Is It Okay to Be Human? A Failed Novitiate’s Story

From her room in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France, a Quaker-Buddhist shepherd reflects on her days as a novice in a Roman Catholic convent.

July 3, 2015    BY Mary Rose O'Reilly

Living among all these thin Buddhist girls, I am taken back to certain peculiar struggles I had in the novitiate when I was eighteen. I say “peculiar” because they are not struggles that followed me home or have recurred in my life in anything like the same form. We novices worked very hard both physically and mentally and submitted our every “creaturely” want to rigid control. To be a good novice meant to be strong, hard-working, and focused. There was a perfectionist drive in this ferocious intent of the will, and it became a drug that first promised relief from pain—specifically the pain of inadequacy—and then became a pain on its own. The first stage was dominated by a feeling of “If I can do something terribly hard, perfectly, relentlessly, I will be OK. I will be able to put to rest this inner demon that cries, ‘Succeed! Achieve! Be faultless!’ I will feed it success.”

I would take on any task, pick up any burden, and do it on little food, sleep, or love.

And it works, this all-consuming willfulness, if success is measured by getting A’s in college and perfect marks in novitiate behavior (except, perhaps, in the priceless areas of humor, nonchalance, grace, gratitude, and joy). But then the desire for control begins to feed on itself. Personality is effaced, one becomes a working machine. At least that is what happened to me. I would take on any task, pick up any burden, and do it on little food, sleep, or love; I denied myself the pleasures of poetry and art. I certainly did lose my ego, if that is one goal of religious practice; my awareness was wholly focused on a kind of white light in the mind. I existed like this for most of a year, almost without an intervening thought.

Behind my self-punishment was deep grief. A trusted friend had turned against me; another had left the novitiate; anyway, we weren’t supposed to indulge ourselves in “particular friendships.” If I found myself taking pleasure in the company of another novice, guilt assailed me. Yet I was prey to sentimental longings—to spend hours walking the neighboring hills with Sister M, pouring out my overburdened heart to her motherly affection. To weep over Sister D’s rendering of a Chopin etude. It didn’t have to be a particular friendship to snare me: color—the priests’ vestment case with its handwoven purples and reds, embroidery floss, stained glass; worst of all, music.

These pleasures, in retrospect, seem both so rich and so innocent that I cannot imagine why they filled me with such quasi-sexual shame. I knew nothing whatever about “real” sex—I put the word in quotes because perhaps what I had discovered was an aspect of sensuality that may only exist in contemplative monasteries. I knew nothing, I will amend, about physical sex. Still, I had heard so many morbid sermons about what was in store for those who surrendered to unspeakable pleasures that any pleasure began to seem to me unspeakable. Any aesthetic or emotional frisson demanded its counterpoise of work and fasting and denial of access to the chapel in its better slants of light. We were all enmeshed in a cruel and foolish system; yet it was no one’s fault—not mine nor the enlightened novice mistress’s. There is an aberrant energy in religious psychology, both Western and Eastern, that hooks into our heavy bodies and makes us long for the state of pure spirit.

I guess this is why today I enjoy the company of ewes and rams, who do not even know that they will die, who chew their corn and like it.

Without knowing it, and without letting on, I was on a dangerous path back then. I have seen people follow it to death or craziness: I was saved by a flare-up of sanity. Sleeping somewhere behind the glow of the white light was a healthy rational spirit that turned itself on one day and said, “You’ve been here long enough.”

Without knowing it, and without letting on, I was on a dangerous path back then.

An old novice mistress, whom I’ll call Sister Anselm, was living out her retirement with us. She had a reputation for being a brilliant scholar, but was feared for her cruel tongue lashings. Usually she had little access to the novices beyond the classes she gave in church history because the rules forbade fraternization between nuns at different stages of formation. In the normal course of things, no one but our own bright, kind novice mistress was supposed to meddle with our instruction. But Sister Anselm had a way of lying in wait for me. It was a species of favoritism. In fact, I admired her so much that I often felt honored by her sadistic attacks. She had a passion for detail and fact that ran counter to my sloppy love of the broad sweep and its informing metaphor, and this difference in our intellectual wiring brought me into frequent collision with her. I studied for her exams with my usual grinding conscientiousness, but she would always trip me up on a weird date or numerical obsession. Indeed, I needed the intellectual discipline she had to offer, and many other habits of mind she inculcated as well: but she was not one to offer a spoonful of honey with the Torah.

On one significant occasion, I had failed her test on the Psalms because I had studied their content and neglected to quote them by number. “Why did you not study the numbers?” she hissed at me later. “Sister,” I whispered, “the numbers didn’t seem to me important.”

That brought on one of her epic rages. “How dare you decide what’s important—” she began, raging on through every aspect of my personality and behavior. She had been watching me, she spat, since I had the temerity to enter religious life, possessed by a demon of pride. Even in my postulant’s tunic I had carried myself with arrogance, as though I thought I was somebody special. Now I had revealed myself as that most perverse and venomous specimen of religious culture, a false mystic. One who dared to judge what was important…

There had been scenes like that before, and a few would follow before I left the novitiate, but that was the pivotal one. She harangued me up until Grand Silence, and I remember leaving her in a kind of fugue state, going to evening prayer and then to the room in which I monitored four postulants. I put on my black dressing gown and wrapped the white nightcap about my head and started out for the tub rooms. I see that walk clearly because in some strange way I saw it from outside myself. My “self” was up around the ceiling somewhere, crouching like a gargoyle and watching that vexed girl walk down the long hall. I filled the tub and lay back in the hot water. With a slightly different karma, I might have drowned myself or gone screaming mad.

But instead, I got out of the tub clear in spirit. It was then about the first of October, and I had in mind to leave before Christmas. More importantly, I resolved to leave with dignity, as people nowadays plan to face death. I would insist on the right to speak about my decision to the other novices, to pack my own possessions, to say goodbye, and to depart by the front door. (Usually the “failed novice” slipped out during five o’clock prayer, and did so as soon as her decision was made, in order not to corrupt the others. They would pack her few things and mourn as I had packed and mourned for my friend.)

And with the help of the enlightened novice mistress, that’s what I did. I knew I could not try harder, and I knew I was not a false mystic. What I was—though I did not know it then—was simply a person with good intuitive equipment and scarcely any brains at all in the conventional sense. No wonder I confused any onlooker with a decent education and habits of order.     

That is one way to tell the story. Here is another: On the path of a sleepwalking girl rose a great spiritual teacher who yelled, over and over, “Wake up!” But the teacher’s voice could not penetrate the girl’s absorption. She stumbled on, bumping into a wall here, a wall there, and now a wall in the south of France.

But you see why I am suspicious of asceticism and self-denigration, and why, through that suspicion, I cast a jaded eye on some aspects of life at Plum Village. Thay’s [Thich Nhat Hanh’s] dharma talks sometimes reflect a deep current of warning against the world that seems life-denying to me. I look around at some of these frail nuns and wonder if they are committing a kind of self-murder, longing to float away from this agony of chilblains and lovelessness. Me, I would like to go to Bergerac and have a big cream tart…

It has been hard for me to learn to love the world, and intuitively I know I must keep to that discipline.

But it is not my business, tempting though it seems, to judge others’ motives and condition. Each of us has a different path to tread in the world. I need its mud on my feet, its cream tarts on my tongue. It has been hard for me to learn to love the world, and intuitively I know I must keep to that discipline.

My dear roommate and I sit on our mats and share recipes in reverent detail. And this is how I caramelize tofu…and I put a little apple juice in my pumpkin soup.…Mira shares her vegetarian gourmet magazines and I pore over the pictures, saying the names of Italian dishes like words of love, budini di risi, condiglione…

“The way through the world,” writes Wallace Stevens, “is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.”

Excerpted from The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker–Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilley. © 1999 by Mary Rose O’Reilley. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions, 800-520-6455, www.worldashome.org.

Mary Rose O'Reilly
Born in Pampa, Texas, Mary Rose O’Reilley was educated in the parochial school system of Roseville and St. Paul, Minnesota. She graduated from the College of St. Catherine and completed graduate work at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

She was awarded the 2005 Walt Whitman Award for her first book-length collection of poems, Half Wild, which was published in the spring of 2006 by Louisiana State University Press. The winning manuscript was chosen by Mary Oliver.

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