Sunday, October 24, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Catholic Years

Picture: A scrawny twelve-year-old girl with humiliatingly nondescript short brown hair and bangs, wearing a brand new plaid jumper, a pastel blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and black flats. She is being ushered through the high-ceilinged corridors of the convent, hugely built in the mid-1800s and home to classrooms, dormitories, elegantly crafted shelves and woodwork, well-appointed parlours, kitchens, dining halls ("refectories" in convent parlance), and cloistered chambers for nuns. Her guide is a nun -- and whatever that might be, the place is crawling with them. They are all decked out in long black habits and starched white wimples (new vocabularly words for our heroine), with crosses jammed into their black belts like hunting knives and lengthy strands of black beads swaying against the folds of their skirts. (The word "rosary" is, also, as of yet unknown.) As they reach the enormous Gothic chapel,
our young lady discovers that most of the women and girls, upon entering the door, dip their fingers into a container of water and make a mysterious sign across their bodies. They kneel in the aisle and then sidle into the long pews, where they again kneel on little cushioned benches that seem to have been placed there for just such a purpose. Being sort of Methodist, our observer has never seen anyone kneel in church -- not that she has ever encountered holy water or the sign of the cross, either. But she is willing to wait things out patiently. She is only twelve, but she has encountered enough new situations in life to know that there is no point in assuming or expecting anything. Whatever happens will always be something far different from anything that could have been anticipated.

The only man in evidence, grandly dressed in long robes, is at the altar, where he lifts an enormous round gold container of sorts into the air and chants something unintelligible. Most of the crowd in the pews chants right back. Within a few moments, all is made transparently clear: nothing will ever be comprehensible again. There will be no clarification of beads, crucifixes, water, hand signs, kneeling, nuns or chants -- it turns out that every single word is spoken in Latin.

And thus I was introduced to the Roman Catholic faith. A pre-Vatican II faith, in which young women were graduated from high school and immediately entered the convent, in which priests were placed on pedestals so high you could barely see them.

What was I doing there? My father and his brothers were graduates of a high-profile New England prep school and, while he wanted the same for me, my dad was convinced that our local school system was not up to the job of preparing me (to be prepared). He knew the nuns who ran the school -- it was 20 minutes further out into the country from our home. Many girls from our community attended the nuns' school, albeit as day students. I have my stepmother to thank for getting me out of the house on a permanent basis by the beginning of seventh grade.
In other words, I had arrived at a Catholic boarding school, kicking and screaming against my forced spearation from my friends, for academic and family reasons. No one in my family seems to have given a thought to the RELIGIOUS facet of the school, which would come to permeate my daily life. I can only conclude now that my family was so areligious (not anti-religious; just oblivious to the whole concept of religion) that it never occurred to them that anyone took it seriously. Not even nuns.

Here,in a nutshell, was life in a Catholic girls' boarding school in the mid-1960s:

blue wool skirts and white blouses designed in, oh, maybe 1940;

daily religion classes, Catholics and nonCatholics segregated from one another, but both taught by nuns;

long and narrow dormitories in which we slept on beds in rows of cubicles curtained off from one another;

the Beatles, the Stones, and the Supremes blasting from deeply recessed windows in hundred-year-old buildings;

a weekly liturgical music class and a weekly choral music class;

cigarettes in the bathrooms and in the fields behind the school;

skirts rolled up to reveal several inches of thigh;

Sunday Mass, Friday Mass, and, often, several other masses;
basketball with nuns in ankle-length habits;

Saturday morning sewing classes, which I avoided by hiding out on the soccer field;

Latin, statues, holy water, medals, missals, lacy caps for entering the chapel, tattered books on the gory and self-sacrificial lives of the saints, crosses all over the place, brief periods of freedom on late afternoon horseback rides, prayers before meals and classes, slipping out and curling up in those deep window wells for late night conversations long after the nuns had gone to bed;
numerous hours devoted to the development of carefully designed plots for infiltrating the cloistered area of the buildings where the nuns lived in order to research the answer to that endlessly challenging and earth-shaking question: What kind of underwear do nuns wear?

And, since it was the 60s: the Smothers Brothers, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Walter Kronkite.

If you watch the tv show American Dreams on Sunday nights, you can see in Meg's school some strong similarities to my own. The main difference, of course, was that we lived there, 24/7, and so it was nuns, may of them remarkably young and entirely Catholic, who filled in for parents.
I left that school after ninth grade as an agnostic at best, more probably an atheist. I had had my fill of religious indoctrination and, as a nonCatholic surrounded by medieval ritual, I emerged with a vastly enlarged capacity for skepticism. But I did make three gains that equipped me well for life:

In the first place, I became accustomed to a world in which women managed their own lives. The convent sat on acreage far out in the country and the nuns managed their farm, their convent, and their school. Men were seldom in evidence. Oh, there was a priest, but since I was not Catholic, his presence was of little significance to me. I didn't make confession or take communion or study with the upperclass Catholics, so I had virtually no interaction with him. I never had any reason to surmise that adult women were in need of male approval or cooperation for their endeavors.

Secondly, the nuns were, on the whole, particularly broad-minded women. Probably one of the most significant episodes of my entire educational career occurred when Sister Collette, who taught our nonCatholic religion class in 8th or 9th grade, decided that we would study comparative religions. An extremely young woman schooled entirely in the Roman Catholic tradition, she tried to teach us basic Catholicism, since that was what she knew. We, her irritable and difficult students, did not hesitate to communicate to her that her information conflicted with what we had picked up in various Protestant Sunday Schools. After running into several 13 and 14-year-old brick walls, she announced that she had realized that she knew nothing about religions other than her own, and so we were going to study them together. I don't remember any specifics about what we studied -- although I do know that the only Seder I have ever attended was the one we put togetherin our little pastel-painted Catholic classroom in the heart of midwestern farmland-- but I have always remembered her fearless and open-minded decision about what we should learn and how we should do it -- with respectful interest and graciousness.

Finally, I learned, without recognizing it as a life skill, to form friendships with other girls and women. I learned to see the members of my gender as reliable, trustworthy, and desirable confidants. I learned that girls and women are smart, talented, strong, funny, and hugely determined people. Year before last, I attended a reunion, and spent an afternoon with women I had last hung out with when we were 14 together. It was so easy. When you have talked with a good friend all afternoon and late into the night, month after month -- well, it's an incredible way to live asa young girl. I suppose that we were too independent of adult supervision, and too limited in our encounters with the opposite gender (not for want of trying, believe me), but we learned how to be with women. Don't misunderstand me -- I would not recommend that a twelve-year-old live away from home. But there are always compensations, and the company of strong women, whether twelve or 80 years old, is one of them.

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