Dear “Amandas,” which is to say, “Dear ones who ought to be loved:”
As the headline reads, today’s subject is how I left a convent. Out of a convent, and out of the process of studying to become a Roman Catholic religious sister.
I don’t just mean walking out of a house and onto the porch and kissing the woman I would eventually marry.
I don’t just mean packing up my books, my little altar with its cards and statues, my sheet music, and my CDs and their stereo.
I don’t even just mean putting those worldly possessions into the backs of two Honda Civics.
Rather than just these things, this letter is about how I came to leave a house I shared with four other women in Our Lady of the Alleghenies convent, one of the eastern “outposts” of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden. Baden, that little suburb west of Pittsburgh, where the Motherhouse is by far the largest building.
Some of you are still reeling from learning that I ever landed in a convent to begin with, but that’s a story for another day. And some of you want every detail of how I ended up there, especially since I never gave being a witch or a priestess. Alas, alack, that too is a story for another day.
Today is for a Sister of St. Joseph inadvertently leaving me absolutely convinced that I needed to leave her own community. That no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to reconcile the beauty of Catholicism with its sins, its blessings (and progressive religious sisters are certainly among them) and its rejection of sexuality, the leadership of woman, and ultimately, my own Paganism.
I was unsettled for months. My heart was not peaceful. (Those of you who have studied with me know that I learned from these very sisters that peace is the sign of a well-discerned decision.)
Six months into at Our Lady of the Alleghenies, I knew my heart was anything but peaceful. It would be another four months before I left, but it was the deep of winter when my heart’s unease began to make itself unavoidable.
That feeling rattled my bones when Sr. Mary Meyers gave me a cd by David Whyte called, The Poetry of Self-Compassion. Just his reading of Fleur Adcock’s line, “Because happy is how I look,” and his hilarious rendition of Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, “Wild Geese” are worth the price of admission.
It was neither of these things that captured my imagination, however. It was his reminder that we must not be “full moon people,” those who insist on showing only our happy, “chronically put together” faces. (Thank you, dear anonymous comrade for that expression.) On the contrary, we must dare to know and share the other parts of ourselves—our shadows, our darknesses, the depth of our lives.
After l had listened, rapt, to The Poetry of Self-Compassion while driving in a blinding snowstorm (perhaps not the safest combination, now I think on it), Sr. Mary recommended a book of Whyte’s, called The House of Belonging. I was so in love with his Welsh voice, his own poems, and the way he treated other poets’ work with such care and respect, that I would have paid good money for a scrap of paper with one of his lines on it. As it was, the book cost me less than $20.
In The House of Belonging, there is a poem called, “Sweet Darkness.” Many of you know how important this poem is to me. You just have not known the story of how I came to read it.
It took me months to read the book. It took me months after the snowbound days that followed that frightening drive. Months, even, after I received it. Months after I remembered having bought it.
It took me a good while to get to it.
In any event, I did finally read the thing, and I read it like a woman falling onto the edge of an oasis after long, thirsty, dust-filled days.
I read it at the top of one of the Allegheny mountains in the convent where I lived, and having gotten to a particular poem, I threw the book across the room in frustration. Frustration, and knowing that this poem was right, right and good, and right on for me.
“Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.”
Ah. There it was, in black and white.
Was it time, as he wrote, to go into the dark?
And what was this darkness calling me?
I decided that I needed a special time for that darkness calling me toward peace.
I decided as though I were Inanna, hung on the wall in her sister’s Underworld…
I decided as though I were Jesus, killed as a criminal of the state and wrapped lovingly with spices in a tomb…
I decided as though I were the moon, turning Her face away every month…
I decided that I needed three days and three nights to consider my intentions and my plan.
So I spent three days and three nights largely in silence.
I went on walks at night.
I looked at stars and places between the stars.
I looked at the moon, and She was kind of enough to show me part of Her bright face, while my own heart was turned inward, toward its own darkness.
You think you know the end of this story, the part where I came out of the darkness into understanding.
I left the convent. I fell deeply in love. I got married.
But the end of the story is really a question: Is it time for you to go into the dark?
The world, as Mary Oliver writes in that famous poem, “offers itself to your imagination.” In the Northern Hemisphere, the world offers the darkest time of the year.
Do the trees, black shadows at the early dusk, offer themselves? Does the chilling wind? Do the winter rains or the snows? Does your own heart long for peace, and stillness?
Does the dark itself offer itself to your imagination? Is it time to go into, not just endure, the dark?
If you find these questions beckon you toward your own innermost self, I invite you to explore them further with me this December 14th. That Saturday will be our fifth annual online retreat, Going into the Dark.
I’ll not include all the details here, but I invite you into the dark with some comrades. Click the link. See what you find. And perhaps join us.
Blessings on your days and on your nights.
PS – If you have questions about Going into the Dark, simply reply to this email, and I’ll be more than happy to answer them. More than happy to hear what your heart has to say.