Then five peals of the bell brought them together to perform with a single fervent heart their final act of the day. The Salve Re- gina. One by one the lights in the chapel would be extinguished until there were left only the vigil light at the altar and the shaded lamp that illuminated the statue of the Virgin Mary, When everything else was dark the nuns began to sing.
For Gabrielle, this was the moment that made every next day pos- sible. Even after the postulants were permitted to sing with their sisters, she could not trust her voice. The awesome anti- phon swelled in the dark and expanded it. It seemed to her then that every convent, monastery and remotest mission on the planet was somehow brought into her own chapel and that che pure voices she heard close to her were but the top level of sound in the cry for mercy that was welling up at that moment to the Mother of God from every place where vowed ones lived behind walls.
Their eyes of trust like those of chil- dren in the dark, thousands upon thousands of them, seemed to be looking out through her own, fixed on the single lighted figure to which the voices sang O dulcis Virgo Maria. In the dark the sisters filed out of the chapel line by line, the postulants first and the youngest of these at the head, then the novices and finally the professed nuns, with the oldest in the life bringing up the rear the processional sequence for the total community en marche. Shadowed in this traditional formation, Gabrielle saw the outlines of a great family with the youngest out in front under the multiple eyes of the senior sisters and the local Mother Superior of the house or Rev- erend Mother Emmanuel herself when her work schedule per- mitted there near the door to receive their reverence and to give them her benediction.
Her youngest novice stood beside her holding the pot of holy water with which she sprinkled them.
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You could not see clearly in the gloom the aspergillum that rose and fell rhythmically and occasionally dipped into the pot the novice held, but you felt sometimes on your face a few cool drops falling with the Latin words of blessing that sent you off to bed. It seemed to Gabrielle during the months of trial that the harder she tried, the more imperfect she became. The note- book in which each morning she recorded her first examina- tion of conscience, as did every other sister in the same bell- bracketed ten minutes wherever she might be, read like a record of rebellion against the Holy Rule.
Ran upstairs. Talked after bell. Let door slam. No spirit of poverty again today in refectory, still longing for plate instead of 'wooden plank to eat from. In the study hall once a week the postulants read aloud to Sister Margarita the list of their imperfections. Their voices cracked, their faces perspired and Gabrielle agonized for each one until her turn came.
Often she had the impression she was reading the wrong week. Her faults repeated them- selves week after week, identical in number and kind. It might have helped, she thought, had she been able to compare notes with her struggling comrades, but the life gave no opportunity for this. They had all been dispersed from the first day, each to the department for which she had special qualifications, and when the group came together for the daily hour of recreation, all conversation had to be kept to matters of general interest.
Since it was a strict rule that the past must never be mentioned, there was very little left to talk about with these comparative strangers except the scen- ery, which was always the same. Generally, on recreation, the postulants were as uncommunicative as the cocoons hanging in the poplar trees beneath which they strolled and breathed deeply, as the Mistress of Postulants urged.
Gabrielle was aware, however, of growing perceptions which seemed almost extrasensory, since she could not recall exactly when she had first understood this or that hidden as- pect of convent life. During her postulancy, a group of nov- ices made their first vows and changed into the habit of the professed. She had never thought of their fierce temptation to see how they looked in the transforming black. Even when, one morning, leaving the dormitory, she paused to allow a former novice to precede her and glanced into the cell from which the flustered new nun had emerged, she made nothing of the black apron she saw hanging behind the pane of the half-open window.
But weeks later, when Sister Margarita was talking of the temptations of vanity, to explain why the Rule permitted nuns to shine their shoes only once weekly in- stead of daily as some might wish to do, Gabrielle knew in a flash that her sisters must sometimes try to steal looks at them- 33 selves in their mirrorless world, though there was no connec- tion then in her mind between this mysterious certainty and the memory of a black apron hung behind a pane of glass to cast a dark reflection.
Each step of preparation for the novitiate was taken, as it were, in the midst of it, for there were novices ever present to study secretly and beyond these were the professed nuns. It was like living in your future before you came to it. You could look at it and think about it endlessly, but you could never speak with it.
Yet, somehow, the air was charged with communication. It was amazing how much seemed to be said when Sister William passed her in a corridor. Don't struggle so alone, my sister, said the sharp eyes that barely glanced at her. Leave a little leeway for the graces. Saints are seldom made and never in a day. It's a never-ending affair trying to be a good nun.
Endless, endless. God gave her the strength to wake up each morning ready to start all over again. As the mysteriously acquired aware- nesses extended her understanding of the inner life of nuns, it struck Gabrielle that perhaps each one of them, no matter how old in the religious life, had to begin each day as if it were a first. The penances confirmed her idea that a life against nature could never become habitual, could never be lived through the reflexes, but had to be fought for constantly.
The late ar- rivals in chapel, who had to prostrate themselves in the cen- ter of the nave and stay that way until the Superior signaled 34 her aide to pluck their sleeves and send them to their pews, were as often as not the professed nuns whose imposing num- ber of keys indicated their importance in the community. The refectory penances were performed in the bright light that slanted down from many windows.
Here the late arrival kneeling beside the Superiors' chairs at the head of the U- shaped tables was seen by all. Moreover, when she received permission to be seated, she had the additional mortification of disturbing her sisters on the bench. It was like having to disrupt an immense tableau vivant, archaic in design and significance.
It gave Gabrielle a shiver every time she saw it happen, as if already the nun's dread of conspicuousness had entered her spirit. When the late sister's place was midway on the bench, ten sisters had to stand up and file out while she went in to her place. They had first to remove the big napkins which were both serviettes and indi- vidual tablecloths. These unbleached squares of sacking were tucked into the starched bibs and were anchored in place on the table by the wood planks that served as plates.
A sideways glance down the table gave the impression that all the nuns were connected to it by a continuous membrane of poverty, which was what the coarse napkins really were in both inten- tion and substance. The disturbed nuns disconnected them- selves by laying their napkins forward on the table. Then they stood up, bowed to the Superior and filed out. The lag- gard, passing before them, tapped her breast twice to each Excuse me, excuse me.
No matter how tall, how young or how regally an- cient she might be, she always seemed to creep. Gabrielle prayed she would never come late for meals. Be- ing prostrate in the chapel did not seem half so appalling as having to derange a whole row of your sisters and put them, at 35 a moment when they had half-chewed food in their mouths, to the test of living up to that part of the Holy Rule which said, The sisters should always have a serene visage and a gracious air.
Although each step toward the novitiate was described be- fore it was taken, and could be seen around you in practiced pantomime, this did not, however, remove the element of sur- prise.
As the day of vesture approached, there was much dis- cussion of detachment. This was an alpine peak over which the Mistress of Postulants led them so gently in thought that it seemed to Gabrielle she had already gone over that divide. Detachment from family and friends was an accomplished fact. Since her first day, her struggles had been so intense and absorbing, she had written but one letter home. The hopeless- ness of trying to communicate anything of what she was thinking and feeling made the letter as brief and banal as the spirit messages her brothers used to buy from turbaned seers at county fairs.
All goes 'well. Detachment from things would be no more difficult than detachment from family had been, she thought.
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Sister Marga- rita explained that the night before vesture they would be ex- pected to make a total severance from all cherished personal possessions, to destroy all letters and photographs, and, into a basket for the poor which would be passed around, to cast any object that might attach them to a memory. She touched the fine gold pencil from Jean which she kept in her skirt pocket.
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When the time came to drop it into the basket for the poor, she would say All -for Jesus then, and feel less pain- Sister Margarita spoke softly when she came to the cutting of the hair which would detach them from worldly appear- ances. To be shorn of your hair seemed to her not only the most logi- cal of detachments but also the most healthy for those who must henceforth wear a skullcap weighted with coif, starched supports and the final long veil.
She had no curiosity about the actual operation for she had already seen it performed one day when she was sent to the laundry. Postulants from a previous group were seated on wood benches over which presided three nuns with clippers and shears. The heads were already clipped bare as a kneecap and the stone floor adrift with chestnut and blond locks, some of which clung to the shoes of the barber nuns.
More interesting than the barbering was the sight of the nuns talking with the postulants a special permission, she supposed, to ease the nervousness of the shorn ones who had a tendency to giggle when they saw how the others looked. That glimpse of her future made the final act of detach- ment seem no more macabre than any of the others. Your photos of Papa and the brothers, your gold pencil, your last gossipy letter from Tante Colette, your hair, she said to her- self, and did not realize that there were ramifications of de- tachment which reached inward beyond the emotions as- sociated with persons and places to the deep instinctive humanity which had been part of you since the day you were born.
The first time she saw a novice faint in the chapel, she broke every rule and stared. No nun or novice so much as glanced at the white form that had keeled over from the knees, though the novice fell sideways into their midst and 37 her Little Office shot from her hands as if thrown. For a few moments while the prayers continued, the surrounding sisters seemed to be monsters of indifference, as removed from the plight of the unconscious one as though she were not sprawled out blenched before them on the carpet.
Then Gabrielle saw the nun in charge of the health of the community come down the aisle.
The nursing nun plucked the sleeve of the nearest sister, who arose at once and helped carry the collapsed nov- ice back down the aisle, past a hundred heads that never turned, past two hundred eyes that never swerved from the altar. She trembled as she realized that she had been staring not at heartlessness but at a display of detachment which tran- scended every discipline she had thus far tried to emulate.