Yes, I was a nun. A Roman Catholic nun. With the outfit and everything
For a while, when I admitted this sordid fact, the casual conversant would ask, “Like Maria from 'The Sound of Music'?”
In some ways, yes, although my story involves less singing and neither children in matching clothing nor Nazis play much of a role.
Now folks say, “Oh, like Sister Ingalls from 'Orange is the New Black'?”
This comparison is in some ways closer.
But the other possibility: “Oh, yeah, like Mother Teresa?” is most accurate, at least in a logistical sense.
Because even though as my nephew once observed, “Aunt Kelli, no one’s a nun anymore!” and even though I was not raised Catholic and had to convert before they would consider my application, I didn't join just any religious order. I joined the ultra-conservative, most strict gang of nuns on the planet: the Missionaries of Charity, started by Mother Teresa herself.
This was a voluntary act. No one drugged me or tricked me. I didn’t think I was going to a coffee shop which (oops) turned out to be a convent that I was too polite to leave. Although I still have nightmares like that even now.
I met the Missionaries of Charity when I was volunteering at a school for children with disabilities in Port au Prince, Haiti. During a school break, a visiting American dentist asked me if I’d like to come with him to the “Home For the Dying.”
It sounded more like a challenge than an invitation, so I went.
In my haste to get through the door of the hospice, I almost bowled over the individual who was to be my first encounter with the nun kind. She was a short sister with a slight build who was carrying a 100 pound bag of cement on her shoulder.
“So nice that Jesus sent you to help,” she said with a grin, taking my hand. It’s hard to argue with the “Jesus sent you” line when the person delivering it is smiling so big. And effortlessly carrying her own weight in building products.
I stayed and worked that day. I helped feed some of the women who were too weak to feed themselves, I made a bed or two, I held a patient’s hand while one of the nuns finished up a painful dressing change.
All the criticisms that the greater world makes of the work of the Missionaries of Charity -- that they don’t work for systemic change, that the conditions in their hospices are very much less than ideal -- those were very obvious even in the first moments. But Haiti was full of nongovernmental organizations, mostly run by outsiders, that were supposed to be empowering Haitian people, but instead seemed to be making things worse. At least the MCs weren’t trying to bullshit about what they were doing, and when they talked to people they were serving, they made eye contact.
“Mother always says, ‘We cannot do big things, we can only do little things with great love,'” one of the nuns told me as I chopped up threadbare sheets to repurpose for bandages. They always referred to Mother Teresa as simply “Mother.” It was sweet, almost folksy.
As I left that day, one of the nuns said, “And we will see you tomorrow?”
I nodded. It wasn’t really a question, we both knew that. I came back the next day. And the next day. And the day after that.
By the time the school break was over, I was in love. Not with just Sister Mary Concrete Carrier, but with all them: the entire Missionary of Charity experience. I hoped it was just a phase and signed up to volunteer with the sisters in Pennsylvania and later Miami. After a few years it became clear my crush was not going away and I had no choice but to consummate it.
I applied for admissions to the Missionaries of Charity and became a real live nun by the name of Sister Mercy, living in the South Bronx Aspirant House.
It quickly became clear I had made a disastrous mistake. Although I enjoyed the work they did, I did not have the temperament of a nun.
You might think the chastity part was the hardest? Not true. We did hard manual labor all day, didn’t use deodorant, bathed in cold water and even in the hottest of South Bronx summers didn’t alter our environment with the use of something as evil as, for example, an electric fan. As if our disgusting hygiene wasn’t enough to stifle any lustful urges, the Missionary of Charity rule dictated that we dress while covered with a sheet we had pulled off our beds. Theoretically without this practice we could have seen each other naked (a sin against modesty to be sure) since we all slept in the same room, in beds 12 inches apart.
However since we got up at 4:40 every morning and didn’t use the electric lights until after Mass at 7 a.m., we always dressed in complete darkness. Mandating that we change underneath a sheet only slowed down our dressing efforts and could not have been less necessary, although it certainly added an element of slapstick comedy to our early morning routine.
Obedience was much more difficult for me. I was told I had “insufficient docility” and “too much self esteem” because I could not smile and cheerfully say, “Yes sister,” no matter what our aspirant mistress asked of us, whether it was eating bread that was visibly moldy or using pages torn from the Yellow Pages as toilet paper. Because of this, I spent a year and a half in the pre-aspirancy phase of training, which was supposed to last four weeks. This was the convent equivalent of failing pre-school 18 times.
I couldn’t maintain my denial when Mother came to visit. She asked me my name and furrowed her brow, an impressive reaction since her brow looked pretty furrowed to start out with.
“Ohhh Sister, I’ve heard of you,” she said. What was the correct response to this? “Oh yes, well I’ve heard of you too,” came to mind. Instead I remained awkwardly silent.
The physical difficulties of our life certainly weren’t fun (kneeling on a bare concrete floor four hours a day) but the psychological warfare was even more intense. Our mistress Sister Angeles told us every morning, “Sisters, you must mortify yourself -- your own selfish lazy nature will only keep you evil.”
We had only two nun outfits, and we washed the one we weren’t wearing by hand in a bucket every morning before mass. Once Sister Angeles followed me outside and watched while I hung my clothes on the line. She pulled out the crucifix each professed sister wore at her waist and pointed to the figure.
“Sister what wound are you making in Jesus’ side when you do your laundry with such little care?” she asked. I had no answer. It was a lot of pressure, the knowledge that you were torturing the Son of God with your inability to get your underwear white enough.
I wasn’t sure if I was retaining my evil nature or expanding it, but I gave up on the convent one Friday morning when we were cleaning the women’s shelter run by the professed sisters. As nuns we only had access to non-disposable sanitary products: cloth diapers that we folded down the middle and tucked into our underwear and later washed out by hand.
As I was wiping off the the top of a dresser that morning, I spied a single tampon. After taking a quick look around, I silently tucked it into my waistband and walked out of the room. I was immediately overcome with shame.
After all that time in the convent I didn’t know who I was, but I knew who I didn’t want to be: a person who stole a tampon from a homeless woman.
I left the next day through the same door I had entered. My sister let me stay with her so I could start over: get a job, an apartment, a cat, a therapist. I was confused and sad and disappointed in myself and in the world as a whole -- how could such an idealistic decision go so painfully wrong? I was also embarrassed -- at first because I left the convent, and then later because I had made the decision to become a nun at all.
I was a horrible match with the Missionaries of Charity, but some crushes are worth pursuing or you’ll never know if the feeling is mutual. Sometimes I can even muster appreciation for the epic fail that it was. If you get engaged then divorced from God all before age 30, all your other mistakes seem almost reasonable in comparison.