Mystery of the monastère

They say that as long as you remain curious about life, you stay young. If that’s true, I’ve just lost a few decades and am back in my late teens—the age I was when I last saw Sister Margaret-Mary, who was then 13 and known as Meg. We probably never spoke but were familiar in the way children are in small towns, even if their lives never actually collide. So I am deeply curious about why fate has arranged that, all these years later, she is now in my life, and I in hers—and surprised beyond words to find myself, a lapsed Protestant with vaguely Buddhist tendencies, kneeling in prayer in the chapel of a Dominican convent.

I may not understand why, but at least I know how: it’s because, in 2003, I published a memoir called Belonging. Among its themes was the idea of home, the place we are from and the place we are now—in my case, the south of France where my husband and I have settled in the foothills of the Cévennes. Back in my hometown in Canada, my old chemistry teacher, now 96 and in a seniors’ residence, read Belonging with interest, for his daughter and I were childhood friends, and one of his regular visitors is Sister Margaret-Mary’s mother.

Together, they figured out that her daughter’s convent is only a few hours from where I live: he had my address, and thus it was passed to Sister Margaret-Mary who wrote a brief, inquiring note two years ago.

‘Do you remember me?’ she asked, and there was something so wistful about the question that I replied quickly in the affirmative—after checking an old school yearbook from 1961, located with other souvenirs in the attic. Yes, there she was, in the first grade of high school when I was in the last, and I could recall her parents and her family, and even the name of her church, Saint Michael’s. Her family was Catholic and, in our town with a population of 2000 where there were 13 churches and 12 of them Protestant, the congregation of Saint Michael’s was an exotic minority that merited scrutiny.

Catholics were a mystery for the rest of us who were not. We heard they spoke Latin and worshipped idols, and we knew for sure they committed the unpardonable sin of playing bingo in the church basement. We smelled the incense if the windows were open when we passed and it made us giddy with excitement and curiosity.

I remembered all this as I read that first letter, and when later she invited me to visit her convent, which has an attached hôtellerie to accommodate guests, I might have gone immediately had not ill health intervened—two rounds of neurosurgery that kept me homebound and in Sister Margaret-Mary’s prayers, for which I was, and am, grateful. Finally recovered in October last year, I decided to go to thank her for those prayers. I felt the long sweet tug of nostalgia, and also a sense of obligation: to her, to the old teacher for his kindly intervention, and to the small town that nourished us. But most of all I felt a duty to my own gods of chance and serendipity spinning their web around the planet. I may not adhere to any conventional doctrine, but I do believe this: being part of a delicate filigree of remembrance and reconnection makes growing old worth the effort.

And so, late in the northern autumn, I boarded a train that took me out of the Cévennes, passing by savagely beautiful landscape—rocky crags and cliffs, forests turning yellow and bronze, wild rivers foaming down mountainsides and through green valleys. When I arrived at my destination (an undistinguished and sombre provincial town), I asked directions to the monastère, hoisted my backpack and walked along in the brilliant midday sunshine, full of apprehension. I had booked a room for four days: what if I couldn’t stand it? Suddenly, the high walls of square-cut stone around the convent seemed forbidding, and the heavy iron gate opening into a cobblestone courtyard seemed too ready to close. What if we had nothing to say to each other?

She met me at the door to the hôtellerie, wearing a dark headdress and a cream-coloured ankle-length robe caught at the waist by a belt on which hung a long wooden rosary. Her face was shining with welcome. Laughing, kissing each other on the cheek three times in the fashion of the south, we began:

‘Sister … um, Meg?’

‘ Isabel!’

‘I’d have known you anywhere!’

‘You haven’t changed!’

There we were, late-middle-aged women far from home, and our delight in seeing each other was childlike in its exuberance. It was as if we were carrying with us the entire town from which we came; faces, voices, memories swirled around us as we held hands and looked into each other’s eyes with wonderment. What was this all about?

The Sister in charge of the hôtellerie was summoned and immediately took me up to a plain but comfortable bedroom with a window looking over a broad river and smoothly rolling hills outside the town. As suggested on the convent’s web site, I had brought my own sleeping bag and towel, quickly unpacked them and went down to the dining room for the noonday meal: green salad, mushroom omelette with potatoes, bread and cheese to follow, apple sauce for dessert, biscuits and coffee. On the table, a pitcher of water and a bottle of robust red wine. My first meal was solitary but from then on I always had company—women on retreat, visiting relatives, parish priests—and good conversation. Guests do not eat with nuns and, unless they’ve come to see a particular Sister, have little contact with the order. Sister Margaret-Mary and I would meet twice a day—for an hour or more in the late morning and again in the late afternoon—but the rest of the time I would be on my own. I could walk by the river, stroll through the town, or sit in the garden to meditate or to read.

Before leaving home, I’d decided to bring a book I was finding difficult, reasoning that with fewer distractions I would focus my attention more intently. The book, The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene, I’d purchased after reading His Dark Materials, a controversial trilogy for children in which the author, Philip Pullman, uses plot devices based on quantum physics: alternate realities, parallel worlds, infinitely expanding possibilities. I’d found myself curious about the workings of Pullman’s mind, and realised I had to go to the source of his ideas; hence, Greene’s book, which deals with current notions about space and time—what is called spacetime. With scant scientific background, I knew that even material written for ‘the general public’ would be hard going, and it was. Here were concepts I’d never encountered, and not only that, most of what Greene describes is invisible, reliant on mathematical substantiation instead of actual observation.

However, unable to refuse, I also accepted reading material in the hôtellerie: books and magazines tracing the lives of saints and martyrs, including Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, whose ornate reliquary of bones is constantly circling the globe, bringing miraculous cures to believers from the banlieues of Paris to the Seychelles. At first I found the saintly histories so quaint and strange—miracles are not part of the Presbyterian tradition from which I come and, to me, self-induced suffering in the name of love seems peculiar—that I only skimmed them as relief from Greene’s weighty concepts. Slowly, however, I saw astounding similarities between these two, seemingly polar, extremes. So much is unseen. So much must be taken on faith or in the belief that numbers do not lie. The world is full of mystery we seek to explain, and so much that happens is unexplainable. Discoveries in science can suddenly invalidate ideas we’ve held with conviction: no, the Earth is not the centre of the universe. One must keep the mind open to all possibilities.

Why was I there? Curiosity, no doubt, not so much about Sister Margaret-Mary (not until she’d spent several years working in France did she realise her vocation), as about the general state of ‘being a nun’, about which I knew nothing except from films and books. Some of that information was wildly attractive (Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story influenced a generation of Protestant girls to dream of being Catholic with high cheekbones) and some of it sad and shocking, such as Karen Armstrong’s poignant memoir Through the Narrow Gate. Never, until now, had I the opportunity to talk with anyone who had chosen—or been called—to celebrate God with her life.

Her life.

Every waking hour spent in the presence of other women in the service of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not to mention Mary, and the Saints. Every day spent in an unbreakable chain of prayer and worship, every day held firmly in the chains of faith. Year after year within the confines of the cloisters and the gardens, in a pattern so perfect it never needs altering because one size fits all: everything is done to the glory of God. After I’ve been there a while, I try this idea on to see how it feels—the simplicity and the clarity of purpose is so attractive, it slips over me as easily as silk, yet when I try to move I discover it is too tight, too constricting. But when I study my new friend’s serene demeanour, I understand that for her it has been the only choice.

In the chapel, where I go five times a day when offices are sung, a life-sized Christ hangs on a slender cross behind the altar, the long muscles in his arms stretched and pulled by the nails in his hands. Such suffering—and what appears to be glorification of torture in aid of mankind—when contemplated at the same moment as the exquisitely sung music of the liturgy, confuses me, and I withdraw into a neutral, agnostic state. Nevertheless, my heart soars as light floods through the stained glass windows as Vêpres is being sung, and I when I go to bed at nine after Vigiles, I am filled with a profound sense of well-being.

The Sisters of this Monastère have a reputation for their fine a cappella, but they do not sing for others, they sing for God. Over the course of my visit (even getting up in the pitch dark for Laudes at 6:15am), this realisation took hold as I sat at the back of the chapel, hearing their voices rise from the hidden choir stalls—like morning mist swirling up from a river—knowing that they could not see whether others were listening. This seemed so different from the churchy singing I recalled from my Protestant girlhood, urged by the choirmaster not only to enunciate clearly but also to smile and reach out to the congregation with the holy force of song. Our hymns and anthems were cast like nets to bring sinners in, chorus after chorus. Here, the nuns weren’t even trying, but they were gathering me in.

Still, questions plucked at my sleeve. How can my soul respond to this music at the same time as I continue to be critical of the Church itself: outmoded, even dangerous attitudes toward women, birth control, condoms, divorce, homosexuality? I look at my hands, folded in prayer over the bench in front of me, and am struck by my wedding ring—a band of precious gold. Everything related to the mining of gold—environmental pollution, inhumane working conditions, destruction of family—should lead to rejection of this substance and the harm it causes. Yet I look at the ring, and think ‘beautiful’. Yet I hear the liturgy and think ‘beautiful’.

In four days, what do I learn? Not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I know I must come back, and back again. First, Sister Margaret-Mary and I have begun a friendship neither of us could have predicted and I want to see where that will take us. Second, being in this place allows me to embrace the ambivalence I feel, posed between incredible religion and incomprehensible science. A Roman Catholic convent may not be where I belong for more than a few days, but in this setting my mind roams freely—seeking, finding, taking notes. 

Isabel Huggan is an award-winning Canadian writer who now lives in France. Her most recent book, Belonging, is available through Random House Australia.


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