The monks, cloistered in their monastery, always seemed to us a kind of minor,
unassuming, if inevitable evil.
We’d climb the trees outside their walled enclosure and, after awhile, they’d see us there and wave us off, a little agitated — not exactly angry, but uncivil.
Each time our tenth grade social studies teacher turned the conversation toward
in school, I’d get that sinking feeling in my stomach,
seeing her view it with such obvious unquestioning approval — acts of charity it’s true, but ones designed
with what seemed to have been a largely proselytizing end in mind.
Families that could ill-afford it in those days still paid their tithes,
attended church, and got on with their lives.
Unlike the monks we heard about in school, sent halfway round the globe to minister
to ‘heathens’ in foreign parts,
and, of necessity, living a more ordinary life, those from the nearby monastery we
seldom saw: they lived apart,
practising a contemplative life made possible by the work of others. Closer to
everyday, the nuns,
seen bustling, mostly, to or from the local Catholic school, but on occasion
also in the streets. Wed to the Church for life, in what was said to be a kind of
ecstasy, but when
caught unawares — face passing by, reflected briefly in a shop-front window, say —
betraying a demeanour strangely drained of intimacy, almost like porcelain,
beneath which seemed to smoulder on, a not-quite-totally-extinguished outrage at the
might flare up unpredictably, at any time, the sense of unanticipatable foreboding
in the yardstick across the knuckles of the ten-year-old
deemed insufficiently attentive in religion class, the girl found with the hem turned
up to just above her knees, sent off to stand for hours in the cold
of the entrance vestibule in mid-December, shivering in her short-sleeved cotton
I once talked briefly to the great aunt of a friend, at a party at his brother’s house.
One of his mother’s father’s sisters, who’d been, as an unruly teenager, and eldest
daughter of a devout Irish Catholic family,
sent off to become a nun, known, I’d been told before, as ‘Mad Anne’ in the family.
Though this was a gathering of the extended clan, she was not among those
I’d expected I might meet. Hers was a cloistered order, and the woman I’d been
talking to was dressed in ordinary clothes.
It was only later that I found out who she was, and that, not long before, then
she’d been turned out, said to be too difficult to deal with in that ever-shrinking,
in the end
given a funeral none of her former sisters received dispensation to attend,
though one presided over by a bishop, to preserve form or, perhaps, placate the family.
Come back to that still-smallish city
on the plains, I’m told
the monastery’s gone, the convent sold,
and what few nuns remained, consolidated with their sisters
from around the province.
Looking up to the north hill, I see the tall south-facing
convent wall on which the great cross hung still standing,
though the cross itself is gone. Outlined in neon, it used to float above the river there,
lit up at night.
It filled me with unease. Thinking again of those old days, of Mad Anne’s plight,
I wonder, where does it come from in me?
This surge of memory, this total lack of sympathy?
Photograph © Jon-Eric Melsæter