When I was an eighth-grader at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph’s grammar school, in Hartford, CT, I was asked—along with a handful of other female students in our graduating class—to assist our teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, in a singular, and poignant task. The old convent, which sat next to the Cathedral, was to be torn down that summer, the land made into parking space for the church, which sat on one of the busiest streets in Hartford, not far from the State Capital building. There were about half dozen of us girls, all twelve and thirteen, all good and polite students no doubt handpicked by the Sisters, and we were asked to help the Sisters pack up what remained of their belongings, empty the library and even sweep clean floors that would soon no longer exist. Our reward for this task was cake and tea at the end of the day, and the opportunity to pick some religious trinket out of a box. I don’t remember what I selected, perhaps a small medal or holy card, but I do remember the odd sweetness of that day, the opportunity to peek into the secret lives of the women who had taught us for the past eight years.
On the whole, our teachers had been gentle, wonderfully intelligent women who lived full and interesting lives: They traveled, they wrote, they had close friends outside the convent, and judging by their library, read ferociously. But they were also all women of a certain age, all well past fifty, still dressing in black robes that swept the floor, white wimples and veils. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was witnessing the end of an era—not really the end of American nuns, as we still have them today, but the end of their cultural popularity in this country. As children, we saw nuns in the movies, read books about them, listened to the ‘Singing Nun,’ and then, somehow, as I grew into adulthood, these women were transformed into victims and demons on the screen and in literature. But for me they had always been models of decency and caring, and I respected their long lives of holiness and hard work
What I remember about the convent building itself, which was of Edwardian or perhaps even Victorian vintage and sat directly facing busy Farmington Avenue, was how silent it was inside, quiet. Not a hint of the cars racing by outside, or the general roar of the city. It seemed a lovely kind of silence to me, like a pause in an engrossing conversation: It was silence that promised good things, of peace, not eeriness. When our chores were done—I worked mainly in the kitchen boxing silverware and cooking implements, then had an hour or two sweeping a dustmop through various rooms, the small but cozy mint-green rooms where my teachers slept and planned their lessons. Afterward, just before tea, I wandered with a friend about the rambling interior soon to fall victim to the wrecking ball. We came upon a distant hall toward the back of the building—halfway down this corridor was a door with a frosted glass window, through which sunlight shone from a hidden window in the back of the convent. In serious black lettering across this window was a single word: CLOISTER.
In the older days of the church, cloisters were places where monks and nuns completely withdrew from the world, sometimes behind stone walls and locked iron gates. They were compelled to stay in such places until their deaths. Now the Sisters of Mercy were not a cloistered order, but it was explained to me that sometimes the sisters felt the need to withdraw a little further from the world, even within their own building. It would be years before I understood the monastic tradition, but even as a very young teen, I saw the sense in this this: A break, to be quiet, and think. I remember my friend and I creaking open the door, and seeing another hallway, as ordinary and identical to the hallway we were standing in, with a high window at the end, letting in light from the sky, but no views of the outside world. It did not look like any place significant or awe-inspiring, but I did feel a bit of awe, just looking in. Looking at that line of tightly shut doors, and wondering what epiphanies or agonies or life had gone on behind each one. If walls could talk…
Those walls are gone now, but my interest in the monastic life has not waned, even after years of marriage and motherhood in a busy NYC suburb. I visit various monasteries and friaries whenever I can, and find I do my best writing on retreats. But all you need to create a cloister is a quiet room. A quiet room, maybe a chair and table, maybe a view of the sky; and a little time, for looking within.