I have a confession to make: I am terrified of nuns. How strange! I don't like seeing them, I avoid meeting them, and I am terrified of speaking to them. It's not because I am unfamiliar with them; rather the opposite is true. I am very familiar with nuns. How could I not be? I spent two years in a contemplative convent. I became a novice. I wore a habit. I joined in with every aspect of convent life.
All this should make me comfortable with nuns, right? They are holy people, women set apart by God for a special calling. But my dreams are filled with women, who although wearing habits, act any way but holy. I have nightmares of critical sisters, watching me, demanding things of me, punishing me. And I wake in terror, roll over to see my husband peacefully asleep. And I realise I am free of the nuns, and have been for nine years. I am not a nun. And I never have to go back. No longer am I under the rules of a convent; I am free.
I have escaped in every way. Except in my head.
How awful to describe my exit from a convent as an escape! Surely I am being hyperbolic? To answer that, I must take you back with me to when I was 18, a confused but idealistic teenager ready to give her life for God.
I remember being 18. I was, to put it kindly, a bit of a mess. I was aimless, not sure of my path in life. I guess, really, I wasn't that different to hundreds of other teenagers. But I felt unique among my peers. They all seemed happy, busy studying hard, learning to drive, doing all those things that normal teenagers do. I never seemed able to concentrate on any one thing for long. I was also stressed at home, as I felt I was falling short of my mum's expectations (something I discussed in my last post).
But I was also a very religious teen. And it entered my head that maybe I felt so out of place because I wasn't truly in my right place. Maybe I wasn't meant to be at home in the world at all? I knew religious life was a huge sacrifice, but the more I thought about it, the more I was comfortable with the idea. Surely such a sacrifice was more than compensated for if I felt I belonged?
So I started searching. I won't tell you where I went, but eventually I found a convent of contemplative nuns. They were, to put it mildly, very traditional. And I went to stay there for a week. They seemed like lovely people, from what I could gather from observing a set of silent people. The beautiful habits, the wonderful singing of the Psalms, the grace of the nuns' demeanors and the silent worship of the Eucharist captured my imagination. I wanted to be a part of it.
I left home and went there, fully expecting to stay forever. I gave away all my belongings, said my goodbyes, and was installed into a little brick cell that was to be my home for the next two years. It had bars on the window. But I wasn't put off. I was ready to give my life for God, and nothing was going to stop me! But before too long, although my stubborn nature never gave up the idea of living as a nun, I began to make some awful discoveries, both about myself, and about the culture of the people I was living with.
Firstly, myself. I was a difficult teen when I was at home, and I was not a magically new person in the convent. I struggled with myself constantly. I was homesick, then crazily manic, then suicidally depressed. I was, as I have said in other posts, grappling with the realities of an emerging mental illness. Not that i realised it. It seemed to me that I was just a bad person. And as I constantly found myself in a position of having having to apologise for myself, of having to push myself to do things that my nature seemed to be rebelling against, I began to hate the person I was.
Maybe it was because I was so difficult to be around, but I never felt well-liked among the other nuns. Every time I failed to obey the rules, every time I had to apologise for my failings, I saw them looking at me in disappointment, and, in some cases, irritation. It hurt. I had to realise that they were people too. The "holy nuns" were just people, trying to do their best, but not always able to cope with the moody, impulsive, tearful teen in their midst.
The rules didn't help either. The incredibly strict rule of life had me up from 5 in the morning to late at night. I was constantly exhausted. So were the other nuns. The rule of silence meant I could never talk through what was going on in my head, but was instead left to stew in my own emotions. And we had to work so hard! In the last part of my time at the convent, I was made cook. Imagine a 19 year old trying to sort out meals for 12 people everyday! I saw other sisters get far lighter duties. Maybe it was a mark of faith in me that they thought I was capable of such a huge task, but to me, it felt like a punishment.
And punishments came to me thick and fast. The nuns had a custom called the Chapter of Faults. Once a week, you were meant to kneel in front of all the other sisters and confess all the times you had broken the rules. Then you were given a penance to do. I always had a grocery list of faults. Running, talking, leaving prayer early... I was always confessing something. And it felt like a humiliation every time as I brought everyone's attention again to my faults as a nun.
I was so lonely there. The only contact I had with people was through letters ad the brief visits of my family. None of my friends ever came to visit. And even with those moments of contact, I felt isolated. I felt I had to present an image to everyone of someone who was well-adjusted, happy, content. When I wanted to reach out, I didn't know how to.
Of course, there were good times. I learnt a lot. I enjoyed studying, singing and garden work (although I was awful at it!). I gained the reputation of being a bit of a prankster. But over it all was the growing realisation that I wasn't developing into the person the convent wanted, but rather I was collapsing into an emotional wreck.
It wasn't my choice to leave the convent. In my stubborness, it took the Mother General of the convent to make me leave. I felt I had failed. And I felt rejected personally by the convent. They never contacted me again after I left. They never wanted to see if I was alright, if I survived as a person. Of course, they had no obligation to, but after directing my life for two years, it would have been nice had they shown some interest in how I was doing.
After I left, I agonised for a long time over whether I should go back. Was it something I needed to do, or was I forcing myself into a hole that didn't fit? When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I got my answer. They didn't accept mentally ill sisters. So I was able to get on with my life, facing the challenges of a new life sentence. I didn't need to bear it alone for long, as well. I met my husband, and a new range of opportunities and experiences opened up for me.
But I still dream of the nuns. They are in my head. I have flashbacks, too, sudden memories that drag me right back to my time in the convent. And in those memories, in those dreams, I am 18 again. Frightened, confused and alone, while struggling to cope with a new and unforgiving environment. And when I do that, I cry.
Maybe I will be able to lessen the impact of those memories. Time hasn't seemed to dull them. I am going to go to counselling, to try to do what I was never able to do in the convent - talk freely and honestly about my experiences and feelings. In the meantime, I am afraid of nuns. Not of them personally, but of what they bring up for me.
I hope for a day when I can see nuns and not feel this way. I long for a time when I will finally be free.