Cloister; verb: Seclude or shut up in or as if in a convent or monastery.
(From the Oxford Dictionary on-line).
I am reading the books on my shelves, and books that have come to me by magic (like the fantastic magic of a friend sending me a book), and all right, yes, books that I have ordered during this strange time when both book shop and library are shuttered. I pile about ten books on the old shelf in the dining room, and then I read them in the order they’re stacked.
I generally stack them by size, but sometimes they just happen to fall together in a kind of theme-based order. This month, for instance, I read Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman and Shameless by Nadia Bolz Weber, and now I am about halfway through In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.
That’s three books about women and religion.
Feldman, who now lives in Germany, writes about growing up in, and escaping from, a strict Hasidic sect in Brooklyn. (My son, Jim, told me about a great Netflix series based on the book; the watching led to the reading.)
Bolz Weber, whom the BBC describes as “…a foul-mouthed tattoo-loving Lutheran pastor who was once a Pagan, an alcoholic and a stand-up comedian,” writes about how religion can shape…and warp…a person’s sexuality and thus, their sense of themselves.
Godden, who died in 1998 at the age of 91, is an English novelist who wrote—if my math is on target—22 novels for adults. In This House of Brede is one of those novels; it deals with Philippa, a savvy, 42-year-old, successful woman in the 1960’s. She is compelled to chuck all of her success and enter a cloistered convent. So Godden’s writing has a woman fleeing TO a house of religion, which is a dramatic switch from the first two authors’ perspectives.
I cheered Feldman on when she escaped from her repressive childhood culture.
I fist-bumped Bolz Weber (“Right on, sister!”) when she explained that some religions despise sexuality because they see it as a competitor, another doorway to the Spirit.
But the Godden book…well, that brought back memories from my very Catholic childhood.
At St. Joseph School in 1961, we had a beautiful young nun for our first-grade teacher. I can’t remember her name, but her influence was profound. She taught us to pray for Vocations, for more boys and girls to enter Holy Orders. And many of us girls looked at Sister, regal, fragile, and dignified in her black robe, her wimple-d face glowing with a love of something bigger and greater, and we decided that, surely, we were among the called.
And that year I read a first biography of The Little Flower, St. Theresa of Lisieux. St. Theresa entered the Carmelite convent at (I think) age 14. She died before she was thirty. She created beauty from humility and sacrifice, eagerly taking on the work of infirm sisters, bearing cruelty from those who resented her selfless ways, and spending long hours in prayer for all those in need. After she died, she promised to send roses from heaven to those who prayed to her. Miracle after miracle followed.
A cloistered nun! A quiet life devoted to God and books! An influence from the Great Beyond!
I knew that the Carmelite way was the life for me. (Their name even tasted good, almost like caramels, one of my ten favorite candies.)
I wrote to the nearest Carmelite nuns I could find; I think they were in New York City. (I wonder, now, how I found their address, with no Google to type key words into. Did the nuns at my Catholic school provide it? Did I have access to a ‘Nuns of America’ reference book, where I looked under ‘C’ for Cloistered Carmelites?)
In a month or two, I got back a kind, handwritten note, telling me to pray for discernment and not to jump to any life decisions until I got a little older. But they enclosed some brochures studded with beautiful pictures of a gentle, reverent, secluded way of living.
I would be perfect at that cloistered life, I thought; I could read to my heart’s content, and no crabby person would ever say, “Get off your lard butt and GO OUTSIDE!” I had a kind of vision of a special reading nook in a brick alcove, cushioned and ample, where I would hole up with a stack of books, waving speechlessly to the other nuns as they walked, their brown gowns whispering but themselves silent, by.
I forgot that I loved being the boss of things, that I loved to eat, that I loved taking trips—on my bike across town or in the family car on rare excursions. Humility, sacrifice, seclusion…it all sounded grand.
I tucked those brochures away. I tucked the cloister dreams away with them.
In years to come, I would write to the New York Yankees, to the Beatles, to wonderful colleges, to famous authors. Often I received amazing replies. And always my dreams of what I might be When I Grew Up altered and morphed: a librarian! The first female Beatle! An actor! An editor! A person on the TV news!
Those visions moved me far, far away from my dreams of a holy cloistered community.
Many years later, having discovered a love of clothes and boys and a fast-paced life, I came across the Carmelite brochures. I sat down and I looked them through. I laughed and put them in the recycling.
A cloister? I said. I don’t think so.
And yet. Here we are, in a cloister in a kind of a way.
In Rumer Godden’s book, when the nuns just can’t stand being controlled or compelled for one minute longer, they escape, during their precious free time, outside. They walk up and down and up and down, filling their lungs with outdoor air, walking off the stress of being enclosed with the same few people, day after day.
Now, I am not saying that the people I am enclosed with are in any way annoying (those lovely boyos), but I get the magic of the walks. And we walk every day, too. I get up and take my early, long, walk, pushing the button on the coffee maker as I walk out the door, wending my way through the back roads to the Avenue, striding up to where the sidewalk ends and taking the long way ‘round, then coming home to coffee and contemplation.
Later, we all walk together at the college or the fitness trail, doing one full circuit, getting away from work at home minutiae.
A walk is such a simple thing but, as the nuns found, it brings calm and health and perspective.
Phillipa, the aging novice nun in Godden’s book, settles into the life, but she often thinks, “If only I could have a hot bath! If only I could have a cigarette!” (Those of course, were the days before we knew the connection: cigarette=lung cancer risk.)
I have my hot baths, and I no longer miss the smoky tang of a cigarette, but I understand what she means. When things are not available, they loom large.
So I’ll be doing the dishes, say, and an almost palpable image will come to me of being in Vidler’s Five and Dime, in East Aurora, New York. I’ll long to mooch through the organized jumble of that vintage store, discovering toys and kitchenware and candy and chewing gum that were everyday staples of life in the 1960’s or ‘70’s, things that are exotic oddities now. I’ll think of brushing past,with no thought to social distancing, a young mom jiggling a baby, or of smiling at an older fella waiting patiently, hat in hand, for his shopping wife.
We could, I’ll think longingly, go to that little snack bar nearby, the place where they had what might have been the best beef on ‘weck sandwiches in the whole wide world.
And then we could go to East Aurora’s Roycroft campus, where the Arts and Crafts movement thrived and grew, starting in 1895 or thereabouts.
We could explore, I think, and then I realize that exploration is not going to happen any time soon.
I’m okay with that; we need to be careful and we need to be safe, and we can learn to enjoy the nooks and the crannies and the wonders of home.
But oh, I miss our little trips. No traveling from the cloister.
And, in Phillipa’s cloister, everyday errands are plotted: the trip to the post office, the ride to the grocery store. There is no room for spontaneity in a cloistered life…not in Phillipa’s House of Brede, and not, really, in COVID’s 2020.
Now we shop for weeks at a time; we schedule our grocery pickup three days hence; we accept that what we’ve forgotten to buy will be missed until the next expedition, four weeks away.
We buy absolutely necessary things online…books and belts and batteries. We leave the boxes, when they arrive, outside to be sure they’re not infected.
Life in the COVID cloister is much more scripted than life before; we have to create little niches for spontaneity in the midst of a structured everyday life.
And there are things, at home, that have to be done. There is the outside work we do at home; there are the everyday jobs of keeping a home comfortable and livable. There are meals to plan and fix and cookies to bake.
There are common times, when the three of us gathered here gather together for food and for Netflix.
There is boredom and there is irritation, but thankfully, not so much.
I realize, now more than ever, that the cloistered life is not a natural life for me, but there’s one good thing: there’s time to read. The reading chair sits in for that bricked in alcove, and no somber sisters rustle by. I put my feet up on the ottoman and pull the fuzzy gold blanket over my toes, and I travel, vicariously, to Berlin and to Denver, Colorado, to the wild back country of England, or to a fantasy world that exists only in an imagination and a book. Feet planted, I travel, and I hope my mind expands.
It’s not a life I would choose, this COVID cloister, but it’s one that is needed and one that has its very definite benefits. It is, for now, a good life.
And somewhere, I bet, my first grade teacher is smiling a big, ironic smile.