The things inside.
December 14, 2015
Eight years ago today, I slipped on the ice, fell, and hit my head on a curb. I woke up in the arms of one of the nuns I was living with, who was crying and saying, “Sister, wake up! Wake up!” Nine days later, I left the monastery for good.
To help myself and others understand what happened, I wanted to write something about that day and the days following that led to my leaving a place where I had been happily living for five months. I wanted to write about how I didn’t remember much from those final days in a Carmelite monastery: did the cheese I made especially for the feast of St. John of the Cross turn out okay? Was the paranoia I experienced due to the concussion or my chronic ill health or the horrific seizure medication I was taking or the dark and icy Pennsylvania autumn? Or something more diabolical? (No, not that. I won’t flatter myself like that.)
I thought about it all day yesterday: how I would refer to G.K. Chesterton and tie all my experiences before and since the monastery into his oft-used quotation about the fatal metaphor of progress.* I would tell about how the self-destructive ’80s party girl I used to be went with me into the monastery and how I often felt underdressed in a multi-layered, long-skirted, long-sleeved, veiled postulant’s habit because I didn’t have on lipstick or earrings.
I would tell about how, after I was asked to leave the monastery, I brought that postulant with me back into the world where a plain face and long skirts became the norm, where I felt like it was crucial to pray six times a day with a complex book interspersed with lots of ribbons. I would tell how that practice fell away rather quickly because it kept reminding me of the rejection by the nuns I loved, my spiritual Father, and most of my friends. Praying reminded me of the seeping wound of failing at the one thing I thought was the most important: to give up my life to pray for the world.
Then I would tell about writing and how writing was healing me, but not writing about my monastery life itself, but just writing long, rambling fiction about soldiers with brain injuries and monks with superpowers and villains who time-travel. I would muse about how creating art is prayer, sometimes the only prayer we have left in us.
Last night, I started writing about that day I hit my head and the weeks following. I wrote page after page and it was clichéd and self-pitying and accusatory and ungrateful. It was too much, even eight years on. I read it and I thought, “I’m not over this. I’m never going to get over this. I’m never going to get over this wound of rejection, failure, abandonment, and shame. I’m always going to be forgiving and justifying and trying get some distance from this.”
I took the five smeared legal pad pages and fed them into the fire, watching each one wither and burn to smoky ash and rise like incense.
Then I curled up in front of the fireplace under the quilt my grandmother made for my mother, one cat on my hip, the other in my hair, and I prayed. Not any kind of prayer anybody would ever recognize as prayer. Not like they taught me to pray. Not like the prayer that echoes in monasteries all over the world, day in and day out, a prayer for the whole world. It was just a self-absorbed little prayer:
Thank you for my quilt and my little house and my little car and my little cats and my very beautiful little life.
Thank you for my job and my ability to spot other people’s typos and write a bit of code and for the friends I have made at work.
Thank you for the friends who stayed when nearly everyone walked away. And for my family who never understood but loved me anyway.
Thank you for that ’80s party girl and that postulant and all the women I have been. But especially for that little girl who grew up loving books because she gave me something to hang onto when it all fell apart.
Thank you because I’m still alive.
Thank you because I can still love someone and pray for them until it feels like my heart is bleeding.
But most of all, thank you, Lord, because I can still pray.”
“The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” ~ G. K. Chesterton