In 1985 a twenty-two-year-old woman, whose real name I would never know, gave herself completely over to the Catholic Church as a cloistered nun. During the profession and veiling ceremony, the Mother Superior cut off a lock of her hair to signify all she was giving up, and then covered her head with the white veil of a Novice. She became Sister Gemma Maria. This ceremony was a slow rhythm of renunciations, a leaving of one world and entering another.
I attended Catholic school until college, and for a time most of the nuns still wore a religious habit and so they stood out. It was at a time when I felt alone, even in a group of people. When I reached the eighth grade, I cried hysterically every morning when I was dropped off at school. I knew I was too old to be doing this, but I couldn’t stop myself. The boys relentlessly made fun of my voice because I spoke in a sing song, a kind of monotone drawl. I could not imagine an end to it because I could not imagine ever changing my voice. While the other girls talked about dates and kissing and boys, I felt like my body was selling me out.
I slipped into the mode of an observer. I spent time watching people, the nuns included, and became fixated on the different ways our lives could play out. So, I started to write letters—to a solider, to a woman studying primates, to a boy in Sri-Lanka, and to a cloistered nun. I searched for myself in their choices, hoping for some blueprint so I could find my own way. In my first letter to Sr. Gemma, I told her about my own faith journey being raised Catholic and asked about the cloistered life and why she chose that path. I asked the same questions I asked all the people I wrote—What is your life like? What matters? What do you believe and why?
Some would call the cloister the most extreme choice a woman in the Catholic Church can make. Cloistered nuns wear the traditional habit and rarely, if ever, leave the convent walls. In one of Sister Gemma’s first letters, she sent a copy of the convent newsletter. In it there was a picture of one of the nuns meeting her baby niece for the first time. The picture showed exactly what was expected from this kind of meeting—pure joy and smiles—except the nun was holding her niece through a grate of iron bars. The nuns’ vows were radical in their indifference to what the world values. They created entirely new selves, leaving the world behind. There was something alluring about it, a rebirth, taking a set of vows and living them out regardless of what others may think.
Before the convent Sister Gemma was a college student and a teacher. I often received letters from her that were ten pages long but rarely did details of her former life sneak through. Once she wrote about longing to be eighteen again and dancing out in the cold of Washington. She allowed herself to remember the ferry boats and seagulls. She never spoke about physical love, only a spiritual kind. She wrote often that she knew much of the world saw her choice as a waste and that her parents and friends were not supportive. The most she spoke about her body was when she told me she suffered from epilepsy. I imagined the seizures came when they wanted, her body breaking faith with her.
I began to see the stories Sister Gemma told in her letters as her way of reinventing herself and breaking free from the identity the world had assigned her. Her identity was one of obedience but also one of reclaiming her womanhood. She moved beyond how others defined her femininity and her faith. Her letters, the sureness of her beliefs and her strength, helped me find my own. It made me feel safe to have someone who remembered and spoke my name in prayer. There was a quiet fierceness in how she defended her choice and her beliefs. I had become conditioned to accept how people saw me, but what I began to learn through our letters was that I didn’t have to. There would always be constraints, but what mattered was how you worked within them. I made my own set of vows and I chose to live by them.
Sister Gemma was so joyful and positive in her letters it was easy to think her decision to join the convent was a straightforward one. That it was a decision that had never been full of doubt or despair or longing for something else. Years later, when I read her letters again and I came across the picture of the nun holding her niece through the cloister grate I realized that at times Sr. Gemma must have struggled to define her path as much as me. Even though she never outright expressed any discontent or doubts, I noticed the times she must have felt these things—when she mentioned her former life and when she mentioned her family and friends and their difficulty accepting her choice.
And simply because we are all human beings, and at times there must be a difficulty, spoken or not, in keeping spiritual watch over a world in which she never participated, it must have been hard at times to hold on so surely to intangible things. In all my letters and conversations with people, no matter what their path or how strong they felt, I did not meet anyone who was so sure they never, in dark or quiet moments, turned things over in their minds and asked, “what if?” or worried they might have gotten it wrong. What I had to come to accept was that coupled with the sureness of beliefs there was always some doubt and questioning that may never entirely fade, but this didn’t mean a person was on the wrong path.
Sr. Gemma and I would eventually lose touch because it was easy for me, being in the world, to be swallowed up by it. But I would think of her often and hope she still held my name in her heart, in the earliest of morning prayers, before the world was awake. Once, years after we lost touch, I looked on the Internet for Sister Gemma’s order and found they now had a Facebook page. Despite their vow of enclosure, they needed to attract new vocations and solicit donations in exchange for things like prayers, handmade religious gifts, mass cards.
I would have wanted to tell her that I had made some close, true friends, that I found a husband who was the right kind of man, that I was bringing a baby boy into the world. Even though everything was not always right and I still had doubts and worry, they didn’t eat at me like they once did. I had found my way to my true self with a quiet fierceness and love, like she did. But, I preferred to remain grateful in my heart and hope she somehow knew that in moments when I was unsure, I remembered that I have my own voice, the one she helped me find and the one we both used to make our way in the world as women.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, Fourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.
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