Mary Elizabeth Parker
CONFESSIONS OF A NUN MANQUE
I’ve always craved a place where the world can’t get at me. A few days at a convent that forbids speech (a retreat fashionable now among the secular) would be a start. Yet my yen toward a nun’s life is, at the core, crazy—given that, hard as I yearn, I can’t believe in God.
Despite Methodist Sunday school when the love of and fear of God was drummed into me, despite a stint of quasi-Catholicism when I was 16 and lousy with emotion for something, belief in God has remained, for me, out of reach. At 16, when on Saturday afternoons I stood alone, singing, in the deserted balcony of Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church, belting out Lauro Nyro’s credo song “Timer” (about God) into the perfect acoustics of the church’s huge, modern, bat-wing shell—I did almost apprehend God. But not quite. Until I discovered boys (I was a late bloomer) I considered myself secretly a nun manqué, kept from touching the hem of Christ’s garment only by the slight impediment of not believing.
Even now I practice a kind of prayer and praising without ceasing—consciously letting my appreciation for the world’s myriad beauties well up in me throughout the day. Yet I have no sense of a cosmic ear that attends my praise: My gratitude seems to drift and fall flat like so much confetti. It would be wonderful to pray to something, to believe in a loving intelligence that crooks its dove’s wing around me, to nestle inside that pocket of faith. But the best I can believe is that God is a daemon who set this amazing universe in motion like a perpetual dynamo, and then decamped.
A while back, I watched, bemused, Miami Ink, the TV ‘reality’ show that glorifies the work of South Beach tattoo artists. One of their clients impressed me: a plump, grandmotherly type with dyed red hair who apparently had met transcendence via the Blessed Sandwich, a 10-year-old grilled cheese which sold for an obscene amount on e-bay—$28,000. She was having a likeness of the sandwich tattooed to the slope of her huge right breast. Like other of the faithful, she believed the greasy indentations and shadows in the cheese formed the features of The Virgin’s face.
Nearly in tears with the fervency of her faith, she said (of The Virgin): I’m just so grateful she came to ME. A little whacked out. But I admire her certainty. Hard as I try, I can not believe in signs (in cheese or elsewhere) as proof of God. I guess I won’t believe a loving God exists unless I’m whomped upside the head by a ten-ton personal visitation that says, Okay, stupid, it’s me!
If God smote my ear and gave me blessing, then I’d know I’d received my vocation. Then I could enter the convent gates (if my husband would agree to my entering). Or I could skip the convent, stay home and enter without guilt into my true life as a contemplative—a modern anchorite, a kind of Julian of Norwich in Suburbia, With Husband.
The crux is for God to okay a contemplative life without guilt. Because, truth is, I’m a closet contemplative now (but a guilt-ridden, atheist one). I spend most of my time pondering. I think and I read and I write and I think. I don’t have children to rear (by default, not by choice), and my writing work isn’t 9-5. People ask what I’ve been up to, and my shameful, vague answer is nothing, because what I actually do, I know, is sanctioned only for nuns at contemplative orders. Just thinking isn’t, for the secular woman, recognized and respected as work.
My upbringing didn’t countenance sluggards. I haven’t been a useless, lollygagging, unproductive wool-gatherer always. I grew up in a house with no money, worked my way through three university degrees, and labored on clumsily for 20 years at respectable humanistic jobs that paid little. Struggle is the norm where I come from—work, work, and more work to acquit oneself—though even then, grace is not assured.
I began my religious schooling at Temple Methodist Church. (My mother’s mother, in her hat and white gloves, held my small hand in its white glove. I loved the propriety of that.) When I was twelve and my siblings were even younger, my parents kidnapped and hustled us to a more forgiving Unitarian church. (Singing alone in the Catholic sanctuary was my own secret detour.)
Yet it was the unrelenting specter of John Knox’s Calvinism that draped its bat-wings over my family and just sat on us, without stint. My mother was a Ferguson and, despite everything, the tribal imprint sticks. We’re no longer starving in a Scottish croft, but every one of us is, still, the dour Scot. A Scots grimness weights every atom of our being despite the humor with which we try to leaven it (fatalistic humor, of course). If I’m walking down the street feeling, really, just fine but with my Ferguson mouth (genetically, constitutionally) down-turned, I can expect to be accosted by strangers and urged to Smile! It’s not that bad! My father’s lineage is grim, too: My great-grandfather on my father’s mother’s side died of sepsis from bad teeth and his wife succumbed to grief one month later, leaving an 11-year-old orphan, my grandmother (who then died at 59 of twisted bowels, when I was 17).
The Calvinist creed (no salvation but through election, and the sign of election is works) was not carved over our door; it was merely branded upon our souls. As a kid, I felt guilty for the time I spent lazing through books and daydreaming. I was never upbraided for my wool-gathering but I knew, guiltily, that spending long hours just thinking wasn’t normal: That was moodiness, that was unfocused, that was unconscionable wasting of time. I knew from example that my behavior was contumacious: How could I loll when my father drove himself twelve hours a day scouring the counties selling insurance, and my mother (without money or materiel) raised six kids and arranged a home Martha Stewart would envy and eventually aced her way through a college degree and into a job as a medical librarian.
Somehow, I acquitted myself satisfactorily through high school and college. But when the moment came to grow up and earn, I stood on the sidelines, sick with fear: I felt like a terrified spectator at Le Mans, desperate for the careering world to get itself under control, compose itself, slow down—and let me cross safely to adulthood. Instead, like everybody else, I was shoved out onto the tarmac to dodge as well as I could. As I struggled for success, my life was jammed with work, with the tasks and obligations that connote a fine upstanding human being.
Thirty years later I still believe that at the end of a day, as justification for snorting up my allotment of air, I should be able to list Tasks Completed. So on a ‘good’ day now, I vacuum my home, wrestle linens and laundry, bathe the pup, scout stores for bargain groceries (I feel guilty for spending my husband’s income—my writing earns such a pittance), perform (marginally) in the kitchen, toil at my writing, and pack off my manuscripts to literary journals.
But most days, truthfully, I don’t do that much work. I read, I write a little, I contemplate the struggling world, I feel guilty for sitting in my house doing: nothing.
Lean, rich Brazilian women, I’ve read, believe it’s their right to do nothing— that simply raising a hand to lift their hair off their sharp faces makes a day. Maybe instead of yearning for nun-ness, for sanction (maybe from God) of my indolence, I should simply strive to be a rich Brazilian woman—a sort of contemplative shod in Christian Louboutin red-soled pumps. But I don’t have the sharp racehorse bones for it.