioress to prioress, and arranges for me to visit the next day.


 

IX

THE CLOISTER

The parlor is the size of a doctor’s very small waiting room, and done in hotel-motel décor: dark blue wall-to-wall carpeting; a cheap standing lamp; a vase of fake flowers; walls built from sheetrock, not medieval at all, and covered in salmon-colored faux brick. The room is divided in two: on my side, two upholstered wooden chairs face a wood and metal-grille barrier that stands waist-high; two more chairs look back at me from the other side of the divider. It’s a divider to “keep out” the outside—even the Houston sisters I’ve traveled here with are considered too “of the world” to cross any farther into the monastery.

They’d driven with me to Lufkin, along stretches of highway framed by jungle-thick stands of trees and handwritten signs for barbecue, through the center of the town, with its single-story malls packed with Subways and chain stores. We’d driven further still, into a residential zone where a main road cut through quieter streets of middle-income homes with well-kept yards. Finally, we’d turned down Lotus Lane, and onto the grounds—an eighty-acre expanse of lush, green property, a bird sanctuary—and over a small bridge. When we pulled into the front lot, the main building stretched out before us like a long wall, with its two dozen stone archways. Inside, I knew, was an engine of prayer, a machine that churns out entreaties to God, constantly, seven times a day, every day and into the night, for the duration of these twenty-three women’s lives and the lives of the women who will enter next, as long as this monastery stands. And now I sit alone, in one of the only rooms permitted to visitors, staring at the barrier—and behind the barrier, off to one side, a closed door. I sit and I wait.

After a few minutes, the door opens and the prioress, Sister Mary John, enters from stage left. She reaches across to shake my hand, then takes a seat on her side of the divide. If not for her clothes, she could be a kind of bank teller, or a jury member. Seeing the full habit up close, I am struck by how large and voluminous—all-consuming, really—the robes are. Peeking out from all this generous fabric is her round moon of a face, scrubbed completely clean: a crease across her forehead, full chipmunk cheeks, wire-rimmed glasses. We talk for a while—about how she’s nearing the end of her fourth term as Mother Superior, and how a younger sister professed her vows in February—and Mary John immediately strikes me as a practical woman, a straight talker. Her manner of speaking is clear-cut and jovial—then again, she’s the prioress, and I can’t be sure how long she’ll tolerate me.

I tell Mary John my hope: to meet a sister who’s more of my peer. She thinks for a moment, and then exits the jury box. When she returns, it’s with another, much younger sister in tow: Sister Mary Rose, who’s been here for thirteen years and who at 34 is almost precisely my age. Like me, she’s slim and very pale for Texas. With her small face and delicate hands that emerge from under the wide sleeves, she looks especially petite in the habit. Her skin is perfectly unblemished, her lips are pink as an upturned shell, and her small, bright eyes are framed by the ubiquitous wire-rimmed glasses. She greets me with a look of polite skepticism.

Giggling nervously, Mary Rose tells me that her parents, both Catholic, met in San Francisco in the late Sixties at a time when it seemed they and everyone they knew were abandoning their faith. A doctor, her father moved them to Lufkin to start a practice, and they were drawn to the monastery: the nuns’ conviction seemed so clear and simple. Eventually, they returned to the church, and Mary Rose was baptized here. Some of her earlier childhood memories involve visiting the nuns with all of her nine siblings: they’d show off their costumes on Halloween, or the girls would perform ballet routines.

I ask the two sisters how they spend their days—though I know the answer: in near-constant prayer. If, when they’re not cooking or cleaning or sleeping, all their time is consumed with devotion, who are they praying for? “Anybody,” Mary John says. “Everybody. We’re praying for the world.” Though they’re physically cut off from the outside, they try to stay up-to-date on current news in order to direct their prayers, like God’s laser beams. “We’ve been praying for the business in Boston,” she says of the marathon bombing. “The situation in Syria we pray for daily. We know many, many of the things going on.”

They also take requests. Even as a child, Mary Rose was aware of the sisters’ intercessions. “Almost everyone in town knew that if an accident happened, if someone had a serious health problem, what you’d do is call the nuns to pray, no matter what denomination you were. And growing up, I knew that miracles happened. So-and-so’s baby has a heart problem? Call the monastery, and the baby turns out fine. Or so-and-so has cancer, and the cancer disappears. I mean,” she says without blinking, “it was quite frequent.” Mary John, like most of the older nuns I’ve met, has a more tempered view of these “miracles.” “Just as an aside,” she says, “it’s not like people go away disappointed when we haven’t succeeded.”

The fact that this shuttered community of women devotes most of its waking hours to praying for the good of everybody on the outside hasn’t been lost on the larger Lufkin community—even though they’re mostly fundamentalist Baptists and technically Catholic-loathing. When the nuns settled here in the Forties, in a part of Texas that was only about three percent Catholic, it was as if aliens had descended on the tiny sawmill town: locals would actually cross the street at the sight of a woman wearing the habit. But intercessory prayer carries over into Baptist practice in a big way. “We have Protestants who come here to pray all the time, some almost daily,” says Mary John. “Some of them don’t even come into the chapel, they just park in the parking lot and sit there.” She tells me of a Protestant pastor in Houston who’s been bringing his confirmation class to visit for the last fifteen years; the local dentist who gave them thousands of dollars’ worth of free dental work and finally was moved to convert; and how the Assembly of God Church brought their music ministry to the chapel. “It was the first time many of them had been inside a Catholic church. I think they were afraid of what might happen if they came inside this bastion of heathen practice.”

As welcoming as the women can be, there is an undeniable power in the mystery surrounding what goes on behind the monastery walls, and in keeping that hidden. It’s a huge part of why I’ve traveled here. The question of “What goes on beyond this parlor?” is like asking, “What is it you people know that I don’t know?” A list of rigorous daily practices—rising at 5:20 a.m., reciting the divine office at 5:50, 9:20, 11:30, and so on—doesn’t answer the question. In some ways, for the uninitiated, it’s unanswerable. This is something that even the women’s own family members are acutely aware of. While Mary Rose’s parents were supportive of her decision—after all, they were the ones who’d repeatedly taken their children to visit the nuns—her father balked at the intricate rules he was expected to follow, and the enforced distance between him and his daughter.

“There’s this whole new world that this person has come into and you’re left out of,” says Mary John. “It’s like this barrier just stops you and says ‘no.’ It’s like, ‘What’s going on back there? What’s happening with my daughter?’ It’s a whole other culture.”

I have a hard time imagining what it might have been like to visit these women even earlier, before Vatican II, when the barrier between us would have been an iron double-grille, giving the distinct impression of a cage or a high-security prison. This was something implemented in Europe, way back in the days when families were inclined to ride up on horseback and forcibly remove their daughters from the convent—a historical feature that, over the centuries, took on an unintended spiritual symbolism. The double-grille was still in place here in Lufkin when Mary John entered, and when the prioress at the time offered to give her mother a tour of the new building with Mary John as their companion, her mother “about passed out.” “This was just incredible for her. It had been four years since she had touched me—at all.”

What I really want to ask them both—especially Mary Rose, who I can’t help but view as my counterpart—is something to do with desire. And I don’t mean the chastity thing, but possibly something bigger than that. A question of desire for life, for a larger life. A life outside these walls. Because the longer I sit with these women—all told, for just a few hours—the more I experience a mounting feeling of being boxed in. So I turn to Mary Rose and stumble through the words: “So we’re the same age, you and me. And on Sunday I’m going back to New York, and you could come visit—but you can’t. Because you’re here, inside. Do you ever think about that? About this other life you could be living?”

Mary Rose does not miss a beat. For the first time in a while, she stops giggling. “I had always had in mind that I was going to travel through Europe after college—my mother did that,” she says. “My family used to go on long road trips, to the big national parks and things like that, and I did like to get on the road and go places. But there is this relief in being very rooted, this not-going-places. Because we’re just here. And just being here you start to notice everything. I’ve become much more aware of the rhythms in nature, and the seasons. There’s a deep peace about it. You settle down in a way that you’re not settled when you know that tomorrow you could just kind of go to New York.”

For Mary Rose and Mary John, this life is not the escape I’d assumed, but the fulfillment of a kind of talent. “The actual gift of prayer comes from God,” says Mary John. “It’s not something you do yourself.” Some are called to marriage, some to science, some to activism. As a cloistered sister, you realize your talent as a virtuoso of prayer.

And so you sink yourself into elaborate prayers seven times a day. You never marry, or touch somebody with all your clothes off; you never have children; you only see your friends and family on particular days of the month—and then always in one of these strange parlors, with a railing between you. You give up the skills everyone said you were so good at in college; you forfeit your privacy and live in community; you cover yourself—your clavicle bone, your knees, your hair—and drape yourself in this large white sheet until the day you die. You never leave this property on Lotus Lane, with its twenty-odd stone archways and however-many species of birds. You make this choice, because you’ve decided what it is you’re good at.

“I look now at all the things that would be available for me to do if I were starting over,” Mary John says. “Somewhere in the course of things, I got interested in physics—we get the catalogues from the teaching companies, and I think, ‘Wow, I’d love that program.’ And when I entered the monastery I ended up learning to play the violin. Well, what if I had pursued that before? Who knows what I would have done? I’d love to do that, and I’d love to do that, and I’d love to do that—and what difference does it make? You have your vocation, whatever it’s going to be, from the moment you were conceived.”

Now the two sisters stand, smoothing out their robes. Mary John opens the door, and they exit stage left, chatting to each other all the while. For a moment I can still hear them giggling with each other, sounding like young girls, on the other side of the faux-brick wall—and then the parlor is silent again. And in this silence—what to me is an absence, a shutting-down of the senses—they put their virtuosic talents back to work.


 

X

THE CELL

One afternoon, at the motherhouse, Adrian led me to the archive room and pulled a St. Agnes yearbook down from a shelf: 1956, her graduating class. Soft-spoken as always, with her perfect enunciation—she’s as conscious of her carriage as she must have been as a schoolgirl—Adrian flipped through to pictures of her and her friends. There was a group photo taken of the girls in their pressed white shirts and cross ties standing in line before the Virgin Mary, Adrian (then “Barbara”) at the front, her face still glowing with baby fat, offering up a heart-shaped flower arrangement. And then another, of her in a formal dress, white and cap-sleeved and layered with tulle, standing before an old radio-style microphone: “Barbara Dover wins second place with her beautiful vocal solo.” As she pointed from picture to picture, Adrian said, “This is herself . . . This is herself . . . ” (I realized that, in her day, a sister would not say “me.”) As she continued flipping through her classmates—“I still know several of these women”—she had that incredibly vulnerable quality of any older woman going back over her distant past, that look I’ve seen on my own mother’s face, instantly recognizable, deeply sentimental: the unnerving feeling of time sweeping you up.

I wondered if any part of her, decades later, regretted living without romantic attachments, or a family of her own. I asked if she’d truly put that to rest. “I think so. Our lives are very busy; there’s not a lot of lonely time. I have such good friends. I mean—I keep so busy.” Even as a sister, Adrian sounded as vulnerable right then as any woman when asked about being unattached. “It was my choice—no one made me do it. And I love my life. I belong to something that’s bigger than me.”

After dinner, I look at Adrian, in this suburban setting, an archetypal grandma, and some part of me expects her to talk about her children or grandchildren, or to see them arrive to check in on her. But they won’t, because she’s a sister, and she took those vows, including chastity, over half a century ago, and she never reconsidered. I also realize suddenly, within moments of the ladies settling in for an evening of Dancing With the Stars—the incongruity of the dancers in sparkly cutouts and the nuns in their reading chairs is remarkable—why younger women who choose the religious life are opting instead for the cloister: because this is too close, at least in appearance and in the daily ins and outs, to what it looks like to be a woman who does not have a partner. Who does not have children, and lives with adult roommates, and has her days structured almost entirely—in spite of the ineffable words of the hymns she recites each morning at precisely 6:30 a.m.—around practical concerns. A kind of beauty is absent here, replaced, for me, by a fear. Without the habit, without the veil, without the monastery walls, you are merely out in the world, struggling like the rest of us.

Maybe the monastery walls serve as a fortress against fear. Maybe there is no loneliness inside—only an alone-ness that’s exalted. Inside, even the most obvious chores are never completely mundane; inside, even the peeling of a potato or the making of a bed or the hanging of the wash or the mopping of a hall happens on the moon. Even your frustrations and your secret moments of boredom have become lunar. You are within the walls, behind the grille, pacing in the courtyard, its interior invisible from outside, invisible to that place called the world—and even if you could be seen, you are always wrapped in white and black from head to toe, covered even when sleeping. You made a choice, and every day since then, yours has been a separate planet.

These sisters, on the same planet as the rest of us, are without that protection. Their only fortress is a closely held conviction—in step with what Catherine wrote, seven hundred years ago: “Build yourself a cell within your heart, and never put a foot outside it.” For this, I think, a special bravery is required.

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