Sixty-one years ago, I took a train from Montreal, Canada, to a little town near Quebec City called St. Romuald, where I joined a convent. The convent was Notre Dame du Bon Conseil, which was part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists (men) or Trappistines (women). It is one of the strictest orders in the Roman Catholic Church. I stayed for five and a half years—two and a half years as a postulant and novice and three more after taking simple vows. Friends who know that I was a nun often ask why I joined the convent. At the time, I was a devout Catholic and thought I was called by God to sacrifice my life to do penance and pray for the sinners of the world. In retrospect, it was probably just a case of good old Catholic upbringing, coupled with my guilty conscience for having slept with my high-school boyfriend, that called me to atone—really for my own “sins,” not those of the world.
Life in the convent was hard. The days were filled with prayer, work, meditation, reading, and then more prayer and more work. Because Trappists at that time took a vow of silence in addition to those of poverty, chastity, and obedience, we communicated in the work setting with a simple form of sign language and spoke once a week only to the novice mistress or abbess to confess our transgressions of the rules of the order and to a priest to confess our sins. Penances varied from prayer to standing or kneeling with arms outstretched to wearing a hair shirt or flagellation. I was never given flagellation as a penance, but I did wear the hair shirt on a few occasions and can verify that it gives new meaning to “having an itch you cannot scratch.” We fasted seven months of the year (only eating bread, water, soy coffee, boiled root vegetables, and porridge) and added fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and cheese the other five.
I found the silence of the monastery especially difficult. One was constantly, relentlessly surrounded by people from morning till night, but couldn’t talk to anyone. It was like a science-fiction movie where everyone was in a huge cage surrounded by robots or mechanical people moving around, doing their jobs, and eating meals together but basically alone, never talking, never sharing a thought or a feeling or an emotion with anyone else—and worst of all, never feeling seen. I think that is one of the most basic of human nonphysical needs—the need to know that we are seen by another human being and acknowledged as a separate and distinct person.
In about my fourth year, I came to realize that this life was not healthy for me. When my simple vows were fulfilled and I had to choose between taking final vows or leaving, I left.
I have never regretted leaving, nor have I ever regretted the five and a half years I spent at the convent. I learned how to live with myself with some degree of comfort and how to handle adversity, lost most feelings of self-importance, and learned something about humility. I also came to believe that the austerity of the convent was not only excessive, but very harmful to mind and body. Pope John XXIII and leaders of the Catholic Church realized this, too, to some extent, and at the conclusion of Vatican II in 1965, new rules were issued for the Cistercian order that relaxed many of its more severe practices. As a result, the Cistercians of today are quite different from what they were and what I experienced in the fifties, and that is a good thing.
After leaving the convent, I did not immediately leave the Catholic Church. Still, the seeds had been planted, surprisingly enough, by reading I did while inside. Starved for intellectual stimulation, I discovered in the small convent library, almost buried among the saccharine and sentimental books about the lives of the saints, a multiple-volume set of Daniel-Rops’s Histoire de L’Eglise du Christ (History of the Church of Christ), which started with the Greeks, moved through Roman times and the Middle Ages, and finished with the post-Enlightenment era. Although adhering to prevailing orthodoxy, it neither hid nor sugar-coated the grievous and very human failings of the church. By the time I finished reading the whole set and then moved back into the real world, I realized that I had become not just a doubter but a cynic, a skeptic, and a nonbeliever. When the sixties came along, bringing the feminist movement and lots of aha! moments in my personal life, I abandoned the Catholic Church completely and joined the ranks of the “Nones.” I mentally toyed with the idea of coming out as an atheist, but because I was living in a small Southern town and working in the public-school system, I turned coward when I saw the ostracism and hatred directed at Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Instead, I retreated into my life as a wife, mother, and educator. But I never stopped reading, and in the years that followed I tried on several different ideological identities: hippie rebel, transcendentalist meditator, earth mother, deist philosophe, New Age adherent, yoga and Buddhist practitioner, and drop-in visitor at various liberal churches.
When my second husband died, I moved to a larger city and finally felt free to openly explore atheism and secular humanism. At about the same time, I heard that a Center for Inquiry group was forming; I happily joined and have been an active member ever since. I also joined the Unitarian Universalist Church because I like the diversity of beliefs I find in its members and the civil discourse.
I think belonging to a community is vitally important—whether it be a social group, service organization, or discussion club. Belonging to a group or a community and staying involved and active in one means you have to bump into other people—and I don’t mean physically. When we “bump up” against other people, we will inevitably encounter others who don’t think the same way we do about something, and when that happens it challenges us to clarify our thinking. Like good humanistic scientists and learners, we may even change our way of thinking about something and hopefully become a bit more compassionate. And that can be good. I think debate, discussion, and dissent are good as long as we engage with respect and civility—it isn’t always easy, but it is good.
I do have to admit, though, that at times I find that being in a community is almost as bad as wearing a hair shirt—it can be really irritating, but that’s not all bad. It keeps me from taking myself too seriously, and it continues to keep me real and grounded and quite aware that as an eighty-year-old secular humanist I still have a lot to learn—about myself, other people, and the world we live in.
Joan Patterson is enjoying retirement in the company of good friends and great weather in Florida after working in education for fifty years. She is treasurer of the local Center for Inquiry chapter and a member of the Freethinkers Forum at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tallahassee.