They say that as long as you remain curious, you stay young. If that’s true, I’ve lost several decades and am seventeen again—the age when last I saw Sister Margaret-Mary, who was then thirteen and known as Meg. We probably never spoke to each other but were familiar in the way children are in small towns, even if their lives never actually collide. So I am curious about why fate has arranged that she is now in my life and I in hers—and surprised beyond measure 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 I am here, but at least I know how it happened. My last book, Belonging, was passed around in my hometown and eventually fell into the hands of my grade twelve chemistry teacher, who lives in a seniors’ residence. One of his regular visitors is Sister Margaret-Mary’s mother, who borrowed the book and realized that the region where I have made my home in France is not far from the convent where her daughter has lived for more than twenty-five years. The old teacher gave my address to her and it was sent to Sister Margaret-Mary, who wrote a brief inquiring note.
“Do you remember me?” she asked, and there was something so wistful about this question that I replied immediately—after checking a yellowing school yearbook from 1961. There she was, in the first year of high school as I was in the last, and I could bring to mind her parents, her sister, and even the name of her church, Saint Michael’s, for her family was Roman Catholic. In our little town, which in those years had a population of perhaps two thousand souls, there were thirteen churches and twelve of them were Protestant; thus the congregation of Saint Michael’s was a minority that merited scrutiny—that is to say, suspicion and distrust. We were all white and Christian and, lacking visible outsiders such as those of Asian or African descent or anyone with Jewish or Muslim ancestry, we fell upon each other as if there were some terrible intrinsic need to eliminate a shadow part of ourselves.
In those years, Catholics were an intolerable mystery to the rest of us. We knew they spoke Latin and worshipped idols, we heard they could buy their way into heaven, and we had it on good authority that they committed the unpardonable sin of playing bingo in the church basement. Gambling and drink and utter depravity. Indeed, it was said that Father Dixon had been found drunk in his housekeeper’s bed. We loved these stories. In my immediate group of friends, there was one girl who was R.C. (as we said in those days), and we baited her endlessly with questions about why she thought the Virgin Mary was better than Jesus. We’d walk by her church and imagine heathen incense drifting out the open windows, and it would make us giddy with excitement and rage. But of course we were forbidden—by our parents on the one hand and by Father Dixon on the other—from entering the church and actually seeing for ourselves what went on. In some way, that suited us: it meant the exotic stayed exotic and dangerous.
I remembered all this as I read Sister Margaret-Mary’s first polite note, and when she later invited me to visit her convent, which has an adjoining hôtellerie to accommodate guests, I might have gone sooner had not ill health intervened. Two rounds of neurosurgery and a pulmonary embolism kept me homebound for a couple of years and—as she told me in our by then frequent correspondence—in the constant prayers of the convent, for which I was then, and am now, grateful, for I reckon prayer never hurt anybody.
Finally recovered, I decided I must go to see Sister Margaret-Mary. 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 had nourished us. But most of all I felt a duty to my own gods of chance and serendipity who exact tribute from time to time. I may not adhere to any conventional doctrine, but I do believe this: being part of the delicate filigree of remembrance and reconnection gives meaning to our lives.
And so, late in the autumn two years ago, I boarded a train that took me north from Alès through the Cévennes, passing through wildly beautiful landscape—granite crags and cliffs, forests turning yellow and bronze, clear rivers foaming down mountainsides and deep into green valleys. More dramatic than Muskoka, less savage than the Rockies, the scene outside the train window was both familiar and surprising. 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 the pleasure of adventure and at the same time quavery with 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 gate opening into a cobblestone courtyard seemed all too ready to close. What if Sister Margaret-Mary and I had nothing to say?
She met me at the door of the hostel, wearing a dark headdress and a cream-coloured, ankle-length robe caught at the waist by a belt on which hung a long rosary of wooden beads. Her face was shining with welcome. Kissing each other on the cheek three times in the fashion of the south, we began to speak in both English and French. For Sister Margaret-Mary, the chance to converse in her own tongue was such unfamiliar pleasure, she kept laughing and soon we were both convulsed, remembering our high-school French teacher. Two 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, wondering. What was all this about?
The sister in charge of guests was summoned and took me to a plain but comfortable bedroom with a window looking over a broad river and smoothly sculpted hills outside the town. Below me I could see the courtyard and a curve of tired roses falling along the wall. As suggested on the convent’s website, I had brought my own sleeping bag and towel and, having unpacked them, hurried down to the dining room for the noonday meal: green salad, mushroom omelette with potatoes, cheese to follow, and applesauce for dessert with biscuits and coffee. On the table, a basket of bread, a pitcher of water, and a bottle of robust local wine.
My first meal was solitary, but from then on I had company—women on retreat, relatives visiting sisters or daughters, parish priests who’d come to perform the daily Eucharist—and good conversation, albeit in French. Guests never eat with nuns and, unless they’ve come to see a particular sister, have little contact with the order. Anyone seeking a few days of peace and quiet can stay without much cost, but in fact it’s worth a fortune, this alternative to ordinary life, this absolute removal from one’s scattered quotidian obligations.
Sister Margaret-Mary and I met twice a day and spent those hours remembering common friends and teachers, looking at old photos, telling each other about our lives. One day we had tea with another sister around our age—some in the convent are positively ancient and others are in their thirties—and I ventured to ask how they’d become nuns. They were swept by gales of laughter when I asked if they’d had to pass exams to join the order. No, no, they said, it’s entirely a matter of vocation and whether one is suited to community life. Belief, and willing desire.
These sisters run a print shop as a source of income—other convents of a similar nature produce biscuits, church linens, herbal remedies—but there is much other work to maintain their self-sufficiency. The vegetable gardens and orchards, the kitchens, the nursing of the ill and elderly sisters; these tasks are divided and rotated over the years in a way of life that is centuries old.
Apart from my visits with Sister Margaret-Mary, I was on my own. I walked by the river, strolled through the town and stopped in a café, and sat in the garden under a bower to read and to meditate in my own peculiar fashion. Before leaving home, I’d decided to bring a book I was finding difficult, reasoning that with fewer distractions I would focus more intently. The book—The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene—I’d purchased after reading His Dark Materials, a clever fantasy trilogy for children by Oxford scholar Philip Pullman. The books have been controversial because of Pullman’s negative portrayal of religion, but my interest lay not in that but in his plot devices based on quantum physics—alternate realities, parallel worlds, and infinitely expanding possibilities.
I was sufficiently curious about the workings of Pullman’s mind that I decided to go to the source of his ideas; hence, Greene’s book, which deals with current notions of space and time—spacetime. With scant mathematical background, I suspected that even material written for a popular audience would be hard going, but I intended to make the effort. At the same time, however, unable to politely refuse, I accepted reading materials from Sister Margaret-Mary: books and magazines tracing the lives of saints and martyrs, including La Vie de Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, whose ornate reliquary of bones is constantly circling the globe, bringing miraculous cures to believers from the suburbs of Paris to the Seychelles. I found the saintly histories quaint and strange—miracles are not much part of the Presbyterian tradition from which I come, and self-induced suffering in the name of love seemed peculiar. Not to say that in my day I haven’t walked in the rain weeping over a broken heart. At first, I only skimmed these books as relief from Greene’s difficult abstract proofs, but slowly I began to see similarities between these ostensibly polar extremes.
So much is unseen. So much must be taken on faith or, for example, in the belief that numbers hold the mystery of the universe in their various arrangements. The world is full of wonders 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. String theory is in, string theory is out. One must keep the mind open to all eventualities or else one might end up Galileo on the wrong side of the Pope.
Why in heaven’s name was I there? Curiosity, no doubt, which has often led me down the garden path and into a bog. Curious not so much about Meg herself, but about the general state of “being a nun”—about which I knew nothing except from films and books. Some of that information was exceedingly attractive (Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story influenced my generation of Protestant girls to dream of being Catholics with high cheekbones) and some of it was 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 been called to celebrate God with 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 by the links of faith.
Year after year after year within the confines of the cloisters and the walled garden, in a pattern so perfect it never needs altering because one size fits all. After I’d been there a while I tried this idea on to see how it felt—the simplicity and the clarity of purpose was so sweetly attractive, it slipped over me as easily as silk . . . yet when I tried to move I discovered it was too tight, too constricting. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe. But when I studied my new friend’s face, in her serene demeanour I understood that this choice had been an inevitable outcome for her.
In the chapel, where I went five times a day when offices were sung (beginning with Laudes in the pitch-dark before dawn), a life-sized Christ hangs on a slender cross behind the altar, the long muscles of his arms stretched and pulled by the nails in his hands. Such awful pain—and what appears to be glorification of torture in aid of mankind—when contemplated at the same time as the exquisite music of the liturgy, confused me, and I instinctively withdrew into my usual neutral, agnostic state.
Nevertheless, as light flooded through the stained-glass windows when late-afternoon Vêpres was sung, I felt such happiness, whether it was aesthetic or spiritual in origin I did not care. Going to bed at nine after candlelit Vigiles, I was filled nightly with a profound sense of well-being and always fell into a deep sleep. Still, I could not stop asking myself questions. What is it I am responding to? Repetitious music that induces hypnotic bliss? The learned activity of worship into which one is drawn by voices joined in song? My poor French not permitting me to understand the words being sung, my reactions were visceral, not cerebral. I contemplated this idea, wondering if there is a basic human need to express gratitude, even involuntarily.
The sisters of this convent 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, this realization 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 they could not see whether anyone was 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 the sinners in, chorus after chorus.
Here, the nuns weren’t even trying, but they were gathering me in.
Still, questions. How can my spirit respond to this music at the same time as I continue to be critical of the Church and all it represents: outmoded and dangerous attitudes toward women, birth control, condoms, homosexuality, divorce? How am I able to dissociate the harm done by this current Pope and his preachings from these sisters and their gentle, orderly life? I see my hands, folded in prayer over the bench ahead, and am struck by my wedding ring—a band of precious gold. Only a symbol, but to me it represents so much that is positive about attachment and commitment. Nevertheless, everything related to the mining of gold—pollution of earth and water, inhumane working conditions, destruction of the family unit—leads me to reject this substance and the social, political, and environmental deterioration it causes. But if I look at the ring before critical thought intervenes, I find it beautiful; and even without wanting to, I find the plainsong beautiful too.
In those first four days, what did I learn? Not enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I knew I’d have to return—as I have done three times. Sister Margaret-Mary and I have begun a friendship neither of us could have predicted, for we live in truly different spheres. During that first visit, I worked hard to listen without prejudice while she spoke of miracles attributed to a saint associated with the convent. Could I really credit that a chain used by a local girl centuries ago might induce pregnancy today? I took the relaxed teenage stance and let it ride: “Whatever,” I murmured to myself. “Whatever.”
Last year, when I went in springtime and found the grounds around the hostel in need of upkeep, I volunteered to do some weeding and worked for two days, clearing the gravel paths, cutting away underbrush, plucking out thistles and grasses from the flower beds. As if I were editing, word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, I dug and swept and tied back, trying to make the garden as perfect as polished prose. How peculiar, I thought, that my misgivings do not prevent me from enjoyment of this place founded in the name of beliefs I do not hold: perhaps my doubts are like the weeds I’ve just thrown on the compost pile. Maybe all I really care about is beauty. The day I left, the prioress thanked me for my labours, assuring me that I would always be welcome. Probably she sees me for what I am but accepts me: a writer looking for material, an ambivalent, secular soul who has found a quiet place where she can let her mind roam—curious, and taking notes.
Isabel Huggan, author of Belonging: Home Away from Home, continues to make her home in the south of France, where she now runs the Mas Blanc Writers’ Retreat.