The night before I was to visit the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Normal Heights, I called a friend, feeling anxious and full of misgivings. This story was not my idea, I complained, but the editor’s — and I had begun to doubt his good sense. For one thing, I could certainly see a piece on the new breed of activist nuns, many of whom — since Vatican II in 1965 issued its call for “appropriate renewal” — have given up the habit, moved out of the convent into their own apartments, and now earn salaries in a wide range of jobs, lobby for the ERAs, press for the ordination of women to the priesthood. There was a story. But what could be topical about these steadfast Carmelites, who even in these changing times have taken vows not only of chastity, obedience, and poverty but also enclosure, and therefore, spend all their days within the monastery’s four walls, engaged in endless prayer and, I had heard, the raising of parakeets? And more, what was I (a Jew — and a nonobservant one at that) doing with such a piece? I’d never spoken to a nun in my life. All I remembered of them from childhood was that my mother always insisted that seeing a lone “sister” was bad luck; and my Catholic friends had learned from their nuns that 1) I was responsible for the killing of Christ, and 2) my soul was lost — which produced in the more zealous of them a faint, nagging itch for my conversion.
My friend commiserated. She had attended Catholic school for one year, in the first grade. She remembered her teachers, the nuns, being cold and punitive, and she also recalled reading Sinbad the Sailor seven times that year. The first time she’d finished it, she told the nun, who replied that that was impossible. When she protested, the nuns declared that it was a sin to lie about having finished Sinbad the Sailor, and to get back to it without another word.
Another nun story, I thought, just like the nun stories I’d always heard. At best, I lamented, those cloistered religious I was to meet the following day would be hazy, vague, ephemerally rootless in time and space (whatever would these shades and I find to talk about?); and at worst, narrow and pious soul-savers.
The cream-colored Carmelite Monastery stands at the end of Hawley Boulevard, a quiet residential street with modest one-story houses, which looks out over the urban sprawl of Mission Valley — with its convention motels, shopping centers, mammoth concrete stadium bowl. This Spanish-style stucco structure begins with a chapel, then draws back into the long face of the monastery, which in turn extends into a square, embracing an interior courtyard. None of that luscious, verdant interior can be seen, however: the building and high walls were designed, 50 years ago, for perfect enclosure. On the way to the monastery’s entrance, you pass a statue of St. Albert of Sicily, surrounded by radiating plots of rose bushes, all bare now but for their thorns. The front door opens into a dark vestibule all closed, except for a large, curved cylinder built into one wall, with a lit-up doorbell beside it. I press it, and in a moment the cylinder begins to turn. “Good afternoon, can I help you?” — the cylinder has now turned round, exposing to me its open side, and hollow interior. I offer the voice my name, and ask to see the prioress, Mother Amata. The cylinder circles again.
“Take this key I am giving you, Connie, and with it unlock the door of speakroom number two, which is directly down the corridor,” comes the voice, rather friendly and brisk, albeit disembodied. The cylinder comes round, this time with a large, old-fashioned key on its base. I consider that this is the Medieval equivalent of being at my bank’s outside window, and — with a distant sense of time warp and utter displacement — proceed to speak-room two.
It is a small room, covered with soundproofing; there are a couple of chairs, drawn up to a desk-height ledge, on which sits an ash- tray and a box of Kleenex. I sit in one of the chairs, and face a large opening, covered with bars and topped with a crucifix, which looks into another small room. On the other side, I note, are none of the amenities — no ledge to lean on, no Kleenex, no ashtray — only low, backless benches and a stool. I look at the crucifix, and then away; I have never liked to see them. In the rear of this room is a painting, I think of the Virgin Mary. After a few moments, the door in the room across the bars opens, and a woman in a long brown habit, saying “Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ,” enters.
She says she is Mother Amata, and greets me. She has very vivid blue eyes, a faintly owlish suggestion about the lines in her face — I judge her to be 60, maybe less — and an immediate, fulsome presence. Her habit has a scapular — a kind of over-the-head apron, which is characteristic of the Carmelite order — and a white coif which frames her face from forehead to chin in a rather heart-shaped enclosure. She is smiling broadly just now, and ask- ing, in a slightly mystified but compliant way, what it is that I and the
want from her. Well, I begin, I thought I would write about the life here, few people know just what they do, if I could talk to her and some of the other, uh, nuns? is that right, nuns? (The word has such a pejorative con- notation to me that it instantly sounds like a blunder here — maybe “sisters”...“Carmelites”...) She bursts out laughing, looks at me with a touch of glee, and says. “That’s right, you’ve got it. Nuns .”
She is gracious about filling me in on what I should have already known. The Carmelite traditions go back to 12th-century Palestine, the time of the Crusades. There were only men in the order then, hermits who lived on Mt. Carmel; and after the Christians lost Palestine, some of the knights helped the surviving monks gain refuge in England. By the 15th century, there were groups of European religious women living together, who also adopted a Carmelite rule. Saint Teresa, the 16th- century mystic who was to become the first woman Doctor of the Church, belonged to a Carmelite monastery in Avila, Spain. It was a very large group of women religious, and in order to be supported — in spite of Carmel’s hermetical origins — a great deal of visiting with wealthy patrons was allowed, and the women were also permitted to go home from time to time, in order that they might regain their strength and bring back food. Teresa was very popular with both the religious and the wealthy supporters, as she was a great charmer, Mother Amata commented; but she felt that God meant for her to be living a more contemplative life. She also felt that it was not fair that the religious should be supported exclusively by the rich, who then figured constantly in their prayers. If they lived an austere life, in a small group (initially the limit was 13, and it has now climbed to 25), then even the poor could contribute — if only a nickel’s worth of rice — and be prayed for continually. So she founded the Discalced Carmelite Order, in which the religious lived simply and poorly on alms in a small, family-like group, effectively isolated from the distractions of the world — free to reflect on God and offer prayers in intercession for others, in the contemplative Carmelite tradition.
“Discalced” means, literally,“without shoes.”“We wear thongs, and sometimes stockings,” Mother Amata said.“In Saint Teresa’s time, some of the religious actually went barefoot no matter what the weather, until she put a stop to it — that, she thought, was really taking things too far. She was such a sensible woman,” she concluded warmly. Today, the “discalced” branch is the dominant tradition, with about 65 houses (about ten to 25 members in each one) in this country, and only a few “calced” houses.
Mother Amata entered this community 46 years ago, four years after it was founded. She was 24 years old. I look at her in some surprise, and say she looks at least ten years younger than she is.“Come to Carmel and live forever!” she laughs merrily. Then she adds, “It is the life. We are removed from the tension, the anxieties that people have to face outside.” She would not, in any case, know how young she looks, since she has not seen her countenance since she entered. “That was one of the vanities that Saint Teresa thought we could do well without,” she chuckles. “Although Ido notice the novices and postulants, when they first get their habits, looking sidelong at their reflections in the windows as they pass.” She alludes to Saint Teresa often in our conversation, and in a way that makes me have to remind myself that Teresa lived four centuries ago. She seems, rather, to have been a much-cherished, admired, and enjoyed contemporary of Mother Amata’s; the distance is simply not there.
I ask how the community has changed in the past 46 years. When she entered, she says, she did not expect to leave again until her death. Today, particularly since Vatican II, the religious go out to vote, for doctors’ appointments, for meetings with others in the Church. At that time, too, there was a double row of bars in the speak- room, nothing like these which are about five inches apart — and through which, if I shift from time to time, I can see her face unobstructed. There were heavy black curtains behind the bars then, and the nuns wore black veils, so that only the dimmest outline of a countenance could be glimpsed.
Since Vatican II — and especially in the last few years — this and other Carmelite houses have been in a state of flux. Each house is autonomous, and thus is making its own private adap- tations to the call for renewal. “In spiritual matters, I am answerable to the Father General — but in nothing else. They have no right to tell me how to govern my house, how to schedule the horarium (daily prayers), handle the finances, or to decide such matters as whether or not the chapel should be open to the public.” The chapel is open for Mass each morning, and the day’s schedule has been made much more flexible, allowing the sisters to make many of their prayers where and when they want. There is also a large library, which has novels, detective stories, and current periodicals (Newsweek , U.S. News & World Report , Scientific American), as well as scriptural texts. And there is one television. This day, the nuns watched the inauguration.
An autonomous house led by a strong superior has been characteristic of contemplative orders, Mother Amata explains, and it is at once a weakness and a strength. Ideally, according to Saint Teresa’s plan, the burdens and powers of administration would rest on one or two people, freeing the rest of the community for an unharried, contemplative life. One obvious danger, however, is that a misguided prioress might begin making decisions detrimental to the community, and there would be no one to quickly check her; and another is that such a matriarchy can produce what Mother Amata refers to as “grown-up little girls.” “Shared responsibility” was a key Vatican II term, and in this house the nuns are taking part in the decision-making process, struggling to find the proper balance — so that they will still have the serenity and stability necessary for prayer and development, without their adult powers of choice and responsibility being stunted. “It’s hard for those who grew up under the protection of that stability to release it,” says Mother Amata,“and it’s hard for the young ones, who never have known it, to realize we need some of that tradition.”
One example of some- thing they debated together was the decision about going out to Sharp Hospital, to be trained in pap-smear lab work, in an effort to earn at least part of their living. The community had tradition- ally been supported largely on alms, but another recommendation of Vatican II was that they move toward earning their own living. But how to do that, enclosed? They baked altar breads, laundered altar cloths, sewed vestments — which they still do — and then the opportunity arose for six of the sisters to go out to Sharp, in a year’s program. “That was a very daring decision, to run the risk of leaving enclosure. We agonized over it for about two weeks — bringing up issues like did we all realize that the ones who remained here, doing the cleaning and cooking, were just as important as the ones who would go, that it was they who would be — freeing them to go?
“You see, we are very aware that our order is over 400 years old, and this community is 50 years old, and tradition can become rigid. So we are open to dialogue which can be very painful and threatening. Despite the fact that we’re traditional in wearing these habits, and keeping to the old fasting (though it’s not as rigorous as it once was), we’re at the same time quite informal and unconventional.” Each house, Amata stresses, has a particular personality, like a family — its own jokes, its own favorite foods, its own feast days, its own temperament. There are women called to Carmel who are much too conservative for this house, but would do well in another.
The birds — whose song outside our window is incessant — are also part of these Carmelites’ attempt to earn their living. They are raising and selling par- rots, finches, parakeets, cockatiels. The birds began as a hobby for one of the sisters, and have now evolved into a low-keyed, quasicommercial enterprise.
Speaking of the changes of Vatican II, Mother Amata said that one she had hoped would come — and did not — was the abandoning of the formal canonization process. “I don’t really think — I suppose this is heresy,” she interrupts herself, laughs, and continues, “that we need all these formal applications to show that these people are indeed sanctified, in heaven.
“After all, people become saints in their lives, and canonization is only a recognition of this. There are people today who are every bit as heroic in their practice of virtue, their devotion to God and their neighbor, as the saints were — but I doubt they are going to make it, partly because there just isn’t enough money.” There is tremendous expense, she explains, in the clerical work, research, and traveling involved in putting forth a potential saint’s candidacy.
There are many saints special to the Carmelites — among them Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Therese, a 19th century Frenchwoman who died at the age of 23, and whom the nuns here call “the little flower.” I mention that I tried to read Therese’s auto- biography, but found it too saccharine. “When I first read it, I thought it was sickening, flat,” Mother Amata responds. “But it’s not, if you try to live it.”
I had noted some ambivalence, earlier, when we talked about the changes since Vatican II — does she really think they are for the best? She unhesitatingly replies that it is much bet- ter now, and much harder — but then freedom is always difficult. She says it is particularly hard to govern, at such a transitional time, and she hopes to have served he time as prioress come next election. A prioress is elected every three years, can serve two consecutive terms, and then must take three years off before serving again. The community’s foundress, Sister Emmanuel, was prioress on and off for many, many years, and died just two years ago. Mother Amata has served as prioress sporadically since 1959, and while she admits that certain powers of the position are attractive to a clearly strong-willed character like herself — she, for example, enjoyed being able independently to draw up the plans, with an archi- tect, for the redesigning of the chapel — they are far outweighed by the burden of being responsible to God for the spiritual growth of all the women under her.
There are 20 sisters under Mother Amata, and the youngest of them is 23. It takes about seven years from entry to full profession, final vows. If women come at 18 or 19, they are generally told to wait a few years; it is preferred that they be independent, and have made a place for themselves in the world, before opting to join this life. Mother Amata seems to bristle slightly at the thought that they would accept what she calls “escape vocations.”“This is no place to escape,” she declares flatly. “If you don’t really have the vocation, you’ll go stark raving mad. You must be mentally stable, emotionally mature — strong enough to endure the personality’s being stripped down to its basic components, and to then build on that.” After World War II, she adds, the order had to guard against a lot of “escape vocations” — what with the atom bomb, the general moral permissiveness and social upheaval, many people were afraid to live in the world, and felt they would be safest inside a religious community with virtually no outside contact. There has been an upswing in applicants in the last three or four years — they have four novices now — which she sees as reflective of the growing interest in religious life, the widespread spiritual seeking. All the California Carmelite houses, says, are full.
“Having a vocation,” Mother Amata explains, “means feeling a call for this kind of life. You must have a personality that will develop the capacity to grow — you can’t live this life and stagnate. Everyone who does have a real vocation, though, just blossoms . They’re mentally stimulated, they grow spiritually, their personality develops; and if all this does not happen, it means they do not have the vocation, and difficult as it is I must tell them
“And even for those who do have the vocation, it’s not idyllic, I don’t mean to idealize it, there’s a great deal of suffering involved, as well as joy. This whole business of remaking your personality, leveling off the selfish areas, the frustration of the will to power, clash of strong personalities — don’t get me wrong,” she laughs. “It’s not all beer and skittles.”
Unlikely as it might at first seem, this life — in which silence and solitude are such priorities — is most difficult for one who is inclined to be an introvert. “It lends itself to an outgoing person, one who is open to others, intellectually curious, a person who can take responsibility and face up to the fact that she will encounter failure and run the risk of that,” says Mother Amata. “The more introverted individual, however, who is always hedging her bets, and analyzing herself, ends up thinking about herself and not God.”
It is time for the inevitable question. Clearly, she has many of the requisite qualities: a strong and independent personality, intellectual vitality, breadth of vision, and a warm openness to other people that makes her such delightful company that the hours are speeding by. But still, why this vocation? It is so easy to imagine her active, compassionate, and accomplishing, in the world.
She answers the question, first, by way of a summary autobiography. The eldest of four girls, she grew up in a small rural town in Illinois, then went to college, planning to become a chemist. She had to earn her living before she’d completed her degree, however, and became involved in x-ray work. But she felt drawn to the life of a religious, and though she could have become a teaching nun, she was afraid that in her great propensity for getting involved with people and all their problems, she might forget her real aim: to help people by prayer, and give her life to God.
I told her that there was something I’d been wondering about ever since I’d read a passage in Saint Teresa’s autobiography, in which she tells how as children she and her brother used to read the Lives of the Saints . Learning of the martyrdoms through which many had passed, little Teresa thought “they had purchased very cheaply, the sight and enjoyment of God” — and she and her brother made a plan to go to the country of the Moors, and beg their way for love of God, so that they might be quickly put to death, and thus attain eternal life. Now presumably Teresa advanced from this desire for divine insurance — she does in fact later say that she was at first moved more by “servile fear” than love — but what part might this fear of damnation play in the choice of such a life?
Mother Amata grins, and replies that as a matter of fact she can remember, in her x-ray job days, sunning herself on a rooftop and reading the Life of Saint Teresa, and thinking to her- self,“I’d rather have my purgatory here than after- wards — so the best thing to do would be to enter a religious community.” That, however, was a very early, naive notion.“What it comes to is that I feel I can do more for the world here than in any other situation. It’s not what made me think of it first, but it’s why I came. And I think most of the sisters came here for the same reason.”
The idea of them as isolates, cut off from the world, is a mistaken one, she emphasizes. For one thing, many of them — including her — are politically geared. She recalls in one church service petition her having asked for repose for the soul of Saul Alinsky. (“Some in the community didn’t know who he was, and others were very upset,” she laughs.) She considers herself a feminist, is delighted about the Episcopalian women being ordained as priests, and thinks that it should and inevitably will come in the Catholic Church as well, though it will probably take some time. She is radically opposed to the death penalty. All these views, she stresses, are strictly personal, she is not speaking for her Order; her convictions are her own. But she wants to make very clear that her being cloistered does not separate her from the world. Quoting Pope John XXIII, she says, “There is nothing that can happen in the world, or in space, that any contemplative should feel removed from, for she is interceding with God for all the world.”
They receive thousands of letters from people asking for their prayers; some people call, and leave a request on tape; others come. The nuns here as a rule see only friends or family; when a stranger comes, it is Mother Amata who goes to the speak-room. “A lot of people come for advice — of course we don’t give advice, and no one
really wants it. Given someone compassionate to listen, and a little weeping, they can usually talk out and resolve their own problems. Very few people have the time to listen today. But we’re always here.
“I really believe in the power of prayer,” she continues quietly. “That God has his graces, and wants to shower them on us, but will not unless we come to him — because we do have free will. So we pray for people who don’t pray, and for those who ask for our prayers. God has attached the obligation of prayer to the graces — now granted he could just give them, but if he protected us from all pain, put on us no efforts to improve ourselves in the love of people, why then we’d be slaves, kept , and it would be unworthy of free men. Or women,” she adds quickly, with a smile.
The next day, we meet again in speakroom two. “Well,” Mother Amata greets me,“and how are you coming along with your book on the life of the Prioress? Really, I feel I’ve been so garrulous, going on like a chattering brook!” Then, approaching her seat by the bars, she says with a look of irrepressible amusement,“I must tell you that I woke in the night and thought to myself, ‘Am I doing what Jimmy Carter did in his Playboy interview?’”
That sets us to giggling for a while, and then she says that Carter was just trying to be as open and honest as he could — as she has — but he later said that if he’d had to do it over again he certainly wouldn’t have. I tell her I think she’s given me nothing scandalous, and she offers to answer any remaining questions I have before bringing in the other nuns she’s corralled. We tick off the topics.
— The vow of chastity. She does not foresee its changing, for the Carmelites. “What it really is is freeing yourself for total love — free from the confinement of a single love, an exclusive relationship, free to love God in any person. I know chastity is not a much-admired virtue today, but it leaves you free to love without demanding anything in return. And we have to face the fact,” she continues easily,“that in the past, Medieval times, women came to monasteries not of their own choice, and that fostered a great deal of lesbianism. But people today have made the choice them- selves, and they are not looking for that kind of release.”
— Are there any blacks in this community? No. Only one black woman ever applied here, says Mother Amata, and her color couldn’t have mattered less to the sisters, but she couldn’t forget about it. “She wrote a letter to Mother Emmanuel, saying ‘Would you accept me as white?’ And Mother Emmanuel wrote back,‘Yes, the sisters will accept you as white — but will you accept them as black?’ She didn’t write again.”
— What is the relation of the Trappists to the Carmelites? “They are really not similar, but helpful to each other. We both borrow doctrines, and readings, and use each other’s saints. There is a certain mystique about both, and both are contemplative — but the Carmelite spirit is hermetical, and the Trappists are devoted to community life. So while our penitence is to try to live alone a great deal, the Trappists’ is that they are never alone — they eat together, sleep together. There is however a certain warmth and sense of personal relationship to God that is like the Carmelites.”
— Have the charismatics made inroads here? “I don’t want to say that it goes against the Carmelite tradition, but it is not the Carmelite tradition. Ours is hermetical, a life given to the internal experience of God, a withdrawing in prayer to be with Him, in very private conversation — whereas theirs is shared prayer, with many external manifestations, such as speaking in tongues, and prophecies.”
My questions are nearly run through, but I see that Mother Amata has something that she wants to initiate.“I am speaking strictly for myself,” she begins,“but I feel that contemplative prayer is natural to anyone, because it is looking at things with wonder and joy. A child is a natural contemplative, but too many of us lose that faculty as we grow older.”
All one needs for contemplative prayer, she continues, is a belief in a personal relationship with God. In fact, she finds it difficult to understand — considering all the pressures and strains and the pace of the world today — how people outside could pray in any mode other than the contemplative.“Take yourself, for example,” she says earnestly.“You can have contemplative prayer when you’re driving along, or when you see a beautiful sunset. All you have to do is to be still, and think that the Creator gave you those colors to enjoy, and rejoice..."
I assent. It is the closest she has come, the entire time, to trying to share her life-long, consummate commitment — and it is an attempt to share, not to proselytize. I ask her, finally, if she thinks she would have been less assured of eternal life if she’d not become a Carmelite — a decision she has told me she has never once regretted. “I would not say that, because that would mean that people outside are less assured, and they’re not. But if I hadn’t entered, I would’ve been a less happy, less fulfilled, less... completed woman. And it’s been long enough,” she laughed, heartily, “that I should be able to speak on that with real conviction.
Four sisters in brown habits flock into the room. They are like a gust of fresh air coming through the door, all in high humor as Mother Amata introduces them, and then decides to throw open the barred gate which separates us (“I don’t even notice it anymore, but it bothers some of the sisters”), and departs. This is a rare interlude for them as well as me, since as a rule they would see only family or old friends.
I begin by asking them how long they’ve been here. I had asked Mother Amata if I could see some sisters about my age, 30, and I take these to be about that. One sweet-faced woman says, “Twenty-five years.” No, I reply, I meant how long have you been here — thinking to myself that she doesn’t look 25, more like 21. The group breaks up in hilarity, chortling about how this sister was given special dispensation from the Pope to come in as a two-year-old. It turns, out that she has indeed been in 25 years, and is now 46. No one in this group has been in for less than 18 years, and their ages range, incredibly, from 37 to 58.
I ask them what was the hardest thing for them, when they entered, and add that Mother Amata said for her it was the “slavery to the bell” — which sends them to bed, calls them to rise, summons them to work and to prayer all day long. It is a way, she had explained, of breaking their attachment to their will, to what they wanted to do.
Everyone decides that learning to live closely with 21 strong-willed characters was one of the most difficult things — like “living with 21 mothers-in-law,” one laughs. They had no concept of community life before, and here found themselves liv- ing with women so different that in the outside world few would have come together of their own accord. “You wouldn’t think God had a brain in His head when he put these people together!” quipped one. “But that’s why, so the rough edges would be rubbed off.” When the conflicts arise, they just try to talk them out. Anger is an entirely acceptable emotion, they say, and the struge is just to channel it constructively.
They are a diverse group. One says she’d always wanted to be a religious since she was a child. Another says that it was the last thing she would ever have dreamt of — she’d graduated from Marquette University in Illinois, and was an account- ant, before she entered at 24. Another had been a nurse, and joined at 20, 22 years ago. Yet another had been a pediatrician, then become a pediatric psychiatrist with a well-established practice in Los Angeles, when at the age of 40 she joined this community. Stories such as this I am at a loss to understand, “It’s a right hemisphere decision, not left,” she says. “It’s irrational; in most cases you can’t explain it.” And another nun, with strong, even features and a delightfully quirky sense of humor tells me, simply, “I would never have under- stood it if it hadn’t happened to me.”
They seem to agree, also, that the reason they chose this contemplative order — rather than an active one, which today especially would afford them so many options in lifestyle — is that they felt they could touch more people through their constant prayer than any other way. One quickly adds that of course that is just her personal feeling, she’s sure an active nun wouldn’t agree. Turning to the sister who had been a pediatrician, one asks,“What if you had been a missionary doctor, do you think that would have been satisfying?” No, she shook her head, it would not have been enough. She is by no means suggesting that tending to people’s bodily needs is not important; clearly, it is. But for her, she felt she could never do enough outside. Here, she’s become even more sensitive to the needs of the world than when she was there, tending to them daily.“ As you hit upon your center, you become more aware of the world, not less; they all become a part of you.” Like Mother Amata, they speak with quiet conviction about the power of prayer, and all the people who ask them to pray for them. Not only Catholics, people of any faith — agnostics too, if they feel like trying it. The only requisite, one laughed, is that “you have to kind of believe in prayer — at least enough to give it a twirl!”
Their day begins at 6:30 a.m., when together they say the Divine Office. Mass is held at seven in the chapel, usually attended by people from the immediate neighborhood. The sisters sit in a recently constructed area off to the side, so that they can see the altar but not be seen by the congregation. Breakfast follows, and from eight to nine is the first of two daily required hours of “mental prayer.” As Mother Amata had explained it, mental prayer begins with what is more commonly experienced as meditation, and then simplifies itself until it’s more of a “vague consciousness of God’s presence.” If the sisters do not want to have mental prayer at that particular hour, they do not have to any longer; but complete silence must be maintained for those who do. From nine to noon, they all work — cooking, cleaning this vast place, screening the pap smears. Then they have their main meal of the day; they eat a lot of fish, eggs, cheese, vegetables — no meat. There is an hour’s recreation after lunch, a time of community which consists mainly of sitting and talking in the recreation room, and then they work again until supper. There is one more hour’s recreation together after that, followed by prayer and free time. There are, all in all, seven prayer times during the day. And the sisters pass most of their meals and working hours in silence, so that they can be prayerful then too. I comment that this must be a hardship — they can’t talk at all while they work? “You can ask a necessary question,” one replies.“Yes,” rejoins another, “like, ‘what’s for supper?’ ” Seriously, she adds, having just two hours’ talking time is not hard; because if you’re called to this life, you
want the solitude and silence. Often, it’s harder to have recreation. And each sister has her own cell, with a bed, desk, chair, and cupboard — pictures on the wall if they want.
Two of these nuns were part of the group that went out to Sharp Hospital, to be trained in the lab work. They laugh, now, about how when they first went there the people were so nervous about them — their instructors had been warned not to touch them, not to give them coffee breaks because they weren’t allowed to drink it. (They are.) I recalled Mother Amata’s having spoken about the great risk of that decision. “The risk,” one explained, “was that we’d get another orientation, after so many years inside. Change is risk, after all, and especially from a situations set as this.” And how did it affect them? “I think it made us feel less dependent upon enclosure; less afraid of losing it — we knew then that it was the real thing, almost like we didn’t need the four walls around us. In short, we gained confidence. But at the same time that we saw we could do without it, we came to value it more — for the solitude and silence that it ensures us.” Another adds, “It just cuts off so much that you get entrapped in outside, social things that have no meaning for us.”
I ask them what they miss. For a minute or so, they seem hard put to name it.“I’d like a steak, about this thick,” one offers. A ruddy- cheeked bouncy sister from Kansas says,“Sports! Bowling, golf, tennis.” They used to play volleyball, but that died out. Another offers, “Really I have what is important to me. I think I miss, though — at Christmastime especially — having nothing to pass out, no gifts. It has to be,‘I’ll pray for you, dear!’ ” “I missed my independence terribly, when I first came,” one says. “Life is so structured here. But then, gradually, my values changed — and also our life became a lit- tle less structured. When I first came, our day was much less flexible, we couldn’t go to the library whenever we wanted, we had to all be doing pretty much the same thing at the same time.
“Of course, I remind myself that people outside have structured lives, too,” she considers. “But here, there certainly are fewer options. I can’t just get up in the morning and say,‘I’m going to the beach today!’”
Would they like to go out more, do they think that this is something desirable that will come? Not really.“There is so much happiness, joy here,” one says. Another offers that she thinks sometimes about going to a concert, or to the movies, or the mountains for the day — but wouldn’t really choose to if she could. “In this way of life, you have to find within you what others seek outside.”
Do they miss men? Yes, they agree — but not so much that they think the vow of chastity should or will be changed. They all feel that relationships with men would be incompatible with their contemplative way of life. A married woman has a husband and perhaps children whom she focuses upon; her involvement with God must to that extent be mitigated. Another adds, somewhat haltingly, that really they have something of a lover’s relationship with Christ — not only in the intensity of their focusing on him, but even to the extent of their awareness of His personal, almost tangible presence.
One, watching me, says, “It sounds so unreal, doesn’t it?” And then they go on to talk about how they go through times when they do not have that consciousness of God’s presence — the “dry” times — and how difficult it is to live without, in this kind of life. They understand that these are all necessary stages in their development; others in the religious life have written about it; and women in this community have known such times and come through them — it is a kind of “purification,” a testing of the faith — but always the torturous doubt persists that perhaps it is a sign that this is not their vocation, after all.
Some do leave. It used to be that only one out of three would stay after the first year or two; what happens with the present batch of four novices remains to be seen. There is no stigma attached to these early departures, and since Vatican II, little or no stigma involved in leaving after one’s final vows. One sister says she thinks that before Vatican II, many nuns in all orders stayed out of fear of losing their salvation; and that might have contributed to the great exodus of nuns from their convents in the last ten years or so — nearly one quarter of all American nuns, leaving approximately 130,000 in the religious life.
They have sat with me through their suppertime, through more than one prayer time, and it has grown dark outside. Upon hearing that I plan to drive directly back to Los Angeles from here, one of the sisters rushes off and returns with a tray — laden with cottage cheese and lime Jell-O, a tuna sandwich on home-baked bread, coffee, and special pineapple upside-down cake with whipped cream, in honor of a sister’s birthday.
Now that I am no longer querying and probing, the strangeness of this situation hits me full. I am sitting in a monastery, in a sound- proofed room with a gate of bars thrown open, trying to down a hefty tuna sandwich while these hermetical nuns in Medieval costume watch me, smiling. The focus has shifted to me. They ask about my family, my work, how I live. As I speak about these things, one of them in particular is so synchronized with me, that we end up finishing most of my sentences together. It is an extraordinary sensation. I talk about writing, and she says, quickly, “Of course, that’s your silence and solitude.”
The analogy is apt. Their commitment is to God, yes, but it is also to that which makes them feel most complete, to a way of life which just seemed to be right for them and in which they feel they can best achieve their whole selves. Self-actualization, in Maslow’s terms. It does for them, really, what a true vocation does for anyone — and they see it as a lifelong process of development and growth, cutting through layers and layers, endlessly refining, drawing even closer to the essence. Their transcendent joy is probably similar to that which anyone immersed in their vocation feels from time to time, those peaks of sublime pleasure; and their periods of dryness — to anyone whose work depends upon inspiration — are also familiar. Even in their sense of their eternal life to come — the more secular of us think of leaving our words, or paintings, or images, or whatever, in perpetuity.
Now tell us, they say to me, what you are really thinking — this must all have been so strange for you. And don’t varnish . So I tell them what I expected, and how instead I have found their presence so vivid, their company such a delight. How I feel a great bond with them, and a rare ease in communicating — a cutting through the dross that does not usu- ally happen so quickly, outside. Which is not to say, I add, that they will find me on their doorstep the next morning — I am greatly relieved that they are not out to save my soul.
Perhaps all that remains to be said is that I am no closer to knowing why they chose this life than before I met them; so I have spent all these words without bringing anyone else closer to understanding, either. Not one of them described to me her moment of revelation, or even detailed the life-situation that preceded and then accompanied her decision. In the picture of who they are today, however, I feel it does not really matter very much. As one said, there may have been a bad kind of motivating fear, in her initial decision, but even that led to the good. Think of marriage, she added — the reasons you marry, and then how that relationship changes and grows in twenty years’ time. And I believe, finally, that their reticence about those specifics springs not from a fear of self-revelation but an innate conviction that the facts of their personal, prevocation lives cannot be that important. Even more than that, it must be difficult to remember, seeming to them so long ago — almost like another life, and certainly one that did not have the crystalline quality of this one.