The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I was received into the community as a postulant on the night of July 19th: First Vespers of St. Vincent de Paul. When I thought of St. Vincent I remembered a plaster statue closed in a green alcove on New York’s lower east side, the arms extended in supplication above a clothing bin: St. Vincent, patron of the needy.
I had already imagined myself a sister, how I would be called Sister Noel, the sister of Christmas and glide gracefully about in rhythm with the delicate chimes of the sanctus bell, my brows arching wings across ivory skin, my face a mirror of Audrey Hepburn’s.
But the night I was received, I was aware only of the heat and the heavy oxfords, how the gabardine dress clung to my back and my neck blotched a narrow seam around the white collar.
After the ceremony the sisters herded into the community room for the reading of the rule. Mother welcomed me with a cursory nod. Around me circled the faces of my family, framed in black, edged with white wimples. There was amusement on some, indifference on most.
At nine o’clock we sang Compline, the last office of the day, a corporate night prayer before the Great Silence began. After the procession out, sisters scattered to their cells, leaving the hallways dark and still. There was one, a Sister Dorothea, who shuffled about, turning out lights, shutting doors, checking locks. By ten o’clock the convent fell into a darkness and silence so complete, it seemed like a spell.
That night, I climbed the stairs to my cell, following the white banister, a faint guide in the shadows. Walls perspired as heat escaped and I undressed and sat naked, refusing the seersucker nightgown that was laid across the end of the bed. Outside, the cacophony of Manhattan nightlife: I could hear the amplified rock from the Columbia frat houses up the block.
My cell faced the backyard, which was a landscape of concrete save for some stray blades of grass near the wire fence. Beyond was an apartment complex, a solid brick wall punctuated with windows. A few lights were on and “Rhapsody in Blue” was playing on someone’s radio.
Was there someone there, facing my room, I wondered, watching convent windows after dark? Guessing what happened here on Friday nights?
I could pull my blind, shut my window, but by morning a sheet of black dust would have inched beneath the incision that separated window from sill. It was impossible to close New York out.
Our rhythm of life was novel: up at 5 a.m. roused with the morning salutation: “Let us bless the Lord.” I learned to pull myself from sleep, tugged at the roots to answer, “Blessed be the name of the Lord, now and ever, and from ages to ages, amen.”
But that first night, I slept and woke in tedious intervals, a paper clenched in my hand where the response had been written in Sr. Catherine’s looped camel humps. The writing blurred with the dampness.
At 5:00 a timid tap sounded on my door. I must have answered but then slept for I woke late, my eyes focusing on the dark crucifix on the opposite wall. Moments later I fought my way out of the sheets — remembering with new horror that this was the day. My clothing resisted the sudden intrusion. The dress button popped, the stockings twisted, one caught on the bureau’s edge and snagged a hole in the fine mesh.
Five long minutes passed before I tiptoed down the steps. I could hear the vacuous monotony of psalmody: versicle and response, versicle and response. My feet never sounded so loudly on wooden floors. Every step was an announcement.
Later, after mass the Postulant Mistress: “Miss Hasman, you were late for chapel.”
I told her I overslept.
“You’re going to have to learn to cope,” she said and continued, her tone fluctuating like a fever chart, with insistence on the risings. And I said, “Yes sister, yes sister” at least a dozen times, nodding mechanically. It became pavlovian, that response.
And cope. I was to hear that again and again. It was multi-faceted, that word. It meant endurance, it expressed discipline — a psychological gymnastics involving stretching, reaching, bending, stooping, doing whatever was necessary to maintain the standards. Being a true religious like any state of perfection was an arrival and the postulancy was en-route.
Divisions were labeled, in colors, in days, in objects: black or white, feast or feria, secular or sacred. It was a di-chromatic world: black for habits, crosses, books and shoes; white for coifs, wimples, walls and dishes. Our zebra striped apron was the only compromise of the two.
We translated those colors into a psychological perspective: an act was either right or wrong, worthy of praise or condemnation, absolution or guilt. There were no variations on this theme. In analogy, the shortest distance between two points was, unquestionably, a straight line.
And, in a larger sense my world was divisible by two: the community and Manhattan. I felt anonymous in both — New York because of size and the community because of perspective. In microcosm I meant an additional plate in the refectory, another host in the pyx, wine added to the chalice, extra space in the refectory lines and in chapel. As the newest member, my name was inserted at the bottom of intercession lists. “Miss Hasman” the name tags read and were stitched into every conceivable garment: knickers and undershirts, dresses and slips, even to the beanies we wore clamped to our heads with jet bobby pins.
As a postulant, I retained my secular name and after a year, when the texture of religious decorum was ingrained, I would adopt a saint’s name.
We attended chapel seven times a day: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, and like beads on a rosary, the offices shaped our days. The design was definite, with beginning, middle and ending.
Though I learned the structure and followed the schedule the interior was turmoil. There was tension in authority, in personalities but mostly in me. Intimidated, I was praised for humility.
Mother, like God, watched us always. She founded the community, had a vision that caused her exodus from a religious community in Toronto to Manhattan’s lower west side. Another nun, Sr. Edith Margaret, came too. Sister Edith Margaret was her opposite, a dresden nun, and blessed with all domestic virtues: proud of the white linen she kept, of the flawless symmetry of her wimple, of the lemon tea cakes she served, fragrant and sheerly cut, to the interested clerics who visited Mother in that small parlor in the early days.
But Mother was a volcano and thunderbolts hovered on her brow. When she erupted, she had a way of diminishing us all.
She did not walk, she strode — down hallways and up stairs, stamping it all with her private imprimatur: sanctioning this is right, this is mine.
The raven gown brushed the floor, signaled her arrival when we were truant or unaware.
“What are you doing here?” she asked us.
“Oh, ah . . . we’re on our way to chapel, Mother.”
“Then go. Don’t stand here wasting time.”
We scattered like a flight of sparrows.
She awed me as the deity itself — Jehovah manifest — with a presence as distinct from myself as cloth was from flesh. But she was still my Mother and upon her matronly breast the hard, black cross was pillowed.
One day she called me into her office. It was a sin of offense or omission, I forget which. But stars still fell from the sky, the heavens boiled putrid black. There were cosmic vibrations and I was in the center with the walls to my back and Mother dead ahead, plastered between the two.
Her words twisted inside and made me cry. My tears were clumsy (when were they not?) and blotched my face; pain, an unwanted pregnancy, a child I could not afford to have.
“Really Miss Hasman, control yourself.”
After I went to my cell where there was space and silence and knelt before the Spanish crucifix where Jesus bowed his head, his legs, crossed in agony, an edge of dust skimming the back, curving down his limbs, I remembered that we were here to learn detachment from self. The demand was constant. But learning detachment was not water eroding rock, it was lash breaking open flesh. Sr. Catherine, our postulant mistress, told us we grew through pain.
At the end of the year I was uncertain about my vocation but not enough to withdraw. I took the name of Stephanie and was accepted into the novitiate. At 18, veiled in white, a blond cross nestled between adolescent breasts, I wore a modified version of the habit.
After the Clothing, Mother called for me.
“I think you need a rest and change,” she said. “I’m sending you to Melrose for the year.” She scrutinized me then. Did she see too pale skin, too thin a surface for the religious life?
“Take advantage of this change. You’re going to have to learn to cope.”
Melrose was our country estate, a farmhouse of Puritan simplicity, angular and straight. Our Anglican community had mellowed it somewhat, though the interior was still austere: walls beamed sanitary white marked by pine and walnut crosses. The altar was the only lavish affair, draped with the rich gold and vernal green of Trinity when I arrived.
From the refectory window, the rolling hills of lower New York spread out royally. It was to become familiar: a barn sloped on Joe’s Hill and beyond stone walls sliced the knobby hills and depressions into panes of green and gold, like an organic patchwork quilt. I was to learn its moods, piscean and nebulous: early morning mists leafing out into the hollows and hills and later expiring in waves of noon heat, fading the summer colors to greys.
Like a cat napping in the sun, I became tranquilized by the heat and the light. I calmed and became aware of the sensuality of small things: my work habit smoothly pressed, its grainy denim, a worn blue; the sweet prunes that Sr. Agnes stewed on Saturday mornings with white cream swirling, oozing around black, wrinkled skins that collapsed in my mouth deliciously, their pits dropping, clattering in the white bowl; the banging of the kitchen screen, releasing as it opened spice and heat.
Theologically I revered the Trinity but spiritually I was drawn to the Father. God was not mighty; Majesty left me cold. He was Abba, Father. I slept as if my bed were a womb, curled tight, my knees drawn to my chest.
At the year’s end I took the long road home to New York, under maples and oaks and out to the open density of the throughway and all the time dread floated inside, a bubble that would not deflate.
. . . But surely I have learned to deal with Mother, with the life?
My first vows were made in St. Martin’s chapel at the Cathedral.
“Come thou Bride of Christ receive the crown: which the Lord has prepared for thee forever,” whispered the Bishop. He suffered cancer of the larynx so he could not sing.
“This is a prudent virgin,” I responded, “who, at the bridegroom’s coming arose and trimmed her lamp: and being ready, went in with the Lord unto the marriage.” My soft voice echoed in the Cathedral hollow, lost in that expanse of space and air.
I was fitted with black robes and with a girdle that encircled my waist and hung down the left side, heavy with the three knots of my vows. The white veil was exchanged for black and the blonde cross for an ebony one stamped with the silver paraclete.
In that small space between coif and veil, in which flesh was exposed, the face was vulnerable, the focus intense. There were no curls to soften an angular profile, no hats to shadow a sallow complexion, no rouge to flesh out an anemic one.
I stood in front of a mirror after my Profession and saw my face, a shade paler than before.
Back in the community, in the vortex that was New York, I assumed the role and the responsibilities of sisterhood. But as time passed, my vocation began to wane, dimming to religious maxims.
“A sister is to have no personal friends . . .”
“If a sister has a particular problem she is to go to those in authority . . .”
“A sister is to accept pain as well as joy and to thank God for . . .”
Between the demands of teaching and the demand for religious perfection, I stole time at night to read, after Compline when the lights were out, beaming a flashlight to the page. One night when the moon rose full and bright, I stayed up, looking out my cell window, with the convent dead asleep within and below.
There was a book downstairs in the children’s library, a story about a Lydian girl, slave to a Roman soldier . . .
“I am sorry Mother, that I read a secular book after the Great Silence,” I confessed next day during our Chapter of Faults.
“What book Sister?” Mother asked.
“Ashaba, the Slave Girl,” I mumbled.
“ASHABA, THE SLAVE GIRL.”
Silence. Some of the nuns looked down at their hands, some studied their shoes. I watched as my hands tightened on the back of the chair.
Mother curtseyed to the next sister.
“I am sorry,” Sr. Mary Cecilia began, “for being late to chapel, for spilling mustard on my coif, for . . .”
Afterwards Mother called for me.
“Why did you read a book like that?” she demanded.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said. I swallowed and my mouth went dry.
Mother frowned. “What are you counseled to read in the evening?”
Holy Scripture, Mother.”
“The Imitation of Christ.”
“You have a copy?”
I nodded. But it does not make my heart sing, I wanted to say.
“It’s a good book,” Mother said. “Read it as often as you can. NO — memorize it, learn it, it will teach you all you need to know about being a religious.”
“. . . and let’s have no more of this self-indulgence.”
I blinked a few times and bit my lip.
Mother looked hard at me.
“You are too sensitive Sister,” she said. “You must work on that.”
The desire to leave the religious life had begun, but the world frightened me. Out from the convent it spread flatly — would I fall off the edge? And what was it like out there? I had forgotten.
One night in the sanctuary I knelt down. It was late and the shadow of the altar cross stretched across chapel walls, eerily magnified by the flame from the Paschal Candle. I smelled beeswax laced with the cloying scent of Easter lilies. The silence was palpable: tasting intimate and free, giving space for distance and introspection. God was not light, I thought. He was darkness. The great unknowing. The proportions were inverse: the longer I was here, the less I knew.
One day I went to see Mother.
“I don’t think I have a vocation,” I said and my voice trembled.
She was unperturbed. “That’s for the community to decide,” she said. “Remember St. Thomas the doubter? Pray Sister, to have more faith.”
My cell was christened St. Thomas as a lesson, marked with a wooden plaque on which his name was carefully lettered. Passages in my spiritual reading were underlined — passages about faith and abandonment.
After that when I became upset, I wrote notes: asking to speak to the Bishop or explaining calmly why I must leave or threatening to leave. The notes were dropped into Mother’s basket. Soon her patience thinned: I found under my cell door a note — “. . . and no one can release you from your vows. You and you alone have bound yourself. At the end of your Juniorette, in August, you may leave. Please do not write me again.” She signed herself: The Reverend Mother.
But six months was forever and Christmas was coming. What would it be like to be out of these clothes? To be home for Christmas?
The day of the Christmas Pageant I left the school and walked quickly up the hill to our convent. It was deserted — all the nuns were gathering the school children in long, careful lines for their trek to the Cathedral. I would not be missed for some time.
The wind off the Hudson was cold, the sky mussed with snowclouds.
There was a single bag I had secretly packed and stored in my cell. I gathered it under my cloak and tiptoed down the dark stairwell. My only fear was that I would meet someone on the stairs or in the street.
But there was no one around. As I crossed the street and hastened toward Broadway, it began to snow — a few, meek flakes tumbling out from under a cold sky.