IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Got Tired Of Casual Sex, So I Took A Vow Of Celibacy And Moved To An Italian Convent

I was disgusted with myself, with my outrageously (and increasing) promiscuous behaviour.

Jul 29, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

The morning alarm signaled 6.45 a.m. He rolled over to hit snooze, and as we rearranged ourselves under the sheets and blankets I turned over to push myself into his body and whispered, sleepily, “Make me cum.”
 
He stretched out his arm, I presumed to position himself for action. Instead he took a look at his watch: I asked a guy to do rude things to me, and he needed to know if he had enough time. Wow. 
 
That was the moment where it all fell into place for me. That my behaviour had gotten out of control. I’d ended up in bed with him after I text, drunk, saying “Hey, wanna grab a drink? And by grab a drink I mean have sex.”
 
Because that’s how you do it. That’s how you have sex with any man you want: you ask. 
 
As soon as I kissed him goodbye and left his house to shower, I knew I wouldn’t ask again. I didn’t want to ask anyone again. At least, not for a very long time. I was disgusted with myself, with my outrageously (and increasing) promiscuous behaviour. He was only one of many. I didn’t even like most of them. I’d had enough. 
 
Nobody took me seriously. “You!” they’d say, laughing. “You are going to take a vow of celibacy for a year? Pfffft!”
 
“Yes,” I’d say. “I don’t want to be this person anymore.”
 
I really didn’t. 
 
It wasn’t a difficult decision to leave my apartment in Trastevere, Rome, where I’d been living as I wrote my first book. With everything I owned in a suitcase and a backpack, I went to live in a convent, in the north, away from everything. 
 
I was still me, no matter where I went, but it was a start. 
 
It wasn’t difficult to arrange. I’d spent a few summers in northern Italy before, teaching English at various English camps across the region. Two weeks here, a week there -- I’d been an Italian nomad for weeks at a time since I was 22.
 
An old colleague had visited me in Rome a few weeks previously, mentioning a four-month-long residential program in a convent when I asked how things at work were going. They’d been asked to supply two teachers, he'd told me. I’d dismissed it initially -- I would get lonely, would have too much time alone. But as I resolved to get my act together, the conversation came back to me.
 
“I want that spot at the convent," I emailed him. "Can I go teach there for the summer? I need some time out, and I think that would do just the trick.”
 
I got an incredulous response. “You want to spend four months in the middle of nowhere? That’s not the LJW I know…”
 
“Exactly,” I said. 
 
The deal was that the man who invented Kinder Surprise, Guiseppe Salice, was old, had no family, and because of his chocolate-making genius, also had an awful lot of money. He funded DREAMERSchool for teenagers across the country who had big aspirations and an even bigger sense of adventure.
 
A group of twenty or so kids would be onsite for two weeks at a time, facilitating these dreams by taking workshops from famous architects and renowed comic bookmakers, working on projects like websites and news videos. Part of their intended world domination was that they needed to learn English for an hour-and-a-half every morning.
 
They’d be doing that bit from me. And the rest of the time? I could do what I wanted. I’d get room and board for a morning’s work. The opportunity was perfect.
 
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Situated right on the Italian Riviera in Loano, northern Italy, Chiostro di Santa Agostino is set back from the road, hidden by trees. There is a small, engraved sign that says, simply, convento, and two huge mahogany wood doors that open onto a courtyard. Inside were the… monks?
 
I never did figure out, with my sub-par Italian, why a convent would be home to men. I roughly understood that it used to house nuns, and when it was renovated, the ladies moved out and the place become a home for monks with limited mobility: a sort of monk retirement home. The name convento stuck, though -- even though technically it was a monastero.
 
The monks spent most of their time in the church, or doing light work in the grounds. I’m not religious, so spent my time in the courtyard, doing my own kind of connecting.
 
The gardener would yell at me for standing on the planted beds to smell the flowers that were placed all over the quad, but the head monk, who I only ever referred to as padre, would tell me their name in Italian, silently letting me know I was doing no harm. I’d repeat it, incorrectly, and he’d shake his head to signify contempt at my incompetence. It was a dance we did daily. 
 
He was an obese man, whose brown robes homed rounded rolls of belly fat. He had maybe four yellowed teeth in his whole mouth, and navigated the convento in an electric wheelchair. He was repulsive.
 
Padre would sit in one of the small meeting rooms off from the church and smoke cigarette after cigarette for most of the day. Monks do normal, human, things like that. I didn’t know. Like ice cream. We’d eat plain pasta and grilled vegetables for almost every meal, but at 9 pm there would always be gelato. 
 
I’d sit in the courtyard, writing and reading and looking at the lavender beside a statue of the Virgin Mary holding rosary beads from after lunch each day, until bedtime. For a good eight or nine hours, I simply sat. Watching. Learning. Being. In that time, there would be knocks at the door, and another old or disabled monk would let in a soul seeking solace. 
 
It was mainly Romanians or southern Italians down on their luck who would visit with padre. I always took the same spot to do my “studying,” as it became known, and spoke to them all. With my computer and my books, I read and wrote my way out of the destructive feelings I harboured against myself, and then communicated in a tongue not my own to understand the stories of others.
 
In many ways, the four months I spent at the convento were my way of learning a whole new foreign language, but it wasn’t Italian. I learnt the words I needed to like myself again. 
 
Padre’s visitors would bring grimy-looking cakes or wilting flowers, and I’d always be sure to tell them how pretty their gift was. Che bello, I’d say, smiling and wide-eyed. That was my “in,” my way to start talking.  
 
I was given free rein with the teenagers I taught, and working with a tall, blonde giraffe of a model from Florida, we’d practice English by doing “love parades” in the local town, handing out sweet notes and free hugs. 
 
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We’d write letters to our past selves, reassuring our younger versions that everything would be okay. We penned letters to our future selves, to be mailed out in exactly one year’s time, to remind us of what we were.
 
My letter never did arrive. But I remember how I felt like it was only this morning.
 
I remember the bare, empty rooms. The tiled floors and blank walls and the shared bathroom that looked as though the one thing you could be sure of is that when a monk needs to pee, he doesn’t get out of the tub to do it. 
 
I remember the cook in the kitchen who would always save a banana for me, but pretend like he’d forgotten to. It would be on the shelf above where he made the bread.
 
I remember the hot, oppressive heat of the summer as a heatwave swept through the country, and how, three days before I finally left, the sky cracked and the clouds made way for rain and I stood on the balcony and let myself get wet because somehow, it was that was what I had been waiting for. For my sky to open, for the pressure to ease.
 
I cried that night. Nearly 16 weeks of reflective meditation and only then did I understand that the drinking, the casual sex, the destructive relationships, it had all been because I was angry. I was a shitty human being for a while, but I’d healed.
 
Four months of clean living, proper sleep, simple meals and stilted, foreign, conversation and I wasn’t hostile anymore. I cried because I felt hopeful. I cried because I’d saved myself. 
 
I said my goodbyes, and flew to London. In the next version of my life, I’d be happier. And celibate. I’d be that, too.