When I speak of darkness, I am referring to a lack of knowing. It is a lack of knowing that includes everything you do not know or else that you have forgotten, whatever is altogether dark for you because you do not see it with your spiritual eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but rather a cloud of unknowing that is between you and your God.
– Anonymous English monk, 14th century
A scream tore through the novitiate. Everyone in the formation house stirred but no one dared leave her cell to check.
Curfew started at 9pm and over the years, everyone learned the awful price of breaking it. A postulant who tiptoed to the bathroom for a shower, a novice who groped for a toothache tablet in the dispensary, an insomniac who lighted a tiny candle in the storeroom to read the Confessions of St Augustine – all faced the hostility of their mistress first thing in the morning.
The formation house was a four-storey building in the heart of an affluent neighborhood. A bungalow stood in a huge compound where the Mother General, her secretary and the Vocation Directress lived. A few meters away was an apartment occupied by a former Mother General and two elderly housekeepers who groomed her numerous poodles. There were quarters at the back for the religious community’s faithful cooks, cleaners, laundrywomen, drivers, security guards, dressmakers and gardeners.
A collection of orchids from the nuns’ travels greeted visitors who ventured into the garden.
The front gate opened on to a glass-domed chapel, named after one of the Dominican Order’s canonized members. The chapel, built in fine wood and marble, was kept closed save for the early morning Mass. Its choir had French windows through which the well-trimmed lawn of the convent could be viewed.
When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place – a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature.
– Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Lisa fumbled for her alarm clock and drew the curtain to let a shaft of light break through. It was 4:45am but the bell had not sounded. It was the sound of faucets on full blast that roused her.
Giddily, she washed her face, put on her grey uniform and was about to head for the dark stairway when she remembered something. She went back to her room to put on the thick, brown stockings. She paused briefly before the full-length mirror along the hallway before running down the stairs, almost stumbling on the other postulants who were buttoning up their blouses.
At exactly 5am, the whole religious community started their ardent chanting. Lisa found the pitch too high so she shifted to a lower note, immediately drawing attention to herself. She decided to lip-sync in order not to offend anyone.
When they sat down for meditation, Nelly went in front, wringing her hands.
“I’m sorry, sisters,” she said. “I wasn’t able to sound the bell. I overslept.”
Sister Vina, the mistress of the postulants, looked unappeased. In the meantime, more nuns were streaming in, late for their morning prayers.
Half an hour later, seeing Father Valdez stride towards the entrance, Lisa rushed to the sacristy and turned on some switches. As she headed back to her seat, she saw the cloister ablaze with light, the chandeliers and fluorescent lamps assaulting their eyes. Even the old nuns who could not be woken by the bell during Consecration were now blinking, wondering what had hit their senses.
In panic, Lisa clicked off some switches before checking on the community again. She popped her head from the sacristy only to find the cloister in pitch darkness. The priest stopped dead in his tracks, unable to proceed to the altar.
Only the light at the choir was on and it seemed to be taunting her. She caught a glimpse of their mistress who had daggers in her eyes. Before she could move further, Nelly was expertly taking over.
Then the unthinkable happened. Lisa unwittingly started a fire right behind the altar when the cardboard she used to light the candles refused to be snuffed out. Thankfully, all the senior novices came to her aid, stomping the fire with their worn-out shoes. She saw their mistress massaging her forehead.
I live my life in growing orbits, which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.
– Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
There were nine postulants that year. Five of them were from the south while four were from Luzon. After Mass, they would stroll around in small groups or water the orchids in the garden.
On weekends, they could frolic in the community swimming pool the whole morning. On weekdays, they would take breakfast after the early morning exercises – mostly calisthenics while they sang “Father Abraham had seven children, seven children had Father Abraham” – do their chores, then attend their Psychology class in the convent as well as church history at a Dominican school in San Juan.
Often, on their way to the refectory, the postulants would pass by Sister Cleofe, the blind, overweight nun who was assigned to answer phone calls on the second floor. If her ears were not glued to her favorite program about an old man and his rooster, she was belting out spiritual songs.
They would bump into Sister Anselma, a wrinkled composer who brushed off their greetings with a smirk and outright criticism: “You have a choir practice tonight, tell that to the novices. My, what awful voices you have! All off-key!”
Their day was usually saved by Sister Consuelo, a diabetic nun who waddled like a penguin.
“Sssssshhhh…” she would call them from the rampart. “I have a bottle of fresh milk for you in my room. Don’t tell the novices about it because I’m not giving them any today.”
“I’ll be there to collect it,” Lyn said eagerly. “Perhaps I can also bring a broom. I noticed a colony of ants camping in your cell.”
The postulants from the south roared with laughter. Nelly giggled. It was never happy at home, she confided to Lisa. In their ancestral house, Nelly and her mother argued about almost everything.
Lisa remained passive over the exchange of banter. She never seemed to get amused by childish talk.
Nelly recalled the first time she saw Lisa. She alighted from a sleek car driven by her grim-faced father and was greeted by the nuns from the Generalate. She wore a mustard velvet dress that contrasted with her long, black hair. As soon as she put down her suitcase, she was asked to join the other postulants in cleaning the newly renovated conference room. Afterwards she fell ill and was unable to show up for morning prayers.
Their mistress went up the formation house to check on Lisa, roughly pulling the white curtain that served as the door of everyone’s room. Sister Vina found Lisa lying in a fetal position.
“You should have informed us that you were indisposed to go down for Matins.’’ The mistress was curt and hostile.
“I was too weak to get up, sister,” came the feeble reply.
“You should have told someone!” Sister Vina insisted. “Did you know that there was once a nun whose body was found rotting in her cell? She kept things to herself so nobody knew she was dying.”
Nelly overheard the conversation and marveled at Lisa’s meekness, how she put up with all the sarcasm heaped on her. Nelly and the rest did not mind it for they were used to far worse things at home. This was their advantage over Lisa.
It was a grueling life. They had become so engrossed with their daily schedule that they lost track of time. After night prayers, they were allowed half an hour to tidy up or wash their uniform and then it would be lights off. Most of them fell asleep as soon as their backs touched their beds.
Language has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.
-Paul Tillich (1886-1965)
One year passed so quickly. A month before their clothing ceremony, the day they would be accepted to the novitiate, all the postulants except Lisa were told to go to the dressmaker’s shop. Nobody said a word about it but the eight seemed to have placed a wall around them and Lisa felt like an outsider. They cropped their hair in anticipation of wearing the veil; Lisa let her hair grow longer. Then a week before the event, she was asked to go to the Generalate.
Mother Roberta let Lisa sit for some uncomfortable minutes in the air-conditioned office while the old nun talked over the phone. Thinking that it was deliberate, that this would give the Mother General a chance to observe her closely, Lisa tried to admire the painting on the wall, one that was reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises.
The nun glanced intermittently at the frail-looking postulant in ponytail. Afterwards, she put down her phone, smoothened her starched scapular and took a seat.
“You are aware, of course, that your clothing ceremony would be next week?”
The postulant simply nodded.
“How do you like your life here in the convent? Have you been happy?” Mother Roberta seemed to be weighing her every word.
“I have been peaceful, Mother,” came the thin reply.
“As you know, ours is a semi-contemplative life, that our apostolate is teaching. I have been told you tend to keep to yourself. You must understand we are living in a religious community so we are supposed to be on good terms with all the sisters…if that were possible.”
Lisa groped for words.
“It’s my nature, Mother. I am naturally quiet and introverted. Surely it should not be taken against me? I prefer to be alone during our free time. After all, I spend the rest of my time with the community.”
The elderly nun looked over the girl before her. Barely 19 and the youngest in the formation house, Lisa had been advised to finish her college studies first but she insisted on entering the convent early. “I don’t want to give God the tail end of my life,” she had said. Sister Fatima, the Vocation Directress, felt her sincerity and vouched for her.
“The sisters are just anxious that you might not fit into the kind of life that we lead,” said Sister Roberta.
“Or perhaps they suspect I’m just escaping from my problems since my mother died recently,” Lisa retorted. “Well, I could have kept family matters a secret if I wanted to.”
She thought of Susan, one of her co-postulants who told them she jumped out of the window whenever her father came home drunk, of Emily who vomited every morning, of Cleo who had a violent quarrel with her boyfriend before she applied in a nearby convent.
Mother Roberta studied Lisa’s face after which she assured her that they would let her know their decision soon. Long after the postulant had gone, the Mother General stood transfixed at the window.
Lisa reached the parlor in time for sewing. Nelly was sniffling. Through snatches of conversation, Lisa found out that they were scolded by Sister Vina for snacking at inopportune times and for snooping on the mailbox. In their Psychology class, Sister Gertrudes lectured them on neurosis before telling them to leave should they find their life in the convent too regimented.
Shortly before midnight, Lisa was asked by a senior novice to help her look after a paralyzed nun, a former Mother General who had been bedridden for five years. They gave her a sponge bath and changed her position every few minutes. Each time they did so, the aged nun thanked them. When they tried to humor her, she managed a faint smile before proceeding to correct their English grammar. Lisa was impressed that the old nun could keep her mind sharp despite her condition.
The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others.
-Igjugarjuk, early 20th century
It was three days before the clothing ceremony that Lisa was told to go see the in-house dressmaker. She went to her shop with a heavy heart for the long wait had led her to expect the worst. It was as if the final decision was forced, something of an afterthought.
The dressmaker took the girl’s measurements in a hurry, saying she would have to rush the job for Sunday.
When Lisa returned to the formation house, everyone was lining up at the refectory for lunch. The postulants did not acknowledge her presence although they must have guessed she had been accepted after all. Even their mistress ignored her.
She was about to join her group when the Sister Superior told her to read the Rules of the Order on the platform for fifteen minutes while the rest of the community took their meal.
Lisa’s voice reverberated with emotion at the start. She was conscious of her diction. Glancing at the plateful of crab omelet on the nearby table, she began to stutter. Sister Anunciacion told her to stop and go to her seat.
Lisa headed to her group but bumped into Sister Patricia, a middle-aged nun.
“You’ve parted your hair in the middle again!” the nun said as she looked over Lisa. “Don’t you know that only Cachupoy sports his hair that way?”
And I thought they were not particular about appearances in the convent, Lisa felt like exclaiming. She tried to smile the criticism off since all of them had to deal with putdowns for getting too thin or too fat, growing their hair too long or cutting it too short, ad nauseam.
Sister Ellen, a pudgy nun assigned to a Dominican hospital in Manila, consoled her. “Don’t pay too much attention to those cranky old nuns. Did you know that some of them have their thinning hair down to their waist like mine?”
She quickly showed off her hair tucked inside her white veil. “Others have chosen to shave their heads. And you know what,” she said with a laugh, “when they were younger, they took a bath with their underwear on. So you actually have an easier time in the convent now.” She tapped the postulant’s back.
During recreation time, they eagerly played a card game called Old Maid. Whoever got the card with a woman in lavender let out a disgusted shriek not so much because she would be eliminated but because of the stigma associated with being a spinster. Afterwards, they played Trip to Heaven.
A senior novice suddenly turned to Lisa and congratulated her upon learning she had been to the dressmaker’s shop. The saucy novice recounted how a sister in her 40s was almost sent home before her perpetual profession.
“The board members could not decide whether she should be sent home or not so they rolled the dice. They believed it was the Holy Spirit who made the crucial vote for her.”
Lisa was shocked. Is this system really used, she wondered. Are they gambling with my life?
Sometimes a man humbles himself in his heart, submits the visible to the power to see, and seeks to return to his source. He seeks, he finds, and he returns home. To return to the source of things, one has to travel in the opposite direction.
– Rene Daumal (1908-1944)
The clothing ceremony was held at the convent’s chapel. The nine wore their white religious habits and were received into the novitiate by the new mistress, Sister Gertrudes.
The community seemed to have held its collective breath when Lisa’s name was called. She noted the disappointment in the eyes of many who said they could see all the signs that she would not be able to hold on: a noticeable weight loss, solitary tendency, tardiness in most activities, too many visitors on weekends.
When she was assigned to the library of the adjoining college, students often talked to her and gave her roses. Sister Vina remarked that outsiders loved her because they could sense she belonged to them.
Lisa closed her eyes and simply focused on the choir’s rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah.” She was getting faint. She could not recall what else took place.
The start of the novitiate was tough. They were not allowed to communicate with the “outside world’’ – no sending and reading of mail, no phone calls, no visitors. Their study load was increased. They had to work longer at the sacristy and wake up earlier to set up the altar for Mass.
Lisa developed astigmatism and had to wear corrective eyeglasses. Despite the hardships, she felt overwhelmed with peace and joy. The quiet time was the thing she loved most, when she could reflect in the chapel by herself or go to the library to read as many books as she wanted. She felt her heart bursting with songs of praise for God, grateful that she had come to taste the sweetness reserved for the pure in heart. But somehow, she felt she could not stay in an ivory tower and keep this merely for herself.
On the second month, the convent’s 70-year-old gardener was run over by a truck. The community deliberated whether the wake should be held in the chapel. He was deaf-mute, a trusted laborer who spent almost his entire life serving the sisters. In the end, a vague ruling prevailed that since he was not officially a member of the Dominican order, the funeral must be held outside.
The young nuns grieved silently while some novices sobbed openly. In the short time they had tended the garden, they became close to the gardener who taught them sign language that they sometimes mischievously messed up.
That night, the formation house was jolted by a blood-curdling scream from the novitiate. Some sat by their beds but nobody left her room.
It was the subject of their sharing time the next day.
“Who could be having nightmares?” Sister Gertrudes asked the group.
In response, seven novices said they always slept soundly because the Good Shepherd was watching over them. When it came to Lisa’s turn, she spoke of a frightening experience in childhood. “I think I saw a ghost.”
They looked at each other knowingly. Suddenly, Nelly raised her hand, and in between nervous giggles confessed that it was she who screamed last night.
“I was sure somebody was inside my cell. Somebody tried to strangle me.”
Their mistress frowned. The seven novices snickered. Lisa looked at Nelly with concern, wishing she could defend her friend.
Sister Gertrudes adjusted her rosary necklace before dismissing the matter. “Be sure to sprinkle all the cells with more holy water tonight.”
Days proved unbearably long for the two underdogs. In class, they often found themselves the objects of ridicule as the group made references to their earlier blunders. Only in Sister Fatima’s class could they relax. The Vocation Directress encouraged them to think freely. There was no fear of being rebuked.
“I wonder why God punished the whole human race for the sin of Adam and Eve,” Lisa said.
Sister Fatima would consider every comment thoughtfully before attempting to respond.
“Church scholars believe that most biblical texts are not to be taken literally, that Adam and Eve were only symbols. God does not punish us for the sins of our parents. We are punished for our individual sins.”
“But why do the innocent suffer along with the guilty?”
“Some of our sufferings are not a punishment, as was in the case of Job, but are meant to test our faith.”
In their Psychology class under Sister Gertrudes, there were endless exercises that would ultimately end with either Lisa or Nelly copping out.
“I can’t see how that picture of a woman in black with a hook nose and black hat could be anything but a witch,” Lisa said.
“All of them said it was a lovely woman,” Nelly said mockingly, “so I went along with them, saying the woman reminded me of my former co-teacher. A safe answer, huh?” She giggled.
Lisa looked exasperated. “And that blindfold game! How could they expect me to let Gloria walk me around when she had previously let me run into a chair?”
“You didn’t trust enough, did you?” Nelly was laughing like crazy. “Well, I let Lyn walk me anywhere because I knew Sister Gertrudes was watching us. Deep inside, I was uptight and oh, what a sweat I was in!”
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.
-Black Elk (1863-1950)
On their fifth month in the novitiate, they went to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city where some of the Order’s deceased nuns were laid to rest. There were two buses, one for the new postulants and junior novices, and another for senior novices and elderly nuns.
Just a month ago, they went to the wake of a wealthy benefactor at Greenhills. They lined up and each spent a minute gazing at the body, supposedly to say a prayer. When the turn of a senior novice came, she wept uncontrollably and rushed out. Later they learned that the girl was reminded of her own father who died recently. However, she was not allowed to see him.
“When you enter the convent, you are trained to be detached from your immediate family because you are now a member of God’s family,” the novice mistress had explained.
Nelly remarked that their superiors seemed keen to expose them to all sorts of morbid situations. Lisa said they also exposed them to a life of luxury as if they did not have a vow of poverty. When a nun celebrated her feast day – the birthday of the saint she was named after – food overflowed and much ended up in the garbage can.
“What does our vow of poverty mean? We do not own anything. Everything belongs to the community. And we are detached from worldly things,” one of their mentors said.
That afternoon, as they gathered around the niche of a member of their congregation, they tried to appear sober as they recited the rosary and the prayer for the dead. Then it began to rain and they scrambled for their buses. Lisa found herself in the company of the senior novices. When she tried to transfer to the other bus, she was advised to stay put.
They recited the rosary again as the driver revved the engine. When they finished praying, somebody passed around Coke and sandwiches.
“We’ll have a guitar practice tonight, Sor,” a novice told Lisa. Her eyes lit up. She recalled the first time she heard the novices sing on the hall. They were wearing immaculate habits. A soft breeze played with their veils. Lisa felt so peaceful.
When they reached the convent, Sister Gertrudes was at the lobby, waiting for Lisa. She was seething with anger.
“There is somebody among you, a mere novice, but has overruled everything in the convent. Does she fancy herself as the next Mother General?”
Lisa stammered. “I tried to transfer to the other bus but it was raining hard and they told me to stay.”
“Rationalizations, excuses, justifications! You never run out of them, do you? We have rules here that just have to be obeyed!”
“The rules are made for man, not man for rules,” Lisa said flatly.
Sister Gertrudes was stunned. She remembered Sister Vina’s complaint, that when she reprimanded Lisa for working in the garden without stockings, the girl said it was impractical to wear them since they would only get wet.
The novice mistress could not find her voice. She then spat on the floor.
Nelly wanted to reach out for Lisa’s hand but decided against it. They were not supposed to touch each other.
“To avoid triggering a lesbian tendency,” their mistress said. “We can never be sure.”
Would they get suspicious of Sister Francisca who hugged everyone whenever she visited? In fact, she was one of the few sisters who made Lisa feel accepted and loved.
That night, Sister Gertrudes asked Lisa to read the gospel of Matthew that stated: “He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides His sheep from the goats..”
Lisa refused to participate in the discussion. She just compulsively wiped her eyeglasses until the Bible study was over.
At midnight, the novitiate was rocked by another deafening scream. Again, everyone stirred but simply waited on their beds, afraid to go out of their room.
The next morning, they expected Nelly to tell them about her imaginary strangler but she was quiet.
At around nine o’clock, they all rushed to the conference room for the monthly recollection. The invited speaker had arrived. Mother Roberta was poring over her notes. Everyone seemed comfortably seated. Sister Gertrudes was counting her wards. Suddenly, her deep-set eyes narrowed.
The nun went up to the fourth floor to confront the missing novice. She roughly opened Lisa’s room. Her belongings were intact – her guitar was hanging by the wall, her pocketbooks, mostly by John Powell and Eugene Kennedy, were neatly stacked on her table, her secular clothes and newly washed habits were in the closet, even her shoes were still there, under her bed.
Turning around, the novice mistress saw Sister Fatima standing just outside the door, bent and gaunt.
“I saw Lisa off at the gate. She wants you to give away her things to whoever might need them. She even tried to leave her eyeglasses behind for Nelly.”
Sister Gertrudes looked unmoved. She started to head back to the conference room.
Sister Fatima spoke again, as if to herself: “I told her that not all who stay in the convent are good, that many outside these walls are even better.”
Something opens our wings. Something makes boredom disappear. Someone fills the cup in front of us. We taste only sacredness.
-Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi (1207-1273)
When Sister Gertrudes broke the news to the community at Compline, Nelly sniffled and savagely blew her nose.