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Misereres and Exsultates

 

Misereres and Exsultates

 

by Celine Armenta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2009 DEMAC Awards

Mexico, 2009

 

Misereres and Exsultates by Celine Armenta

First Spanish Edition, August 2009

Printed in Mexico

First English Edition, January 2016

Translated by Robert A. Hass

 

© Copyright, first edition, Mexico, 2009, by

Documentación y Estudios de Mujeres, A.C.

José de Teresa 253,

Col. Campestre

01040, México, D.F.

Tel. 5663 3745 Fax 5662 5208

E-mail: [email protected]

[email protected]

 

Ebook published through Shakespir by 3Screen.com for DEMAC A.C. 2016

[email protected]

ISBN = 9781311605269

No part of this book may be reproduced, translated or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any storage, information and retrieval system, without permission in writing from Documentación y Estudios de Mujeres, A.C.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introito: Writing

2000: About the continuum in my identity

2005: About the difficulties to write

1991: About me and the truth, coffee cups in between

Premature Adolescence

1962: About adolescents, hunches and pedalling

1963: About the end of guilt and the beginning of light

1964: About martyrdom, its enchantment and some consequence

1965: About the warm surprise of loving as a group

1966: About two decisions which, not for being early, were less lucid

1967: About yellow roses and kisses on the forehead

Essay: Vocation: gyn/affection and congruence

About my own vocation, in hindsight

About the nun as a woman among women

About, at last, Janice Raymond’s gyn/affection

The entry to the novitiate

1969: About my brief stage as a university militant

1970: About the pale facts preceding my entry to the convent

1971: About my blinding experience of entering the convent

Essay: Erudite ignorance

About the little we know concerning nuns

About the vocation according to The Traps and according to me

About if it’s true that nuns hate men, as it is suggested in The Traps

About love in abstinence

To the mystic through the ascetic

1972: About the cloyingly pleasure of denying myself

1973: About incidents and nightmare

1975: About the extreme virtues

1976: About mystic outburst being really so

1976: About ascetic outburst that are almost something else

1976: About any one morning during Lent

1977: About an excursion to the other multi-colored planet

1977: About exsultates, psalmodies and chants

1978: About innocent female saints who are neither one thing nor the other

Essay: The voice of those who do know

About the demons of an almost real convent

About those who dared to break the great silence

Lucidity and Schizophrenia

1988: About statements in the pages of old diaries

1991: About the same cups of coffee described in the introito

1991: About social conscience and unconscious action

 

Essay: Answer to Marcela and her nuns

About nuns without time or place, but with distance

About oppressing and liberating vows

Unerotized, blurred, unidentified

About a blind and blinding obedience

 

The end of the adventure

1979: About the psychiatric diagnosis that made way for light

1980: About my departure

2001: About free dreams and yellow dresses

Glossary

Bibliography

 

 

INTROITO: WRITING

the power of those paranoid mechanisms used to review the epistemological pact which we usually call reality should not be disdained just like that.

Sánchez Visal, 1994

2000: ABOUT THE CONTINUUM IN MY IDENTITY

For twenty years I wasn’t interested in putting in order or understanding my years at the convent. They seemed so far away from my present options that I simply ignored them, such as the dream that vigil puts aside in irrelevance. But now—lucidity or menopause nostalgia—I understand that between the mystic and obedient nun who I was, and the assertive and atheist lesbian that I am, there are more similarities than differences; although it’s rather difficult to believe it. There is one same attraction, calling?, for the radical decisions requiring unusual commitment and intensity. In addition, then and now I perceive myself as a paradox: tied to inalienable destinies and, at the same time, reinventing myself, free, at every crossroads.

The teenager who decided to leave everything behind looks too much like this woman who today want to undress herself in black and white. It is the same relentless urgency—perhaps coded in my genes, committed in past incarnations, or enacted by superior wills—and the same emotion to be choosing, conscious, soaked in the pain and the joy of freedom. The nun who I was and the activist that I am live what they believe—what I believe—and they are what they want—what I want. I enjoy knowing that I made myself, that I have decided my paths, my styles and identities. But with an intelligent skepticism I cannot deny that when I invent and reinvent myself perhaps I’m just complying with an inexorable mandate.

Regarding my intensity, passion and vehemence, the continuity is evident: then and now I seal my beliefs and decisions with shreds of life; so I display them or perhaps so I create them, and the reward is not negligible: every moment I am self-reliable.

There is also continuity in my interest in writing. Writing has always been in my plans, in my purposes, in my futures, and now I’m deciding—or discovering?—that I won’t postpone it more. I could begin with any subject, but I know that for the sake of authenticity, of freedom, of honesty, I must start writing about me and, at the same time, exorcising demons, disenchanting myths, conjuring those ghosts crowding my decisions and my destinies assumed throughout many years. I also choose—or accept—to write with my favorite attitude: insolence, as defined by Julian Marias, as the vital questioning of solences which, curiously, are negative practices: what is not usually done. No one usually talks about life at the convent; it’s insolence, defined as “the unusual, uncommon, which is not usually done, rare, strange; and thus—take note, first of all ‘thus’—irritant, impertinent, challenging, insolent in the modern sense of the word.”

Usually I refuse concessions to solemnity as they are incompatible with my conviction that the absolute lightness of my being—far from being unbearable—is really very likeable. My insignificance is the source of my rest, my satisfaction and my laughter. In addition, insolence combines well with the unpublished—unusual—of a book about life in a convent of women. Iconoclastic, disrespectful, insolent and joyful: so I am and I cannot nor I would write otherwise.

2005: ABOUT THE DIFFICULTIES TO WRITE

Years go by, and my “pressing” desire to write does not materialize. I pile up loose sheets of paper and disjointed anecdotes. In addition to the reasons and excuses that potential writers we use to create so prolifically—overwork, lack of time—it took me time to understand—or invent?—a more important excuse: a paralyzing fear to distort the endearing, to the fact that when paper would absorb my memories, it could also dry their essence, their fluid and kaleidoscopic transvestism.

At a DEMAC workshop with Bety Meyer, I discovered this excuse twined among my dreams:

Over mixed sounds and feelings—distant detergent smell, barking of a dog, wore-out trimming of a sarape, humming of refrigerator—a non-existing scenario materializes somewhere in the back of my mind: a room with strong green walls, stained with grease, time and neglect. The center of the room is taken up by a long, very long and narrow table surrounded by several women. It’s a warm evening. Light comes in horizontally and fanciful, throwing golden thistle and casting shadows, besides hiding the women traits instead of disclosing them.

On the table, thread cones and tubes, chalks, clay and set-squares hide between pieces of velvet, silk, tulle, organdy, lace embroidered with spangle, wool felt and linen, a lot of linen. Tangled among fabrics, thin-pointed, buttonhole, thwart, tailor scissors. Below fabrics, threads and scissors, glimpses of dozen objects’ patterns drawn in one single large sheet of tissue paper which, I am certain, I myself unstapled and detached from a handcraft magazine.

Women chatter impatient, although I don’t distinguish their words. I try to concentrate. In my right hand I have a pair of tailor scissors, huge, like poultry’s, but longer and thin; with my left hand I smooth the paper folds which resist my efforts. Shadows and reflections prevent me from seeing clearly, but I start to cut. Whenever I lower the scissors’ blade, the table answers the scissors’ cut with a clack. Clack, clack. Women stretch their neck to see the cuts. I don’t distinguish their faces, I don’t understand their words, I don’t identify one single voice, but I know that they want me to finish once and for all; they are exasperated and each clack seems to exasperate them more.

On both sides of the paper, patterns of clothes and toys, quilts and kitchen mitts squeeze together and overlap; all of them life-size and available in several sizes nested one inside the other; the patterns are so intertwined together, that a slacker eyelid is enough to get lost between the lines.

The horizontal light doesn’t let me open my eyes at all; moreover, it pushes the scissors’ shadow just above the line that I’m trying to cut. Taking advantage of this light and shadow confusion, the patterns move and confuse. Clack, I cut where there’s no line; clack, clack, lines play hide and seek under the heavy scissors.

I struggle to separate the patterns that I want from those that I don’t. The front of a skirt on the bias, no; nor the turns of a formal attire collar, nor the pocket of a jacket nor the back of a doll. I do want the piqué bib and the denim shirt sleeve. I don’t want the tie, nor the cushion, nor the suede patches for the Aranese sweater; however, I do want the silk roses.

The women laugh and rush me, increasingly exasperated. The scissors clack, clack, weigh until my arm is numb. The patterns are drawn in blue and red, with continuous or stippled lines; it seemed easy to distinguish them, but now they mix up and I cannot hit on those that I want. The huge scissors, clack, clack, doesn’t obey me; or is it that the lines move as soon as they feel its blade?

I just wanted the shirt, the bib and the roses, but when I try to cut their patterns, not only I tear to pieces twenty projects that don’t interest me, but I also mutilate one of the roses. Moreover, when I cut the sleeves of the shirt, I mistake the armhole with the bottom of a trouser, and the cuffs with the tie. The cuts are wider each time; I remove large pieces of the tissue paper, I crumple them up and throw them to the floor. I know that there are parts of things that I wanted.

The scissors are heavier with each cut. On the floor, the stack of discarded patterns, paper patchwork, large pieces, little strips, wrinkled balls and confetti, keeps growing.

The women are exasperated, they clap their hands; my hand shakes with the tailor scissors, clack, clack. There are no traces of the bib; the shirt lacks some parts; and out of the three roses, I lost one and the other two, did the women took them or I wrinkled them by mistake?

As long as I didn’t start to write about them, my years in the convent were nothing more than a flow of images, feelings, rejections and nostalgia without clear-cut edges. Now, as I write, I define them; I chose this and that, and that over there. I cut a lot, I hurt, I repair, I alter. I try to stick to what I decide, but page after page I realize that I cut and lose not only what I wanted to put sideways, but also what I had chosen to rescue. In the end, only what was left remains. The printed word on paper, such as the scissors’ cut on the patterns’ sheet, divides forever. Written word—such as the scissor’s cut—cannot be undone.

1991: ABOUT ME AND THE TRUTH, CUPS OF COFFEE IN BETWEEN

What I write looks like reality; at least it is almost as amazing as reality. But it is not reality. And this is because such reality doesn’t exist removed of memories, phobias and loves. Today I realize it when I sit down to have some coffee with three friends of mine who are former nuns. We try to recreate, the four of us, what really happened that day, around that fact, behind those specific words.

For the first time, after years of silence, we compare what we remember, what we have built, recreated and invented over the years to give meaning to what we lived. At the convent, we kept quiet about everything; we learned not to share and, usually, we did so heroically. So much accumulated silence has had deforming effects, very different in each one of us.

On the other hand, I confirm that reality is constructed through dialogue; the sense, the meaning, the sequences, causality itself, did not exist until we started talking. We want to talk, we need to talk; we talk. We talk all at the same time, and we superimpose at least four versions of every fact and of every day when we shared the same air. What happened, how it happened, why I happened? For each question, four, five, six incompatible answers. I suspect that, as a protection and a defense, we’ve eliminated images and words of our memories. At least in their first expression, all versions tend to be pale, dull and unintelligible; but if we insist on defining them, then colors and edges, textures, contrasts, the unbelievable, finally appear. In the end, four or more versions face first, then they get braided, but they refuse to merge into a single reality; it takes us a lot of time to share them; each of us has matured her own way.

Interestingly, we coincide effortless in marginal or enveloping memories, such as odors, temperature, light intensity and tone of voice. We also share the uneasiness when we face the ambiguity of a lifestyle that could be the vanguard of a female, feminist, and Amazon culture, but that in fact was, and largely keeps being, a radical version of the prevailing misogynistic patriarchy.

We mix up our need to compare, contrast and validate our versions of the convent with anecdotes of our lives as ex-nuns. By dint of being closer, of having lived them in conditions of a greater dialogue and less secrecy, we find more matches despite the natural diversity. We identify the experience of being out with the argument of El Bulto, by Gabriel Retes. Also we were in a coma for ten, fifteen, twenty years; as Lauro, the central character of El Bulto, we had to restart our existence with a Mexico that we didn’t know, with music that had never heard and that we didn’t understand; with clothes, style of speaking, prices and goods other than those of our adolescence. Besides, the dates coincide: as well as Lauro, we left the world at the beginning of the 1970s, and we returned to it quite later.

As almost every time two or more former nuns we meet, we spend time assessing what we know of our contemporaries at the Congregation; especially those who entered with us: our cohort, our batch. Of those two or three who remain at the convent, usually we know their whereabouts. Of those who are leaving, with the exception of a few, generally we lose track of the rest. We review the names and the stories of the few that we are able to locate: one is a fairly conventional mother head of family; another keeps being the lover of a priest; another lives in a commune; three live alone and work in private Catholic schools. Of the rest, we don’t know with certainty what they do or where they live. We bet that the majority doesn’t recognize in public their years as nuns, although one, conversely, still dresses as a nun and asks to be called sister or mother.

After sharing what we scarcely know about those who are not with us drinking coffee around this table, the four of us four, with newly filled cups, we pick up the thread that originally draw us together: tune up memories. We try to describe our current feelings about religious life: there is one who complains of not having left it before; one who confesses that she normally prefers not to remember those times, and also one who, like me, considers that it was worth to be a nun: as it is worth to climb snowy peaks, skydive, fall in love or practice any other extreme sport.

In view of the extent of our disagreements, we desist from validating our memories; we prefer to take great delight in describing—and reviving—the intensity of the conventual climate, which at different times made us scream in pain or ecstasy, in guilt or sanctity; which pushed us to a martyr-type self-immolation or a desperate suicide. The emotional climate of the convent was intense, dense and complex. The directive of a heroic, unconditional surrender, didn’t neutralized a series of immodest struggles for power, envies and quarrels. Overlapping, but distinguishable, we lived generosities, scruples, depressions, eccentricities and childish behaviors, wrapped in an exaltation which, for being customary, was imperceptible; which fed itself on mortifications, secrets, loyalties, affective and emotional fasts, corporal and anorexic fasts, spiked belts, flagellation and other extremisms which, with remarkable frequency, generated —or at least alternated with—an affectionate, serene, sweet and balsamic, energizing, healing and humble peace, which contrasted with an unappeasable hunger for perfection, with the arrogance of those who know—that we knew, we believed it without any margin of doubt—that we professed the truth and improved in sanctity. And all of that, everything, framed by the strange dichotomy of a coexistence without respite and an absolute solitude.

The evening and the coffee come to an end. It is the first time that we get together since we lived together at the congregation twenty, nineteen, fifteen years ago; and I don’t think we will repeat the experience soon. Our meeting strengthened my commitment to this book and my responsibility to protect identities in the story. For this purpose, I intend to veil all the nuns and former nuns; to combine several of them in one or two characters, and to divide some others; make up all of them, let my omissions distort and stylize them; and, of course, alter names, dates and places. I call the result “my story”, and I assume all the responsibility of it. Is a literary reality which, according to Revueltas (1978), is “attempted […] realism. Not the realism of those who slavishly submit themselves to facts as if they were a sacred thing”. Because, as Revueltas himself points out:

Taken literally, reality is not always credible, or even worse, it is almost never credible. It deceives us, it makes us “act foolish” (as people beautifully says it), it makes us lose our senses, because it doesn’t meet the rules; the writer is the one who must establish them […] What’s terrible is not what we imagine as such: it’s always in the most simple fact, the one that is within our reach and the one we live with greater anguish and that becomes not communicable for two reasons: one, some shame of the suffering to express oneself; the other, the unlikeliness: that we won’t know how to prove that that is awfully true.

The literary reality which I write here is rather more plausible than the naked reality. My memory and its omissions—which tinge and enrich, mutilate and bias what I lived—shall take care of that. My defense mechanisms, my loves and my nostalgia also contribute to that; but above all, my commitment to the causes of feminism and lesbianism. I write as an activist; I start recognizing that I only have coined, worn words, that have already been taken over by “others”: basically by the existing patriarchy, the majorities, and those “normal”. When writing, I try to tame these other people’s words to make them my own: I use them, I dye them with my experience, I perfume them with my body, and I force them to talk about me; in the end, they will be meekly mine. My activism seeks to communicate pluralism and dignity. Women and minorities we have keep silent traditionally, and whenever we give away word to others, we lock up our bondages twice: we reinforce our alienation and that of the generations to come, and we reinforce the walls of segregation, ignorance and silence.

I also write to fulfill commitments, to proclaim discoveries and to discover, when writing them, other truths of mine. I write to release joys, traumas and fears; I write as a testimony of gratitude, as a claim, as a howl of joy and crying. And I also write because words pile up inside of me and cannot stand being silent anymore.

Ultimately, I write, and I want to put this fact on record, because I promised it to nine young women and men—one of them very young—who were driven by intolerance, lack of understanding and ignorance to seek death through a rope, barbiturates, arsenic, unprotected sex “on purpose”, or a gun. I believe that intolerance and ignorance can be cured, and that I can contribute to heal them, stating, screaming, that it’s okay to be “different”, that being lesbian or gay is a valid way of living; that it is a privilege to see life through the eyes of a minority and to write with the authority of a person who knows firsthand rejection and marginalization.

I imagine that, as it is a religious and minority experience, this text can bring about discomfort, displeasure and incomprehension. For some people, what’s dramatic will turn out to be ridiculous; what’s sublime, boring; and what’s intimate, grotesque. Maybe there could even be persons who see pornography, effrontery or aggression where I just disclosed the complex everyday life of women together. But I can’t nor I want to avoid such a risk.

 

PREMATURE ADOLESCENCE

1962: ABOUT adolescents, hunches and pedalling

It’s the second Tuesday of the month, the next retreat is still eighteen days off; Christmas is many more days off and there’s an eternity off before I go back to school. When there are classes, days fly, full with people, homework, contests; but now, during holidays, they crawl slowly, flaccid, empty. It’s cold; will snow ever fall on holidays?

At school I don’t think: I hear, I answer, I learn stories, I solve math problems quicker every time; I read, I knit, or I embroider flowers on the dancers’ skirts; or I lie belly down on a map, going over for a competition between schools in the area. During holidays, I think and think. I count how many days are there before next year’s first day of classes; how many hours before Christmas and Epiphany; how many minutes before the retreat. And whenever I remember, I adjust my accounts, all day long and until late at night. Thanks to my endless exercises calculating the time I still have to wait, I have a good grasp of the multiplication tables from seven to twelve, which when it’s double is twenty-four. Thus I turn weeks into days, and days into hours.

I’m using for the first time the most grotesque ten years of the planet: the body weighty, the legs awkward, the hair poufy and too long, the nails bitten; pimples, greasy nose, hair and more hair on the legs, in the armpits, and there below, at my pubis. I might swear that I also grow hairs inside: a tangle of thick curled hair that fills me and overflows.

The tasty of the grotesque is that at times I become invisible, although I suspect it is because I’m repulsive; I treasure the effect of my repulsiveness: nobody messes with me. I have housework, but it’s not too much: my share is to clean the ground floor of my house, a small apartment in downtown Puebla. Sweep, clean, fix up the kitchen, the small living room, the studio; windows, floors, dishes. I also have to iron; it’s what I like most. Two days a week I turn on the radio and I lose track of time: Kaliman, Javier Solis, the Hit Parade and baseball; the long, long games which I visualized in detail only based on words; I see the Titans running the bases, breaking bats, pitching, getting crowned: Musulungo Herrera, Zacatillo Guerrero, Moy Camacho and Jiquín Moreno. Through our ears we get many more details than those the eyes can see.

Some other times, living recklessly with Chucho el Roto, or at the microphone with all the singers, at the HR and the CD stations, songs and more songs, while I starch shirt collars and crinolines, without browning them with the iron. I fold underpants perfectly, I press the pleats of skirts and trousers. And as the housework only requires my hands, and as the radio isolates me but doesn’t require my care, I can think without stop, calculate deadlines, plan, let myself feel a little sad.

When I don’t iron, as soon as I finish my housework I don’t even notify anyone: I take out my bike and I start go round and round in the tenement courtyard. Let me be clear: the truth is that neither there’s a courtyard nor it’s a tenement. It’s a ten apartments building, constructed above a commercial store. The apartments, close one to the other, are pressed together around the skylight of the store. What we call the courtyard is the narrow corridor surrounding the skylight and communicating the apartments.

The courtyard is the common space of the tenement, of the building: where moms greet one another; exchange samples of their stews—food of Yucatan, of the Puebla range, of the Basque Country, of Apizaco, of Syria and of Tecamachalco: only one small taco, for the cavity in my molar, to repay your dish. Mothers and grandmothers complain, advise, diagnose, medicate one another. Dads barely cross words, very formal; they touch the brim of their hats. Children—the others, not me because I was born old—play school, house; baseball, soccer, cowboys, cops and robbers, ivory statues. I prefer to go out at night, alone in my bike. Then, dodging tricycles, and pots, I go round and round the corridor for hours and hours.

I pedal furiously. The first day of vacation my hands end burning; next day I have blisters; the third one, the blisters burst, the skins get stuck to the handlebar. Today I have my palms partly skinned and partly already with callus. Each three laps I deduct five minutes of my bills, of my deadlines.

While I pedal, I create heroic stories with tragic endings; or simple scenes with gloomy endings. Mother Inés of the retreats appears in some of my stories. Sometimes she goes through bad times, she contracts leprosy and she goes to Molokai; some other times I save her from cliffs, runaway trains, hailstorms or mammoths stampeding.

Ines is a cloister nun, young and delicate. More than pale she is transparent; through the skin of her hands I see her veins pulse. Her habit is black, without spot or wrinkle; perfect. From her belt, also black, hangs a rosary, also black and huge, which taps to the beat of her footsteps. I see her, I hear her with just closing my eyes. I have never talked to her; and when I think of it—instead of inventing stories—I suspect that I will never do it. My mom sends me to the monthly retreats at Ines’ convent, which last the whole Saturday; there we eat in silence while Ines reads stories of Saints, most of them really bloody.

One mother lulls us with a talk, another directs the prayer, another teaches us chants. But I dedicate myself to watch Inés, although she is not in charge of us, and although she is far. I look at her and I look at her, I follow her wherever I can, I help her although she doesn’t notice it, I accompany her very pious in her worship at the Chapel and, like her, I stay motionless the long sixty minutes.

Inés is in charge of taking us from the small meeting room to the Chapel, to the dining room, to the gardens. To go into the chapel we must wear a veil, and as almost all of us we forget to wear ours—or our moms fear that we lose our Sunday mantillas—Inés lends us small tulle triangles or circles. I never wore my veil, on purpose; it was a good excuse to get close to Inés. Until one day, months ago, when I caught nits and I had to comb my long hair with a metallic comb soaked in louse-killer. Since then I bring my veil and I no longer have an excuse to get close to Inés during the distribution of small veils.

She knows that I exist, but she doesn’t know anything else about me. Conversely, I know a lot about her, although no one has told me anything. What I know, I learned it in Story of a Soul by saint Teresita. Because Inés is identical to Teresita: quiet, smiling… and ill. Inés is ill, I know it, although no one told me; I think that she has acute anemia, tuberculosis, or leukemia. I fear that right now she is in the hospital or, even worse, that she no longer is any place. I didn’t see her during the last retreat and I think I heard, or understood, that she was in the hospital.

While I’m riding my bicycle, I imagine her suffering; I presage that I will never see her again. I cry her absence a little and I see her dying in my imagination, always heroic, saying me goodbye. Tomorrow I will change the end of Inés’ story; tomorrow I will imagine something more tragic and in a situation requiring more of me. Perhaps tomorrow I will see her falling, wounded with arrows by a column of angels or coughing blood due to a fulminant tuberculosis. And between lap and lap, I surrender to the lonely grief of losing what I never had or will have.

1963: ABOUT the end of guilt and the begining of light

My anguish is intense, but fickle: it abandons me for months and, just when lower my guard, it attacks me abusive, it comes to blows with me, it throws me down, it defeats me. The first time it did it in my dreams; now it comes when I am fully awake. Its name is scruples.

When I get ill from scruples, I only pay attention to its asphyxia: the suspicion of me, the repentance and the despair chasing one another in exhausting cycles in which “lies”, “robberies”, infidelity and “sloths” precede, or follow?, the agony of being bad and the virulent guilt that feeds itself on details such as biting the host or receive communion without being fasting.

I got menarche when I was ten years and some months old, in full ignorance, just in the middle of a struggle with scruples. That’s why I didn’t get scared; I just noticed the blood that was so dark that it didn’t look like blood; I didn’t give it a name, or pay attention to it, or care about it. The first month went by, the second followed, and only the third month my mother got aware of it; she scolded me—I knew it, I expected so—because I didn’t tell her anything, because I hid it, because I’m as grown up as I am imprudent. But, who cares about the body eccentricities when the soul is dying? Agony snatches even the last breath from me:

I wish intensely to live once again this morning, and keep quiet rather than talk; keep the secrets, not harm, not exaggerate, keep quiet, keep quiet. It’s my only wish. Recover the words spoken, delete them from the ears who hosted them. As this big wish is impossible, I look for one of second class: that oblivion covers with dust what I did; that time conceals everything I do wrong. But I cannot get that either. I have a third wish, inferior, almost negligible: to cry, bemoan, drown my existence in repentance; never be forgiven; suffer the blame.

My mom has a lot of work these days; she sews for other people and during the first communion season she makes up for tough times. That’s why I can use all the time to torture myself. In my hiding-place, in the midst of the gas tanks on the roof, I think, I think, I suffer and I grieve until fear cuts my ideas or until the bell of the church of Santa Clara rings and reminds me that I must run buy the bread: fifteen pieces of water bread, at five cents apiece. Water bread runs out fast; then there’s only rolls left at ten cents apiece.

What faults do I commit? All of them; sin is my breath, my heartbeat. How to avoid it? I can’t. It assails me early and late in the day; and I succumb. Day after night and night after day.

The scruples season ends when the tiredness saturates my senses to such an extent that although anxiety increases and roams in front of me, I don’t even notice it. Then I win a truce and, exhausted, sad, empty, I start to stretch out my ideas, my desires, my concerns. The truce, however, is always short; as soon as I start enjoying myself living and growing, I get overconfident, I lower my guard, and one day, too soon, I wake again in the grip of the scruples and its agonies. At that very moment, at the start of a new season of torture, I go into a black tunnel; I can’t see the end of it, but I perceive light behind my back because I’m near the entrance. At that moment, I can think a little; if don’t it fast enough and I move forward in the tunnel, I will have to wait for the arrival of another truce of tiredness. Therefore, when yesterday I discovered myself entangled in a new battle, falling into another defeat, I decided that I would not bear another cycle; that today I would act to avoid it.

The lives of saints explain that the only way to overcome the scruples lies in obey blindly the confessor. This means that those who are scrupulous, at least those who later become saints, have a confessor, a bedside priest who guides them spiritually. The books also assert that the most visible symptom of this malady is, precisely, the urgency to confess frequently, several times a day. The saints of all ages lived an incontinence of guilt that tormented them day and night.

My case is different: I don’t like confession. I believe in the sin that I commit every step I take, but I don’t believe in the restorative power of confession. I rarely confess and I don’t regret it. Moreover, at the confessional I speak in code, with a coded language that only I understand. I really trust the priest, he doesn’t care about the details. What I want with my sins is not that the priest forgives them, but to take time back at every moment; I don’t want my sins to have ever happened.

But if books are right, and some of them must be, then I have to look for a confessor and obey him blindly. My scant light is enough to decide it so.

First I’m thinking of going to the parish, but the priest doesn’t inspire me confidence. My mom invites him to eat at home once in a while, and it appalls me to think that someday he could comment something or that my mom could make something out, although no one says anything. Because she reads minds, she perceives the expressions, or perhaps she just concocts things, but she is right almost always. Therefore, I rule out the parish priest and I don’t even worry because I still have many more priests left. I live in downtown Puebla; going in different directions there are seven temples less than six hundred meters away the farthest. I decide to go with the Dominicans; there, the monks are always different; many of them are there only incidentally; there’s no danger or an opportunity for indiscretions, and perhaps I can get in touch with one who’s kind, patient, and preferably unknown.

Santo Domingo, I mean the temple, startles me; its smell is distinctive: sweat piled up along centuries, mixed with smoke, wax and tallow, incense, grime, and food. This distinguishes it from other temples; on the right, across a wall, is the market, and thus the smell of cilantro, papalo, onion and garlic, all rancid, merge with the rest of odors. On the left, also on the other side of a wall, is the convent’s kitchen: smell of chick-peas, beans, potatoes and chicken, in full boil, slip into the nave of the church, after a tour of the golden chapel of the Rosary.

The backs of benches pile up dirt in beads; rosaries of black, soft, beads, which yield to my idle nails on Sundays, but that altogether make me arch my back, close my eyes and grind my teeth. They are as a persistent, progressive smallpox, although surely curable if a diligent scourer would dare. The whole seems appropriate: repellent and disgusting. Thus my grandmother’s advice gets fulfilled: remedies heal better when they hurt, and when they taste worse they heal better.

I line up in the shorter row of the confessional. Today I shall not conceal anything to priest; I go over my speech over and over. I prepared myself reading the biography of saint Teresita and that of other two saints. I will use a precise and mature language; the language which—according to my readings—is used within the spiritual world; surely, the one priests are used to listen to, mostly in the confessionals.

When it’s my turn, I kneel without knowing who’s hiding behind the screen. He says: Hail Mary Most Pure and I realize that he is the bald priest of the eight o’clock mass. He has a huge tongue that makes him talk weirdly, confusingly; he spits out tiny saliva jets when he pronounces the letters S and T; he swallows vowels; and although he must have more than twenty years living in Mexico, he speaks as a newcomer from somewhere else; he is a Spaniard, but he speaks as a Portuguese.

I answer: Conceived without sin, and I tell him at once that I want an advice and I explain him what is happening to me with as much detail as I can. For a while he seems to listen to me, but then he doesn’t let me finish. He says that confession is a sacrament and that I am mocking. I reply that I haven’t finish explaining him, but he starts questioning me about what I think, what I read, what I see; about my female friends first, what I do with them, what do we talk about; and then about my male friends; I answer laconic: yes and no; a bit and sometimes; I answer him even if I can’t decipher what he says; or if I decipher it but I don’t understand him, then I store the words in my memory to look at their meaning later in books. I don’t want to talk too much so I don’t regret it for weeks. My sparingness seems to get on his nerves, but I can hardly think of anything related to what he asks me. When he gets really mad, he starts interrogating me about what I feel; that seems weird to me, and I really don’t know what to answer him. He says that he has to know my feelings in my whole body, temperature, humidity, pressure; he asks me if I touch my legs, inside, up, down, if I caress myself, if I caress someone else, if someone caresses me. I keep silent and that infuriates him even more; then he tells me that I am a hypocrite; and as this word has always sound like chipotle to me, I don’t know why I start to laugh. Of course that enrages him really seriously. Even his voice pours out strident.

The interrogation has already taken as long as a new candle takes to drip down completely; a long, long time. I measure time by the candles that burn to my right, at the altar of Ecce Homo, the one my grandmother calls Santoixiomo. I just remember that and it makes me laugh: why am I distracted by this disfigure, another word of the same grandmother? I cannot focus on what the priest is saying; I’m repellent to anger; the candles are going out, they are really ordinary; as they trickle down so fast, only the naked candlewick remains, without paraffin wax; then a long flame rises during three or four seconds and burns everything, then it goes off suddenly and it only leaves the smell of smoke. The priest keeps speaking; another candle goes off; I hear the priest, but I don’t listen to him; I listen to the candlewick. At that moment I don’t feel anything either, the flame hypnotizes me; later, much later, my knees, legs and arms will hurt for having tighten myself so much, so rigid, so tense, so still.

The Father is so angry that he cries out; the people at the line look at him and then pretends; I remain still, very still. I am a wooden statue: I don’t move, I don’t think, I don’t feel. At the beginning the fright made me cry a little bit, but now even my mouth is dry. He breathes noisily, he pants, he finds it difficult to inhale; now he doesn’t speak fluidly anymore, but harshly. And due to that, or maybe to something else, everything keeps lengthening: time and things, his words and my silence; everything becomes long and slow, as the flames of the naked candlewicks. He tells me now that I am a hypocrite woman. Never before anyone had call me women; I think about it so long and so slow that my confusion of chilpotle with hypocrite doesn’t make me laugh; they don’t even look alike, but I do confuse them!

He spits out the words, he sprays me through the grid; he smells awful. He tells me that am going down the road to perdition due to my “abominable deviations”, and that he’s going to teach me what I really should confess. And then, without thinking, without wanting it, I do what no one must do: I stand up long and slow from the confessional and I leave him speaking all alone, snorting, gasping. I don’t wait till he tells me that I can leave in peace, I don’t cross myself when leaving and I don’t stop a little while kneeling at a bench. I go away quickly and silently. I do it in peace, and when I realize that peace goes with me, I smile and breathe all the air, all the stars and all the smells of the night. I confessed nothing and I don’t need forgiveness.

The street, that night, is transparent; it’s washed in moonlight. I think that I should hate the priest with all my soul, but there is something so sweet inside me, that there’s no room for hatred or sadness.

Tonight I’m growing suddenly. I get rid of dependence, of reliance that someone else can solve my sorrows; of complacency before someone who would want to fiddle with my soul. Today I am grown up; simply, I am already.

The story doesn’t end that Friday night. On Monday, browsing through the newspaper that my dad brings every night, I read in the social section that Brother so-and-so died suddenly. A couple of obituaries confirm it; the blessed priest died that very same Friday night. Do I have to feel bad? I can’t and I don’t want to. For the first time in a long time I am free from scruples and guilt; I feel good, healthy, clean and grown up, really grown up; because this is not a truce, it’s the end of war. I know it. The priest took my torments with him and since then I drift light.

I already knew that this happens with scruples; they heal by miracle, and forever.

The bad thing, or perhaps the good thing, is that my ability to speak of myself, of my inner world, also disappeared. I sense it when I was eleven, twelve, and I confirm it at seventeen; I suffer it at twenty, twenty-four, and after that.

1964: ABOUT martyrdom, it´s enchantment and some consequence

I’m not twelve years old yet, but I already weight seventy kilos and I’m eighteen centimeters taller than my mom. My size generates adult privileges. The day before yesterday, for example, I accompanied my aunt to see Dialogue of Carmelites, an art film in black and white, based on a work by Bernanos. Two or three months ago I read a chronicle on that film—voice of girl in the square of terror, said the article—but seeing it was captivating, overwhelming and something more. Yes it was. My stomach aches due to sadness, excitement and so much crying. Now I recreate, embellish, distort or delete scenes of the film—today it’s my film—that I project inside of me, effortless. I haven’t stop crying, sometimes with tears, sometimes without tears. This film is changing the most important part of adolescence: my future.

Blanche, the protagonist, is a young aristocrat who becomes a Discalced Carmelite nun without vocation, only to escape the French Revolution. When entering the convent, she meets Marie, a mature nun who tries to teach her how to be a nun and also protects her from the violence that inflames Paris. There’s also another novice, a peasant girl who, besides vocation, is hungry for virtue and perfection.

Almost from the beginning my heart got overexcited due to the glances and silences exchanged between the three nuns. They share something endearing; exactly endearing: complicity, misunderstanding of the whole world, and three different approaches to absolute surrender, to radicalism, to heroism, to sanctity.

The thrill of the film increases and increases until the revolutionaries approach the convent. Then Marie expels Blanche, to save her life. She forces her to leave and go away. The pain in their glances ran through the whole cinema. The film was in French and had no subtitles, but I don’t think I failed to understand the meaning of a single comma.

Marie says goodbye to Blanche in a scene that got nailed in my womb. At the door, she gives her a sculpture of the Virgin—or was it the Holy Child?—and she asks her to save it from destruction. The image is the seed of religious life that will bear fruit again when the country gets peaceful again. Blanche had no true vocation, she didn’t have to die; it was enough and even more than enough that she just saved the image for better times. All the other nuns, from the elderly to the very young, make a vow of martyrdom. The Carmelites look magnificent, fearless, invincible.

Ultimately, the revolutionaries break into the convent. Faced with the nuns’ aplomb, they show respect, almost fear. The nuns don’t withstand or get frightened; they know that they will die beheaded and the breathe peace, joy. They leave the convent toward a public square dominated by the guillotine.

The nuns, at least the cloistered ones, are pale. The Carmelites of the film, moreover, are mild, birds, sighs. They form a serene line, in shocking contrast to the dense and disorderly crowd surrounding the scaffold, screaming and howling. The silence and peace of the convent are not contaminated with the hatred of the crowd; the nuns even sprinkle with their peace the uproar of the destruction, the screaming, the thirst for blood and death.

Blanche, wrapped by the mass, awfully sad looks how the row of her sisters moves toward the scaffold; she is dressed as a secular; she carries the image as one carries a small child: wrapped in a blanket. The multitude shouts in anger, for revenge and envy; the nuns perspire peace, dignity and grace. Yes, so it is.

Marie heads the row heading to the scaffold, and at one point, she starts singing the Veni Creator Spiritus. All the nuns join her, singing with energy, but slowly, sweetly. At that moment I cried as I had never wept before; and I cry again whenever I review that scene.

Veni, Creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita.
Imple superna gratia
quae tu creasti pectora.

A chant as mild rain, which doesn’t spatter, but soaks; the row slides without fuss, with the passionate serenity of certainties.

Qui Paraclitus diceris,
donum Dei Altissimi,
fons vivus, ignis, caritas
et spiritalis unctio.

Tu septiformis munere
destre Dei tu digitus
tu rite promissum Patris
sermone ditans guttura.

Come creative Spirit and fill with grace the hearts you have created; You, source of consolation, living source, fire, love, balm for the spirit, finger of God’s right hand: give us what the Father promised us: a strong voice.

The very simple chant, the virginal rhythm; the chorus of women in unison, one same silk, one single velvet. The whole convent, all in one line except Blanche; a stream of peace in the midst of hatred; in line to the guillotine, source of life, although no one else knows it, with abundant serenity, confidence, genuine joy, certainty, and also with melancholy, sadness and a such tasty pain.

Accende lumen sensibus
infunde amorem cordibus
infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti.

Lighten our senses, shed light on our hearts, convert our bodies’ weakness into courage and strength.

One by one, the nuns climb to the scaffold, and the guillotine, with a noisy slash, decapitates and silences one by one. The intensity of the choir decreases with each head that rolls down; but far from weakening or breaking, the chant gains in strength, although each time there’s less voices sustaining it. The Veni Creator Spiritus is diluted in a martyrdom embraced voluntarily and heroically. Each phrase is purer, clearer; the voices are fewer, but the emotion and the serenity increase; they don’t neutralize each other; they compete, the progress; they prevail.

Hostem repellas longius
pacemque dones protinus
ductore sic te previo
vitemus omne noxium.

In natural G, the notes vibrate effortlessly in my throat. You dispel the enemies and you wrap us in peace that withstands adversity; If you go in front, nothing can harm us; nothing can harm us irreparably; not even death.

Marie blesses each nun who climbs to the scaffold. They exchange glances, they smile with their eyelids; they say goodbye, untroubled; they hug each other with their eyes only.

From amidst the crowd, Blanche feels agitated due to the absolute solitude of her faintheartedness; segregated from the martyrs, expelled from the altar where heroes are confirmed, alienated, grey, with her clumsy clothes and staring at the spectacle of the spotless nuns, with their elegant, austere, simple Carmelite habits.

Per te sciamus da Patrem
noscamus atque Filium
te utriusque spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

As the nuns are tormented, Blanche’s anguish increases on the screen: she suffers, she regrets, she drowns in nostalgia, she sinks in the emptiness of loss, of loneliness, of the heroic gazes which exclude her.

In the middle of the square, the martyrdom continues. With each drop of the guillotine, with each voice severed, the volume of the Gregorian chant decreases. The convent is no longer a community, a group, and gets converted into distinguishable women. Seven serene women, the guillotine drops; six magnificent and beautiful women, guillotine; five throats—sopranos and mezzos—keep singing in unison, guillotine; four different faces, guillotine; one voice more vanishes, and the choir is not one anymore, because it is left without its unique and diverse voice, and hence three individual voices can now be distinguished: one already cracked, another vibrant, the other emphatic, guillotine; a duet remains, guillotine: and then Marie’s voice sounds alone, composed, intense. I drown in tears. What will be left when she also falls silent? Who can resist the invitation to die singing?

Presta, Pater piissime,
patrique compar unice

In the last scene, when the Veni Creator has no more stanzas left, Blanche surrenders to the seduction of a martyrdom embraced without fuss and she approaches the scaffold. With only her gaze she questions Marie, the mature nun who can carry her own martyrdom to the superhuman extreme of renouncing to death. Marie assents; they weave their gazes into a complicity that no one but them can share.

Blanche tilts her head; the row is over; only Marie and her are left, exchanging silences that nullify the crowd and their screams. Marie, singing with serene aplomb, removes wimple and veil; her hair spills out, and with that simple gesture she gets transfigured into a secular. Without stop singing, but lengthening sentences, she crowns Blanche with her own black, heavy veil, and so she reinstates her to the convent life, but not as novice anymore, but as a consecrated nun and, without words, she hands her over the last place to the scaffold. Blanche takes her place, picks up from Marie’s throat the last sentence of the anthem and, in return, she gives her back the image of the Virgin.

Marie slips away through the throng, while Blanche, transfigured, all peace, kneels in the middle of the scaffold, and with her girlish voice concludes the Veni Creator right when the guillotine drops on her neck.

cum spiritu Paraclito
regnans per omne seculum.

Blanche defeated her cowardice, her dull destiny, and exchanged it for martyrdom. But the great, the immense, is Marie.

I review this denouement endlessly; I rock it, I embroider it, I wrap it up, and it keeps taking my breath away. I had never lived so much beauty; being a nun is a heroic adventure, a martyrdom; and living as a nun, such as Marie, is more heroic that dying decapitated.

1965: ABOUT THE warm surprise of loving AS A GROUP

It’s been a long time since Inés, my very first source of enthusiasm, is not even a memory. Now, being twelve years old, I live looking after Mother Arcelia, antithesis of fragile Ines. Mother Chela: strong, rosy-cheeked, full of energy, determination, noise and aplomb; she doesn’t wear a habit nor she carries a rosary in her waist, nor I have to wait a month to see her. Mother Chela is a nun of my school; I see her daily during the recesses, and two days in class when she grants breaks to Mother Lolita, who is so old that she falls asleep in classes and doesn’t notice that we organize knucklebones and Chinese sticks tournaments and championships at the back of the classroom.

Mother Chela is young and is full of energy: she doesn’t even sit in class! I like her so much that, as soon as I found out that she likes math, math began to fascinate me; as she likes to embroider, I embroider a tablecloth and its twelve napkins; and as she sings, I joined the rondalla^1^. I don’t know if she feels flattered or annoyed by my efforts to please her; she doesn’t let me know it, nor I think that I need it.

Chela celebrates her perpetual vows one of these days. She calls me at the end of classes and she invites me to join her. She asks me to bring the ring and present it in a specific part of the liturgy so that the priest blesses it and puts it onto her finger, or something like that. Then I find out that she only invites six students and, of my class, only Pilar and me; the other four are older. Three days before, she gathers the six of us and she explains us that the ceremony is very similar to that of an extreme unction, which is a preparation for death. It is also a mimic of a wedding due to the ring, a white dress and other details; in essence, everything will be sad, or at least so I perceive it.

The day of the ceremony it is raining at daybreak, something strange over here, where it always rains after lunch and well into the night, but it stops at dawn and afterwards every day starts clear and cold; then it becomes sunny and it only starts to become overcast halfway through lunch.

I leave home very early; I take the bus in the opposite direction to kill time without getting wet. When I get to college, I meet Chela’s mother family: a skinny and weary lady is her mother; she has brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews who aren’t at all like her. When the other students arrive, we get together right away; we are dressed in uniform and we carry around the neck the ribbon as responsible for the Marian Congregation. So Mother Chela asked us to get dressed. We give the impression of being just a few and silent, compared to the family, but we have the advantage of knowing where are the Chapel, the restrooms, the phone that must be borrowed to Mother Procuratrix or Mother Doorkeeper, and all the rest of the school and of the city.

We go to the chapel that smells like lilies and tuberoses; there are hundreds of them. Her mother and a sister brought them from their village or city; I don’t know for sure. A Mother who I don’t know –they say that she comes from Mérida—plays the harmonium; another one, much younger, lights the candles and turns on the lamps lighting the alabaster lattice from behind. She tells us in which bench to sit; when she ends seating everybody, she goes to the door of the Chapel and organizes the entry procession: two acolytes, then two Fathers, many nuns, some known, some not, all wearing their habit. At the end, after a long empty space, Mother Chela appears, also wearing her habit, but also a wedding veil.

Never before I had seen all the Mothers of the school dressed in habit. They look so different; they are theatrical, they float, they dance with their veils and their skirts down to the floor. They change completely: instead of looking sloppy, now they look sublime and even elegant.

The sung mass starts, heavy and slow. At one point, Mother Chela stands up from the kneeler which she occupies in the center aisle and walks toward one side of the altar; there she kneels on the bare floor and, very slowly, with enormous grace, she stretches herself out face down with her arms in cross. The priest says something about death, that it is forever. At that moment someone in the family lets out a sob; it’s an old woman; perhaps the grandmother. Someone else starts sobbing, and another and another. I would also like to cry.

The six girls of the family and the six students we are given wicker baskets full of jasmine and fresh orange blossoms laid over rose petals; all the perfumes blend thus making us feel seasick. Mother Superior directs us merely with her glance; she instructs us to leave the pews, to form two lines in the central aisle with the girls in front of us, and that, walking very slowly, we encircle Mother Chela, who’s still lying on the marble floor, certainly very cold. Then she instructs us to cover her with the pink rose petals, the white orange blossoms and the buttery jasmines. We cover her up; we bury her under flowers and perfume; the choir of nuns sings something also about death, which punctures my soul and deflates it. I feel sad, I sigh; the student on my right lends me her hand; I don’t know if Mother Superior ordered us to do that, but I accept that hand which strokes my sorrow; and I lend my hand to the companion on my left; thus, the older six and the younger six—who are completely dressed in white—we end crying, taken by the hands.

Then, Mother Chela rises slowly; first she gets on her knees without leaning on anything, and so slowly that the petals and the jasmines slip from her body and pile up drawing her body’s contour on the floor where she was laying. It is as if she had divided herself in two: a Mother Chela still lying, drawn with perfumes and flowers on the floor, and the other Chela who gets up until she stands perfectly still, without crying or smiling; with her eyes half-closed.

We burst into tears all at the same time, students and girls; neither I know if Mother Superior ordered so, because I don’t see her. We dry our eyes and we smile one other, the older and the younger, still dizzy due to the perfumes and the sadness. At that same moment, I realize that I have stopped been a lonely admirer to be part of a whole bunch. The proximity is immediate, the thirst for confidences is urgent; and the slyness of complicity prevails as a huge smile on our stiff and burning faces due to rub with our hands the salt of tears, in our failed attempts to keep us dry.

The following Monday, although nobody specifically suggested it, the six students we gather at the recess; and since then we all gather during all the recesses. Now those thirty minutes seem very short to us; we all want to talk, but we also want to hear ourselves; we want to get to know us, to confirm that our joys and individual agonies are really common. We were all lonely adorers of Mother Arcelia; now we are united in one and same worship and we spend the recesses talking about her, as other schoolmates talk about in style actors and singers. We secretly take photos, photos of Chela; we rescue from the wastepaper baskets the notes that she writes, we play to imitate her writing and we repeat anecdotes from her past and present, real and made-up.

I have had hundreds of schoolmates, but it is the first time that I am part of a group. The six we are only one: we are the same, we have a secret language, and we understand each other without words. And if that is not called friendship, then, what would it be called?

The joy took us six months too short. Yesterday Arcelia mother smiled at us as they passed. As usually does not turn to even look at us, we did not know what to do. Today we understood: Lolita’s mother told the whole group that the mother gave Chela destination; to send it to another community. Oh, how we wept! We took photos; we followed all day and evening too.

Our joy only lasted six short months. Yesterday, mother Arcelia smiled at us while passing us by. As she normally doesn’t even turn around to see us, we didn’t knew what to do. Today we know it all: mother Lolita told our whole group that mother Chela has been assigned another destination; that she is send to another community. Oh, how we cried! We took pictures of her; we followed her all day long, and even during the afternoon.

Two of my actual friends were boarding college pupils and they devised a way to spend close to mother Arcelia the very few days she’ll still be here. She lets us help her update the news boards, prepare material for mother Lolita, fix the cabinets, change books of place and transplant ferns.

Finally, the day that we didn’t want arrives: today we woke without mother Chela, and the tearful six of us decided to give our group a name: now we are the “Hope Club”, because the hope that she will return unifies us. It would have been more appropriate to name us the “Tears Club” or Sadness Club”, because cry until our stomach hurts. And tomorrow we will cry again, and many days more. We don’t want our tears to finish, but every day we go on digesting it; and in less than a month we stop getting together, sustaining us, even greeting us; everything finishes.

Mother Chela left the Congregation shortly after she arrived to her new destination; we found out through mother Lolita, maybe senile, but perceptive; she called us aside to tell us about it. Nobody else confirmed us the news, and even less someone could or was willing to tell us about her whereabouts. Ten years afterwards, one morning I discovered Chela at the entrance of a school of her former congregation, that at that time it was mine. The nuns didn’t talk to her, didn’t ask her to enter, didn’t offer her a chair, a roof, a glass of water. Chela, sitting on the sidewalk, out in the open, seemed to be waiting for something; I imagine that she had gone to pick up some personal documents.

When she noticed my presence, she turned her head to take me out of her line of sight. For my part, I could not talk to her. Like her, I had already embraced the unofficial rule that we should not talk to former nuns due to the danger that their betrayal could be contagious or, simply, because somehow they had ceased to exist.

1966: ABOUT two decisions WHICH, not for being early, WERE less lucid

How much does a girl, an eleven, thirteen, fourteen years old teenager, know? And how much she can know? Against what old people assert, this girl can know a lot because she not only understands enough of everything, but because she also has time to spare and, as she lacks the responsibilities and concerns of adults, she can focus for hours and for days until she finds what she looks for; weighing up situations, conceiving arguments, discerning, imagining, finding truths and paths. That is how, before been fifteen, I took two decisions. And I did it well

The first decision has the longest story. Everything started when, being already eleven years old, one common afternoon when my father was trying to prepare the classes with which he completed his income, my little sister discovered, laughing, that she could not only walk but run without falling down if she balanced her eleven clumsy months of life with her arm horizontally extended over the living-room center table.

The baby turned around the table, with her arm extended as wheel axle; how much fun, how much freedom thanks to the support! The scene was pure joy and noise, but my father’s scarce patience couldn’t withstand it more than five minutes. With a shout, he ordered the baby to shut up; she answered him yelling, screaming; she wasn’t a year old. Then, for the first and only time, I faced my father; I throw in his face the unreasonable of his anger: “If you knew that you were so impatient, why did you brought her to the world?” The baby kept quiet. The entire scene was totally new. My father went even more silent. I also kept quiet. No one knew what to do. The three of us we stayed still and silent for a while. My dad and I looked at each other in the eyes. The baby looked at me and then at my dad, and back at me; and just when so much immobility and silence were becoming unbearable, the baby took the initiative and disclosed her ingenuity: she let herself land on her butt. She did it on purpose. She shouted as if she were in pain. At that moment I understood how brilliant was my little sister: babies do not feel pain when they fall on their butt because they wear diapers, and at that time diapers were very thick, with several layers of cheesecloth covered with cotton flannel. She screamed rowdily. I ran to pick her up and my dad asked me if she had hurt herself. There was no way to calm her down. I held her, I cradled her, I told her, ‘Calm down, calm down, baby’. My dad pulled from somewhere a sugar lump, offered it to the baby who began to calm down, very slowly.

Since that day my father respects me, he treats me as a fully-grown person; he asks me, he listens to me. Since that day, I also began to pay attention at what children think and feel; it dawn on me that, due to their condition of dependency, they are not happy, they are too dependent and vulnerable; their happiness ‘dances to the tune’ set by older persons.

I started to gather data confirming my discovery: due to an evolutionary mechanism—I must make clear that I am currently a staunch evolutionist—adults believe in the myth of the happy childhood; a myth so effective that it manages to delete the memories of childhood itself. As they don’t remember how unhappy they were, they have children of their own and they perpetuate the species. Another function of this myth is to anesthetize dads and moms before the pain, the distress and the anger they provoke in their children, no matter how much they love them. Of course, all of this gets worse when parents don’t love their kids. And many, heaps of them, don’t love their children. Another myth says that this is impossible, despite the evidence. But that is another issue, and I don’t want to blend it with the unhappiness of the little ones.

As they believe in the myth that children are essentially happy, adults don’t feel guilty and can close their eyes before the absolute and heartbreaking infantile helplessness. I’ve corroborated it: adults don’t see the infantile suffering; they believe in the myth, even if the child cries, kicks and stops breathing at times.

I’ve given a lot of thought to this subject and every day it gets clearer and more forceful. Now I have no doubt: I know that I’ve seen the truth. I cannot be more objective because although I haven’t yet forgotten my childhood I have the advantage of no longer being a girl. I am 14 and I am treated as a grown-up; my power and my control are more like those of adults than those of young children; my privileges and responsibilities derive from the fact that I am the eldest of five children who I look after, I protect and I order; and, sometimes, I admit it, I even boss around. That is, I’m neither complaining nor exaggerating something that I suffer in the flesh. I know that when something hurts us we lose objectivity, but this is not my case. I see the unhappiness of the little ones; I am objective and sincere; I haven’t forgotten the language of childhood; I hear them and I understand them.

From my position of privilege I notice that, no matter how highly educated or illiterate the parents are, and regardless of the size of their house, their luxuries or penuries, their children suffer, mostly due to a total lack of respect of their part. Nobody listens to them, nobody grants them the least discretion, nobody cares about their self-respect: if they wet the bed, if they stumble and fall, if they say nonsenses because they get tongue-tied, the parents expose everything. They disclose everything, everything: their problems, their accidents, their fixations. And those matters are not conveyed as adult confidences, but as mockeries. They are not transmitted in code, or including words in nahuatl, as does my mom when she shares adult gossips with her female relatives. The children’s matters are not whispered with discretion; the children’s miseries are disclosed among laughter. In fact, meager dignity can a mother grant her child, when she makes supposedly humorous grimaces and a sour faces while she changes his/her diapers and cleans his/her butt.

And if their grievances were not enough, children seem to be doomed to make a fool of themselves, and they are also expected to enjoy being the object of laughter and mockeries. The adults take care of dressing them as buffoons with colorful trousers, bows on their heads, sailor disguises, crinolines and other encumbrances.

The grown-up soon loses the ability to get in the shoes of the boy, the girl, and forgets, for instance, how annoying it is to be smothered with affection when you don’t want it. Thus, instead of respecting the child unwillingness to be kissed, pinched and hugged, adults despise, laugh and make fun of the children’s wishes.

The child doesn’t even have a right over her body. When the adult wants to, he lifts her and he even throws her into the air, taking from her the minimum safety of a floor under her feet. The child must eat what he is offered, and dress as others wish. The infantile helplessness is unbearable, but the worst thing—in my opinion—is not the abuse and the humiliation, but the fact that it doesn’t come to mind of adults, not even for a minute, to accept children as they are; much less to help them be what they want to be. Adults always, always, expect to “educate” them and they do it as an incontrovertible duty of theirs. They plan the future, the behavior, the personality, the dreams and even the beliefs of their children. They even strip them of the only thing that no one should touch: their very essence, the decision of being whoever they would like to be.

With these facts that I’ve witnessed, I am not denying the huge capacity of enjoyment that all children have. When they are allowed to do so, young children spend long hours simply living, growing, learning, discovering. The passage of time takes away our ability to enjoy so intensely, but drops of bitterness splash with an excessive intensity and frequency everyday life of the kids.

I won’t forget what it is to be a girl and I will never be so disrespectful to another human being: I said it when I was eleven, I swore it when I was twelve, and I hold it at fourteen. I cannot close my eyes before child unhappiness, their subjection, their dependence, their helplessness, their state of sustained humiliation, their many and diverse tears. That’s why now, at fourteen, I see clearly that there is no valid reason to have a child, and that to bring children into the world “to make them happy” is the most fallacious reason of all. Other reasons are naive fruits of ignorance: the world does not need more children, and how can I know that I will love someone I don’t know? Between moms and their kids a genuine antipathy can arise; between kids and their parents a kind of contempt and disregard is more usual.

Anyway, today I decide that I’ll never have a child. I decide it without any doubt. This is not an premature decision concerning my motherhood, as I am not the main subject of my decision. It is a timely decision regarding childhood: there’s no other possible age to witness childhood “at its level”. I am deciding on children, at least on those whose very existence would depend on me.

Two months after my decision—or rather, after accepting the obvious—I tell it to my mom, and she, as expected, doesn’t give it any importance: “Yeah, it’s alright; now you go finish cleaning off the black beans and wash the mops that are really filthy. Have you swept the staircase? Don’t force me to repeat it to you. And when you’re finished, go quickly buy five cents of cilantro. Poor you if you let yourself be tricked to buy ten cents; only five, you hear?”

She has too much housework and she has been staying up late several nights sewing somebody else’s clothes, and when there’s work she never refuses it. Besides, I usually say a lot of things per minute: ideas mixed with anecdotes and some imagination; most of what I say doesn’t deserve even half of her ear, even less her attention. A few weeks after, I deliver the same speech to my aunt. She really listen to me. She drinks in my words and regards them as a tragedy; since then she tries to convince me to rectify. And, faced with her arguments, I discover new reasons. Thanks to her, I’ve thought and rethought the issue until there’s no room left for the slightest doubt.

My other decision is more recent. I am discovering—or deciding—that existence is good. Maybe I do it just to be contrary to “our father Sartre”, as I will later discover that Savater calls him. The truth is that I’ve decided to consider life and its events as essentially good. Consistent with this view, I discover that it is foolish to expect that things, life, people, or events will change their natural course. Thus I decide—or I discover—to accept life as it comes. As a result, I deem absurd to “pray”, or rather to “ask” for things when I pray. Wanting to change the course of reality is so irrational as to want to tweak Frida’s self-portraits or the poetry of Lorca and Leon Felipe, who have just join my large pantheon, next to the Che Guevara, Benito Juarez and Darwin.

My faith in the goodness of life has evolutionist roots. At fourteen I am the most Darwinian of my generation; more evolutionist than anyone I know. I am also an existentialist, a liberal and a Juarez fan. I have a clay bowl on which I have written some Juarez sentences, and I only drink on it; I never use plastic cups, as my brothers do. These days, the cultural supplement of the newspaper published several Juarez writings; I read them very carefully, I commit to memory large sections of them; I’m understanding his liberal thinking, and I adhere to it.

I carry with me a wooden little monkey as an amulet. The nun who teaches us religion is especially uncompromising, authoritarian and disrespectful, besides being fond of flatteries and encouraging the cult to her own person. She is sure that for being Spaniard and adult she is superior to any of us and, especially, she feels superior to the more dark-skinned and poor students. She finds funny to tease, not one but dozens times, my evolutionary convictions; she resorts to coarse, ignorant arguments; she expects to destroy knowledge and beliefs with her mockeries: “If it pleases you to think that your grandfather was a monkey, believe so; mine was not.” Racism, classism, etaism. But her efforts to humiliate me have no effects whatsoever. I am proud of my grandfather monkey, of my native, black roots, and of all the bloods together. And I start to keep my distance from those who, like her, find pride in being older, better, more virtuous, more holy, more white and European, more religious, more hand-made by God himself, in having the monopoly of truth. So much perfection bores me.

My truths change while I learn. I get transformed as my beliefs evolve. I like it so. I’m not better; it’s me and I like myself. By now I treasure my two teenage lucid decisions: not to bring children into the world and to live satisfied with existence. Later on, when the moment of choosing with maturity not to have children arrives, I won’t have the least hesitation. Similarly, many years from now I’ll fall into clinical depressions and I’ll consider life unbearable, but I shall not “pray” so my situation changes. If existence is essentially good—and it is—one has to drink it fully, let it be. If God exists, and my existence depends on him—as I thought during many years—it is a nonsense to ask him to change what he does, because whatever God does is supposed to be well done. And if God doesn’t exist, or at least I don’t believe in him, it is still less reasonable to ask him something. In this moment, when I am fourteen, my decision is almost religious and consistent with my faith in a good and responsible God. For the time being, religion is present in my life, although it is not crucial, or at least not all the time. My religiosity no longer looks like the one I used to live when I was a real girl, eight or nine years old; when I “saw”, not one but two or three times, a nativity—the Virgin, the Child, the crib—in the soap bubbles of the kitchen sink, so real and credible as to make me cry, but questionable enough to avoid telling it to anyone.

In short, since my teens never again I prayed to ask for something, neither in my days as a believer nor in my days as an agnostic. Never again I had second thoughts regarding my decision of not having a son. And, besides, since that time I became clearly aware that, not only for me, but for anyone, eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen years old is the privileged age for making decisions: it is a period when, in addition to our cognitive maturity, we enjoy the lack of responsibilities and the generosity of leisure time; when, as never again in my life, I am rich in time, in lengthy hours to ride my bike until my hands get blistered, and the blisters burst, and my raw skin bleeds and dries up… without even feeling it, suffering it, because I am absorbed in thinking, deciding, building myself for the rest of my life.

1967: About yellow roses and kisses on the forehead

I like to think that in the beginning there was a yellow rose and a kiss on the forehead; that before the rose and the kiss there was her gestation; and everything that followed was her heritage. It may not be so, and only the effect of time—always insisting in sorting, ranking and giving a meaning to the tangle of memories—the prominence that I concede to the kiss and the rose.

Mother Francisca Armendariz celebrates something big: her birthday and her vows renewal fall precisely on her saint’s day. Armendariz—as we call her behind her back—is the high school responsible: she struggles to solve or to avoid the academic, behavioral, and even late payment problems of her eighty-five students. As a group we are unbearable, rather rude with her; she puts up with us more than our mothers, and she is much younger than them; she must be only eight or nine years older than us. But when we address her individually or in small groups, we are grateful and even protective with her. Therefore, when we get wind of her celebration, no one questions that we have to give her something nice. Someone proposes to buy her a huge cake and I suggest that it would be better to give her flowers: one rose for each of her students, forty-three red roses those of second grade, and forty-two yellow roses those of first grade. Without much discussion, we decide to give her the roses and a small cake. We share the cost and the responsibilities. I offer to arrange the flowers. I buy vellum paper, I cut it into strips that I pierce with care; in each strip I write the name of one of my schoolmates with a pen and ink; I also write mine in one of the strips. Then I prepare the bouquets: I remove the thorns off the long stems, and the faded petals off the pudgy buds. The roses were expensive, but worth it.

At my godmother’s notions store I buy meters and meters of red and yellow very thin ribbons, and one by one I tie the names to the roses. I leave for the end a rose that I liked since the beginning and that occupies the center of the bouquet; I tie my name to it and give it a kiss. It is after ten o’clock at night when I leave the school to my house; the bouquets, in a dark and cool room, will only improve during the night; the rosebuds will surely open a little.

Very early in the morning we deliver the flowers. The rose with my name, discreet, barely shows its head.

Do roses have initiative or will? How can a rose stand out amidst the rest of the roses? How can the rose with the yellow ribbon tied to it with my name escape from the compact bouquet? How does it get to Francisca’s cell, to her bedside table? Is she who takes it out from the bouquet? Or was it a kindhearted nun, virginal matchmaker, who adhered to the urgency of my kiss, took out my rose from the bouquet, and with that rose my name? I will never know. What I do know is that, while the rest of the two bouquets wither, in the dark and alone at the foot of the altar in the Chapel, the rose with my name veils with Francisca all that night, and the next and the next.

Lelia, cell neighbor of Armendariz, tells me that the rose is still alive on that table; it outlasts the two bouquets of the Chapel and, when its stem begins to lean down, Francisca presses it in the center of her breviary.

The issue of the yellow rose, as any evolutionist can imagine, did not come from nothing; it did not evolve spontaneously. I like to set the beginning of its story in the duels of glances that Armendariz started from the very first week of classes this year. I didn’t even know who was that nun, so young, who sought to understand—if not to discipline—our two rebel, arrogant and disrespectful groups.

I am formed in line, ready to return to class after recess, when I feel of my eyes. I turn to see her instinctively and I confirm it: look just my eyes, and it remains indecipherable. I try to ignore it, look down, turning the head. But his gaze is hooked into my eyes, and try to avoid it just makes more painful trance.

I am standing in line, ready to return to classes after the recess, when I feel her gaze fixed on me. I turn around to look at her by instinct and I confirm it: she only stares at my eyes and thus she remains unfathomable. I try to ignore her, to look down, to turn my face away. But her gaze is hooked into my eyes, and trying to avoid it just makes the episode more painful.

So it happens on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Monday of the following week. Her gaze penetrates and once inside me it pokes around, walks through my world, sounds me out. It doesn’t help if I hide behind a mate nor if I bend down, faking that I must tie my shoes. Armendariz doesn’t blink; her gaze enters through my eyes, stirs my bowels, oppresses my belly, searches my thoughts, my fears and my dreams.

Considering that I am very clever, I decide to accept the challenge and sustain her gaze, while I hide my thoughts behind a wall of distractions, calculations, stories, songs, accounts and noise. At the beginning I manage to disconcert her, but my success doesn’t last much; her gaze at me, restless, hurts more, is unbearable.

On the eighth day, I learn to be captured, to give up first, then to resist a little, to defy her, to open myself for a second and to close myself again; to set the pace. Finally, I learn how to play the staring contest during the two or three minutes before we start to walk. After three or four weeks, we end each encounter with a smile, the acknowledgment of the effort, of the open wounds, of the stress endured. After a month, we’ve tamed each other enough to enjoy the daily struggle. She, in her twenties, and I, on my fifteen and months, we are faithful, always without words, to this daily, intoxicating, addictive, delicious and intimate torture.

After the rose episode, Armendariz rarely appears at the line after the recesses. And when she does, her gaze is elusive and wandering. If I challenge her, as she taught me, she simply turns around, talks to someone or walks away. She is silence, total vacuum. This is new and my heart tells me that it is a prelude, but, of what? I don’t know what to expect, nor when it will happen; if it will be something pleasant or painful. I know that it will be important and, even more, definitive; but aside from that, I know nothing. The wait is suffocating me. Impatience puts me in a state of extreme alert that silence magnifies.

Some days pass; not many. Today, Wednesday, they confirm us that in three weeks we’ll go on a retreat. That costs money and I don’t have any. Armendariz calls three of us—the poorest three, the scholarship holders—and offers us to go without paying in return for helping her. One of the three thanks her but tells her that she will not be able to go due to a family problem. Mayra and I accept the offer. Armendariz ends the interview saying: “I was so sad just thinking that you wouldn’t go.” And I feel instantly surprised, with my soul shattered due to the sadness that Armendariz says that she felt but that perhaps were only words, a set phrase. Now I know why this is called sorrow or grief: it is a castrated hippopotamus leaning against my chest. I also know why they speak of restlessness: a nest of maggots teems in my stomach.

I start paying for my scholarship right away; sometimes with Mayra and sometimes by myself. “Can you typewrite the stencils? Think of something for the Saturday night liturgy and a song that we can use as a hymn. Take care of that.” I hardly have time, but nights are long. My mom makes fun of my sleepless nights. She asks me if I’m rewriting the Bible. I carry out everything in three nights without sleeping. The fourth night I typewrite the stencils so the next day I can make the copies, organize the materials and pack everything. The hymn is ready and its lyrics reproduced with a copy for everyone. At the end, I select slides for a meditation, and I devise the campfire activities. Everything is ready on time.

My school is expensive and exclusive. For years, I know that I don’t belong to the social circles of my classmates. I know their homes because sometimes we have to make homework in team; one of them has invited me to a birthday party, but that’s all; this gives us all the tranquility that I’ll never have to invite them, nor they will feel ashamed for refusing to come to my house. I think of this as I make copies on the mimeograph. I don’t feel the least bad. These days I’ve started to become a Marxist, in addition to being a liberal Juarez fan and an evolutionist—I already was for some time—and a little existentialist. I identify myself with the proletariat: my mom is a seamstress, my dad is an employee and a teacher; servant proletariat, which is an interesting subclass. I live in a rented apartment in a modern neighborhood. I definitely have very little to do with the capitalist pigs, and I am proud of it. Far in my past are those humiliating, and moreover fleeting, comparisons of clothes, styles, family practices. The last time it bothered me to be different, I was a six or seven years old girl. Today I am unreservedly proud and different; I discover it in part, I make up another part, and I’m liking myself in general, enough and more every day.

Between reflections and undertakings, sleepless nights and skipped classes, the week flew. Finally, Friday arrives. At seven in the morning, all in uniform and supposedly having had breakfast, the high-school students climb aboard the school buses. Yesterday we were asked to copy a long list of the retreat compulsory and forbidden things, including those that we had to carry and avoid to carry in our luggage. As it was absolutely predictable, many of us invert the lists, at least in part; we carry almost all the forbidden things, and maybe forget some of those mandatory. Some bring makeup, transistor radios and chewing gum. However, the most common is to bring food: one shows a five or six kilos bag of Japanese peanuts; another one, marshmallows, cookies, candies and chocolates; there are some that even bring dolls and teddy bears. This retreat happens only once a year and, at least in principle, we know how to combine fun with piety.

The buses start moving and we start singing—screaming—silly songs: “six elephants were swinging on a spider’s web, as they saw that it resisted, they invited another elephant to swing with them; seven elephants…”, followed by sickly-sweet songs: “and I, who cannot be a moment away from you, how can I be my whole life without you? I love you…”, generously mixed up with forbidden songs: “I would like to slowly open my veins, to show you that I can’t love you more, and die afterwards; only shadows…”, “Put your hand here, Macorina, put your hand here…”, “This time, I can’t stand this awful loneliness; I don’t put you any condition, I want to be yours, either for good or for evil. Take me, if you like, to the bottom of the pain; do it as you like, for evil or for love…” The retreat will be in total silence, and we give the impression of being urged to practice total noise every minute of the trip.

Francisca Armendariz joins us evenly; sometimes we forget that she is the nun, the authority; she seems part of the group. Hoarse and stunned, we arrive at the retreat house. I unroll and pin at the entrance door a cardboard with the plan of the house and the allocation of rooms, here called cells. Many companions are disappointed: they expected that, as in previous years, there would be double and triple rooms to organize night gatherings of pillow-fights, confidences or just endless talks; but now, as it is a silent retreat, we will all occupy individual cells without exception. The other scholarship holder is in charge of the bundle of keys, so, list in hand, she distributes them.

Armendariz instructs us with seriousness, even with solemnity. She talks quietly and that calms us down. We must go to our respective cells, unpack and in fifteen minutes gather together in the Chapel; fun is over and the retreat has begun. We waste time locating our cells; it is the first time we come to this retreat house and we get lost in its musty corridors. Upon reaching our cells, we find out that there’s no point in unpacking because the small cells have neither a closet nor a chest of drawers; not even a shelf to put what we bring in the suitcase; and, besides, as half of the suitcases are full of secrets, the best is not to unpack. Along with my small suitcase, I carry a huge box with the material that I copied, cut, selected, and also with slides, prayer sheets, cards, cardboards, markers, small paper sheets and lots of other supplies.

After fifteen minutes, nobody is ready: slamming doors, rushes, keys not unlocking the doors they should, and doors closed with the key inside. Armendariz has a master key and goes around solving problems; I act as a liaison between the problems and her. Half an hour later, no one is ready yet: “the room smells awful”; “there’s a dead mouse”; “I forgot to bring sheets”; “I have my period and I wasn’t prepared”; “the toilet is clogged”. Just an hour later, silence starts gaining spaces. We gather at the Chapel and, when the woman in charge rings the worn-out bell announcing that the father has arrived, the few latecomers occupy their places. The silence is, at last, perfect; at least momentarily perfect. The first speech catches us hungry. Who can eat breakfast before seven in the morning? I can’t; we are almost on an empty stomach. Some nod off, some are just unable to concentrate on the speech; tummies rumble, giggles, and the good priest doesn’t wise up to it. Mother Armendariz, clever as she is, goes out to request that the meal is advanced as much as possible.

The rest of the day goes by as we planned it. I fulfill my commitments: I affix copies of the schedule, I distribute the readings, I prepare the evening campfire. I also carry messages from one side to the other, and I assume as information officer: What do we do now?, Where are the restrooms?, Where’s the cell of Jane Doe?, When do we eat?, Who brought peanuts?, Do you think that mothers could provide me a phone?, Please get me the master key but don’t tell Armendariz because it is the third time my door closes?

The food is extremely tasty, or perhaps it’s not, but we are son hungry that satisfaction can be seen, touched, heard amidst the silence of the retreat; so hungry that nobody would guess how much we have diminished the marshmallows, peanuts and other prohibited supplies! During the meal, a portable record player plays My Broken Christ. We can barely understand the lyrics, but we’ve heard it many times before; many have it at home.

The day proceeds slowly. After lunch, a little nap; then rosary, meditation, reading, meditation, dinner, free time, and a ceremony of public confessions and promises, prayers and songs around the campfire. Armendariz, playing her guitar, sings for the first time a song she composed specially for this conversion ceremony. Her raspy and low voice, the melancholic melody and the lyrics—especially the lyrics—stir up wills of change. We keep singing a good while, until the misty rain begins to soak us, the cold in the back starts to hurt, and also the fire on our faces. Armendariz performs the closure of the campfire, she sings alone, her voice pierces me. Will we all have the same lump in the throat? If she asked me to throw myself into the fire, I would do it; without hesitating. She finishes and asks us to retire in silence. The next appointment is the next day, still in the dark. Armendariz doesn’t give a chance for complaints. Nobody knows it except me: tomorrow, with stars over our heads, we will climb to the hill to see the sunrise from its summit.

With just her stare, Armendariz orders me to check that there are no lights on or doors open in the rooms that we used during the day; I must also affix the schedule for the following day—or rather for this day that already began one hour ago—and extinguish with water the embers of the campfire before going to my room.

The lights were off, except for a bare light-bulb in the kitchen on the lookout for a slow cooker with beans already steeped, but still raw, that would boil overnight and mix its smell with that of the jasmines, the scent-of-the-night, the honeysuckles, the gardenias, as well as that of the mold and the saltpeter creeping sluggishly up the walls. I hesitate for a moment and left it on. These light-bulbs have always saddened me: they are so pale and bare, and they throw shadows equally pale and bare.

The first day of the silence retreat is over and nothing has happened. My wait stretches more and more; already stressful, now it is excruciating. For my part, I squeeze silence and alerts; without being able nor wanting to sleep, waiting for a tragedy or a miracle. It’s two o’clock in the morning. The full moon suffices to read my watch. I turn off the light of my small cell; both moisture and the sticky black spores fill my nose and my closed eyelids. The seconds crawl and pile up on my chest; they crush it, and almost squeezed a cry out of it due to such an accumulated wait.

At forty-nine past two, in a flash, I realize that I don’t have to wait any longer, that she has arrived. There are no sounds or movements to confirm my discovery. My heart knows it; she is here. Francisca is sitting on the edge of my bed. I’m awake, or I just woke up, or I’m already asleep? The wait is about to burst into gushes of peace. Armendariz is crying; she holds my hand and wipes her face with it. Then a lengthy moment, she doesn’t move. Taken by surprise, I just wait. Immense minutes later, she bends; I feel her breath on my face; she brings her lips close to my forehead and she kisses me softly, silk and velvet that unleash a burst of guts, tears and silences. And that’s all. Nothing less and nothing more. I don’t see or hear her leaving. It’s thirty three past three.

The yellow rose, with my name tied with an also yellow ribbon, was the beginning of the beginning, and this kiss on the forehead is assumed to be the end of the beginning. What might happen next will be the legacy of the rose and the kiss; and what happened before—why should I doubt it?—was the gestation of the kiss and the rose; just its wait. The proof of this is an insert in my diary, written a year after the retreat, with a schoolgirl Palmer handwriting, and destined to appear almost forty years later at the bottom of my file cabinet:

The fire haunts at night and eventually sets on fire the silences. I know it personally.

The stale moisture oozed by the walls, the beds, the sheets and mostly the old blankets, confirm me that I am in the freezing Retreat House.

I took care of lighting the campfire and I waited until it was consumed. I don’t share that responsibility. The fire is mine; when I put it out it gives me its whole legacy, its resistance to stop being; it covers me with its ocote pine smoke; it anoints me with its soot. Smelling of dead fire I reach my little room: four square meters with a wall-embedded cot and a wobbly chair without a back. Everything worn out, but all in flames since a year ago.

In that same room she saw me trembling with emotion and tenderness; and also shivering with cold: the stabbing pain that stems when the frozen environment copes in the skin with the heat that gushes out from inside. The exchange of glances, the promise more guessed than heard, the subtlety that fractures the strength. I don’t know how to name to; it’s a miracle and a treasure. My loneliness mortally wounded and my childhood falling apart bit by bit.

I was born at that moment, and I must begin to measure time in another way. She will soon return. I undress ritually, in a dance liquid of slowness and fluidity.

She will return and will sit on the edge of the bed; she will speak without words until leaving me once again gorged with tenderness and scared of receiving so much love trapped in so much simplicity.

She plays at being motherly, but I have never heard of a mother who wraps that way her little girl: with smoke and humidity, with two or three whispers, murmurs, hissing.

And, when the silence ends, she will kiss me on the forehead; another true baptism. With her lips she’ll bring fire into my senses and my dreams. And from her kiss the woman will be born, and with her my vocation: ripped fruit and Sun in urgent need of dawn after wandering in the darkness.

There haven’t been more yellow roses; but indeed more kisses on my inexpert forehead, with her lips of inexperience even more intense, more immense than mine. Only kisses that split my forehead and drill into my taut belly.

Francisca is different from whatever I knew. For some time I couldn’t stand her, but in a very short time she has become indispensable. Our ten years age gap is not noticeable; we are two in one, walking in the same direction. I barely remember the days when she looked at me fixedly and shamelessly, forcing me to look down, uncomfortable, captivated by the discomfort of knowing that she inundated me. Her insistence subdued my defenses, little by little. Today, although her interest still hurts me, her absence is unbearable. All the pieces fall into place.

At fifteen, at sixteen, I write as only adolescent girls are gifted to do so: day and night, diaries and poetry, stories, essays, theatre and letters, letters and letters. My mom keeps asking me, annoyingly, if I’m rewriting the Bible, because I seldom go to sleep before two or three in the morning. As I share the bedroom with my three sisters, I stay in the kitchen to write.

When I was seventeen, Armendariz burns more than two hundred letters of mine, and she asks me to burn everything she has written me—which is also a lot—just when I start to nourish the idea of entering the novitiate. And so I’m doing it. Only a few letters and some sheets tore off of the diaries escape the bonfires. The detachment is a proof of heroism, bravery, love. I embrace the detachment because right now, teenage madness, I am revolutionary and in love.

The few loose sheets of my teenage diaries teem with honey, as certificates of legitimacy. Photos of the school, letters from a few, very few female friends. Lyrics of songs, guitar harmonies and dozens of Francisca’s mentions, never with her name, only with the initial of her name, her surname, or the key pronoun, she.

It was eight o’clock at night. A. seemed so fragile. Her hug hurt me, but her sadness hurt me even more. Every tear got nailed here, in my very core, and stirred everything inside me. As a hook it pulled from my womb and created a pain filled with sweetness, which only aspired to continue suffering.

The distance between us becomes nothing, disappears.

Finally, she blesses me. She kisses me on the forehead. I tremble, everything inside me trembles and weeps. She asks me to make up for her cowardice with my surrender.

 

ESSAY

VOCATION: GYN/AFFECTION^2^ AND CONGRUENCE

About my own vocation, in hindsight

I enjoy asking myself before and now, yesterday and tomorrow: why did I enter the convent? I compare answers, I braid coincidences, and I comb incompatibilities. Over time, after years and years of answering and explaining myself my own answers, I have come to two causes: each one would have sufficed, but as both coincided, they made it impossible for me to doubt or postpone my entry. They are also the reason why, when I was already inside and I fell into a clinical depression that forced me to leave it for a while, I didn’t see any other option but to get better, or at least pretend to get better, to re-enter. So I left and, still depressed and without any treatment, I came back.

Like so many other decisions in life, my determination to be a nun didn’t mature slowly and consistently. It came of an internal struggle; I thought about it one day, and another, and another. I couldn’t make a decision; it was competing with many other plans. One day I entrusted it to someone. My bluster captivated me; I liked myself doing something heroic, absolutely insolent; I created expectations that I had to fulfill. And I fulfilled them.

One of the causes of my decision was purely rational, clear to me, although not explicit in my speech. Within the Catholic logic where I moved, the best way to be consistent with my faith was to be a nun. This was a logic, overwhelming, irrefutable cause; it was martyring, naturally disgusting, but, at the same time, clear, crystal-clear. I repeated it to myself whenever I faltered; and it convinced me. It sustained me in difficult times; it needed faith to make sense, but, in turn, it strengthen my faith, it gave it tangibility.

The other cause was intoxicating and joyful, although it hurt as only love hurts. I was in love, which was an irrational, blinding, impulsive, stubborn cause, as well as impervious to any rational effort to make me give up. I was in love with one nun, two, three, many nuns and their way of life; with what I intuited and imagined: the surrender, the detachment, the martyrdom and the cross. I was horrifyingly in love. And I would have entered braving whatever was necessary, for this single cause. I idealized everything, I wanted everything: to be with them, among them, to be one of them. And I don’t think my situation was very different from that of the rest of the postulants and novices who entered with me, or shortly before or after. Each of us interpreted this infatuation in a different way; it was the background of that almost mystical experience which we called vocation. Without this ingredient, I deem that none of us would have even overcome the first weeks.

In public, I assumed a sweetened version of the first cause, the rational one; but in my journal I elaborated on the second. Both the lucid reason and the exalted affection supported a decision that I still validate, thirty-five years later: it was worth it. Thus one lives. Thus I live. The ten years that I lived in the convent as a result of this decision were an intensive school of humanity and, specially, of human emotional nature.

At the convent I found affections of all kinds and intensities, healthy and tasty, perverse and distressing. I wrote and received passionate messages, intense gazes; I loved and I was loved. I was also feared, humiliated, scorned. As very few beings outside the convent—I bet on it—I practiced solidarity, the work mystique, and I relished loneliness and the disruption of priorities: rules beyond persons; obedience and humility beyond charity; detachment and denial beyond happiness and beauty. But beyond everything, at the convent I loved, and I dare to believe that all those who have lived the convent honestly and generously have loved each other.

ABOUT THE NUN AS a WOMAN AMONG WOMEN

The Catholic nun is, by definition, member of a collectivity of women; her basic relationships are with women; her bosses and subordinates are women. On the other hand, our culture, our families and their history assign women an affective role in society. From the cradle, the mandate of love is imposed on us. We grow up being rewarded when we love and being rejected when we only live for ourselves, or when we elude our role of love providers. That’s why it is understandable that love permeates the conventual structure as a whole.

Moreover, as the convent is the attested stronghold of the patriarchal model, it is expected and emphasized that a nun be paragon of all the features imposed on women: sacrifice, submission to thy neighbor, unconditional and generous love, without measure or reciprocity. This explains the specificity and intensity of the affective structures inside the convents. And, as this love is such a women’s phenomenon on the one hand, and so docile to the patriarchal model on the other hand, it is invisible to all scholars: both those of an “orthodox” tendency—basically misogynist—and the feminists, such as Marcela Lagarde, let their eyes wander upon it without perceiving it. The affection within the convents has been basically unexplored, ignored and denied by the secular world; and feared, disqualified, eluded, and even vilified by those who talk about it from within the religious life.

However, the affection between women—not only between nuns—has always received a marginal treatment. “Historically, friendships between women have been considered a substitute for the erotic love or as a preparation for it”^^3^^, something understandable given that “history” has been written by men; women have written very little in general, and even less about our mutual affections.

The rules, regulations and constitutions of womanly religious congregations constitute almost a literary genre; there are texts directly written by males, or supervised and corrected, approved and conditioned by males. Certainly not all, but several that I know, are clearly and densely filled with prohibitions and preventions against friendship, against affection; they seem to distill fear and even aversion of love, alliances, solidarity, shared silences, the emptiness sustained amidst many solitudes. The founders, or the confessors and prelates of the female founders, know that women tend to love each other. So, the regulations and constitutions warn against such affection and include strategies to prevent it, or, rather, they enforce rules to limit it, freeze it, sterilize it; and if that weren’t possible, to make it suspicious, dirty, undesirable, intolerable.

The preaching at the convents claims that the ideal is to love universally, i.e., to love all the nuns in the same way, without showing preference for anyone. The heart must be restrained to prevent that it leans towards one or a few more than towards the rest. It is assumed that it is possible to love in such a way and, consequently, feeling and consenting otherwise must be combatted; a personal love is requested, but never a private one; a love that builds communities, but without closeness; a love with detachment. Considering that love implies to become attached, to get close, to care personally and communally, this ideal is impossible. On the other hand, everyday love—the one that provides warmth to coexistence—sooner or later becomes suspicious; there’s always a narrow-minded sister who denounces, accuses, points out what she sees and concocts. To break those friendship links, the mother superior separates the accused; she transfers at least one of them to another house and she sows blames to prevent reoccurrences in an persistent effort to eliminate very human, very womanly attributes and behaviors.

According to Porter’s words, love between women has, as its main characteristics, “shared intimacy, mutual support and the concerned responsiveness in front of certain special relationships. Womanly subjectivity is structured to encourage women to confer friendship a very high value, and to facilitate the learning of skills necessary for sensitivity-marked relationships.”

For millennia, our relations as women have been characterized by their strength, intensity and transcendence; we have been our best friends, aunts, sisters, mothers, daughters, confidants, neighbors, stable companions, emotional and economic support, healers, midwives, teachers and also lovers. However, the significant of our relationships often goes unnoticed, while the real difficulties in our relationships between women—mothers against daughters in law, antagonism between sisters, reciprocal jealousies of mother and daughters, hatred between sisters-in-law—are magnified, and our affection stories rarely end being the leading theme of great novels or movies, perhaps because, unlike the stories of friendship between men, ours don’t surge in the midst of wars or macroeconomic or political dramas.^^4^^

Nonetheless, although the bonds that we establish between us and the powerful webs that we weave with those bonds are considered inconsequential, usually no one questions the fact that women have more friends than men and that our relationships boast greater warmth and different quality than friendships between males.

ABOUT—at last—Janice Raymond’s gyn/affection

The philosopher Janice Raymond (1986) calls gin/affection the peculiar emotion, attraction, attachment and love between women. Gyn/affection is not only a friendly relationship, but a freely accepted bond including reciprocity, loyalty, affection and effective support; it is a multidimensional friendship.

A question coming to mind is if the gin/affection “is” lesbianism, if it foreshadows it, precedes it, includes it, if it is its complement, consummation, sublimation, or something else. Raymond states—and I agree entirely with her—that both concepts must be differentiated. According to the philosopher, being lesbian implies “extending what has been called a ‘sexual preference’ to a state of social and political existence”. As in many other realms of human experience, it is much easier to live the difference between gyn/affection and lesbianism, than to describe it in writing. The distinction is part of the lives and relationships of many of us; the experiences touch each other, feed on each other, but do not mingle.

Personally, I prefer to think that being a lesbian is a decision, a commitment, a countercultural political stance, a courageous, coherent disclosure. The gyn/affection is a requirement, but cannot be identified with lesbianism. And, according to my perception, the essence of the relations between nuns gets well described by the gyn/affection, while lesbianism—as Raymond would point out—doesn’t exist in convents. In the communities there sure is female homosexual attraction, details and slips. But lesbianism doesn’t usually occur due to different conditions and culture. Let me explain it: at the convent there is affection between women, often pure and spiritual, cold and sterile even more frequently, but affection nevertheless. Life would be unbearable without that affection that doesn’t limit to make routines tolerable and to cope with the strenuous work during fourteen, sixteen, eighteen hours labor days that can always last until martyrdom. The gyn/affection generates passionate, sweet, comforting, energizing, coexistence moments.

And all of this without a revolutionary attitude and without the least intention of transgressing what is established, usual, the routines. We loved each other just so, naturally. Was there a physical attraction? Yes, in many cases and with remarkable frequency; but if it exceeded the limits of the absolute secrecy it was contained, repulsed, abhorred, condemned, reviled, denounced and so for. “Absolute secrecy” occurred when those involved didn’t revealed their feelings, not even between them; when repression and strict preventive measures were added to ignorance: two sisters should never be alone, always in a group of at least four of them; spend as much time as possible with whom we wouldn’t like to do so; and shun those who are sympathetic to us. Finally, reject all sources of joy and practice this systematic detachment that I call “affective anorexia and bulimia”.

Of course, in these relations of absolute ignorance, the tensions, the need for closeness and jealousy are incubated for months and burst one evening, on a walk, in the middle of a meal. And, after the outburst, guilt, hatred and reproaches crop up. Everything is intense and magnified by silence, denial and ignorance.

But such crisis are infrequent; the ideal of masochism, of worship of suffering, of denial, of asceticism is infused in us so early in our formation that we almost enjoy denying, distancing, becoming inaccessible between us, at least during certain periods of time.

Those of us who have survived the convent—and by “survive” I mean that we kept or recovered our individuality, our raison d´être, our energy—we have achieved it largely due to that same gyn/affection. Those who assume themselves as lesbians are a minority, and I don’t know personally one single nun who has assumed herself as a lesbian while living in the convent. However, it is not necessary to scratch beyond the surface so that virtually all of us recognize the role of affection and attraction of a life among women, at least as a deciding factor to enter the convent.

Not all the scholars studying the affection between women coincide with Raymond; some claim that women who love women, who choose to look after and support women, and who create a vital setting with women to work creatively and independently, are lesbians. According to this definition, Juana Ines de la Cruz, together with hundreds of thousands of nuns and not nuns of all centuries, would thus be lesbians, even without knowing it themselves.

Due to that, Raymond ponders:

On the one hand my lesbian-feminist sensibility wants to brand the existence of [these] women as lesbian, but my ethical and philosophical aptitudes disagree. Philosophically I have the incisive intuition that calling them lesbians is logically incorrect; and morally I know that such assertion trivializes the reality of lesbian women and is paternalistic for those who are not (p. 16) [Being lesbian] connotes both the knowledge and the willingness of assuming a lesbian life […] Women who are lesbian must add up to a whole history of perceiving themselves as such, the decision to take responsibility for their lesbian, erotic and political actions.

In Raymond’s context, being lesbian is to bring the gyn/affection to a public, political and activist dimension, a possibility that, in my experience, is out of reach of ordinary Mexican nuns. With exceptions, nuns do not exist as assumed, responsible, autonomous individuals, that is, as adults. The girls—obedient or defiant—cannot be lesbians because assuming oneself with honesty, consistency, bravery, is the very essence of being a lesbian and this requires maturity, something very far apart from those who have close their minds and hearts to themselves. In general, the Catholic Church discourages the search of truth as is, while it promotes the thoughtless, irresponsible and unquestionable acceptance of the “truth” dictated by the Church hierarchy, that has to be labeled as overtly misogynist, staunchly patriarchal, and ignorant of what women are. This explains why, against all logic, the most intolerant and lesbian-phobic, misogynistic and anti-feminist currents take refuge in the convents.

Finally, I must mention that the nun status in the Catholic Church is not enviable. Life in the convents is no bed of roses. Honesty would be needed to recognize that women convents have been, are, and will certainly be, a natural destination for generous and idealistic women who feel specially at ease among women. But in addition to honesty, in order to value, dignify and understand the nuns, the convents should be ‘unpatriarchalized’, Catholicism should be humanized and pluralized, the repressive structures turned into compassionate ones, the exclusive ones into nonexclusive. In other words, too many miracles would be needed. The problem here is that those who believe in miracles would refute that these, specifically these, would happen; and the rest, included me, we ceased believing and trusting in miracles long ago. Pity!

 

THE ENTRY TO THE NOVITIATE

I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages
hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the
one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

ROBERT FROST (1874-1963)

My memory is especially unfaithful on the topic of my entry to the novitiate. I keep at least four different versions of it; four interpretations of the decisions and the processes, the circumstances, affections and inertias that led me to the novitiate just turned eighteen, at the end of my second year of chemical engineering. The worst thing is that I don’t know which one took place then; moreover, I don’t know if the real one, the “historic” one, is among my versions. The novitiate is an effective brainwashing; to that wash was added a clinical depression and a tumult of emotions. The truth of that time doesn’t even appear in my writings of that time; the messy pile of small papers and the sheets torn out from notebooks are not reliable in the eyes of the woman in whom I have become today.

I would like to rescue from the past my very complex inner world of that time, and I can’t. Those months are so far away in time, in their emotional tone, in what I think and I want, in what I’m looking for and I hope, that I don’t recognize my voice in my own memories.

My fuzzy memories, scattered texts, and reconstructions shared with former nuns of those times seem shamefully alien, outdated, inane to me. Although I also harbor the suspicion that such a shameful and distant impression may be due to the fact that l still carry in my heart a great deal of what impelled me to take the veil years ago, and today I cannot distance myself enough from it to admit it.

1969: ABOUT my brief stage as a university militant

I am seventeen. I live with intensity the trepidations of painful certainties, convictions, fears and new desires. None of the dreams of the rest of my classmates appeals to me, but everything else excites me. All the futures attract me: research, write, explore, perform. Everything with passion; everything with humor and everything with drama: agonies, poetry, blood, death and life.

My self-diagnosis is genuine, but incredible: I am madly in love. With someone? No: with life, with love and justice; with hope, with a new world that we will create by dint of effort. And I’m in love together with someone else; I’m not in love with anyone; not with Armendariz; but we both love the same thing, the same energy drives us. And every once in a while I think that I want to be a nun like her, almost by sheer coincidence.

A year ago, at the end of high school, I entered the university. I didn’t lose time deciding a career. In fact, I didn’t imagine myself practicing one specific profession. I chose a difficult and interesting curriculum. I don’t think much in possible futures: I don’t waste time in plans for my adult life; every day is self-sufficient; there’s no place for futures when present is so intense.

Pilar and Marisa said at their homes that they believed they had a religious vocation, just to create panic, to soothe their parents and thus get permits and even trips. Indeed, they caused panic, but their plan backfired because Marisa’s father imported her a husband from Spain, named him manager at the factory of his parents-in-law—Marisa’s grandparents, who did exactly that same thing many years before and thus have Marisa’s dad as their son-in-law with a salary—and he married them. Poor Marisa who dreamed of going to study in Ireland, or at least in Madrid, and ended up being married to a handsome but stupid and uneducated man. Pilar was luckier; she gets all the permits she wants and has a distraught mother, attentive and indulgent, but she neither managed to travel.

Honestly, I have thought about it once or twice. What if I entered the convent? But the next minute I envision something more immediate; and I send the future into oblivion.

The best part of the university is the ideas: the activism, the rebelliousness and the nonconformity of 1968 still wander about the corridors. We have an anthem: “Patria, patria: en el cielo tu eterno destino un rebelde en cada hijo te dio; un revolucionario en cada universitario te dio”^^5^^. And we have ballads: “Granaderos asesinos, ojalá los lleve el diablo”^^6^^.

There’s an urgent need to opt for a political group: Are you Trotskyist or Maoist? some third grade students ask me. Can’t I be just a worshiper of the Che? I also love Frida: doesn’t that count? I lean towards Trotskyism, just because Frida also loved it. We organize meetings, graffiti, and protests. On the other hand, those of the right wing organize themselves; the anti-Communists, the Catholics, those of the FUA (Anti-communist University Front). One day they tried to lure me into their side; they got the fright of their lives. What capitalist pig in his right mind would insult that way a proletarian militant?

1970: ABOUT THE PALE FACTS PRECEDING MY ENTRY TO THE CONVENT

I’m finishing my second year at the university and I’m having pretty good results. I give a few lessons that give me the opportunity of feeling strong, provider; I give my mother some money and she spends it on treats for all. It’s not much, but she spends it with great pleasure.

I write and direct two experimental theater plays. On Sundays I’m on the TV. It is a local program of several hours directed by don Enrique, a communications and journalism pioneer and regional leader. My dad and I are accountable for the Science section of the program. My dad chooses and documents the topics; then, in front of the cameras, we read notes and improvise comments, discussions. It’s enjoyable, especially due to the mix of bohemian, expertise and idealism of the rest of the cast. There I confirm my suspicion: I find much easier and more interesting to have friends ten, twenty or thirty years older than I, than to relate with young people. I have and I had companions of my age, but no male or female friends.

During four months I go out with a guy who just wants to grope me; he bores me, but I can’t think of a way to break up with him t without hurting him. As a miracle, one he’s offered a job at the border. Years later I will learn that he became a very powerful drug capo. For now, we just say goodbye and we never see or get in touch each other. Then, one of my neighbors, a very tender but too serious guy, courts me. His concept of “going out” consists in walking a few meters and eat something; walk some more meters and eat again; and thus the whole afternoons: a tinga^7^stuffed molote^8^, a popsicle or a flan, a shrimp cocktail. Always in that same order because in that sequence we find the food stores on the three blocks around our houses. The molotes first, because they’re sold outside the door of the building where he lives; and the cocktails at last, because they’re sold on the right side of the gate, and we always start walking to the left. I ask him kindly to stop going out; I don’t want to lie to him; I have too much work… and I don’t like to waste my time or eat shrimps with lemon after a flan. I mull over this last part, but in the end I don’t even tell him so.

Back then, at the beginning of my second year at the university, I experience a disgusting incident: It isn’t yet dawn; I’m walking to classes at seven in the morning. Suddenly I lose ground: He pulled me? He hit me? I don’t remember. One minute later I’m lying on the floor, inside the hallway of the old grey house. A filthy man is over me; I don’t see his face, he weighs on top of me. Days later my legs still feel his big fingers trying to separate them, while with his other hand he pulls my panties without being able to rip them. I still feel his hairs and his nails on my thighs, and I smell his breath. My skin doesn’t forget. At that moment I smell, I smell, but I neither see nor I can do anything; I can’t shout, move or fight. Although I’m not unconscious, even so I am unable to think. Suddenly, someone pushes the hallway door, the hairy man freaks out, jumps to his feet and starts running. Nobody shows up; who pushed the hallway door if he didn’t want to enter? I shake the dust out of my clothes; I clean my almost-new white and black shoes with a tissue, and I run to get on time at my class. I have class after class until two o’clock in the afternoon. Then I have lunch. I don’t say anything at home; what for? I don’t even think about telling it.

Three days later I disclose it to a friend from the university; two days later, to Armendariz: “Nothing happened; don’t worry.” I’m not worried; it only bothers me not being able to forget, to still have his smell—alcohol, sweat, sex, dirt—in my nose, and sense his nails in my groin, his big fingers forcing apart my thighs. I’d like to forget the incident, but my skin and my mucous can’t let go their feelings; will they forget someday?

The truth is that, except for the memory of my skin, the experience is not transcendent. I’m deciding. I spend the whole day reflecting on the pros and cons of one option, of another, of another. Today I could obtain my broadcaster license and start working seriously with microphones; or I could enter the convent, or join some revolutionary group, or leave the country. My heart pulls me on either side, but my reason says that the convent is the best. My devotion for the nuns in general and for one of them in particular joins forces with the martyrdom vocation that I’ve been building for years.

I‘ve established a deadline to decide; that day I will submit my irrevocable decision to my parents, and once I’ve said it there won’t be backtrack.

This deadline expires too soon; the broadcaster license tempts me, but I already told Armendariz that I had decided on the convent. She would understand if I finally decide to be an announcer, but I see her so excited that I don’t know if I would be able to disappoint her. The martyrdom tips the balance towards the convent; the logic of salvation and faith lean it in the same direction, but the adrenaline of microphones doesn’t dilute enough to end my agony. Thus, although tonight I will speak with my parents, I don’t know yet what I will tell them. I get to the last minute undecided; I will open my mouth and I will surprise myself with whatever comes out of it.

When we finish dinner, I notify them that I have something important to tell them. My brothers get up, fearing a storm that could splash them. I ask them to stay: “I have decided to join the nuns of the school.” My mom jumps: “But you’re a Communist! Aren’t you?” My eyes pop out of my head. It is true, but so sorry. It is difficult to explain them that nothing has changed. Then she starts to cry; she cries and cries, but she doesn’t say no; my dad says even less. We talk very little because I don’t want them to discover the inner violence I’m experiencing, my doubts, my halfheartedly and apprehensive determination. My own strength scares me; I don’t cry that day or any other. My presence of mind during the following days and months will pique the admiration of many. It is a kind of shock that especially the nuns interpret as a miraculous strength of mind confirming the legitimacy of my vocation.

After talking to my family, my decision becomes public and, therefore, irrevocable. My destiny, tied to the powerful words, has been chained to an unusual future, but predictable?

I devote, entirely, the scant three months before my entry, to say goodbye and to prepare the things required for my admittance. Given the financial situation of my family, I request and I get dispensation from dowry, but there’s no way I can get dispensation from the long list of things required by a postulant:

1 suitcase and one briefcase

4 colored skirts

6 colored blouses

8 long sleeves white Dacron blouses with buttons

2 black sweaters; 1 of them thick

1 black veil

1 long sleeves robe, to get up

3 girdles

6 night-gowns

12 bras

9 white half-slips

9 black half-slips

18 short sleeves undershirts

18 white handkerchiefs

18 panties

12 adjustable pairs of colored stockings

6 white towels

1 bath towel

2 bedspreads

1 individual mattress

6 sets of sheets and pillowcases

1 white blanket cover without bangs

1 set of cutlery

6 white napkins

4 pairs of strong black shoes

1 pair of tennis shoes

1 simple sewing basket well stocked

12 yards of a fabric according to sample

Toothpaste tubes, soaps, soap dish, comb, shoes polish, etcetera

Council documents

Bible

Missal

Meditation book

Small black Crucifix, with a wooden cross

One simple black rosary

6 thick notebooks for class notes

2 small notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, etcetera.

I don’t have enough savings. And my family cannot pay for all that. Now it’s my turn to come up with something effective. Am I in a dream of which I will wake up any moment?

Camp of gypsy shadows and feline pains. Those travel, these curl up. Those fly and these nest. Farewells with a taste of death; linen that fall down like shroud.

I must leave the pink sheets my mother embroidered with my initials, because at the novitiate only the death white and the burial black are allowed.

1971: ABOUT MY BLINDING EXPERIENCE OF ENTERING THE CONVENT

Ivy, ferns, pine-sweetsops, asparagus, fancy leaves. And the flowers? There’s only foliage! Someone will bring them later? The mass is about to start. Flowers are expensive, so we cut the leaves off the planters, the corridors. We breathe foliage moisture; air thick of dew. Araceli and Carmela entered one year ago; Ana, two years ago. The three of them were vocations of mother Sebastiana.

I am the first vocation of mother Francisca Armendariz. Armendariz was a vocation of mother Josefa; Josefa was a vocation of the first abbess, one of the foundresses; that’s why Armendariz says that I am the abbess’s great-granddaughter. But, where’s my smile. My face has hardened and my heart has dried: I can’t smile or cry. The wet foliage thick air condenses in my hands, in my dark circles.

The mass began; the sermon ends. This time is not as usual: it’s unctuous; and the air is thick. The mass ends; hugs. I say goodbye. My mom cries, my aunt cries; my little sisters cry. I breathe with difficulty.

Are they gone? I didn’t see when or where by. I only know that they already left. I’m alone on the stone hallway with its seven doors, but no one real; and with thirty windows, but no one opens down. Foliage thrives in seclusion: ferns, slippery mosses. And ivy; bright green, yellowish-green, white. Air should be wetter here, but my nose tests it and it’s no longer wet; it’s no longer loaded with dense dew. Air has humus, newly rotten black soil, suspended from ceiling to floor; and persistent smoke. Without the transparency of dew, I barely guess what I have in front of me; I open my eyes and humus stings them; I shall cry soon, without control and without measure. But not now.

Years ago I woke up frightened by a nightmare more realistic than any sleepless scene: my dad, with his own head under his arm, was offering me a cup of coffee. Now I recall that he was standing in this same hallway that I had not stepped on until today. I knew it in a nightmare and today I only recognized it.

The mist gets homogenized; seeing only shadows upsets me, it hurts me two, three minutes, four hours. At the end I get used to it. I don’t remember any longer what it is to see clearly.

The bell rings; someone comes looking for me. It’s dinnertime. At my first meal at the convent they serve corn on the cob, poached eggs, hard tacos and oranges. Through the dense and stable mist that already wraps me up, I do as all do: I eat with cutlery. The knife slips; it crashes against the dish. The orange releases its juice long before reaching my mouth; I hardly tried the tacos, the grains of corn. Anyhow, I didn’t feel like eating.

The night sneaks from everywhere, and the air, besides being dense and opaque becomes dark. Someone accompanies me to a guest room; I cannot yet enter the cloister. I shake my head trying to find bubbles of transparency, but there are not. I put on my nightgown; slowly, I get into bed. I don’t fit well, I run into something or someone. The bed is occupied. I open my eyes wide open, but I can’t distinguish anything. I get closer somewhat scared and I see her. It’s Armendariz: still, still, still, stuck in my bed.

I don’t sleep; always with my eyes open, I try to see, unsuccessfully. The daylight sneaks between the blinds and starts absorbing the darkness of the air, but it doesn’t take away the dense smoke or the suspended humus. The midday sun doesn’t remove them either, nor the heat or the speed of the road, nor the distance or the time. It remains thick for a long time. The day after the entry ceremony, when they take me to the novitiate, several hours away, the air is still thick; and the following days, when I get accustomed to the cold of the mountain, to the smell of magnolia and pine, the air also keeps being thick. And so it keeps being during weeks, and then months, and years later. Until I really forget what it is to look without something in between; with nothing between me and what I look at, without this haze, volatile mud, foam of dirt.

Dense air, thick silence, crawling and lazy time. It’s the freezing novitiate, school of dispossession and detachment, of extreme austerity, chilblains in the hands, stubborn cough and, most of all, a cold that one day takes possession of my feet, for example, and for weeks doesn’t release them, until I don’t feel them anymore. I feel that they hurt, but I don’t feel that they are nor they feel but pain.

I think, I pray, I read, I write, I write, I write. I shall burn everything someday; I shall only keep a brief note I wrote to Armendariz weeks after having entered and that I never sent her; I do not know why:

Mother, everything is going on well, I guess.

Here I’m awake, with a minor struggle, barely enough to remind me of my littleness, my girl status and to force me to run into the arms of night.

I keep you close to the Tabernacle, stitched to my skin and to my future that I don’t see not even through the mist. Don’t forget to send me, “via the stars”, your blessing and a kiss on the forehead.

It’s cold, very cold. Cold.

 

ESSAY:

ERUDITE IGNORANCES

Centuries ago, within the Catholic tradition was conceived and began to be practiced the consecrated life, which consists in devoting the whole existence—time, energy, passion, dreams and so forth—to the service of faith, to its direct or indirect promotion, and to its radical practice. That’s the theory of being a nun, but it is much more difficult to say what, which, how and how many are the flesh and bone nuns.

ABOUT THE LITTLE WE KNOW WITH REGARD TO NUNS

At the beginning of the 21st century, in Mexico there were some seventy-five million Catholics. According to official Mexican data and U.S. Government calculations (shown in a State Department report), in Mexico there are nearly 14,000 priests and, although there’s not a reliable census of nuns, based on indirect data I have estimated that there are over a hundred thousand consecrated women affiliated to one of the nearly one thousand religious institutes operating in Mexico. It seems obvious that nuns—compared with consecrated men—play a very marginal role and exercise so little power within the Catholic Church that it doesn’t really matters to take a census of them; literally, they don’t count.

On the other hand, although the numbers were transparent, very little would we know about them; what they think and seek, what they dream of and which are their nightmares would still remain a mystery. We don’t know how they survive within an ideologically hostile environment, how they preserve their medieval structures and beliefs, how they support each other, how they love, how they cope with interpersonal relationships, power, sexuality, mysticism, friendship, economy, loneliness and death. Nothing, or almost nothing we know about the flesh and bone women of the present-day convents; we don’t know why they continue entering the convents, or the reasons for leaving of those who leave them. Our ignorance confirms the little we do know: that they live, in fact, in secret societies, with radically patriarchal structures which, despite being more flexible, each day are further away from the Mexico and the Mexicans surrounding them.

It’s publicly known that, as a group, nuns are getting old. According to what I’ve seen, over the past twenty-five years those who left the convents were many, many more than those who entered. And they keep leaving them.

The texts about nuns almost constitute a literary genre, scarce in quantity and uneven in quality. A significant part are prescriptive texts; one has just to search on the Web the subjects “Catholic nuns”, “nuns”, “consecrated life”, to confirm that from the Pope down to the priests, including the founders and the Catechisms, the conciliar documents and the nuns themselves, all are prolix when stating what the nuns are—that is, what they must be—, the extremes their denial and surrender must reach, and the rewards awaiting them in the afterlife. There are also regulatory and castrating texts describing, with a lot of dodges and prudery, what nuns must not do, think or feel.

There are also texts only produced and consumed within academic circles; in Mexico, there are several postgraduate theses describing New Spain nuns whose convent life appears as a historical, finished fact. Under an external scrutiny, the realities are ghosts and nuns are object, and not subjects of literature.

Finally, there are a few texts having a better distribution, and although they don’t usually describe today nuns, they’re useful to have a glimpse of the conventual reality that, in many aspects, has remained the same throughout the centuries. Such is the case of Los demonios en el convento: sexo y religión en la Nueva España^9^ by Fernando Benitez, which is a tasty salad with journalistic seasoning. For its part, Los cautiverios de las mujeres: madresposas, monjas, putas, presas y locas^^10^^, by Marcela Lagarde, deserves a special mention because it presents a feminist, intelligent and enlightened view of religious life, but without trying to bring us closer to the flesh and bone nuns.^^11^^

The most popular work about nuns is Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith, by Octavio Paz, who mixes literary knowledge with biographical ignorance. The problem of such a mix is that the common reader, used to venerate the renowned authors, ends up giving up his own intelligence and accepts the whole book as true; the reader swallows together the master classes of literature with a collection of prejudices wrapped in the most shameless ignorance. Octavio Paz displays a lack of knowledge and little imagination regarding women psychology and relationships; furthermore, his lack of interest in religious life, his prejudices, his overt misogyny and his lesbophobia are obvious. And he doesn’t care about all of this.

What amazes me—although so much prejudice hurts me—is that I appreciate a lot the book, as it has several merits. The Traps of Faith drove me to read other works, it evidenced my ignorance; it forced me to read up on, to arm myself with facts and sayings to be able to dialogue with the text.

However, it is undeniable that this book reveals, in an exquisite and refined way, many of the prejudices and myths about nuns. When he tries to explain, for instance, Juana Ines’ decision to join the Jeronimas, Paz wonders: “Why did she choose, being young and pretty, nun’s life?” Prejudice and insult. I know hundreds of nuns and former nuns, and I can state that among them there are many beautiful, according to the most Orthodox valid standards.

This is perfectly explainable: on the one hand, the physical “perfection” is an express or tacit requirement to enter many congregations; and, on the other hand, I don’t know one single case of a woman who decided to be a nun for considering herself ugly. There are lots of beautiful, very beautiful nuns, although they don’t resort to makeup, accessories, imperfection cover-ups and, sometimes, not even to clothes appropriate to their size, figure and style. There are beautiful nuns despite their awful haircuts, their uncared hands, and their noticeable effort to look ugly, an effort that Almudena Grandes describes with a peculiar feeling: “Nuns […] her hands rough and neglected to suggest the hardness of a fictional work, a morbid satisfaction in an ugliness cultivated with more zeal than the makeup of a teenage girl, and that hysterical impatience, literally speaking, that results from the aberrant torture that chastity imposes on hormones.”^^12^^

According to Paz, it is also surprising that someone so young enters the convent. And I just have to remember the legions of adolescent and young women I saw entering the novitiate: young women with millions of possibilities ahead of them, healthy, vital, generous, ambitious and intelligent. But Paz almost brings up, with a self-confidence prompted by ignorance and prejudice, that women who become nuns are the ugly ones, the spinsters, the old women without a future. This is not true, and what Paz wonders about Juana, one should ask virtually of all nuns: Why the beautiful young women, Juana included, chose the convent life? And the only answer that comes to my mind is: And why not?

The centenarian androcentrism leads to declare that a young “promising” woman should feel naturally inclined to make the most of her youth and beauty to get a good catch. But reality refutes the myth. The convents have a good percentage of beautiful women and, in addition, intelligent. Moreover, perhaps it might make more sense to ask: Why would smart girls—Juana included—opt for a conventional marriage which—at that time as well as today—often leaves little room for intelligence? We forget that being intelligent takes precedence in the appreciation of oneself. A beautiful and intelligent guy will go for his beauty only if his beauty is exceptional; if it is not, then he will go for his intelligence. I think that even those very smart, Paz and sister Juana included, would feel humiliated if they were identified by their physical qualities.

The myth of the woman-object is present. Would any biographer or admirer dare to ask: Why a striking young man from a privileged cradle, as Octavio Paz, instead of looking for a good catch among the young women of his day, he devoted himself to poetry? It sounds ridiculous; Paz would have felt insulted, and with good reason; although I suspect that he would never admit having insulted Juana Ines in such a similar way.

ABOUT THE VOCATION ACCORDING TO THE TRAPS AND ACCORDING TO ME

In his own Traps, Octavio Paz falls into other common places when he writes: “All those who have approached sister Juana’s figure have asked themselves the same question: Why, when nothing in her life was indicative of a religious vocation and a general admiration surrounded her, she abandons the court and locks herself in a convent?” (p. 142). A question that he doesn’t consider incompatible with the statement that “most Catholic critics think that Juana Ines chose religious life due to an authentic vocation, i.e. because she heard God’s call”, although in those times “convents were full of women who had taken the veil not because they followed a divine calling, but due to mundane considerations and needs” (p. 149).

Paz’s apparent contradictions not only reveal confusion, but also a myth upgraded to a dogma category according to which there’s a mysterious “vocation” or “call”, a supernatural fact, that usually intervenes in early ages and converts ordinary girls and adolescents—filled with plans to succeed as entrepreneurs, mothers, conquerors or cowgirls—into mild imitations of those images that overcrowd our temples: half-closed eyes, waxy paleness, joined hands, knees on the ground, and an expression of ineffable suffering, ignorance and passivity. This vocation is evident for everyone, says the myth. Women with vocation are characterized by an early affected piety and a lack of interest in life itself.

But that’s not so. In my experience, very few nuns “hear” the much-touted vocation just like the heroines of the Exemplary Lives. I met two girls, seven years old, who passed all the school breaks—at a nuns’ school, naturally—kneeled in the Chapel, who fasted on Fridays and who put bottle caps in their socks to suffer for sinners or to atone for their own and childish faults. And both entered the convent and there they are still today. But I only met two of these. The other hundreds of nuns I know didn’t stick to this model. Many of them were irritating girls. And, of course, there are women leaders who left, not a court as Juana, but a comfortable position, or a promising career, a circle of friends and admirers, a tempting marriage proposal or a promotion at their workplace.

A reliable, comprehensive and uninhibited study about the “vocation” is required. Its conclusions may corroborate my hypothesis—founded on observation, deduction, analysis and some personal confessions—that vocation and entering the religious life are suicidal decisions based on an irresistible attraction and a terrible rejection, on some of unnatural, some of sublime, and a lot of irrevocable. Even today, when high percentages of women who took their votes in the sixties, seventies and eighties have returned to secular life, those young women entering the convents feel that their decision is final, and the rituals celebrating their entry never cease to stress it over and over.

When I analyze the religious vocation I like to distinguish two of its components: the “idea” or decision to become a nun and the factors contributing to keep alive and operative such a decision until entering the convent and going through the initiation rites. I distinguish these elements because, although they are part of the same phenomenon, they have different times and explanations, as I have heard it over and over again from the mouth of nuns and former nuns.

Among the factors that intervene to make our “decision” of being a nun more than just a “bright idea”, some mentioned the repulsion they felt at the family, social, and personal prospects of the moment. At the other extreme, there are those who recognize that they were driven to take the final step by the inferred opportunities they would have to study or to get rid of the parental yoke. There are also those who recognize their desire to be close to the nuns they loved and the enthusiasm of wearing a habit fraught of promises of heroism.

The attraction of the secrecy outstandingly personified by nuns, the rebellion against the prevailing antivalues, and some masochism or desire to “put myself to the test”, are also reasons mentioned. Finally, there are some who confessed that, once they announced their decision, they stuck with it for fear that her mother could die of sorrow—or anger—upon learning that her daughter “was betraying the vocation”.

Although I don’t think we knew it when we “felt” or decided our vocation, time helped us realize that guilt, so commonly broached by the Catholic tradition, also played its part. Guilt takes a thousand forms: we feel guilty for Christ’s suffering, guilt for the brothers who die of hunger, for those who don’t know the truth, or guilt for the intensity of our desires, preferences and instincts. Paz himself seems to refer to this when he says that “most Catholic critics consider Juana Ines’s decision to take the veil as the expression of a psychological conflict of a spiritual nature which was resolved through a factual renunciation to the world” (p. 151).

The other component of the vocation is the “idea” itself of being a nun which, unlike the factors making it effective, is usually expressed with words, and more or less clearly since the beginning. Among the testimonies of female friends and acquaintances, nuns and former nuns, I found that these “ideas” go from the cool reasoning of who believed that it was worth sacrificing a “temporary” life to win the “eternal” life, to the very youthful radicalisms bordering on fanaticism, and up to the martyrdom heroism and altruism also typical of youth. There are decisions simply born of love; love for a Jesus who appears more real and attractive than any flesh and blood woman or man; and also love to a cause. Finally, there are nuns who, after an honest analysis, recognize that they had no reason to enter the convent; that there was not a clear and mature decision, but rather a chain of circumstances and facts, of own and others’ decisions that originated the entry to the novitiate.

In short, vocation is a strange mixture of feelings and decisions—obvious for the young woman who decides to be a nun—plus another set of feelings and factors not always at our reach, and that we assume that we finally uncover years after having entered. However, it’s not easy to investigate those factors and feelings because, within the religious life, the passage of time doesn’t shed light on the past. Instead, time distorts the past because during the first years of religious life a “brainwash” or conversion is carried out. In addition, the negative experiences of those who left the religious life—and the loyalties, commitments, and limited horizons of those who remain inside—add a second filter distorting the past. Thus, what we believe to be rebuilding today is, in good part, pure creation; although, on the other hand, it’s our only access to the past.

ABOUT IF IT’S TRUE THAT NUNS HATE MEN, AS IT IS SUGGESTED IN THE TRAPS

Without pretending to delve more into misogyny, and particularly into Paz’s lesbophobia, we cannot overlook the fact that, among the dozens of sources quoted in The Traps there isn’t one single woman who is acquainted with the convent life and thus can speak firsthand of religious life, female affectivity and relationships between women. It is also clear that Octavio Paz can’t stand the fact that his heroine’s image differs from the one that men have formed of women.

The attempt to reconcile the patriarchal myth of women as essentially for the man with the clarity of Juana Ines’s texts is a task that not even the colossus Paz was able to perform. Juana is, and so she declares herself, woman for herself, woman for other women, and women for God. So, when Paz tries to incorporate man in this discourse, the least he creates is confusion. For example, Paz considers that “to think that she felt a clear aversion to men and an equally clear penchant for women is hair-brained […] No: the phrase indicates, as I have said several times, little or no aptitude whatsoever for domestic life” (p. 158).

But Paz also admits that “if it would be excessive to speak of homosexuality, it is not so to remark that she did not hide the ambiguity of her feelings” (p. 145) and that “in those years of extreme youth it is not easy that she could have been aware of her true inclinations” (p. 158).

Now, what can be said, in this matter, on the nuns of today? I think that the same than on sister Juana: very few certainties and many more perhaps. Neither at that time nor now the reflection on our true inclinations is promoted. And I am not only talking of sexual inclinations but also intellectual, religious, political, aesthetic and of lifestyle. These reflections, discouraged in everyday life and during the years of adolescence, are totally banned and penalized in religious life.

The nun who asks herself, “Am I a lesbian? Do I lean towards atheism? Do I want to delve into the role of the Catholic structures in the discrimination and violence against women?”, has already taken the first big step towards social death, exclusion, guilt, suspicion of treason, and a dozen punishments more that prevail within the communities of nuns.

Regarding Juana, Paz wonders: “Which was the true nature of her affective and erotic inclinations?” (p. 13), and I wonder: Which is the true nature of the affective and erotic inclinations of the nuns of today? The sociologist and the psychologist, but mostly nuns themselves, should delve into the relations of a community and unravel the realities, sublimated or repressed, but present, of the affinities, sexual orientations and motivations of those who opt for religious life and remain there for significant periods of their lives.

Paz seems to avoid the assumption that Juana’s lesbianism or gyn/affection was, if not the main cause, indeed a deciding factor of her vocation; therefore he affirms, in the purest Baroque style, that “ambiguity in her relationship with some of her friends […] [is] not synonymous with lesbianism, but rather with more complex feelings” (146), as if lesbianism were not of an enormous complexity. And later on, in what seems an example of wounded virility, Paz consoles himself thinking that: “the undoubted attraction she felt toward some women may have been the sublimation of an impossible passion for a man, that her nun status prohibited her” (p. 146).

Juana’s lesbian nature, or perhaps more accurately, her gyn/affective nature, enlightens with diaphanous simplicity the transvestisms Octavio Paz refer to. As many women with similar inclinations today who lack one single model of women who love women, Juana Ines adopted manly appearances, ambitions and behaviors. And driven, at least partially, by that same gyn/affection, she enters a convent which, apparently, seems to function as a matriarchate where they disregard the tricks the prevailing culture directly or indirectly imposes so that women please and win over the men, and where they try that friendship, cooperation and a harmonious and intense coexistence between women reigns.

It is not too farfetched to compare the almost masculine appearance of current Mexican nuns with sister Juana’s transvestite transgression. The first time I attended a lesbian congress I couldn’t help but wonder at the similarities between them and the nuns. There were too many coincidences in their dresses, movements, glares and conversations, leadership, frictions and conflict resolution. And I must confess that I had fun taking foreign lesbian friends to visit communities of Mexican nuns. Their perplexity is hilarious when they see those apparently declared lesbians, but whom, for ordinary Mexicans, look unmistakably nun-like.

Now then, and back to the previous matter at hand, is rejection to males a component of the vocation? I think the answer is: “Frequently yes”, although in varying degrees and with different nuances. The rejection can be to the biological male or to the patriarchal system which dictates to define oneself according to the male, or a mixture of both.

Regarding Juana’s love and relationships with the Vicereine, Paz tries to exonerate the protagonists of what surely bothers his sensitivity of a male excluded from a territory: “The relationship that united these two women […] was one of those spiritual friendships […] Strange alliance for us, but frequent at that time” (p. 131). And Paz’s ignorance concerning women in general and nuns in particular is once again evident. The mentioned “alliance” is odd for Paz, but it isn’t for a great number of women and, particularly, for those who have experienced religious life from the inside.

Many nuns, some lesbians and other absolutely heterosexual—overwhelmingly chaste, sexually inactive, heroic sublimators of our inclinations, desires, impulses and instincts, or simply without such desires and instincts—we established this kind of more or less lasting alliances. The exalted Platonism, the devoted politeness, the veneration, the gratitude mentioned by Paz, are daily alliances for many, many nuns and former nuns of our days. The emotional and spiritual affinities, the shared goals, the mystic distortions, the excesses of the ascetic and the need to strengthen each other against a materialist and egomaniacal world, all of this is real, current, verifiable. And feelings of loving friendship today are legitimate in religious life, provided they don’t overstep the very thin limits separating them from particular friendships.

These affectionate friendships make bearable the lengthy confinements, the strenuous work, the “soul’s dark nights” and the incomprehension of acquaintances and strangers. It is impossible to deny their existence in the face of the abundant anecdotal, epistolary and autobiographical literature of nuns from centuries ago and contemporary, of the famous, the founders, the saints and the ordinary ones. The literary testimonies are full of passion and infatuations, whose sublimation, in conjunction with the joint efforts aimed at the sexual abstention, tend to result in a better fulfillment of the remaining religious obligations.

Octavio Paz seems to insinuate that, to consider the lesbian orientation a motive for entering the convent, there must be a “clear aversion toward men and an equally clear penchant for women” (p. 158). What the poet seems to ignore is that such clearness is not premise, but consequence, and, under the circumstances, there is no clearness but by exception. All young people, but especially lesbians and gays, go through more or less extended periods of confusion, usually heightened by the absence of public models and expressions, and by the widespread homophobia that extends its tentacles to the consciences of lesbian teenagers and young gays. And no turf is more prone to confusion that that of teenagers inclined to the religious life. Whether they come from religious and conservative families, or they adopt this stance after a personal search, what’s evident is that they are immersed in prejudices, ignorance, taboos, silences and guilt.

ABOUT LOVE IN ABSTINENCE

Paz’s lesbophobia hurts. The poet disqualifies the lesbians as candidates for the convent; it is obvious that, with more laziness and ignorance than wickedness and intelligence, Paz thus contributes to the lie-myth that we, lesbians, are uncontrollable nymphomaniacs and, therefore, we must remain away from any collective of chaste women. My first thought was, “Oh, don Octavio, it wouldn’t have been too difficult for you to go to a convent, chat with the nuns, see them interact, and then draw conclusions!” But then I realized that I was wrong: the misogynist scrutiny of Mister Paz wouldn’t have discovered anything. The myth of the lesbian as another, as an absolutely different woman, appears throughout The Traps without qualm, without shame, without apologies. This myth, precisely for being that, penetrates the sayings and feelings to such a degree that it doesn’t seem to need justifications. And thus, whoever accepts it cannot understand that two or more women are able to love each other without having a sexual relationship whatsoever—as perhaps was the case of Juana and the Vicereine—nor that these two women can even assume themselves as lesbians and yearn for the proximity of women, and avoid the social pressure to find a man to live with him for life. In short, this myth which categorizes the lesbian as a predatory nymphomaniac, constantly in search of naive women, annuls any possibility that lesbians are good candidates for the convent. But he is wrong. He is totally wrong.

Paz is crass when he deals with the topics of lesbianism, convents and Sister Juana; crass, naive, ignorant, superficial and conceited: a mixture that doesn’t favor the complex exploration of complex issues! For example, Paz doesn’t even mention the subjectivity and commitment arguments Raymond^^13^^ resorts to for calling someone lesbian. Paz is simpleton in his judgments far away from those of Raymond who, after defining lesbians by their freely assumed political responsibilities, excludes from such category those who don’t freely assume themselves as such, as it would be the case of Juana Ines, no matter if, by each and every one of their other psycho-affective traits, they may be qualified as “women who love women”.

However, in her extensive writings, Juana Ines give the impression of being as lesbian as her century allowed her to be; openly in love with Leonor and Maria Luisa and even belatedly repentant of her necessarily chaste ardor, as it can be discovered in those same writings. Of course, the myth stating that there is no lesbian who is not a man-eater and a nympho was created and maintained by the literature that makes the most of men fantasies.

But there are many more realities, such as those of lesbians who don’t love one single woman, women who love other women but are not lesbians, and lesbians who love in abstinence. The essence of a relationship between women cannot be reduced to the sexual intercourse under penalty of revealing a complete ignorance of women psychology basic feature. In their report, Masters and Johnson had already published: “By and large, women continue preferring the emotional aspects of their relations, to the detriment of the sexual ones. As a result, having the possibility of choosing between satisfactory sexual relationship and a satisfying emotional contact, women prefer by far the second option: participation, privacy… and tenderness.”^^14^^

Continence within a relationship doesn’t usually annul or invalidate such relationship; so, why pretend that such a thing happens in the specific case of a lesbian couple? “We have been compelled to believe that love separated from sex doesn’t exist or, if it exists, it doesn’t mean much,” says Dr. Gabrielle Brown (1982) in her book that seeks to legitimize the abstinent relations as authentic, valid, and even stronger than the sexual ones. Dr. Brown explains that it is common and easy to understand that one feels more at ease, more relaxed and able to enjoy relationships free of “the most absorbing complexities of sexual relationships”. When love flows without the explosions of sexual encounters, its intensity can reach unsuspected levels, which the author herself describes as “a subtle, but ongoing, orgasm”.

This issue seems to require a space of its own that this text cannot provide, but my experience says that it is true. The relations inside the convents are intense, passionate, and usually chaste; although there’s always room for transgressions, as Alicia Gaspar de Alba (2001) imagines, interprets and illustrates in her novel El segundo sueño^15^, with regard to the tender, romantic, sensual and passionate relationship between Sister Juana and her countess Maria Luisa. Nevertheless, I consider that, when they occur such events—unusual or at least scarce—are of the same nature as those described in this novel: three hundred and seventy-four pages of preambles, three of loving passion, and one hundred seventy pages and three centuries of repentance, nostalgia, pain or madness.

 

TO THE MYSTIC THROUGH THE ASCETIC

Distrust yourself, your judgment, your eyes; and trust me.

Beautiful is what you don’t see beautiful; and sweet what you taste bitter; life is what smells of death; and death is all the rest.

1972: ABOUT THE CLOYINGLY PLEASURE OF DENYING MYSELF

My notebooks, my almost dairies, allow me to look back again to the formation processes, the systematic depersonalization and the disappearance of myself—teenager of 68 and howling—to make way for the shapeless, obedient, unidentifiable, common and quiet nun; perfect according to the strict patriarchal canons. In the heart of the process is the systematic confession before the mother superior.

The secret to deny yourself up to the extreme, until disappear between your own fingers, like a trickle of water, as a sneeze, as all that is and in a blink stops being; the secret is not to keep anything for yourself; open up before me and give me everything.

Once a week you’ll give me even your smallest thought, you’ll search in the folds of your desires and your dreams, of your sorrows and joys; and you’ll give them to me.

And once a day, every day, you’ll come fast, and in a few minutes you’ll open yourself before me, and you’ll entrust me also your soul.

Nothing shall be unknown, secret or hidden to me; nothing will be yours, yours only.

There is no room for modesty, even less for dodges.

Open, transparent, don’t hide, open yourself more, more,

And disappear.

Bit by bit, I give up. I stop being myself; I bend, I become play dough, gum; obedient before who and what must shape me: the mother teacher, the regulations, the constitutions, the silence, the solitude. To reach that limitless status of obedience, I had to grab all denials imposed and invent myself many more. No one can recognize anymore in what I am the Celine that I was. I believe in anything they tell me I have to believe; and more than believing it, I see it. Would you like to get it also?

Don’t waste an opportunity to deny yourself.

Adopt austerity, run away from every single stimulus; stay away from roses and jasmines; and don’t turn back to see the lilies growing amidst the rocks; don’t hear the mockingbirds, don’t respond to whom smiles at you, serve yourself two spoons of cabbages and don’t taste the jericaya^^16^^.

Wash yourself with cold water, do not use soap, scrub yourself with a scouring pad, remain more time kneeling, get up half an hour before—at the tender three in the morning—and run to earn the privilege of washing the greasy pots, or laundering the sanitary napkins with menstrual blood.

Bend yourself, deny yourself.

Don’t call your mother on her birthday; don’t answer if she calls you; in the end you will have achieved it: dry and empty, perfectly plastic and malleable; already dead in life.

You’ll be able to peel potatoes all day long, while your mother is in the throes of death; and you won’t weep one single tear, because you won’t have one single tear inside of you.

My grandma embroidered these sheets; my mom knitted this sweater. I’ll hand over them right away. And, incidentally, I’m going to ask the mother permission to tell my family not to come to visit me this month. Another success of denial!

My fingers bleed due to chilblains, so persistent, so long-lived, that I no longer notice them, although at noon, when due to obedience I must play volleyball, whenever I hit the ball the small vessels burst and I stain it with blood. But I’m not the only one; at least four of us suffer from the same thing and we leave red patches on the white leather of the ball: it has become a need to wash it daily, when the bloody break ends.

1973: ABOUT INCIDENTS AND NIGHTMARES

With both feet immersed in the steaming washbowl, as every Saturday, mother Maria de Jesus directs Hilda just with her look. Hilda scrubs and puts to bleach in the sun the mother’s underwear. She dries her feet and, kneeling before her, always in silence, she pedicures her. When she finishes, she brings a small washbowl with hot water in which Maria of Jesus dips her fingers. Hilda then devotes a few minutes to the mother’s hair; she cuts the ends with scissors, massages the scalp with oil and brushes it. Then she dries the mother’s hands and manicures them. Finally, she takes down the underwear before it dries completely, and she irons it.

Very few nuns have novices at their service, but Hilda is Maria de Jesus’s vocation and thus she considers an honor to serve her. The exceptional fact is that Maria of Jesus doesn’t live in the Novitiate or in the Provincial House annexed; she lives two hours away, and Hilda must travel up to there every Saturday. Maria de Jesus privileges can be explained due to her long friendship with the Provincial Mother. That’s what I imagine.

Mother Maria de Jesus reviews everything with her eyes, signals Hilda a couple of details and leaves the room. Hilda understands that this means the end of the weekly session; she takes care of the details that mother signaled her, she leaves the cell, the house and the city, and she returns to the Novitiate; until next week.

The following Saturday I get the permission of mother teacher to go with Hilda to Maria de Jesus’s community. I’m about to profess and I want to talk to a nun who was my teacher. I know that she will foster my strength, if she deems it sensible. And if it weren’t so, I’m sure that she will advise me to wait a few months or even not to profess. I feel haunted by an unusual and intense fear which I don’t know how to interpret. I don’t know what I will tell her, but I hope she will be able to interpret my silence; a silence that worsens over time.

Hilda and I set off very early; on the way we barely talk because the rule of silence prevails even when we go out; anyway, I don’t feel like talking. There’s almost eleven months that I haven’t been out of the convent and I find changes everywhere. Upon our arrival, Maria de Jesus welcomes us at the gate; she always seems to be angry, but this morning I see her more tense; her nostrils flutter.

Maria de Jesus is peculiar: tall, stiff, sickly, would say my grandmother; rather dry, I would say, but fibrous; flat in front and behind, big-nosed and always wearing first class clothes, in noticeable contrast to the dreadful sight of the rest of her community. I greet her and she doesn’t respond, but as she neither responds to Hilda I downplay the whole thing. I bow out and I walk away to search for my friend, my former teacher.

I find her near; she’s waiting for me. Just for the pleasure of seeing her again, I want to hug her, but she stops me sharp, serious, silent. I interpret the gesture as a virtue of keeping distances or as an effort of self-denial, austerity and sacrifice. Her gesture surprises me, but doesn’t hurt me.

In the end, I begin to tell her my doubts, to which she lends an unwilling ear; she seems to be in a hurry to go away. I try to read some pages of my notebook. She asks me to better hand it over to her. We don’t last ten minutes; I try to explain, she reacts with nervousness; I ask for her advice, and she gets up and leaves; that really hurts me. It was really difficult for me decide to ask for permission to come to see her, and she just vamooses, leaving me with no answers! Anyway, sooner or later I’ll have to resign myself; I’d better start trying it right away.

As Hilda usually takes more than four hours, I kill time reading and writing; a young sister offers me some cookies that I accept, and I keep on waiting. During my wait, I try to elucidate the attitude of my friend but I just can’t. She has left in me a void, a certainty of loneliness, of abandonment, a longing and a growing need for holding on to someone else, perhaps only to cry. I don’t know if I want to figure out what’s happening to her or the reasons whereby the person who supposedly could and should comfort me prefers to ignore me.

When Hilda finally comes out, she does so behind Maria of Jesus. I am getting up with reluctance when a shout by Maria of Jesus makes me jump. Anything unexpected always frightens me; I always jump, I raise my hands and open my eyes wide open. “Stop.” I stop, of course. She turns around and says something that I can’t hear; Hilda runs off and I keep being scared, I am on tenterhooks. Maria de Jesus keeps me nailed to the floor with her gaze.

Hilda returns and, behind her, my former teacher, my friend. They flank Maria de Jesus, both with frightened faces, or am I using them as a mirror and those looks of horror reflect my own look? Something is wrong, I imagine, but I can’t figure out what it is. With my eyes I question my friend: What’s going on? Maria de Jesus intercepts my question and destroys it with her gaze. Then she looks for my eyes; she finds them and she stirs my stomach.

My friend looks down; I envision her frightened and tearful, pained and regretful.

Maria de Jesus hasn’t stopped staring at me; I see her now. She is sheer anger: red eyes, hands tensed, and she yells: “Who do you think you are? I order you to get out and leave alone this poor sister—alluding to my former teacher—. I’ll call Eugenia—the provincial, her friend—and you’ll find out the consequences of…” Of what? I can’t hear her anymore. There are several sisters around, but Maria de Jesus couldn’t care less about the show she’s performing. For my part, I resort to my great defense mechanism: when a situation becomes too painful, I lose contact: I start crying and the weeping blinds me and deafens me, it numbs me; it creates for me a niche of isolation, security.

I leave the house; one elder sister, clearly stunned by the anger that splashed everything, opens the door for me and gives me an old handkerchief. She tells me quietly: “Leave, go away fast, sister.” I walk, I almost run to the bus stop. I don’t have money for the ticket; even so, I signal the bus to stop and I get into it. I go to the back, without paying; the driver senses something because he doesn’t stop me. I can’t breathe well due to so much pain; the weeping chokes me.^^17^^

The journey home calms me down. On the bus, I try to entertain myself to break the tears-memory-tears-memory vicious circle. The angry yells of Maria of Jesus are still buried inside my ears and get repeated over and over again in my head, even against my will. I hear them and I cry; during a tears respite I hear them once more and I cry again. But during the next pause I remember the seventeen times table and I start to repeat it with inner screams; until the soft numbers seventeen, thirty-four, fifty-one, sixty-eight, silence the piercing voice of Maria de Jesus. Numbers against voices; cold, smooth, steely, comforting numbers that, like wedges, keep opening a crack where sanity, temperance and peace slip through, despite the yells, the anger, the humiliation and the lack of understanding.

I get back to the Novitiate with my eyes swollen and my nose stuffy. It doesn’t surprise me to see that Hilda arrived long ago; they surely drove her back. She avoids my glance; she eludes me that day and the following. I cannot ask her anything, although she knows what happened. She knows why my friend, my former teacher, eluded me. She knows when exactly Maria de Jesus flared up; and she knows what I couldn’t hear. And if Hilda stayed there to give her famous oil massage, she knows what happened afterwards. But here it’s not customary to ask questions; curiosity is a fault that must be confessed, and we must get used to the absurd, to the nightmares during sleepless nights, to the exercises of humility and humiliation.

That day and the following I try to forget the whole thing without success. Anger splashes and penetrates, and once inside it spreads, pervades and corrodes everything. Anger doesn’t let itself be managed, trapped or directed when all channels are closed; when the first serene reaction is, “I surely deserve it”, that nothing or no one rebuts.

Emotional outbursts are part of life here in the convent as well as outside; but this particular one is breaking something inside me. I start thinking about leaving, not the convent, that is out of the question, but life; about disappearing, erasing me. If my family would not suffer, I would do it right now; how to die without making others suffer?

I have explored hundreds of strategies, the simplest one being the pills; there are hundreds of them everywhere.

Not only in this house, but in many—in all of them?—medical expenses exceed the cost of food; they even double it. What’s interesting is that not only in this house, but in many—in all of them?—people spend a lot in food. There are refrigerators and cold rooms full of hams, cartons of fruits, imported cans, first class meat, seafood, cheeses. Besides, in all of them the watchword seems to be “eat a lot every day”. Capi says that the only days of stomach rest are those of fasting; he exaggerates, but just a bit. Many nuns suffer from having to eat so much at each meal.

Educating rich girls is not a bad business, especially if you don’t pay salaries to those who work up to sixteen hours a day. The nuns sign the receipts but don’t see a penny. No one spends on clothing: families, students and former students dress more than enough each nun. Food and medicines are the greatest expenditure; medicines, much more than food.

Possibly, so much violence against oneself, so much effort to beat us down, nullify us and deny us, are the causes of our pattern of diseases: gastritis, colitis, ulcers, gastric bleeding, melena; depressions, insomnia, anemia, stress, anorexia. And psychiatric problems also: bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, insanity. This explains why a good number of nuns, including some young ones, get prepared special food.

On fixed days of each week, two doctors come make check-ups; four sisters perform nursing tasks—within our community of twenty-four nuns—and a sickroom well equipped, with cabinets stuffed with medicines, from aspirins to psychotropic substances.

Of all the ways to die, only one is passive and gentle, languid and without violence, without an evident uproar, almost without noise. I decide to stop eating to the extent necessary. I take the Holy Sacrament vigil shift at lunchtime; it’s the easiest way. Some other times I volunteer to set the table or to cook, and I don’t seat to eat either before or after. At breakfast and dinner, I eat as little as possible. When I can’t avoid sitting at the table and eat as everyone, I vomit afterwards and that’s it.

After eleven weeks, the effects of my fast are noticeable: I’m tired; I can’t climb six steps in a row; I stop menstruating. I have cramps and spasms all over; I cry for hours and hours, days and nights. And no one in the community seems to notice it.

Yesterday I passed out and took me so long to wake the doctor asked me to review. He ordered a transfusion, vitamins and others. Officially, I have exhaustion from overwork.

Yesterday I fainted and it took me so long to come to that they asked the doctor to check me up. He prescribed a transfusion, vitamins and other things. Officially, I feel exhausted due to overwork.

No one tells me anything or openly puts in doubt the diagnosis. Officially, it’s only a work incident.

Out of obedience, I must eat.

I shall look for another way to go; I shall do it later. For now, I’m too tired to resist. And obey, in more than one sense, is to die. Amen.

1975: ABOUT THE EXTREME VIRTUES

I hang up the phone, I look at the clock on the wall, the one with the off-key chime. If I want to reach Tlalpan with time enough for my appointment, I’d better leave immediately. Mother Gabriela, prefect of studies, just called me. She wants to see me at the office of mother Eugenia, the provincial. I’m not scared; I only feel a gentle pressure in the pit of the stomach, like a painful omen or a pessimistic curiosity.

I go see the finance administrator; I ask her just for my bus tickets. Two blocks away is the bus-stop of the bus that goes through the whole south part of Insurgentes avenue to downtown Tlalpan. I want to arrive early and calmly, to get used again to that big house: I don’t want to be surprised by its perpetual cold, nor by its smell to burnt eucalyptus, tender figs and ripe magnolias.

At the end of a long discernment and farewell retreat, I made an appointment with Celine to jointly meet the Provincial. It is not my best moment: with an intermittent fever, a continuous fatigue, and my increasingly useless hands. The pain has intensified in my bones and the swelling in my joints. (Gabriela, in a diary that nobody read.)

The trip lasts one hour and a half; I arrive early enough. I stroll through the vegetable garden, I visit the climbing rose bush that competes with the jasmines and has years covering a cross-eyed and hunchbacked Juan Diego effigy, of which now only a deformed foot sticks out. In this house I made the novitiate; I know it even at night, better at night than by day.

At six o’clock sharp, when the sky starts to darken and cold descends from I don’t know where, I knock at the door of the provincial with the three ritual taps required by our rules. Mother Eugenia responds: “Be Him blessed and praised”, and I enter into her office which is also her cell. Gabriela is already there, sitting next to the bed where the provincial is recovering from surgery, the sixth since I entered the novitiate, three years ago. I don’t know if I can approach the bed or not. I greet them and I think they don’t answer me, or they do it so softly that I don’t hear it. Simply because no one tells me to do otherwise, I keep standing in the center of the cell, in view of both.

I would like not to think, but I am in a good mood; perhaps I should be nervous, but I’m not. And when I am in a good mood and relaxed, I start thinking unrelentingly. The scene is interesting. Mother Eugenia, who has so many speeches about modesty, who imposes horrible penances for small faults, is receiving me wearing her nightgown. One day she ordered Lupita to go around with a stone hanging from her neck a whole week because she had appeared in the hallways without stockings. I remember when I really believed, together with all my companions—when we were six, seven or maybe eight years old—that nuns never went to the restroom, that they didn’t shit or urinate, that they were pure and perfect. At that moment I had to think about serious things, but who can stop a speeding mind? And neither Gabriela nor mother Eugenia starts speaking.

Some other day—how can I forget it?—mother Eugenia ordered Carmen to carry a mirror around her neck, I think it was a whole month, as a penance for having looked herself in the mirror, for her vanity and her lack of modesty. Is it possible for mother Eugenia to comb her hair so perfectly without looking at herself in a mirror? She looks healthy despite the surgery; it must be because she only eats imported sardines. I know it from a worthy source. And brimming with health she contrasts with Gabriela’s aspect, who, despite her diligent attitude or at least her upright posture, looks exhausted: taut skin, small veins in her arms, jaws and neck about to explode, bulging eyes, distended nostrils, blue fingers. She has advanced lupus; a really advanced lupus.

—But is this sister, what is her name, Gabriela? What is her name?

Gabriela whispers my name at her ear and something else I can’t hear nor guess.

—Celine, of course. She has changed or remains the same?

I don’t understand the comment. I breathe slowlt, deeply

Pain hisses in my chest, rips it; this is pleurisy. And the cold, the cold, will it never leave me? Will I die of cold, with cold or for the cold? A little more, yes I can, yes I can. Does Mother Eugenia really know what I’m going through? Did the doctor hide it to her not to worry her? (Gabriela, in her diary.)

—Gabriela, if you don’t overcome, you won’t get ahead. Follow the example of your superiors. God gives us our post for a reason. Your illness may not be worse than mine. And look at me: I overcome; instead, you even cause indolence.

I struggle with feelings, with doubts. It inspires me to know that who obeys is not wrong; Celine will obey: it’s my gift. And I obey too. Celine will not be wrong, and I? I cannot breathe; the hissing can be heard outside. Cold hurts, I can’t breathe (Gabriela, also.)

—Gabriela, I can’t hear you. Why do you do those things with your nose? You’re irritating with those gestures. Tell me, what’s the matter with sister Celine?

Gabriela answers her to the ear. Once she made many sisters shiver with her voice, but this afternoon she barely manages to tell mother Eugenia that they are deciding my academic future. My heart doesn’t go off nor my breath unsettles; I don’t feel a knot in the pit of my stomach or a cramp hits my belly. Nothing. Have I forgotten how to do it? The sensitive soundboard of my body has remained motionless. To study or not to study, it’s almost the same. Have I reached the holy indifference?

The virtue of my post enlightens me; I am not wrong. What counts is the intention and the intention is right: obtain the greatest good for all of them. I hope this comes to an end soon and thus I can go lay down in the bed of my use. Pain, how much it hurts to live when it’s already time to die. How much more I will last? (Gabriela thought it, but she never wrote it in her diary).

At another epoch I would have howled of enthusiasm at the prospect of studying, but the ten months elapsed since my first vows had fulfilled its mission and had deprived me of my enthusiasm and interest. Here, close to the provincial’s bed, all possible futures are a futile thing: little mirrors, beads, trinkets and trifles.

—You’re getting ugly, Gabriela. Our Lord wants us perfect. Look at you face; fat and stained. And try to talk properly, not as if you were suffocating. What kind of tests the Lord imposes on me! You’re disgusting; you’re sickening. I tell you this so that at least you win in humility, because it is obvious that you don’t win anything in charity. If you don’t overcome soon, I think it will be best that you don’t come back to see me, can’t you see that I am convalescent?

Nobody wants to tell me, but I know that yesterday I went into a spasm in the refectory. I know that I’m dying; many persons know it. My mother and my brothers know it. My father knows it, although he doesn’t want to accept it. Mother Eugenia doesn’t know it? It hurts me to breathe, it hurts me to live; that’s what really hurts (Gabriela, again.)

While a thyroid problem pushes out Gabriela’s eyes, swollen by cortisone her cheeks pull back the corners of her mouth. That combination creates an expression of a permanent scare. In addition, her voice trembles—of emotion, of physical pain, of sadness?—and saliva threatens to escape from her mouth. Is her symptoms terminal? Everyone says yes, but, then, why doesn’t she get into bed at the infirmary? I should feel very ill at ease in front of Gabriela, who seems to agonize standup, and in front of mother Eugenia, who is so healthy, impertinent, intolerant and rude as always, but I feel myself basically well because, apparently, nothing is expected from me: neither that I answer nor that I agree to what I hear, not even to display that I hear what they say. I enjoy my comfortable silence. I’m tempted to switch my weight from one foot to the other, but I am stronger than that, so I don’t move one single muscle, although one starts to hurt. The truth, what hurts me is my helplessness; if I could, if just I could, I would feel all the pain of Gabriela; I would lend her my strong body to her agony, but I can’t; this is envy and I regret to envy her.

—Well, Gabriela, do we know what sister Celine is going to study?

Our congregation had resolved that all the newly professed nuns who “could” do it, would be able to study university degrees instead of the teacher training, as the pre-Conciliar generations had done it. That’s why, ten months before, on the eve of flying to Rome, Gabriela had asked me what I wanted to study. I thought about it, I read, I meditated. I had to determine if on this issue I should also reject what I wanted most deeply. Or should the truth prevail? Denial, humiliation and pain, or truth? Is the truth a virtue?

Gabriela asked me plainly: “What do you want?” Should I lie to her and refuse her offer, or answer her with the truth even at the cost of pleasing myself?

In the end, I thought I should follow my heart, be faithful to my genuine desire and tell her that I wanted to study to write, to communicate; perhaps even to recuperate the microphone that I had left to enter the novitiate. That entire struggle took me two or three weeks. By then, Gabriela was already in Rome so I had to respond her in writing. I opened my heart to her; I revealed her my doubts and my lights. She answered me immediately, filled with enthusiasm by my decision and accepting it fully. Our correspondence came and went with incredible speed thanks to the fact that a couple of former students and benefactors of the congregation were married or very close related to some of the highest authorities of the federal Government, so our correspondence came and went in a diplomatic bag. In short, I wrote one day and that same week I received an answer.

Gabriela sent me to look for all the curricula that could take me to what my heart wanted; she ordered me to find out prices, schedules and even bibliographies of the various courses in journalism, literature, communications, and others, to be sure to choose “the best plan of all, to better serve God”. The search was a delight and finding the best was too simple; nothing was better than Communications at the Universidad Iberoamericana. As soon as I collected all the information, I mailed it to Gabriela as a fat parcel; I imagined that she would enjoy seeing that I had chosen the same university where she had graduated. By return mail, inside an envelope that said Congratulations! with big letters, Gabriela urged me to carry out all the paperwork to start studying. I did my best and I began to enjoy the experience beforehand. In total I sent her five letters, and she sent me back four.

—Gabriela, we must clear up two or three things. What this little sister has made is inexcusable; she has acted on her own. She forgets that the entrance door to the Congregation is very narrow, but that the exit door is very large and is always open. Just having thought about that expensive university is to break the vow of poverty, but it is even worse to scoff at sister prefect, at you, Gabriela, and to sin against the vow of obedience. How she dares to act behind your back? And how could you be so distracted that you didn’t even notice it? The Jesuits are going to think that we are begging them for a scholarship. They didn’t help you, I don’t know why, but now they will think that we are beggars. This naughty sister has damaged the good image of the Congregation. That’s inexcusable. She forgot completely modesty and humility. And she doesn’t know prudence either. Gabriela, this sister is silly, very silly. And you, I don’t know where you have your head.

Vanity is almost impossible to defeat. I had to fight against it at the University and I cannot impose such a burden on anyone. Moreover, breaking wills is part of my mission, as well as contributing to live in poverty, humility, modesty, up to its last consequences. (Gabriela, who thinks more than what she’s able to write.)

Gabriela tries to stand up, she seems to need coughing; she puts her hand over her mouth, her chest hisses; she’s not able to draw herself up. Almost bent in half, she simply goes from the bed to the nearby armchair where she lets herself fall in, as a broken doll. I listen to Eugenia, but I cannot take my eyes off Gabriela. Eugenia, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to realize that Gabriela almost faints and keeps talking; every phrase, every word with more intensity and with a pitch slightly higher than the previous one. Gabriela closes her eyes and Eugenia criticizes as if wanting to joke, but no one laughs.

I think at full speed, reviewing the past, reading it with the clues I believe to discover in that room. Gabriela and I exchanged letters; nine in all. She ordered me what to do, without any possible doubt; I followed her instructions to the T.

Unclarities and questions push, twist, mingle with each other deep inside. Until, very gradually, a small light makes its way in my mind over the chaos unleashed by Eugenia’s criticisms against Gabriela’s defeated body. Eugenia is right. Eugenia is right. Eugenia is right. The confusion in my head calms down. It’s time to obey, that is to say, to believe that Eugenia is telling the truth; she is mother superior, she has the virtue of the office; if I don’t want to make mistakes, I must obey; if I want to know the truth, I must hear it from her mouth and follow it. Indeed, what I did was an act of contempt; no one told me anything.

Obedience asked me to study psychology; the Congregation paid part of it and got a scholarship. But the Congregation doesn’t need writers and neither university graduates from the Iberoamericana; with me it has more than enough. Well, it had more than enough, because I am leaving; I am already leaving. (Gabriela.)

—Never, never anyone authorized this sister to visit any university. No one suggested her to study to be a writer. Who she believes she is to think that the other nuns we must sustain her? And who would want to read what she will happen to write?

It’s possible, perhaps it’s true. It is, it is absolutely true; I went mad with pride; mother Eugenia is right, nobody authorized me

—The attitude of this little sister is shameful. Gabriela, I don’t know what you’ve done, but it was your responsibility to be aware and correct her, to stop her in time, because…

Mother Eugenia stopped in the middle of the sentence, she straightened up until she got well seated on the bed; up to that moment she had been speaking reclined on a couple of pillows. When she sat up straight, with her finger she ordered Gabriela to take me out of the room.

Celine doesn’t have to worry; as long as she obeys she’ll be safe; it’s the safest behavior. She’ll do alright. I think I told her yes; I think she was following my instructions, but, why defending her in front of Eugenia? Why do that, if I’m already leaving? Celine will remain alive; it will do her good to obey and humiliate herself. I no longer need to strive for recognition; I no longer need recognition. (Gabriela, possibly.)

She won’t sin against modesty or poverty. She’ll have what I didn’t: a simple path of silence and humility. She’ll study anything, anywhere. Writing is so fatuous, so barely humble.

Gabriela grabs the arms of the chair, but she cannot thrust herself to a stand up position. Eugenia cracks a laugh which more than a taunt looks like confusion.

—Now, what’s happening to you, Gabriela? Besides being ugly, you’re becoming old and clumsy.

Gabriela leans her body forward with her feet firmly laid on the floor, but she can’t straighten up her legs completely; she keeps her knees somewhat bended, her hands on the arms of the chair and her spine bent forwards. She gasps for breath, she raises her head, her nostrils flutter again, she tautens her cheeks, she shows her teeth, she tightens her jaw; she has trouble breathing, she has trouble living. Gabriela has begun to die, I know it; and it won’t take her a long time, I also know it.

Finally, Gabriela straightens up completely. She makes signs that she is going to move forward, but all that she does is to sway back and forth. Not a sigh comes out of her mouth. I turn around, I smile at her empathically; I love her, I really love her; what hurts me is not being able to take on her pain. I think that at least I can help her a little. I walk to the door: “Thank you—I say—let me…” and I turn the door handle. Gabriela clears her throat and strives to say, I think, “Thanks for coming”. I can’t understand her, but I interpret her gaze. Eugenia, for her part, with her clearest voice says:

—That’s enough! Gabriela take this little sister out of here. I don’t know about you, but I have no time to lose!

I go out, I start to walk slowly, very slowly, and I walk non-stop for almost five hours, a very long stretch of Insurgentes Avenue, from South to North. Evening falls, cold envelops the city, and together, darkness and cold gradually dilute both the bewilderment lingering in my head and the heaviness of my heart. Bewilderment and heaviness diluted, nothing obstructs the little light inside me; the one I glimpsed when Eugenia was talking and Gabriela was falling. This light is absolutely certain and potentially heroic. I cannot envy martyrdoms anymore: I have one, a golden one, in my hands. I have the chance to live the blind obedience, to die for it! Eugenia with her speech and Gabriela with their silence were right; theirs is the truth. On the other hand, my letters—those that I sent to Gabriela, of which I kept drafts, and those that Gabriela sent me in a diplomatic bag—read and re-read, underlined and almost memorized, were a threat to that truth.

The forcefulness of this revelation closes any possibility for me to feel sad. Almost three kilometers away from the house I begin to rejoice genuinely, I hasten. The absurdity is real; the impossible can be touched.

When I reach the small back door of the conventual house it’s already dark; too late for what is customary in this community. I have not eaten lunch or dinner, but I’m not hungry. The sister who opens the door, tenderheartedly tells me that she put away some stew, crackers and a glass of milk for me; she left that in my cubicle. I thank her and I run to get the letters.

The letters, the four that Gabriela sent me, are more fingered than I thought. I read them one after the other. I intercalate them between the many paragraphs of my five letters that I memorized for having reviewed and rethink them so much. Here is the whole sequence of Gabriela’s decisions: from the initial reluctance to the final enthusiasm; from the we will have to think about it, let me pass it through the Tabernacle, to the go on, this is your vocation, don’t let anything stop you. And, in the end, her messages of encouragement and her explicit instructions to enroll at the Ibero^^18^^: “I don’t authorize you: I order you; sign up and progress. This is your way; be faithful to it.”

I breathe deeply; I am excited. In so far this year I’ve been the only occupant of the huge collective dormitory; my cubicle is the only one occupied. Here I’m alone. The rest of the community occupies cells in another building. Martyrdom and loneliness get together well. Today the community already dined; they already had their recess and they surely sang a capella a hymn in Compline. Now, for sure, there’s nobody in the corridors. The empty night is only mine.

The letters occupy all the space, all my attention and my feelings. The letters: I see them, I smell them, I hear them, I read them, I count them, I fold them. Each one and all of them exonerate me of having acted voluntarily, which is reprehensible within the conventual logic, as mother Eugenia stated clearly. But those same letters are also a temptation to vindicate myself, and this is even more reprehensible. The letters—the very same four letters, cramped with Gabriela’s steady handwriting and her clear and elegant writing—are a passport to my satisfaction or my martyrdom. It’s true! They are the temptation to display my misery and the opportunity to avoid all desire through death; the opportunity to provide shape and history to the intellectual suicide, which is how I define faith and obedience.

I walk solemnly, almost, almost enthusiastic, the long and very dark corridor which goes amidst the cubicles and ends at the foot of the staircase going up to the roof. I press against my chest a box of matches and the letters; I press them vigorously in an attempt to control my runaway heart. I run up the stairs two at the time; not as fast as determined. At the huge roof slab I look for the trash can cover; I put it on my favorite site opposite the water tanks and, having as witnesses a filthy black sky and the pale lights of the neighboring houses, I fold each letter in the form of boat and set it on fire, one by one.

The boats take some time to burn; burned ships. One by one, pyramidal colored torches rise: the ember red is below, and over it the blue, yellow and gray flames jig about. Seconds later the meek silver grey shines and at once the powder grey gets divided into thousands flakes that my breathing, my tears or the jigging about of the following boat blow into the air. In the end, almost no aches remain; only the spicy smell of paper, of inks, and of the blind and miraculous obedience that changed history. Now what Eugenia said and Gabriela approved is really true: that she, Gabriela, never authorized me to study what I wanted; that never one single letter existed, let alone four of them, backing my plans; that I acted on a pure whim. Therefore, Eugenia is right: I am guilty. Martyrdom is finished.

Three weeks later, mother Eugenia orders me to study biology at the UNAM^^19^^. She sends me a message. I expected Gabriela to tell it to me, but the same messenger sister tells me secretly that Gabriela entered agony the night before.

During the evening prayers, mother superior asks us to entrust to God sister Gabriela’s soul who has just been called the House of the Father.

1976: ABOUT MYSTIC OUTBURSTS BEING REALLY SO

Five years have already passed since I entered the convent; I took my first vows two years ago, and in a few weeks I’ll renew them for the second time. The almost physical feeling of having crossed a border between light and heavy fog, and to move forward through the fog, toward where?, accompanies me since the very day of my entry. Fog covers up my days of absolute desolation, the months full of deteriorating fear, those of total despair, but also the ineffable periods of boundless energy and overwhelming peace. Since my first vows, the general tone has been one of soft simplicity; overflowing work, triple work shifts totaling eighteen to twenty hours a day; tiredness and peace. “Where is the border between peace and fatigue? Pain that when it starts it sticks its stinger and triggers howls, then it drums, unsettles and eventually becomes tiredness. Tiredness tastes of peace; gets transmuted into peace, gets mixed with it.”

I‘m going to renew my vows with the certainty of progressing, slowly but surely, towards the goal. I’ve developed an ascetic sense; I’ve managed to break my will to explore pathways towards mysticism through asceticism.

Long ago, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter when, I found first one, then another and another, until I got five biographies of religious men and women virtually unknown: a Polish, a Yugoslav, two French and an Austrian. They were not the lives of Saints known by everybody, but detailed descriptions of practices that some beings—not necessarily recognized as “saints”—had carried out to reach the mystical communion with God, which is the goal of all our efforts.

I’m aware that the lives of popular saints are for the common run of people, whereas these biographies are for another audience: they gather up the accounts of confessors and witnesses; their main characters didn’t seek the glory of the altars, and no one in the Church felt enticed to initiate their causes; these beings will not receive recognition or hagiographic titles. They sought mystical experience and they found it. They neither can nor want to ask anything else. Their paths seem to be plausible and effective, precisely due to the difficulty they entail. And the challenge is my size. Therefore, every day I intensify my ascetic practices, privation and penances, and I increase my prayer time. I have a copy of the chapel keys and at daybreak I go down to pray there, alone, in absolute silence. Kneeling, I lose all sense of time and also of space, of reality and of the marble floor; my knees stop hurting me just when they start to bleed, and cold covers me up with its soft warmth.

I’ve started to slide, almost at will, between the “discrete” daily routine—tasks, minutes, days—and the continuous flow of the mystical world. The multiplicity and diversity of the world of things contrasts with the uniqueness of my own mystical perception.

These exultant experiences do not ride on the seesaw of the rest of my mist experience. This is a fence of silence surrounding me and carrying me to another level where it makes no sense to speak of the mist, because I don’t have eyes to perceive it; where the absolute clarity has nothing to do with the light or the time or the space or anything; where finished perception, of realities and relationships, competes with the intensity of certainty and with the overwhelming experience of the absolute ephemerality and the enjoyment in the ephemerality.

Total lucidity, inwardness, truth. As if circumstances and my own reflection, my opening, my vulnerability and sensitivity, and everything, suddenly attracted an immense inner light. And suddenly I know things I didn’t know, and void, ephemerality, impermanence, the lightness of my existence overwhelm me. It’s not sad, it’s absorbent; it’s joyful, gaseous, jubilant. My distinctive enthusiasm, my usual whirl calm down; and also my anguish, my grief. It’s a haven. My senses sharpen, my memories; what’s important takes center stage, gets colored, washed, illuminated; and things, ambitions, pale. Everything gets positioned and dimensioned.

This is an “altered” state (although more altered is the other state, the usual one) and the closest thing to what is known as enlightenment or mystical phase. These moments are not unusual in my life; although not so frequent either to get used to them. It consists in capturing, beyond all understanding, reality and its essence and set alight when capturing as sparks, and enjoy the ephemerality of this perception. It consists in being in love with life, existence, my options, my affections. And being in love, we know it well, is an altered state.

1976: ABOUT ASCETIC OUTBURSTS THAT ARE ALMOST SOMETHING ELSE

Rhythm, pain and heat make flagellation an endearing, horny, blushing and explosive practice as a result of being silenced by shame, ignorance and complicity in the secret eroticism.

It may be a Friday night, or Monday and Wednesday if it is lent or advent, or any day if it coincides with a chapter of faults, eve of a feast, Triduum for preparing feasts or renewal of vows. The impertinent magnolias open their huge petals and throw out their odors: also immense, also impertinent, with which they lick our face and cover our nose and mouth. The hour of study is over; the ringer sister is responsible for communicating it. I walk, I almost run to my cubicle. On the corridor I run across Eva, Ana and Luz: “Will you?” they ask me with their looks. Complicity is shared through smiles. “I will, and you?” “I don’t’ know. I’m supposed not to do it.” In silence, more stares, only eyes questioning, eyelashes answering, grimaces, shoulders rising. “It’s not my turn today; I’m menstruating. I’ll do it for you with twice energy. Let’s do it.” Silence. Accomplices.

To the right and to the left of the large room forty cubicles, twenty on each side; delimited with panels on both sides and curtains on the front. Perhaps to economize, but more probably to supervise us “on the go”, there’s a twenty centimeters clearance between the lower edge of the dividing panels, the curtains and the floor.

My heart gets agitated with merely opening the coarse cloth bag where I keep my jewels: a metal cilice ten centimeters wide and long enough to surround my thigh, and a white strings discipline to flagellate me right now. I unroll it, I shake it and I check my wrist agility. I’m ready. Mother teacher previously, and now a sister with dispensation—but never I or Eve or Luz or Ana—turns off the exposed light bulbs on the ceiling. I hear each of my neighbors’ breathing; I identify them. We are anxious, in urgent need of pain, of lashes, of rhythmic heat.

Already in the dark, I kneel on the concrete floor; I lift up my skirt, I roll it up to the waist so that it doesn’t fall down untimely; I pull my panties and my garter belt down to my knees.

Mercy, my God, for your kindness,

The elbow, the wrist, the shoulder. Right, left; the first lash strikes, the next on a buttock, the next on the other buttock

for your immense compassion erase my guilt;
wash away my crime, cleanse my sin.
Because I recognize my guilt,
I always keep in mind my sin:

it whizzes in the air, it hits the skin; it whizzes, it hits, it whizzes, it hits

against you, against you I only sinned,

right, left, right, left; rightleft; rightleft; rightleft;

I commited the evildoing that you abhor.

My heart perks up, Ana sighs, Luz barely gets agitated; right, left; right, left; rightleft; rightleft; whizzes, hits, whizzes.

In the sentence you’ll be right, at the trial you’ll turn out innocent.

Look, in guilt I was born, sinner my mother conceived me.

Those of left cubicles we recite the odd quartets; those of the right cubicles, the even ones. It’s not possible to whip oneself with a respectable energy while also reciting with energy, as we know since years ago. But the challenge, mine at least, is to whip myself with a more than decorous intensity while I recite the Miserere with energy; to whip myself with a merciless harshness, without limits, without a broken voice. But I can’t do it for a long time. Then I whip myself with an increased energy and let the others recite with a gasping voice, with suspicions of groans that threaten to splash—to spice?—the ceremony.

You like a sincere heart,
and in my inside you instill wisdom.
Spray me with the aspergillum: I’ll be clean;

whizzes, hits, rightleft, rightleft

wash me: I’ll end up whiter than snow.

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. Blood throngs, my heart goes crazy; each of my neighbors gasps; their rhythms merge, but can be distinguished. After the very first verses, the rhythm stabilizes, but not so the intensity, the energy: rightleft, rightleft, rightleft, rightleft, rightleft, hard, harder, hardest.

Make me hear joy and gladness,

Frenzy of pain. Buttocks don’t bleed, not easily; they swell, they heat up, they burn. Virtue becomes evident in the contrast of cadences; the fast whips, but not too much; whipping oneself requires to stop once in a while, to modify the speed, to make certain that it hurts,

that the shattered bones rejoice.

The prayer is slow, very slow. Today there’s no threat that some virtuous sister raises her voice and forces us to slow down the psalmody:

Take away your sight from my sin,
erase all my iniquities.

Rivers of tenderness get mixed with the youthful sweat; tenderness for my beloved cubicle-neighbors who breathe at my same pace, forcibly slow externally, but with the heart out of control internally.

Oh, God, create in me a pure heart,
renew me inside with strong spirit;
don’t throw me away from your face,
don’t take your holy spirit away from me.

After a few verses, the mystique of the joint pain captivates the hearts; the rhythm stirs the feelings—or the hormones?—and merges us. From one cubicle to the next wanders a collective passion, an urgency, rhythm, heat and pain:

Give me back the joy of your salvation,
strengthen me with generous spirit:
I will show the evildoers your roads,
the sinners will return to you.

Generous happiness, joy, triumph, almost addiction; body dominated, death that is life, humiliation which exalts, pain that stirs up and inflames, that warms up and excites, that burns and inflames, and almost immediately calms, releases, calms, numbs.

Deliver me from blood, o God,
God, my Savior, and my tongue will praise your justice.

The initial hiss of the whip starts sounding as a raspy clap. The initial percussion of each strike on the buttock becomes a muffled crushing. The uniform rhythm becomes chaos. The blood on the skin turns purple and blue; the tongue stumbles on the clenched teeth, wounds itself, opposes the will directing it.

Lord, you’ll open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.

My lips open and so all my flesh; all of me disposed to proclaim shared passions, secrets and dark painful joys; the whip falls on the flesh that, now thus, wants to burst, wants to blow up, wants to release its tension caused by the rhythmic whip, by the voices in unison, by the millennial psalmody:

Sacrifices don’t satisfy you:
if I’ll offered you a holocaust, you wouldn’t want it.
My sacrifice is a broken spirit;
a broken and humiliated heart,
you don’t despise it.

The flesh… wants to burst… blow up… release its tension… rhythmic… voices…

Lord, for your kindness, favor Zion,
rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem:
then you’ll accept the ritual sacrifices,
offerings and holocausts,
on your altar steers will be immolated.

A last effort, to conclude with an outburst of pain, of intensity, of surrender.

Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, glory to the Holy Spirit.

Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, glory to the Holy Spirit.

Harder, harder, so that it bleeds, that it bursts:

Glory to the Father, glory to the Son, glory to the Holy Spirit!

I grab my right hand with my left hand for fear that if don’t my right hand would continue non-stop its assignment. I prostrate myself on the floor. I could have just lowered my head and kissed the floor, but I prefer, I need, to stretch out myself on the very cold concrete. With my arms open as much as the space allows it, I kiss and hug the floor, the nothingness, the pain. I sit up on my knees immediately; I pull up my panties and my garter belt; I unroll my skirt.

Ana is still panting, Luz gasps, someone sighs noisily; I bite my lips to force my breath to recover a mild pace, something impossible to get without an effort. The cold I expected hidden somewhere comes across the heat of my skin. Huge smile; the excitement has calmed down. We are in great silence.

Keep quiet. Keep quiet.

1976: ABOUT ANY ONE MORING DURING LENT

Don’t you feel pain, ivory creature? Doesn’t the enjoyment falls apart inside you as it does inside me when I see you? Don’t your tears delineate a furrow, one running parallel to the furrow that silence opens inside me?

You are kneeling, blindfolded, with a small mirror hanging around your neck. You offended against modesty, you failed to die; you stumble upon the temptation to see, to breathe, to fluff up your soul; you fell, you lived. We all eat our breakfast and you, blind by force and kneeling, you breathe serene.

Who can swallow a mouthful? You are prostrated on the floor, blocking the entrance, palpitating threshold; when we enter we jump over you, we step on you on purpose.

You eat on your knees, blindfolded, without a sweater and in the cold. You carry a huge cross, the splinters sink into your shoulders and your back, in the middle of the refectory.

What did you do to deserve it? Would you let me help you?

From the silence we jump to your soft-mud voice: you ask forgiveness in public. Your voice doesn’t tremble. I keep trying to eat breakfast; who can swallow a mouthful? You accuse yourself, the mother superior judges you, she gives you a penance. Always on your knees, you go through the edge of the horseshoe-shaped table at and, one after the other, you kiss our feet, our shoes. I feel your breath, your lips, your cold, your sadness, your unlimited self-deception.

You, meanwhile, with your arms outstretched for many, many, many minutes.

Had you been like that before? Arms hurt until you want to run away, and legs until you want to run back to the place and the minute you left years ago, when you entered the convent.

Someone swallowed a mouthful? I have all tied to my soul, to the tears that cannot be shed, to the silence and to the cold.

From the breakfast to the duties: sweep and mop, hand wash clothing that never ends, weed the garden, peel vegetables, chop, grind, walk, clean, clean, clean, what will never be clean.

To ease the stress, at the end of the duties, someone proposes to pray the novena to the Child of Prague so that he sends us many and good vocations. It’s a break to the pain, the penances, the confessions, the perverse delight with the own guilt, which translates into public and shared pain. It hurts so much trying to swallow with the throat closed by pain!

To pray the novena, all of us—also you, ivory creature—we kneel on the rough stone and place the finger tips under our knees. It hurts, but it doesn’t humiliate; it’s not comparable to the distress of the breakfast. We pray as one single voice, softly; we crush the fingertips against the stone with the whole weight of our bodies. More pain, some more. Some heaven will feel moved when seeing us shatter our fingers and will send us more young women, some of ivory, some others of cedar, others of ebony, others of air, of water, of tears, of night, of nostalgia without boundaries.

1977: ABOUT AN EXCURSION TO THE OTHER MULTI-COLORED PLANET

Mexico, Federal District: when I entered the convent you still smelt of Tlaltelolco’s fresh blood, of the recently inaugurated subway rubber, of fright and bravery. Today I am almost a Federal District citizen, almost a chilanga^^20^^. The almost is due to the fact that I am a nun, and nuns we are not citizens; I don’t know if I am legally a citizen, but we do not feel as such. We care about the poor to be good and generous, we care about the rich to educate their daughters and live off them. But as our eyes are set on an eternal and infinite horizon, little or nothing we care about the city and the political, the coexistence, the citizens, the participation. We look beautiful if we keep quiet, or at least we go unnoticed. We nourish the suspicion that if we “become invisible”, we also become more spiritual, more perfect.

But the convent island is not self-sufficient; we frequently have to stick our nose out from home, to travel for a while; and thus let that tasty puffs of fresh dark smog, of fresh golden shit, dilute for an instant our dense inner air, all incense, silence, candle, bleach and psalmody; endure two guffaws, two malicious looks, two spankings, two pinches on the subway, two gropes, two whiffs.

Today I am going to the dentist, anatomy class included, in charge of the neighbors. They are six or seven; they work as mechanics; they are always greasy. They are young guys in their 20s or less.

—The virgin, the virgin. There she comes.

—¿She comes? It won’t be with your small dick.

—Even less with your small finger.

—Pretty virgin, if you let this devil lick you, I’ll make you a woman devil.

—Are you already wet, sister?

My glance down doesn’t see, but, how can I close my ears not to hear?

The guffaws, without knowing it, protect me; I almost don’t get it. They yell and yell unpunished; they follow me for a whole block which lasts too many seconds. Why I don’t laugh? Today I grasped a little more; every day I learn.

At the corner, I stop the bus; I carry the coins in my hand. I help a woman with three baskets get in.

—Thanks, sister. God bless you all day long.

She kisses my hand. She takes a stalk of green bananas out of a basket, she tears off two and she gives them to me; she kisses my hand once again. The bus is already moving; I’m in the middle of the aisle. I turn back to the driver and give him the coins; I’ve got the exact fare.

He looks at me with annoyance, so it seems.

—What’s the matter? Forget it!

He turns up my outstretched hand and throws three coins in my palm; I keep the fare between my fingers.

—Thank you, mister. God will pay you back.

—I hope so, damn it!

The dentist doesn’t charge me either, the building doorkeeper kisses my hand. In addition to the bananas and the coins, I also get a piece of bread; just like that, a woman gives it to me on the go. An old woman asks for alms, she asks me for a little medal; she wants mine, the silver one that I carry around my neck; she tries to snatch it. I offer her the bread and the bananas; she takes them, she smells them; I take advantage of it to get away. She yells at me while gesticulating to emphasize her call:

—This isn’t enough to even clean a good shit!

On my trip back, the bus driver collects his fare and doesn’t give me back the exact change. A woman pushes me nearly out of my seat to sit her child almost asleep. My molar the dentist worked on starts to hurt as soon as the anesthesia effect wears off.

Back to the convent neighborhood, the mechanics, already tired, whistle at me when I pass; they shout at me unwillingly without leaving the shop; there are no guffaws.

I knock at the door; I enter. The sister doorkeeper doesn’t welcome me. The time of silence has begun.

1977: ABOUT EXSULTATES, PSALMODIES AND CHANTS

We warm up the voices with major scales, then with minor ones; with precise sharp notes, with open vowels, then closed; mumbling after and immediately gliding faints, free-falls of feathers cascading. Then always, always, the expected chord and we start with the healing, balsamic, Exsultate. Singing is a vocation and profession; it is the seal of the house, of the convent. When Marina directs us, singing is, also, nourishment and serenity, because she trains throats and heads, in the same way as Lucha prepares breaded veal cutlets: with passion, commitment, dedication and many hours longer than necessary.

I rectify: what more could Marina want but to be like Lucha. There’s a huge difference between both of them: we all appreciate the breaded veal cutlets, so soft and juicy on the inside, and so crispy on the outside. On the other hand, very few nuns appreciate Marina’s delights. With exceptions, we mostly have a trained palate but a clumsy and poorly trained ear not used to stomach contemporary choral music; and Marina—with the exception of her concession to Mozart and his Exsultate—only enjoys, teaches and directs contemporary choral music.

Therefore, Marina has a double merit for persevering in training throats and, at the same time, educating ears. With her I learn to enjoy difficult music, the one involving complexity and challenge; and to flee from composers and easy genres occupying minutes of my attention but not of my intelligence, and filling my silences with forgettable tunes, elevator, supermarket, new age music, and ditties for choirs without ambition. Marina is implacable when she argues for the effort, when she demands it. If we don’t enjoy the difficult musical quality of the compositions, we can at least enjoy the sacrifice and the merits of rehearsals, the discipline in the tones, the intensity, the obedience to her direction and the precision in the use of other languages.

In a house where improvisation is the rule and not the exception, where the math teacher has never studied that subject, where the mother superior knows nothing about leadership, and who, supposedly, should heal souls, in fact lacerates them, Marina is totally out of place: she dominates with excess of quality, precision and practice what she dedicates herself to. Marina is a great musical professional who has formal and advanced studies in chant and choir conducting, and she hides a couple of international awards. For some reason that no one knows, she studied in Europe for 12 years and she spent the following ten years conducting a professional choir in Prague. Music is her passion, music is her god, and to it she sacrifices some other night without sleep, daily rehearsals as strenuous as necessary, and all her possibilities to please and be loved, to be liked, to be loved.

The bell calling to Vespers interrupts an intricate multitonal psalm. We must finish it. A resigned chord echoes in the room. And, immediately, without a word or a break, Marina’s arthritic fingers commence the reconciliation with which we seal each rehearsal. The mutual torture has ended for today, can we leave in peace? Not in peace, never; in jubilation, rejoicing, with music running with our tears and sweat.

The grimaces, the burden, the impotence before the notes and the words, the chords, the sostenutos, the glissandi, the continuous bass notes, the formidable high notes, the sharp nails, the fierce teeth tumble and get lost in a waterfall of voices almost effortlessly, repeated so many times; and Mozart the imp, his genius, bounces from throat to throat, from lung to belly.

Exsultate, jubilate,
O vos animae beatae
exsultate, jubilate,
dulcia cantica canendo.

Sweet chant? No. Neither Mozart planned it nor we interpret it like that. There is no sweetness, unless it is sweetness of blood. Vampires of the planet, rejoice; blood pumps into our temples and chests, it hits, it hurts, rejoices!

cantui vestro
psallant aethera cum me

Let heaven sing with us? It doesn’t sing: it roars, it screams, it rumbles; one hundred lightning bolts set fire to fields here and there.

Fulget amica dies,
jam fugere et nubila et procellae;
exortus est justis inexspectata quies.

There are no storm clouds; perhaps they fled for fear of our chant: our perfect tuning, the easiness of a routine, our thunderous intensity frighten. Stillness not only expected, but created note by note.

Undique obscura regnabat nox,
surgite tandem laeti qui timuistis adhuc

Forte, fortissimo, without respecting other modulators except our moods, glands and adrenaline:

et jucundi aurorae fortunatae.

frondes dextera plena et lilia date.

We feared? We hated! We had suffered, tortured ourselves for minutes, the whole week, and now we enjoyed in this explosive dawn of foliage and lilies, in bunches, bouquets, jungles.

Tu virginum corona,
tu nobis pacem dona,
tu consolare affectus,
unde suspirat cor.

Virgins’ crown? Yes. Threatening virgins’ crown; sealed sexes, mythical forces. We offer peace, we share out blessings, we dry tears, we heal wounds. We are desired, always desired and never possessed; bathed in Mozart: Exsultate, exsultate, exsultate!

1978: ABOUT INNOCENT FEMALE SAINTS WHO ARE NEITHER ONE THING NOR THE OTHER

It seems that just yesterday we were starting a new school year, and today it’s already December. Advent begins, the liturgical stage most expected of the year, and not just for being the prelude to Christmas, a so sweet and sour feast in the convent, as in any other corner of the planet. The nostalgia of some, the work overload of others, and the tiredness of everyone imbue this party with an emotional intensity and a social density hardly bearable. Furthermore, there’s the cold that keeps us on our toes at night and stresses our tiredness by day. No, Christmas is not expected with smiles and open arms; may be with caution, with discretion, with resignation and wishes of virtue. But we don’t count the days for its arrival, but for its departure.

Advent is expected because it leads to the Holy Innocents’ Day. It coincides with the school bustle: yearend festival, pastourelle, missions, toast with parents and teachers, gifts, liturgies, celebrations and paraliturgies; all of this is a perfect excuse to spend entire weeks without sleeping or barely sleeping; and not due to the unbearable cold, but to keep creating, always creating something new. At the end of classes, Advent draws on hand in hand with holidays which, if they were festive, would be full of distractions: some friendly mother superior would devise a trip to the beach in search of sun and heat, and leisure would leave us with no time. They’re not penitential holidays either, like the Holy Week, when guilt consumes time and energy. These holidays are the best: we are not required to keep too much silence, a downcast spirit, or fulfill self-denials; but, as it is a festive time, breaks and gathering spaces are cancelled. Advent is an ideal period to work in secret and devise the Holy Innocents mega-celebration.

I knock at the door of mother superior. “Hail Mary, Most Pure”, she says. I enter. I ask her permission to stay awake a bit later all these days, to get ahead on many pending matters. She gives me her permission without asking questions. I know that she knows I will be involved in such relevant issues as making fun of her.

Accomplices and mutual victims, three young nuns we come across in the hallway going from the chapel to the dining room; we sit in silence at same the table and we feign an absolute concentration on holy matters. Some nuns organize ourselves in pairs or trios to carry out complicated plans, but we always keep a secret workspace that we don’t share with anyone. The goal is crystal clear: to improve ourselves in comparison with the previous year, to set a precedent; to be remembered by future generations, beyond our passing through a community, as the authors of the most memorable practical joke during Holy Innocents’ Day; the most elaborate, the most unusual and unexpected, the most daring or the one that caused the worst reaction among the superiors and the rest of the sisters.

Night falls of the 27th. Who might have sung the Compline? Not me. I withdraw early. The night is long, the 28th is in a hurry to arrive and the list of pending matters hasn’t started shrinking yet.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Rooster alarm-clock for the Hail Mary at 3:40 in the morning. No problem. Just one hour before the time we usually get up, I will run with the rooster to the central courtyard, I will turn on the lights, the rooster will sing as it knows very well how to do it, and the bell-ringer nun won’t know if she runs to ring the bell or runs to apologize.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Bath of flowers for the bell at the time of the Angelus. It is the most heartfelt and loving joke, the warmest; a recognition to Mariana who has self-imposed the responsibility of calling to the Angelus.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Chicken Mexican style as “third course” of the meal. I’d better hurry if I want it to be ready; it’s what will take me more time tonight.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Faked battered poblano peppers as the dinner dessert. Except for the issue of coordinating my many accomplices, I don’t foresee any problem. The Spanish teacher will bake the cupcakes to avoid provoking suspicions at home; Elvia and the teacher will decorate them in the laboratories; the trial product that we decorated yesterday is totally credible, misleading; it even smelled of battered peppers.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Caricatures for the Complines breviaries. I have already some prepared and the rest of the day to come up with a way to get that every breviary has a funny detail to close the day.

Elsa will try to repeat what she did last year. How she did it without the complicity of her victims? It’s difficult to imagine: She painted moustaches to three naive applicants and two newly professed nuns, who made us laugh at the showers. She painted them while they were sleeping. All slept in cubicles separated with curtains. But even so, how did she managed to avoid waking them up? She painted them with indelible markers so the poor girls couldn’t arrive in time to mass because they couldn’t find thinner or something similar to take the paint off.

Martha, my neighbor across the aisle, must be devising new ways to mark us with ink and vegetable colors: I don’t think this year she will do it again in the showers. We never warn the new arrivals, but the fright to see come out of the shower water red as blood, or black, or green, although no one wants to talk about it outside the community, it’s commented. Thus, the new arrivals already expect it; they let the water run before getting inside the shower stall and they not fall for it. Martha has even gone from the prankster sadism to the victim’s fear; this year she fears that the new arrivals may be plotting something against her. That’s why, precisely, I imagine that Martha will focus on the holy water font: a practical joke so old that no one cares about rekindling it, and hardly anyone remembers it; that’s why it can be a success. Martha will put some coloring in the font close to the door of the chapel. Several factors contribute to the fact that one after another we fall for it and we ink our forehead as unintended accomplices of the joker: it happens so because we go to meditate at five-thirty, still in the dark, with the poverty mandate of not turning on more lights than the essential; modesty commands us to keep our eyesight down and not look around or exchange looks, which is not difficult because at that time we are almost asleep. In fact, it won’t be but until we all are in our places and we open our breviaries that we see our fingers stained, we lift up your eyes to corroborate our suspicion on the forehead of our neighbor, and some start to smile while others raise their eyebrows: Welcome, holy innocents!

Rafita will repeat her pocket-beds. She isn’t aware that nobody cares about such a timeworn and late joke. Besides, at that time everybody is forewarned and opens the bed before getting in it, discovers the pocket-bed, unfolds it and that’s it.

Elvia will try to tie the doors of cells on opposite sides of the aisle; she will not do so with mine; she fears me, respects me, we are accomplices with the meal. But she will do so. It is absolutely maddening to not be able to go out to take a shower; there will be some who will not sleep all night to catch Elvia and avoid being locked up. The nice Conchita will repeat her practical joke, the one that she plans and undertakes throughout a week, every year, perhaps since forty or more years ago: she swaps our clothes, she even unstitches the number identifying the original owner and she embroiders the number of another nun. She is an old woman so sweet and patient that we all strive to go to the prayer that day with clothes obviously not ours. It is hardly a practical joke; if someone doesn’t see her clothes swapped on the 27th, she goes see Conchita and complains. Our complicity with her is our annual opportunity to tell her that we love her. In my closet I already saw a small, very small and old sweater; tomorrow I will use it, of course! Concha and Pepa must have ready the buttons for the breakfast rolls. They will bake them very early; as almost every year.

I, for my part, have pride in not repeating jokes; and I’m not alone in this. Not once I’ve repeated or have copied jokes of others, no matter if I’m changed of house and no one in my new community knows personally what I did elsewhere. I don’t repeat myself: every year I conceive new pranks, more unwonted, more surprising, more spectacular and more numerous. Every year, too, I require more accomplices and allies: I integrate a different team for every prank, so even my own allies end up being surprised by me. Moreover, I always keep a special prank that I don’t share with anyone, that I prepare alone and that I care for specifically.

The Mexican-style chicken is almost ready. LupeM, in charge of the refectory helped me; but neither she knows how my occurrence will end up. At the market, she bought for me two hens alive and fat. I named them: the yellow one is Guevara—as the Che—and the reddish one is Juarez. The poor chicks were trembling because—I imagine—they didn’t imagine another fate but the slaughter or a wringed neck, and from there to the casserole. I’m sure that they never imagined spending three days in my cubicle, inside an egg carton box, with enough food, water, warmth and darkness: a paradise or almost one!

A propos, those days I found a way to avoid them make noises: I hypnotize them, I put them to sleep. They will be the “third course” of the meal, but not even remotely they will see a pot or a casserole: from the carton box they will go to a platter. At the time of the third course, I’m going to walk a pair of live hens dressed in charro and china poblana costumes amidst the tables, and with some mariachi background music. The prank will be strengthened by the concern of the cook sisters, because I shall have not cook or let them cook anything, thus all will think that I pretend to make them fast. The menu is already written on the marker board of the refectory.

In a few minutes I end embroidering, with silvery thread, the tassels of the charro’s black velvet jacket. Black jacket with silvery trimmings, shirtfront pretending to be a white shirt, tricolor bow tie, red serape on the shoulder and a black hat matching the jacket. I designed the cuts; there are no patterns to make costumes for chickens. So I half-tack the jacket; I take one of the hens out of its dream and of the box and I try it on it. The hen doesn’t even raise objections; it lets me dress it as if it had passed its whole short life playing dressmaker. By pure trial and error I cut, I sew, I try, I unstitch, I cut, I sew, I try. In the end I finish; neither Juarez nor Guevara considers the hat amusing, but tomorrow I’ll devise something. The other hen will be dressed as a china poblana; white shirt with buttonhole collar and tuck; green and red satin skirt with glitter to imitate spangle embroidery; and a tricolor bow on the head, matching the charro bow tie

LupeM knocks at my door to ask if I need something, if I’m going to cook at night. I tell her not to worry on that matter because I will not even use the kitchen. She assumes that somehow I will kill and cook the hens. If she knew! I ask her to get me two big platters, where the hens could fit more than enough. I ask her, specifically, that they have a lid. “Are you going to prepare something disgusting?” she asks me, while in her look I notice some repentance for having joined my boldness for which, tomorrow, she will be attributed something she doesn’t even know what it is. I know that she’ll be the first surprised and I enjoy it since now.

After a while she comes with two tureens with lid, huge and great.

Alone again in my cubicle, I try to put a hen in each tureen; with the lid on both quiet down; but I just take off the lids and they jump out stunned. I still have to resolve some details of the costumes and to devise some kind of diaper for each hen, so that they don’t spoil my surprise with a surprise of their own.

I laugh alone. It’s almost the time to go fetch the rooster, then take a shower, then run to the chapel being careful of everything around me and having fun with whatever comes; then I’ll prepare the flower trap on the bell and check the hens for the meal. And what with one thing and another, during the morning at the school chemistry laboratories I’ll cook conventional chicken, but also Mexican style. May God keep me from making fast my teased mates!

In the afternoon, I’ll spend some time decorating the battered peppers and preparing the caricatures. And this same night, before dropping into bed like a stone to recover from the previous sleepless nights, I’ll begin to plan my next year pranks. Those will be really great; those will be unforgettable.

 

ESSAY:

THE VOICE OF THOSE WHO DO KNOW

In the age of the Internet and the profuse information, when no subject is short of texts, it is strange to see that nobody seems interested in writing about nuns; and no one seems to need it. The religious theme, its periphery and its substitutes sell a lot and well, but it seems that the religious life of women does not fit there. In Catholic bookstores, some scraggy and slushy text collects dust, but not interest. At the normal bookstores, I’ve only found a couple of texts. They tell me that there are some others, but I can’t find them.

ABOUT THE DEMONS OF AN ALMOST REAL CONVENT

In her book, Is it worth be a nun? (1989), Magdalena Grajeda shares anecdotes of her sixteen years in the convent. In small format and only 182 pages, Grajeda recounts her experience in a convent during the 1960s and 1970s in Mexico; she describes, for example, the sadness of her parents when she told them that she had decided to become a nun, and her own sadness overcome by repeating herself that “she left everything to meet God. If she succeeded, then all the difficulties would be worth to be a nun”.

Magdalena Grajeda recognizes that in her “vocation” certain rejection of motherhood and its heavy burden were mixed with sermons about heaven and hell, and with the possibility of becoming a saint. Other aspects of her convent experience—which I also experienced— allude to the attitude of superiority of several European nuns before the Mexicans, the despotism of some mother superiors and some cases in which the personality, perception and behavior pathologies are obvious.

Grajeda’s text conveys a deep disappointment and a great tedium. The days she recounts of flow tediously, drowsy, devoid of emotion despite the parade of perfectionist nuns who “wanted to ignore that they possessed a human body”, of pages involved with nuns models of hedonism and lacking scruples in the handling of the financial resources of the community. In my opinion, Grajeda never lost lucidity, she never let herself be caught by the love with religious life which embellishes and softens the roughness of routines and people. And her case is not unique, as I’ve been told by some nuns and ex-nuns friend of mine.

Now, the intentions of Grajeda’s work seem to conflict with mine, which I summarize saying that, for a young woman hungry of intensity, IT IS worthwhile to be a nun; that the experiences, the pain, the knowledge of a mass, are worthwhile. And it is worthwhile living it with the conviction that is a trip without return, some sort of suicide, an irrevocable decision, since even those who leave the religious life and go out, don’t come out being the same. In a certain way, whoever enters the convent never comes out. Inside we tend to get lost, to dissolve and to die. Whoever comes out, when she comes out must be born again.

ABOUT THOSE WHO DARED TO BREAK THE GREAT SILENCE

To some extent, it is recognized that there are links between the world of lesbians and that of nuns. It doesn’t surprise, for example, that Monika Kehoe (1989), in her ground-breaker survey among lesbian Americans over the age of sixty, included the question: “Are you a former nun?” The question seems natural for someone who knows a little the world of former nuns. However, this connection, not for being known less secret, became really visible in 1985, when in the US feminist bookstores appeared a real bomb signed by Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Curb, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, and by God, how they broke it!

The authors chose a title with many meanings. It certainly intends to break the age-old silence surrounding particular friendships and basically lesbian relationships in Catholic convents. But the title also evokes the rule of silence that forces many nuns, for much of the day, to keep silent whenever the need or charity do not require otherwise. This leads to think that the authors, both former nuns, deemed that it was a demand of charity to talk about lesbian factors in religious life.

Breaking the silence doesn’t intend to generalize, but rather to point out that there are many nuns and former nuns who acknowledge being lesbians, and many more who don’t even know it and only bear it. The book neither condemns nor praises the lesbian relationships in convents; it only collects anecdotes shaping a kind of community without walls of women who, in convents, or after having left them, dare to describe what they feel and what they experienced.

Curb and Manahan assume their historical role of writing a hazardous book. The hazard posed by that volume stems from breaking the silence and telling the truth, their truth; this is an emancipator action and, therefore, it destabilizes the status quo; besides, the text encourages many more of us to talk. The authors are feminists, and time and again they resort to reveal common aspects between nuns and lesbians: both constitute anomalous cultures for those who define normality in terms of relationships with men, with masculine values and experiences. At least from a certain point of view, the community of nuns defies and threatens the patriarchal arrogance, since, together with lesbians, “they are emotionally inaccessible to the male coercion. The time and energy that heterosexual women dedicate to please men, may be dedicated to personal or community projects”(p. xx).

The tone of the work can be appreciated in the thoughts of one of the women interviewed:

In retrospect, now I realize that the convent was an early version of the women’s separatist movement. We, the nuns, were women who had left the world in which women were handed over to men by other men. All of us were lesbians, to a different degree, depending on the perception we had of ourselves as women identified with other women. The convent, however, was far from constituting the utopian society of women for women. This very important niche, which should have fostered love of women between them, banned the strongest of their ties. We could have had the energy of women together, but the crack in the structure which prevented the convents the full manifestation of its potential as a separatist society was the [terror, the denial of] sex.

Homophobia acted in the convent even with more strength than in society as a whole.

We were warned against the dangers of “particular friendships”.

Nobody used the term lesbian. The prohibition of maintaining a close friendship between two women was based on the community life supremacy: if you devote more than enough of your time and attention to a single person, you will limit your availability to the entire community. I never understood that such a prohibition was also—and perhaps essentially—destined to avoid physical intimacy. We were supposed to sublimate “the flesh drives”, but I never felt anything like that because I had never explored my own body.

We were even forbidden to use tampons. Chastity, a vow only perceived in heterosexual terms, was something easy; I never missed what I didn’t knew or could imagine (p. 69; transl. by C. Armenta).

Of the forty-nine interviewees, nine were still nuns at the time of the interview, and eight of them said to be happy and not interested in leaving the religious life. The fifty-one testimonies, including those of the authors, total five hundred and forty-two years of consecrated life, with an individual maximum of fifty years and a minimum of only one; the average is ten years and seven months, although nearly half of the interviewees remained at the convent between five and nine years, and left before taking their perpetual vows.

Among the women interviewed there were women less than thirty years old and mature women in their sixties, although nearly half of the total was between thirty-eight and forty five years old. Likewise, more than half of them entered the convent at age seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, at the end of the 1950s and during the 1960s. However, during the next two decades, when the reformist winds of Vatican Council II started to blow, almost all the former nuns identified in the book left the convent. Perhaps the crucial point of the entire book is condensed in this reflection:

I’ve been wondering if choosing to live in a religious community of women twenty five years ago stemmed from my then unknown lesbianism. How many women of my generation became nuns because we were already lesbians […] and entered the convent not only in response to a call from God, but as a refuge from heterosexuality, Catholic marriage and exhausting motherhood?

We were abysmally ignorant of our sexuality; so thick was the blanket of homophobic silence that nuns and priests merely warned us about avoiding heterosexual chances of sin and resisting impure thoughts. Only a handful of us knew we were lesbians before entering religious life, but without exception all of us intended to be celibate in the convent. About half of us had heard the words lesbian, homosexual, gay, queer or tomboy while growing up, but only now we recognize that our devotion to our girlfriends and nuns together with our discomfort on dates with boys was not, as we suspected at the time, an unmistakable sign of religious vocation, but a premonition of our late-blooming lesbianism (p. xxii; transl. by Armenta).

Shortly after its publication in English, this book appeared translated into Spanish published by Seix Barral. Although it should have deserved a greater sales impact, it’s clear that the Mexican, Latin Americans and Spaniard contexts are not similar to the North Americans. But, will there be any chance of writing something similar from our countries? Maybe yes, maybe yes.

 

LUCIDITY AND SCHIZOPHRENIA

1988: ABOUT STATEMENTS IN THE PAGES OF OLD DIARIES

I feel embarrassed when I reread what I wrote when I was a nun. I can almost understand Octavio Paz’s refusal to recognize the topicality of Sister Juana’s experiences. My own experiences, of which I keep memories and documents, seem to me unreal; and the same goes for my interpersonal relationships and my writings about them. Old writings, yellowish pages and lacking dates:

My “once”, a very long “once”, loved friend: Our definitive breaking-off doesn’t admit many conjectures anymore. I have studied, analyzed, meditated and prayed for years about the same: our relationship.

It came into existence fresh and strong, innocent and determined. And so it grew. We loved each other with all the intensity and tenderness possible. We grew up together; we matured by the warmth of the same search. I read you and you read me, better than the way you read yourself and I read myself. And the rest of us, our hands, and the rest of our bodies, always within the narrow limits that chastity allowed us, jumped for joy night and day.

The language is different or, is it something else?

What is different is the writer’s dimension, that is, his reality. The abysmal difference between the “inner” and the external worlds is the factual setting in which they developed. For ordinary mortals, reality is whatever surrounds us; our concerns have the name of persons, of objects and of circumstances whose access boundary is just our own limit. On the other hand, for the convent, for that tiny minority who lives and dies as nuns, reality is basically the inner world. Our concerns revolved around intimate cataclysms, and the source of all sorrow or joy was at the heart of our essence and, at the same time, absolutely outside and far away from us. That source was God: our key and immediate conversational partner; the one who filled chinks and silences, spaces, looks.

Without ever losing the elemental contact with you, tonight I know you near: my need of you provides me that firm certainty.

I can’t say that I fear. I must read my visceral fear in a different way: as a test or as the excitement of someone who runs jubilant toward the infinite vacuum to meet with the presence? Peace, peace. If I cry, it’s only due to the urgent need of washing myself inside and out. Don’t worry about my crying. And don’t cry also. No, because it is pure poverty. I feel a tiredness greater than any possible effort…

Nothing is going to happen; nothing more painful; nothing less friendly. Anchored in pain my play on words: I play at praying and I play at playing… Praying is difficult. I don’t know what it is to pray. It is a little to die and a little to call someone; a little to refuse myself and a little to attract him; a little to stop being and a little to be in the absolute dimension; to waste time and to lose the notion of time. Pray is as easy as breathing and as complicated as living; as innocent as an “I love you”, and as daring as the next “I love you”; as fragile, as simple.

This hurts because it is pure, absolute loneliness. It’s not a matter of thinking. I know how to do that. It’s a matter of accepting, of receiving. It’s not activity, but receptivity. But this experience is incommunicable and that’s why it pisses off.

For the secular world, God is, at the most, a weekly conversational partner. For the conventual world it is an obsession, a permanent and inundating presence. The language becomes pompous and the feelings overwhelming. And it cannot be otherwise.

The distortion that I wanted to avoid when describing the experience “from within” is, as I have realized, inevitable. It’s not a matter of different languages. The problem is not the lack of words, but the lack of bridges of experience.

Many years after leaving the convent, I’m still trapped in the distortions. I read with my current “outside” culture what I wrote and recorded in my soul “inside”, and I find it incomprehensible, grotesque, unreal, unbelievable. I read it today and I descry a strong dose of imagination, neurosis, low self-esteem, depression, and other terms of “our reality”, the reality of the ordinary mortals who break our back working to survive. But I know that at that time it wasn’t so; it was different. There was no imagination or neurosis or depression. There was faith, and now I find no bridges to translate that faith into the reality that I’m immersed in today. Faith used to give sense to the meaningless and generated a painful tension towards perfection; a clearly inaccessible perfection, although effective as a tensor. Outright orders, indiscernible goals, roads that promise to take you there, but don’t even get close:

The mandate is one and multiple. One in the multiple. When you give me life you order me: “Be faithful to you”; when you open my eyes: “Be faithful to them”; and when you kiss me: “Be faithful to me”.

I would prefer to run away. I lie. The sinister cycle of absurdity and impotence gets repeated. Alone. It’s a reality so harsh and so dry that perhaps there’s no one capable of swallowing it. Alone.

The secret is to contemplate. Then I become obedient, serene, malleable and simple. Gethsemane merges with Galilee, and the night gets indissolubly intertwined with the day. Contemplate on my knees always. Reconcile with my body and rebuild the relations with my time. Time and body; what’s mine linked to the spirit, which denies all body and all time…

Peace doesn’t relate to lie, and who doesn’t swallow its truth—as painful, as humiliating as it might be—will not receive the pacifying kiss of night, of silence; because God’s presence wouldn’t be possible without an absolute loneliness, achieved by denying me to everything and to everybody; but, above all, by denying myself consistently.

The bottomless loneliness—infinite free fall—whines, howls. The soul pregnant of divine presence cannot give birth. It doesn’t know. Loneliness has invaded it.

Here, hungry of presence, I can hardly complain. How much loneliness can be supported on a single pair of shoulders? How much void can be endured without collapsing? Which is the limit to become void without collapsing?

The convent clouds some capabilities and sharpens some others. Human beings, once “normal”, let themselves being guided by a logic which results aberrant for “the normality”. The scenes that in the convent used to glow with bravery, with the passage of time look dull.

Blessed are those who find the utmost happiness that doesn’t reside in the traditional instruments of joy.

Blessed are those who create happiness in the profound precipices of existence and who force joy to germinate in the dryness of dreariness.

Blessed are those who stitch with smiles the wounds of the day to day work, and blessed are those who moisten with their warm tears the dryness of an abandoned heart.

Blessed are those drunk with joy, those drunk with simplicity, those gorged with peace.

Blessed are those who have bet their understanding at the roulette of faith, and their hopes at the horrid vacuum of love,.

Blessed are those who evade the world, the dictatorship of what is “in fashion”; those who commit suicide for a kiss from lips devoid of skin and saliva; the idiots, the idealists, the lovers of love, the merciful.

Blessed are those originals who walk on the tightrope of themselves, determined to never let that they fall into the self-betrayal.

Blessed are those who turn on their lamp whenever it turns off, and who spend their time turning it on every minute, every sigh.

Blessed are women and men of faith, blessed for being so crazy, crazy for being so blessed, because we have a hunger that will never be satiated, a thirst that nobody will quench, a loneliness that only gets deeper and a memory without memories, and a happiness so pure that no one recognizes as such. And we have also, perhaps and maybe, a psychiatric diagnosis, a permanent requiem for the suicide of reason, for the sin of having taken our eyes out and walk willingly blind.

1991: ABOUT THE SAME CUPS OF COFFEE DESCRIBED IN THE INTROITO

During the bizarre evening in which three former nuns—former sisters, former accomplices and former partners of the same exalted and weird lifestyle—we drank several cups of coffee in a row, my tape recorder picked up all our words, sighs and several noises that I interpret as what nuisance, what fear, what sadness, what shame, I was there, you lie you lie, I rather don’t tell, it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave.

Today I wonder why nobody asked for a drink. Correction: I wonder why we all decided to avoid asking the drink that might have triggered the flow of memories; why, in unison, we all kept secret so many things.

What was recorded? A present that I can barely link with the past. Are we the same persons who coincided in the same community twenty years ago? I doubt it seriously. For hours we tried to condense years into words so that we could restart something that wasn’t friendship, something that even refuses to have a name: it was shared martyrdom and joy, but with scarce affection because we were forced to keep our hearts restrained; or perhaps with a lot of affection, but kept in silence. Without the abundant presence of warm bodies—without their smell and their weight, without their flesh, their noises, their heat, their moisture, their shadow—the voices of my tape-recorder are just bony, sharp echoes. On the tape, my voice sounds with the first question: “Why did you become a nun?” Twenty years ago we answered that question at the slightest provocation. When we met for the first time it was a compulsory subject after saying hello. “Tell me about your vocation.” “Tell us about your vocation.” The subject seemed to never tire us out. There were never too many details. “Did your mom say that she was pleased? So your boyfriend never smelled a rat? You ran away at midnight? So far they don’t forgive you? Your mom fainted? You wanted to be a nun since you were a child? One day you just decided so? It really appeared before you?”

Now, the years have filtered out our stories. The anecdotal part has no problems. We can describe resolutely the scene when we asked permission to enter the convent: the tears of mothers, the concealed anger of fathers, the disappointment of everybody else. And then, the scenes of the day we entered physically: the outfits, the ceremonies and the farewells. By contrast, the inner motivations, the root causes that compelled us at age sixteen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty-three to commit social suicide and embrace the religious life, refuse to be simple; they have become plural, multiple, incongruous and very different from those we used to invoke twenty years ago. Laura recounts:

I studied in a school ran by nuns and for me they were the worst in the universe; they did me all kinds of injustices: they humiliated me, they taught me how injustice works, things that I didn’t experience at home.

Discrimination was evident in proportion to money: whoever had money enjoyed all the privileges.

In fourth grade I stopped being with nuns and I had the opportunity to be in a school without privileges or systematic discrimination.

In that secular school the lazy students suffered, but there was no discrimination against groups and even less against pressure groups.

At the end of primary school, I entered a secondary boarding school managed by nuns. The mother in charge of me was really ugly; she got into her head that obtaining only A’s would corrupt me, so she decided to humiliate me as a way to “put me to the test”.

But, on the other hand, I was very mystic; that simple. My link with God was very important; the fact of being a nun implied to be married with God. I was mystic by birth, and one day in the chapel I got the inspiration that I had to be a nun; but I wasn’t interested in being a nun just because, but rather because I didn’t see any other possibility of living for God, of getting married with Him.

First I thought about entering a contemplative congregation, but I visited the chapel of the contemplative nuns and something told me: it’s not here. I felt that. Then I went to the chapel of my high school nuns’ novitiate, and although I didn’t want to devote myself to schools because I saw it as a privilege for the rich, nevertheless I felt well there… praying.

Then I thought that I wanted to be a missionary; that convinced me, and at the congregation of my school they promised me that they would send me to missions if I joined them. I trusted them, but during the 20 years that I stayed with them, they never fulfilled their promise.

For her part, Ernestina recalls:

Nobody convinced me to become a nun. I felt that I should be that; it was a good idea, the best I had ahead. Call it an inspiration and later an obstinacy.

At home there was more money than the necessary and I felt bad for that. Then social consciousness got into my mind. So, I decided that I wanted to be a sister assistant, or to work in sidelined areas, but no matter how much I expound it, I couldn’t make it. They told that it was God’s will that I stayed at the school as a “test”, and I had to do it.

Inmaculada almost apologizes. She claims that she only keeps shreds of memory; she would feel bad if she lied to us, but she doesn’t know for sure if she remembers the facts that really happened:

At seventeen I was convinced that I had to be good, that sacrifice guaranteed heaven or, rather, that it would guarantee to be good, and even better if I didn’t have the reward of a heaven because the sacrifice was purer!

Among the many currents of religion, I “bought” the masochistic deformations of the “embarrassing” Catholicism, that is, this long period that the Church has lived since its heroic period of conquests and martyrdoms ended. This period is not triumphant but sordid, depressing, of silent resignation, with female saints suffering from tuberculosis for years on freezing cots full of louses, and converted into saints based on negative merits: don’t do, don’t talk, don’t complain, and so forth.

So, at age seventeen I decided to become a nun, with a devotion to martyrdom which I and all who knew it we conceived as vocation. I used to swear that God himself needed my sacrifice to stop suffering. Those images, you know, of a bleeding Christ who didn’t die completely to suffer a little more, goaded me to make my decision. And I had the necessary strength to bury myself alive, and no one realized that this strength was a neurotic consequence my fanaticisms; we all thought it was the divine confirmation of my vocation.

That’s why I entered the congregation that I considered the strictest one and, since the first day, I tried to live there on the most difficult side and I stayed there virtually eleven years.

All in all, I left when, in a moment of lucidity, I realized that I was jeopardizing something more important than my life. But in essence I think I didn’t lose the “vocation”, that is, that fascination with the heroic and the lost causes, and not to take seriously pain or myself, and certain fanaticisms, why should I deny it?

Although what I canceled consciously was my faith. Consciously, let it be clear. That’s why I get mad when someone says that I lost it. I didn’t lose it: I destroyed it, I vaporized it, I wiped it out with a joyful decision.

Coffee runs out and with it our certainties; each memory blurs the past, recreates it, usually disfigures it. Twenty years ago it was beautiful, heroic; yes, it was so.

1991: ABOUT SOCIAL CONSCIENCE AND UNCONSCIOUS ACTION

The day of the cups of coffee with three former nuns, they handed me a couple of poorly worded but well printed pages; apparently impersonal but intimate and confessional. Here I re-write—more than just transcribe—what I consider that they said:

Educate, says Samuel Ruiz, “is a task that begins opening the persons to the consciousness of their own dignity and that of others; it’s waking up in them the hunger for Justice, the solidarity and the respect for the life of any human being”^^21^^.

In this way, the authentic educator, the one who engages her soul, life, time, health and youth to educate, sooner or later wakes up to the social conscience. And the educator nuns are no exception to this opening and awakening. So, one morning, we wake up devastated by the truth: we live a great betrayal, or a painful schizophrenia. We proclaim that we lean preferentially toward the poor, we declare ourselves poor, but we devote our whole life to take care of, to protect, to educate and to perpetuate the wealthy caste. Because the rich, in Mexico and in many other countries, entrust to the nuns the education of their offspring.

Sooner or later, the nuns recognize that we are just one member more of the wealthy servants’ army: next to the chauffeur, the nanny, the cook, the governess, the butler, the stylist. Some nuns, just a few, come from those same golden and silk cots of the rich they serve, but the vast majority we come from much simpler homes. The service vocation emerges in the homes of servers.

We also recognize something else: if we would like to take the poor, the natives, out of their centenarian marginalization, nobody better than the nuns to achieve it: we live according to a vow of poverty that should allow us to educate for free, or to do it for far less than the salary offered officially to the educators of rural, native areas, and other excluded enclaves. We have no financial dependents and we live in community, which further alleviates the costs.

But we don’t opt for the poor but in the speech. We live serving the rich.

What nuns do with the money they charge in their schools for rich girls? It’s an interesting question. As it is interesting, for every nun in particular, to realize that her vow of poverty benefits first of all the one who has—for example—a vote of wealth, of exploitation of the poor, of social injustice, of excessive ambition, of enrichment at the expense of ignorance and of the violation of fundamental rights, as well as of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination. But so it is.

Many, scores of nuns live a lot of inconsistencies of this type. But if it’s true that from poverty they serve the ruling classes, it’s also true that they tend to benefit from privileges, prebends, and all type of exceptions, usually denied to the ordinary citizen. And, along with it, the disparity in labor relations advantageous for the nuns, with low wages for their staff and work demands exceeding the legal limits. Not uncommon is the case of a secular female teacher who is asked that, in addition to her teaching regular work, she takes care of apostolic duties, she accompanies her pupils to pious activities, she devotes her weekends to extraordinary activities, she is always available, generously open to commit her free time without expecting any stipend; and, frequently, that she renounces to basic benefits, as a fair pension, suitable medical expenses or scholarships for her children in the same school where she works.

Several actions seem marked by a betrayal to what it is believed, preached and lived. Few structures perpetuate with such clarity and intensity the social domination, the subordination of women, the exploitation of the poor, as some Catholic schools run by religious congregations. In those places, the conservatism has ensured its healthy survival, its multiplication; its reproduction. The schools operating with a modern-day sense of labor relations, with fair and even generous benefits, are not so few as to consider them an exception, but they are not enough.

And although it might not be the most common cause to leave the convent, I firmly believe that it’s one of the main reasons driving us to leave the Congregation. Social consciousness emerges in anyone who opens her eyes and makes some time to reflect on the reality surrounding us. In her daily schedule, any nun has long time periods to reflect, and reality also hits her eyes every day. Social asymmetries and unexpected privileges also contribute to create uneasiness in many nuns, although in many others—many of those who remain, of course—those issues only cause tranquility. They opt for the open complicity with the members of the ruling class; they take on the role of breeders of the existing social injustice system, of the values sustaining it and of the personal comfort that it provides them for their complicity with those who accumulate power of all kinds.

This occurs in all congregations? Maybe not; but even if it happened in a few of them it would be worth denouncing it.

Nuns not only nurture and preserve the social asymmetries of the great society, but quite often they also reproduce the same polarizations in their communities: one single person concentrates too much political, economic, total power. Privileges are multiplied for the abbess who has the aura of being the audible voice of God himself, the representative of the Church, and everything seems insufficient to honor her.

But consciousness makes its way, and one day, with a painful strength, it bursts into life and it demands to act accordingly. I don’t know how often this induces to leave the convent. I only know my case, and I didn’t even know it when I left; at that time I only felt that I was losing floor, that I was getting crazy. Now I know why.

 

ESSAY:

ANSWER TO MARCELA AND HER NUNS

ABOUT NUNS WITHOUT TIME OR PLACE, BUT WITH DISTANCE

Without time arrows or compass needles—unconscious or conscious avoidance of phallic symbols?— in her book Los cautiverios de las mujeres: madresposas, monjas, putas, presas y locas Marcela Lagarde intends to describe—to denounce!—in one single timeless and atopic plane, the women trapped in a patriarchate that has governed during too many centuries in too many places. Such a description, by its very nature, disregards historical and geographical nuances, although it must pay a price for it: the reader with personal experience—for instance, all women, nuns, and for sure those women in captivity—cannot read two straight lines without devising two to three objections.

The continuity that Marcela establishes between the nuns of the colonial Mexico, Thérèse de Lisieux at the end of the 19th century, and the nuns at the end of the 20th century, has its virtues, but also its limits. The motivations of those who wore hoop skirts and those who used miniskirts may be similar in some respects, but for many others it is relevant to have lived in France some hundred years ago or to have participated in the movements of 1968.

Marcela generalizes too often and specifically for that reason I want to talk about her text in this space. To her anthropology without names, without nuances and with claims of objectivity, I want to oppose my totally subjective memories. Before her scientific interest in decanting and turning simple the numerous realities, I want to offer my experience without pretending to eliminate its complexity and confusion. In Marcela’s text, I perceive distortions due to the distance she requires to expose all the geography and the history of the captivities. On the other hand, my appraisals are just the contrary: I see the scenes closely, within a very limited geography and a very short history.

In Los cuativerios, the author also presents herself distant, alien, far from the captive women of her text. The abyss separating Marcela—an academic, scientific, intelligent, secular women of her time—from the nuns—scarcely educated, mystical, escapist women—is evident. The distance hurts. More than once I wanted to shout: “Check this out, in the convents there are women as educated and intelligent as you, Marcela.” Because it’s true: there are nuns with university degrees, with postgraduate degrees, with a very complex reasoning; and although it’s possible that most nuns and congregations in Mexico give the impression of cultivating ignorance, it’s also true that the opposite is not a simple exception.

ABOUT OPPRESSING AND LIBERATING VOWS

The chapter X of Los cautiverios begins with the definition, “The nun is a con-secrated woman: a sacred woman”, which should suffice to make understandable the eccentricities of religious life. The sacred woman lives in another dimension where time runs in the opposite direction and the space is filled with the divine presence. The average believer could hardly imagine this perspective in which what’s visible is appearance, and the objects of faith—invisible, improbable—acquire solidity, permanence, finality. The angels behind the doors and the demons of the mirrors are tangible: they breathe, they palpitate, they stumble. On the other hand, the injustices, the humiliations, the anachronisms and the patriarchal structures are invisible inside the convent.

Marcela Lagarde resorts to her feminist logic—logic external to the convent—and makes visible a series of oppression caused by the patriarchal structure. My experience confirms this view and extends it. For example, I think that the vow of poverty has a central oppressive function that the author of Los cautiverios doesn’t elaborate, although her description points in that direction: “The nun is expropriated by the Church of all or a significant part of her possessions […] In some organizations, that only means the absence of individual private property; nonetheless, the sisters live luxuriously, in the best bourgeois style.”

The vow of poverty means shortages, subjection, dependency. Indeed. But this vow real power lays in the psychological insecurity saturating the whole existence, notwithstanding that the rational thinking—common sense, evidences—indicates that the community life and the congregations’ structure will provide whatever is needed. The security of the young woman who enters the convent gets shattered by the repeated and insistent thought that nothing belongs to her; that the comb she uses today, tomorrow could disappear; that the blouse in good condition that she wears today, tomorrow could be replaced by another mended and patched; that the nice shoes of her size, tomorrow could be replaced by a pair of worn out shoes, or of sandals too tight for her. It is the feeling of being permanently in suspense, without the securities known in life prior to the convent: my pillow with my breath stink, my stockings that I like so much to take care of, my toothbrush, my spoon. None of this exists; to try us, the master mother checked our drawers and changed or removed its contents.

In addition to this insecurity there’s the annulment of opinions, tastes and preferences. I like blue, yellow or white? We soon ceased to know it. When someone cannot ever choose, her identity gets diluted. Even the sensations and the needs get deleted: Am I cold? Do I want a thicker coat, a blanket allowing me to sleep warm? After a while, I stop feeling cold in the middle of a freezing rain, and neither I perspire wearing dark and thick clothes under the Sun. Poverty blurs the person, weakens her roots, subjugates, submits, annihilates her.

Now, these poverty effects have a delightful counterpart: they liberate, they compel the nun to recognize the impermanence and relativity of everything. They eliminate needs and, in doing so, they eliminate the dissatisfaction that parasitizes the life of almost every modern westerner and sucks him up the vital-joy juice. The vow of poverty must be lived in order to savor its sweetness. For who closes the formative cycle in poverty, who manages to overcome the bitterness of dispossession and to savor the peace of detachment there is no ill-feeling towards this vote which marks for life who professes it with dignity, liberty and moderation.

Los cautiverios explores with particular intelligence, intuition and clarity the vow of chastity in its gender approach. Marcela talks, for example, about the contradictions arising from the nuns’ identification with Mary, the Virgin Mother. On the one hand, a nun is expected to be a living image of Mary, but on the other, each minute she is reminded that she has been severed the gender capacity which makes Mary so visible and great: motherhood. This motherhood—accurately points out Los cautiverios—is what “grants Mary her role in the constitutive drama of Christianity”. What Marcela Lagarde doesn’t find out that this painful situation is precisely what drives the nuns to adopt a perpetually filial function. The nun approaches Mary in a natural way due to an affinity of a same female nature in an essentially misogynist religion. However, unable to emulate her, the nun stands before the Virgin as a daughter, as an underage, as a dependent and powerless.

The search for an basic congruence drives the nun to decide become a daughter of Mary, more than and instead of a sister, an imitator or even a daughter-in-law of Mary. Any relationship with Mary other than that of a daughter would exacerbate in the nun the constant reminder that she will never be a mother, even though she can be so. That’s why the filial feeling is encouraged and the children’s traits are allowed, whilst the generic traits are avoided because, as Marcela points it out correctly, they are predominantly related to sex. To some extent, Mary is not a model of chastity; more often she is shown as a model of obedience.

Now then, I consider strange, very strange, Lagarde’s assertion, “The rules regarding the repression of eroticism and sexuality don’t mention the rest of the erotic possibilities”, as well as a footnote where she relates her participation in a retreat prior to the first vows of a group of novices: “At this gathering, I pointed out that due to the so limited definition of eroticism, the vow of chastity doesn’t involve autoeroticism or lesbianism, among so many other possibilities; by omission, they are not forbidden”.

I find strange that in her research, Marcela didn’t discover the constitutions of the religious institutes, with their explicit prohibitions of all expressions of homoeroticism and homosensuality. The prevention of particular friendships tends to be more detailed and explicit than the prevention of emotional contacts with men.

Regarding autoeroticism, it is not explicitly forbidden but neither it is prevented, and—as I found out personally, and according to what some nuns and former nuns told me—it is wisely recommended not to resist too much to the temptation and rather masturbate quickly, without giving it too much importance.

The reality is that nuns live among women on a daily basis. To look after the heterosexual chastity, everyone relies on the physical distance and fear. But preventing romantic friendships with other nuns is much more difficult. More than four centuries ago, Thérèse de Lisieux—reformer of the Discalced Carmelites and creator of the “modern” conventual life—already warned against sensual liaisons between nuns. In this regard there are all sorts of policies, rules and customs that prevent and amend infatuations, closeness, friendships. Both educator nuns and mother superiors watch carefully, they infringe privacy; they rummage in drawers and consciences in search of any trait or hint of lesbianism. And they even encourage denunciation; every sister, young or old, is a potential informer.

Mostly during the learning stages, when the young sisters have little contact with the outside world and none with men, it is assumed that one of the worst threats and temptations is, precisely, the lesbian attraction. It seems that all of them are considered potential lesbians or, at least, liable to a possible seduction by lesbians. As you can imagine, in an environment so full of prohibitions, allusions, preventive measures and clear recommendations to keep at bay the lesbian that we all carry inside, the lesbian libido is usually skin-deep. The prohibition provokes whims to which is added the gyn/affection—that I already commented in a separate essay—and that, at least in some way, is constituent element of very nun’s “vocation”.

Lagarde herself acknowledges: “Eroticism is present in a more widespread and permanent way in […] the intimate contact derived from co-existence with women […] The object of desire of a woman who lives in the captivity of a daily coexistence with women only is another woman.”

Lagarde’s research and intuition are right when they describe an environment full of eroticism which, by dint of being repressed, seems to blowup at every step. One has to resort to eroticism to explain the hate, jealousy and emotional crises, the attractions and rejections, the seemingly endless energy, the enjoyment and the pain.

It is possible to discover the degree of ignorance—innocence?—concerning the lesbian issue of any couple of friends nuns based on the degree of closeness that they maintain between them. As long as their ignorance is more or less complete, the nuns touch or cuddle themselves, hold hands. As they reflect on their mutual attraction—be it that someone else perceived it and brought it to their attention, or that they began to decipher by themselves the cruel, but cryptic, anti-lesbian speeches—they will be making that distance overly broad and artificial. Sometime later, if they assimilate their own attraction—they assume it, they sublimate it or they enjoy it—and they decide to go ahead, they can resume, defiant, the closeness of their ignorant stage, or they can start behaving with prudence and thus “keep up appearances”, which supposes to avoid drawing attention neither due to an excess of closeness nor to an artificial detachment.

So far, I hope that it is clear that my disagreements with Los cautiverios de las mujeres are a tacit acceptance of the dialogue started by Marcela Lagarde, and to which she seems to summon all women. That’s why I accompany my eulogy toward the general approach and the particular treatment of each captivity, although with some precisions, details, criticisms and doubts.

I ask, for instance, what’s the basis for the following statement: “It’s noteworthy that most of the nuns who leave the convent life do it to get married and found a family. In other words, to experience their sexuality: eroticism, motherhood and married life.”

Does anyone know how many nuns leave the convent so as to be able to assert what the majority of them do afterwards? It wouldn’t be surprising that the majority of former nuns ended being married, merely because the majority of women get married. But I doubt that the percentage of former nuns that get married is comparable to the percentage of women who, without having ever been nuns, normally get married. In other words, I consider that marriage among former nuns is less popular than within the rest of the female population. I personally know almost one hundred former nuns and, among them, less than fifty are married. Although the age at which they leave the convent is certainly an important factor, Marcela’s conclusion doesn’t stand up.

I consider equally questionable the conclusion: “Most of the nuns feel or have felt love for a priest. In their personal stories, at some point in their life appears a priest who remains in their heart and in their imaginative eroticism for years.”

This conclusion surprises me because, turning once again to my sample of former nuns—which, despite not being representative, not for that reason is less valid—I find very little love for priests. Four years after leaving the convent, Maira^^22^^ became the lover of a priest who she hadn’t even met during her life as a nun; Rita and Blanca married former priests. Except them three, I don’t know another former nun who felt more or less platonic love for priests; veneration and empathy in several cases, but nothing that could be confused with love or imaginative eroticism.

I refuse to recognize as love for a priest the collective crush of teenage girls, some of whom were nuns first and former nuns later. At the women’s school, any young male—chemistry teacher or priest—provoked sighs and infatuations. But those don’t count. In any case, the future nuns were those who less played the game of sighs.

On the other hand, I can provide many testimonies and memories about what Lagarde describes as an expression of the convent eroticism: love for God and, mostly, for Christ. There is a rich tradition of poetry and mystical songs; with texts unmistakably erotic, impudent, passionate. The altered state that we call “infatuation” may be consubstantial to the human being, at certain stages of life, at certain hormone levels; and if there’s no object for a conventional love, then it shows up through an infatuation for love itself.

More than once I wrote: “I’m in love with love.” The exalted, almost manic state of a person in love doesn’t need a flesh and blood being to thrive. And love for a person who is believed to exist, but who doesn’t show signs of existing, who, therefore, generates few contacts, few confrontations, can very easily become an overwhelming and fruitful passion. All kinds of outcomes can turn up from this exaltation: sleepless nights kneeling before an image, a symbol, a light; bouts of extreme asceticism, self-immolation, overexertion and, why not?, much less common phenomena: trances, insensitivity to pain, ability to fast permanently, and also stigmata on the body, levitation and miracles. Yes, love is strange, miracle-working, pathological.

UNEROTIZED, BLURRED, UNIDENTIFIED

The woman is body to such an extent, that all her consecration is summarized in the consecration of her body. According to Marcela Lagarde’s words, the novitiate has among its duties, “to blur until their disappearance the physical and formal characteristics of the body, as well as the attires, ornaments and treatments allowing its identification with the body of women”.

The women who go out of the novitiate don’t seem so on the outside. The extreme transformation, the renunciation and the breaking of will, that are so ugly, end up creating a being that is ugly on the outside. Almudena Grandes also sees the nuns that way and describes two of them, full-length:

Nuns. Short, gray hair one of them, brown hair the other one, both with metal-rimmed glasses, white shirts fastened up to the next-to-last button and shapeless skirts, navy blue the eldest, grey the younger, both with the matching mandatory sweaters of fine-wool, flat black galoshes and a coat under the arm. Nuns. An expression of humility exacted on the incendiary flashing of pride; rough, untidy hands to suggest the harshness of a fictional work, a morbid complacency in an ugliness cultivated with more attention to detail than the makeup of a teenage girl, and that hysterical impatience, in literal meaning, that arises from the aberrant torture that chastity imposes on the hormones.

The novitiate training is not easy and the perfection of the product—a refined ugliness—certifies it. The changes are developed in long days; the seclusion days at the convent are unending, without rests; of total immersion learning.

When she takes her vows, the normal young woman concludes a violent metamorphosis of which the nun emerges. But this process, both Almudena Grandes and Marcela Lagarde seem to clear up, doesn’t mimic the metamorphosis of fat worms into graceful butterflies, but rather the nightmare of the birth of alien from the entrails—and with the entrails—of officer Ellen Ripley: “Gradually, the nuns unlearn to move their hips, the flirty gestures, the seductive usage of voice or laugh. They keep trading them for rigid movements and child-like or more masculine voices. Every muscle, every movement, every tone of voice, even the look, must stop being feminine.”

What Marcela Lagarde fails to realize is that this “being ugly” is closer to the real woman than to the normal girl. What Marcela fails to see, despite her feminist convictions and her gender perspective, is that for centuries the common women has shaped herself—and has let herself be molded by society—as a being essentially for man, even for preserving only for him the skills already considered his, as the strength, the agility, the speed, and be able to run without falling off and without worrying about the skirt width or the heels height. The galoshes are insolent; they challenge the old ways, the fads. But the truth is that they are devilishly comfortable; they allow to run, to jump over puddles, leap inside the buses. The horrible nun’s look liberates; it also liberates. The short hair, which according to Marcela Lagarde is “an authentic mutilation and a symbolic sign of a woman’s death”, is liberating. Genuinely.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that our beauty standards are definitively conditioned by the customs, because there are very beautiful nuns, despite their attires. Who doesn’t believe so should look with more care and less prejudice. As I have written elsewhere, I don’t think that the similarities between the nuns’ collectivities and the lesbians’ collectivities in Mexico are just a matter of coincidence. Both groups proclaim with their life, including their appearance, that they don’t want or need to abide by the restraint of customs or to submit to the perennial and ubiquitous patriarchy. The nun is not a woman for the man. This could be absolutely liberating, but a nun is neither a woman for herself, and that reduces her liberating possibilities.

The nun is a woman, but a different one. The woman doesn’t die when she becomes a nun, but she gets converted into a different woman; one who gets rid of conventions and thus supposedly dies, but who, in fact, reaches a comfort, a lightness and referrals unthinkable for the rest of women. Hence, who emerges of the depersonalizing process of the novitiate is not a non-person, but rather another person, with her brain washed through a process different to the brain-washing process of the existing patriarchal culture. The bodies stop being docile, warm, desirable and ready to be possessed by a man, to become “cold, harsh, rigid”—says Marcela Lagarde—an assertion that can be seen as another captivity or as an unprecedented situation in which subjection and liberation coincide.

ABOUT A BLIND AND BLINDING OBEDIENCE

Maybe I won’t be able to convince one single woman of the 21st century about the liberating potential of the vows of poverty and chastity, but I hope that at least some of us, former nuns, we confess to agree on it, regardless of being politically incorrect; regardless of being interpreted as anti-feminist, traitor, sellout and reactionary.

On the other hand, I think that the liberating potential will depend on how strictly the vows were lived, how radical was the novitiate formation, and how much personal will was invested in collaborating to this brainwashing.

On the other hand, the vow that I would have expected to fill pages and pages in Los cautiverios is the vow of obedience; but Marcela Lagarde delves into it less than in the other two vows. Obedience is the substratum of the whole conventual captivity, its reinforcement. Obedience makes possible the devastating captivity of the vow of chastity and, additionally, it annuls the person’s judgment, its subjectivity, its worth, its common sense, in a pre-eminent, direct and open way.

The vow of obedience is based on the not questioned acceptance that wisdom and reason are attributes of the post: abbesses, confessors and the curia exercise an unchallengeable and despotic authority, based on the certainty that they don’t make mistakes, they know more and they decide better.

The nun doesn’t obey as a soldier in the army. In a Catholic convent of women, obedience usually is of a suicidal type, expropriator of essences and consciences, of diversity, principles, reasons and reasoning. The psychiatric disorders thrive in docility, self-destruction and under the grey blanket of depersonalization. The religious obedience which thus annihilates the will, the perception, and the judgment is not so far away—as we’d like to believe—from the collective suicide of the Heaven’s Gate believers. What does separate them? An exalted and convincing Applewhite; and just a bit more. Is my judgment frightening? Maybe. But more frightening is the obvious coincidence described by Lagarde in an impeccable Orwellian image: “The uncritical internalization of the coercive state—assimilated to the love of God—evokes to the individuals the external network of control mechanisms which leads them to become, almost without realizing it, their own ‘thought police’.”

The convent is captivity whose locks are secured with the compliant cooperation of its captives, or a total system^^23^^ where the essential separation—and identifier definition—between guardian and captive occurs in the conscience and the body of each nun. The abbess is not only placed outside and above the average nun, but she also occupies a special place in the heart and mind of each nun. The internalized submission reaches heroic deeds and martyrdoms, much more radical and destructive than the external subjection alone could achieved.

Finally, and although very few people seem to have noticed it, I think that the convent captivity feeds on something else and different: infantilism, which I already mentioned as a marginal trait of chastity. Infantilism can be seen and heard mainly during recesses, and its very existence can be considered as infantilizing.

—Who wants a candy?

—I do… I do… I do…

—Not you; I won’t give you any.

Grimace and resentment on one side, and the unmistakable arrogance of power, based on granting and denying favors, sweet favors, on the other.

—This is for you and this for you. One more, only one.

The exertion of power and the cult of authority took place during the recesses shamelessly. The goals that they scored only increased the infantilism, from both sides.

Ten—twenty, thirty—years later, the reflections shared with other former nuns keep confirming my brilliance: the blend of an extreme religion, repression, gender mandates and irresponsible relationships, usually creates a state of subjection, retrogression to stages supposedly transcended.

By “irresponsible” I don’t mean that nuns are or act irresponsibly, but rather that the relationships that they maintain daily and openly don’t demand the degree of responsibility—nor the complexity, tolerance, generosity, and the like—required by the couple relationships, motherhood, adult filiation and even the working responsibilities.

Without generalizing—surely there’s not one, but many, who elude this model—and without any interest whatsoever in stereotyping or simplifying uncritically, the truth is that—regardless of whether a nun has university studies or is barely literate, she lives and works within her community or in faraway locations, she is young or old— anyhow her rigidity, her moral and criteria simplicity, her intolerance to complexity and her unusual situation of protection and security, get expressed in infantile or childish attitudes, judgments and actions.

To the above we must add the cult to the mother superior and the faith in her infallibility. The permanent filial situation is founded on a culture full of “permissions”. Thus, the responsibility, merit and maturity that could arise from the other two vows are minimized: there’s no merit, accountability or maturity in a poverty that is assumed by obedience, nor in an ignorant and submissive chastity. I don’t know if Marcela Lagarde will sometime write about this captivity of obedience that leads to the even more definitive captivity of infantilism. It may not be important that she does it because her work has already instigated a dialogue about captivities. Although, on the other hand, few voices will join this dialogue from within the convents due to another captivity that Lagarde didn’t mention either: the guilt that silences and makes aberrant any desire.

 

THE END OF THE ADVENTURE

1979: ABOUT THE PSYCHIATRIC DIAGNOSIS THAT MADE WAY FOR LIGHT

It’s only six o’clock in the afternoon. In the waiting room, three mature women—they look so healthy—skim through brand-new magazines with shiny covers.

—Miss—I say almost with no voice, almost in silence—I have an appointment with the doctor.

—Just a moment—she keeps typing, completes a format and only then she looks at me—What were you saying?

But I just can’t utter a word. I think I’m going to cry, but I don’t cry either. Since some days ago I suspect I’m dry.

—Yes?—and I don’t say anything. I look at her with tiredness, with fear, but with no intention whatsoever to escape; not anymore.

—Take a seat. The doctor won’t be long—and she isn’t; she barely lasts five or ten minutes with each of the ladies, those who look so healthy, so smiling.

—Come in, sister.

Calling me sister startles me. I enter; I would say thank you, if just I could.

Celeste Martiles, psychiatrist of the first lady of the country and of more than three well known actresses, crushes a butt with determination.

—Eight is my limit; thus it should be; this is the nineteen.

She asks me just a few questions, she writes a lot; she measures, counts, observes. Whatever she asks me I can answer with only yes and no, sometimes and almost never, always and never. Then, without preamble or explanation she diagnoses me bipolar disorder.

—You will heal, sister.

She pulls a pack of chewing gum out of the pocket of her white coat. She puts a little piece in her mouth, chews it a couple of minutes, takes it out and leaves it next to the cigarette butts. She takes her prescription pad and writes down the date: October 24, 1979. Just below, doctor Martiles writes: Stelapar, Valium, vitamin B-12 and Tofranil. Three pills in the morning; one more, twelve hours later.

—Do you have money to buy them? Go round the corner; tell the store clerk to call me; to provide you everything.

On the 25 I start the treatment.

My vocation, the inertia to dress as a nun each day, is in some way tied to the depression? I’ll never know.

Day after day and pill after pill, the curtain of sticky mist starts to thin, the sleeps start to dilute; for the first time since almost nine years the light sneaks in; timid and blinking at first.

Days later, exactly the first Sunday of Advent, I heal; I heal completely. In just a moment the past is left behind; without a breach in the way, the present bursts in. It’s seven o’clock in the morning. The thick fog that shrouded me the day I entered the novitiate—right in the stone and ivy-covered hallway, around seven in the evening—thins in a matter of seconds. The harsh reality enters through my eyes, my nose, my ears.

A deluge of reality, of certainties, floods me, throws me down, transforms me. Now, all of me, I am certainty.

What’s black goes from wet brown to varnish; what’s white becomes crystal-clear clarity. Everything stands out with edges well clear-cut from the context. First what happened yesterday, the day before yesterday; the summer just gone and immediately the previous Holy Week. And so forth backwards, backwards, until reaching the stone hallway with seven doors, but none real; and with thirty windows, but none with folding frames; the stone hallway where the foliage thrives with ferns, slippery moss and ivy; the hallway through which I went into the fog where the sleeps robbed my clarity; the hallway of the day of my entrance to the convent.

Among the most immediate, among the first things getting rid of its wrapping, is Celeste Martiles’ office: her vibrant grey look, her nasal voice of whom was raised in another language, leaps clearly in my conscience. I have an appointment with her three days after my healing:

—Let’s see, sister. I’ll start calling you by your name. Celine, you’re ready, or, as your God would say: ‘Get up and walk.’

At that moment I really wanted to talk, but I burst into tears and I lost my chance.

—Cry, if you want to cry. I don’t have solutions for your sadness. Feel it, don’t sublimate anything. You are coming out of the grave and, if you want so, you can live. Your superior general would say that I’m not humble and she’s right. Why would I be so? If you see her, give her my regards. We love each other, although I’m not a believer. But I’m good. I respect her, she respects me. And I think that she appreciates you.

Who is my superior general? I don’t think I ever saw her once; if she crossed the door, I wouldn’t recognize her. I cry unintentionally and unable to stop.

—Love yourself as much as you can. Take care of yourself.

I stop crying while Celeste talks to me as if I was her friend; or perhaps as if I needed her information to understand my moment.

Celeste Martiles takes the nuns seriously, but not so the religious life. She likes nuns; she has rescue several of them, but others turn to her very damaged. She doesn’t believe in therapies, but in pills.

At least that works with the nuns who knock at her door years after it would have been advisable. She doesn’t succeed every time; for example, she doesn’t know how to improve Herminia, a high rate suicide who she has sedated for weeks, who she has assigned custodians to watch over her twenty-four hours, and she doesn’t improve. Herminia is not yet thirty years old, but Celeste doesn’t believe that she will ever improve.

Celeste is old; she is more than sixty. She studied philosophy after medicine; she met the mother general when she was doing a postgraduate course in Barcelona. I like her, or rather, she pierces my soul when she tells me details of an incident which I hardly got wind of. Herminia bathed in blood and Celeste yelling at her, helplessly:

—Girl, girl, what have you done? Girl, girl.

Today I decide to keep her in my heart as long as I have memory, and that the words with which she discharged me lighten my paths:

—You have resuscitated, girl. Now you have to live. Don’t even worry about folding the shroud; live, live.

Reality hits forceful each of my senses. There’s no reason compelling me to do anything, I “must” not believe in anything or get angry for anything. Nothing compels me to believe anything that doesn’t convince my reason or my senses; I don’t have to love ghosts, spirits, fairies. Nothing forces me to transcend nor to strive nor to sacrifice. I have no obligation to pile up merits, to put long faces, to live forever. I just want to live.

I‘ve forced myself to believe for so long that this freedom makes me laugh and sing. I can not believe. I can and I must not believe by pure loyalty to who I owe so much: I.

I can feel the peaceful lightness of being; enjoy its tasty unimportance, its uncertainty: random fair, carousel, trill, throat of thousand voices. I can waste my time, sip it little by little, pour it, dilute it until, imperceptible, it fades away. I can die: light, slight, irrelevant, elusive, forgettable.

The courage and the boldness, the fear, the tears with snot, with cramps, with insomnia and with cold: everything goes away with the mist. And the nuns also fade. Shadows remain; and almost nothing of friendship and affection. Almost, almost nothing. The dry and disciplined hearts will forget me with blind obedience as soon as the abbess suggests it.

My amazement facing the light was followed by the joy of opening my eyes and looking at the pristine reality, and my amazement when I discovered the possibility of freedom was followed by the joy of realizing that such possibility was real. I don’t have to believe. I can renounce to the suicide of reason that tied me behind the mist. I can believe in me and love me; I can look at and rely on my look. The joy became serenity, peace. I didn’t need insights to leave the convent. I simply realized that it was possible to not remain there, and that it could act accordingly.

There was no hurry to leave what didn’t shackle me anymore. Then, free and conscious, and motivated by my loyalty to my fellow teachers, my students and the project that we had planned together for the school year that was about to begin, I decided to inform my superior that I was determined to leave, but that I would work intensely one more year.

During the next twelve months, I left aside everything that wasn’t pure work. I worked from Monday to Sunday, from 4:40 in the morning up to 1:00 or 2:00 of the following morning; from Monday to Sunday. I did it also for gratitude and for friendship.

1980: ABOUT MY DEPARTURE

Lennon, already dead, insists morning and afternoon, night and dawn: Imagine… You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Hope and elegy, Lennon and I together again, as ten years ago when I said goodbye to him the night before entering the convent, that whole night I spent playing his 45 rpm records before I closed my ears to all worldly music; before I buried myself alive.

Lennon, still warm, today he intones a long funeral oration, his own funeral rites; and I, who died ten years ago upon entering the convent, today I’m choking of future. I’m alive, and he’s not anymore. On the same hanger where I hang the habits I also leave ten intense years; I also leave the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; the Angelus and the Salve, the Lauds, Vespers and Completes; the cilice, the discipline and the Misereres; I also leave the Exsultates, the singing at dawn, the certainties, the structures, the truth. Imagine… Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too.

Who’s Gloria Gaynor, who’s Donna Summer? Who’s Pink Floyd? What incarnate deity is Freddy Mercury? I hear them one, two, three, eleven times. Alien and distant first, soon they become intimate; they hurt, caress, move to howl. Ten years ago they didn’t exist. At the convent I never missed them, but today I need that they bleed their throats: again, again, again. Once again, the radio connects me with life; at full blast and all day long the Monitor helicopter, the news and the songs. The whole dial penetrates me, while I pierce my ears again; I reopen its wounds, and hang small plastic earrings. Today I’m in a hurry to reconnect myself with my time, with life, with its music. Three months ago I left the convent with a suitcase and making sure that nobody would see me; just at the time when all were praying, maybe? Lamenting my perdition? Enjoying to get rid of harmful influence?

To those who had delivered a dowry upon entering the convent, when they left they were returned those monies duly “updated”. Naturally, after fifteen, twenty or more years of crises and devaluations, that “updating” was at the discretion of the superiors. Some received enough money to survive a few months; others just enough for a few days. In principle, the convent didn’t owe anything those who hadn’t delivered a dowry. Some were “helped” to return to the place they had left to enter the convent. Some others not even that.

I had spent nine years in the same community and I couldn’t say goodbye to anyone. I could not even tell it to the other sisters. As a farewell the provincial told me: “If you hadn’t decided to leave, we would have asked you to leave”, and she ordered my superior to give me half a week of minimum salary even though I had worked legally on the payroll of one of the most expensive schools in the country, and thus as a simple worker I had the right, or at least I believed so, to receive a holiday pay.

When I left, two lay teachers of the school joined me at the back door of the convent. I sneaked out. With the money the nuns gave me we bought flowers and we went dropping them on the streets. Just because. The teachers lent me ten times more money; my sister welcomed me at her house. The next day I got a job and, between the hustle and bustle of the underground, the new routines, the coworkers, the neighbors and the city crowds, I began reentering the other reality; the common, the simple, the daily one.

2001: ABOUT FREE DREAMS AND YELLOW DRESSES

Eight years had to pass since my departure from the convent so that the scars of the cilice could disappear from my thighs, especially from the right one; nine years had to pass before I could feel at ease when talking about my past as a nun; but up to ten years had to pass before my subconscious could freely roam the conventual scenarios. The ascetic, the repression or the radical continence of affections and desires, thoughts and inclinations, judgments, initiatives and intellectual and moral independence had marked me, molded me, regenerated me, captivated me.

Today I dream the corridors of the houses in which I lived with the sisters that I left there: the one who escaped, the one who tried to commit suicide, the one who cried due to my departure, the one who teased me, the one who eluded me with terror in her eyes. I dream about those with whom I laughed and I cried, and about the many more I never met although I ate with them every day. All of them dance in my dreams, and they sing, we sing, and they eat and they fly and we fly. Although they say that dreaming is free, it cost me ten years, pills, therapies, efforts. Sometimes, dreaming really costs.

It took me ten years to leave the convent, because leaving it is neither an act nor a decision, but a process with shocks and an exhausting intensity. I’ve passed, over and over again, from a peaceful relief to a joyful liberation and a deep sadness; or from the pride of being faithful to myself, to the guilt of betraying a destiny, and to the exhaustion of failure. At least, so I lived it.

Perhaps this explains why I burst out laughing crying—or crying laughing?—when, in the middle of the street, in a less-than-a-minute call on my mobile phone, Ana announces me that next week she leaves the convent. Those who pass me and see me don’t know if they should smile as an answer to my laughter or look the other way when they notice that I’m crying.

In short: to put away the phone, look for a tissue in my backpack, and dry my nose and eyes, I move close to window of a small boutique that sells very expensive dresses that, according to my post-nun’s and feminist pragmatism, are neither practical nor durable, although beautiful, really beautiful. Four mannequins—golden, orange, ochre and yellow—look at me with a studied arrogance. I project on the shop window Ana’s image smiling in my memory from the playground of her school.

The mannequins are bright and quiet, and Ana is grey and always in motion.

The yellow dress, in particular, lightens the show-case. In contrast, Ana wears the unpleasing Mexican nuns lay costume: her eternal full and dark skirt well below the knees and her wide collar grey shirt, a model that the stores stopped selling ten or more years ago. She also wears her long and dark vest over the shirt, her never new galoshes, and her thick stockings, together with her hair hand-cut by Ana herself or by another inexpert sister but not for that less daring.

I imagine that nuns keep dressing so badly and ugly out of habit, or because the vow of poverty requires them to wear out clothes that were acquired during the period of prohibitions in Mexico, when the Congregation habit, with wimple, veil and scapular, was reserved for ceremonies inside the convent; or to emulate that saint whose name I don’t even remember, who used to rub himself with excrement and acted as an madman to scare away any temptation of arrogance. Or just because, just because: because it is uncomplicated and insouciant to have only three changes of clothes, the three equally ugly.

I go into the store, I ask the price of the yellow dress and I infer, both from the attitude of the saleswoman and from the price that she throws at me, that they don’t want to sell it to me. My nonchalant appearance doesn’t credit me as a possible buyer; that happens often.

It’s been thirty years since Ana doesn’t dress in yellow; her becoming color, she used to say in high school. Why am I so sensible? My eyes get wet again. To scare away my tears I start walking. A very peaceful sobbing wins the game and I let it win.

I didn’t even know that I wanted to cry at any minute about the convent that Ana is leaving behind; about the same one I left behind years ago.

Minutes later I go back to the store. The clerk looks at me like as if I was crazy: besides my odd look, I’m weepy. I figure Ana’s size, I ask for the dress and, without thinking, I charge it. I would never buy myself something that expensive, but the pleasure of dressing in yellow the last survivor of an extreme adventure doesn’t have a price.

Sitting on a taxi, I call Lulu, Ana’s mother, to congratulate her. More than one hundred cups of coffee and as many my cupcakes and her custards wetted and sweetened the evenings we spent talking about one single subject: Ana. How she shrank in the convent, how her teenage, her young, her mature energy had waned and had only left weariness.

Lulu is excited, but not happy; she is scared and she waits anxiously next Tuesday so that she can go pick up Anna. She will bring her to live with her at least for some time. Ana must feel really bad if she agreed to be so close to Lulu.

Lulu is waiting for me outside her house, in the middle of the street. She sees the dress and bursts out laughing. Her friendly color, she recalls. Neither she nor I we confide in Ana’s audacity to cross the border from her past dressed in the same color with which, still a teenager and also arm in arm with her mother, she crossed it in the other direction. But at least it is a sign; if she doesn’t dare to wear it, at least she will carry it among her stuff.

I left the convent when I was twenty-eighth and I almost slipped away to the outside world. But Ana, already forty-nine and leaving behind a whole life, cannot be so lonely when going out. To accompany her, and under the pretext of justifying my yellow gift, I send her an email.

I am sad due to your exit. I don’t know if I feel sad with you or for you. I imagine that at this moment the bustle prevents sadness to hijack your attention. For my part, as I don’t have to pack or plan my future, to say goodbye or empty drawers, to delete presences or look for a job, I have all the space for sadness.

Even if you consider it unnecessary, I want to be by your side and accompany your exit. I want to hold you in your grief, even if for the moment you don’t believe you are already grieving. Live it taking care of not losing your lucidity or your strength of mind; of not alienating you with chores or sink in your loneliness. I warn you that an absolute, impenetrable, unshareable loneliness awaits you.

Others will believe that your exit deserves a party and will not understand that your closing down dreams, plans and future, and that you’re inaugurating the orphanage of yourself.

The woman who, for thirty years, nurtured you, took care over you every day, the nun, has died. Without her you’re alone and I warn you that you will not know who you are for a long time.

Live your grief intensely. Set out on a farewell rite, a liturgy of goodbye. To do it, I suggest you a long and silent retreat.

Don’t do it during the forty-eight hours before leaving; they tend to be chaotic, too emotional or too long or too short. On the last night of the retreat, bring flowers to your cell, lit a candle and lay down your habit on your bed. It must be impeccable; it was your wedding suit, the one of your vows, of your commitments; it was also going to be your shroud.

That night, say goodbye to everything: to what you know you’re leaving, to what you fear your leaving, to what you’ll discover with the passage of years that you also left behind but you thought you were taking with you.

At the end of your retreat and your grief, the celebration of your rebirth and your exit, kneel in your cell and kiss the floor. I doubt you can do it at the last moment, and you must not ignore it. Kiss the floor as we used to do it every Friday, at the end of enduring “discipline”.

Kiss it twice; one for you and one for me, because I forgot to do it when I left. Do it slowly, tenderly, with resolution and with tears.

Then rest. It’s alright to die from time to time.

As you can imagine, I’m crying. If you need me, you know where to find me and, if you don’t need me, nevertheless I’ll be waiting for your exit. Your mom brings you a gift; if you can, wear it when going out; if not, at least put it in your suitcase so that it lights you up from there.

Finally, I want to tell you: Welcome to the club! A former nun membership lasts as long as the vacuum lasts within you. Generally, that means our whole life, or at least what we have left of it. Do you know if it keeps going beyond that?

I wish that Ana, almost fifty years of age, finds the enthusiasm to start again. To accompany her, I only have my experience: I left behind a life style, a reality and a logic that are only understandable for the initiates. Ahead of me I found a future forever tinged with my past. I didn’t find difficult to get used to the outside, but I know more than two former nuns whose encounter with the “external” daily life simply was traumatic. Some of them, for example, couldn’t remember how to handle money or make simple decisions.

Despite everything, former nuns often get adapted to the tolerant, secular world. And although we get wrapped by the daily bustle, and the struggle for survival usurps each of our minutes, the big question pesters us as long as we don’t answer it: Was it worth to be a nun? I say yes. Yes, it was worth to be a nun. And I couldn’t care less about what anyone says.

Alleluia, miserere, exsultate, miserere, jubilate,

o vos animae beatae

exsultate, miserere, jubilate,

alleluia.

GLOSSARY

Abstinence: ascetic practice consisting in not eating red or poultry meat with a mortification or penance purpose. Abstinence is “observed” or practiced certain days of the liturgical year—annual cycle of festivities—and during other celebrations of each congregation.

Active life: it is said that a congregation or community keeps or “has” an active life when they preferably devote to external or service apostolates, at places such as hospitals, schools and “social deeds”, orphanages, nursing homes, catechesis and evangelization.

Angelus: daily break at noon, to say or sing a prayer in memory of the angel’s greeting to Virgin Mary. It is the daily occasion to sing the Salve Regina or another Marian chant.

Apostolate: specific occupation of a religious congregation, a community or an individual nun.

Asceticism: lifestyle to reach the “union with God” through self-denial, mortification, self-discipline, austerity, detachment and pious acts.

Blind Obedience: it is the performance of a task or the acceptance of a judgment, an idea or an order, denying the own judgment, reasoning and criticism, without impugning, questioning, requiring an explanation, not even in the most inner part of one’s conscience. It is considered a perfect form of the religious vow of obedience.

Canon law: internal ecclesiastical law governing the Catholic Church as an institution and the religious Congregations that are part of it. The infringement of some sections of this law warrants excommunication.

Care of Senses: practice consisting of avoiding all sensory stimuli, especially those visuals, in order to enhance the concentration to pray. That is why in a large number of formation houses they are accustomed to keep looking down, the hands joined and to avoid mirrors.

Catechism: book that, by means of questions and answers, condenses the Catholic religious doctrine, theology, liturgy, law and tradition. Its most common form is the one devoted to children who must memorize its contents before receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist. Its teaching is called catechesis and constitutes an important part of the apostolate (see) of the religious (see).

Cell: single bedroom of a nun. In some communities there are cells for two or more religious, or common dormitories for a larger number. In the case of a single cell, it is an area of individual privacy and usually it is forbidden that anyone other than its tenant enters in it, regardless if the tenant is present or not. Its austerity, dimensions and other characteristics vary from one congregation to another, one community to another, and even from one religious to another within the same home, where there can be at the same time extremely austere and unadorned cells and authentic departments with enough comforts and even luxuries.

Chapter of Faults: very common practice before Vatican II and still in force in many congregations. It is a community meeting in which the sisters publicly confess their faults in compliance with the rules; likewise, the nuns can ask her sisters in religion—that is, the other nuns—to accuse them of the faults that they have seen them committing. The superior usually impose penances (see) to the offenders. It is, or was habit to hold it weekly, on Fridays, except during the Easter season.

Charisma: it is used as synonym of apostolate (see), but in a more strict sense it is the special function of each congregation within the Catholic Church.

Chastity: one of the three vows, simple or solemn, taken by the nuns; it implies absolute sexual continence and to direct love to God exclusively and to others “in general” as a kind of charity.

Cilice: bracelet or belt, usually woven with rough fibers or even with barbed wire, which is placed around the bare skin of the arm, the leg or the waist as an instrument of mortification or penance (see). Some communities produce and sell them.

Community: group of religious who live in one same religious home or convent under the leadership of one same superior. In many cases, they also share a same apostolate.

Compline: the last of the hours of the Divine Office (see), of lesser importance than the Lauds and the Vespers. It is usually prayed communally before retiring to rest. For many years it included hymns and prayers that related sleep with death and the anthem “Hail queen of heaven and lady of the angels, hail root, hail gate that gave way to our light”.

Congregation: religious institute as a whole. There are hundreds of congregations, some acknowledged by the Vatican or of Pontifical law, others recognized by the local diocese, of Diocesan law, and others whose acknowledgment is still pending. Each congregation is different from the rest by having a constitution, a founder (man or woman), a habit, a charisma and an apostolate of its own.

Consecrated life: is a synonym for religious life.

Constitution: set of rules and regulations of each congregation.

Contemplative Life: it is said that a congregation or community has—or is of—a contemplative life when its main apostolate is the prayer or the “contemplation”, although as a secondary labor they carry out service apostolates. In practice this term is synonymous with regime or congregation of enclosure (see).

Convent: although originally it refers to the house where cloistered nuns or monks live, in practice so is called every houses inhabited by nuns. By extension, religious life is called “the convent”, and joining a religious congregation is known as “entering the convent”

Council: group of religious who advise and share some responsibilities with the superior (see), either locally or of the community, province/country or general/international.

Denial: ascetic practice, known also as self-defeat, which consists in acting against our own and legitimate inclinations, desires, interests, tastes, etc., in order to strengthen our will, and even to annul it to act, thus, with a blind obedience (see).

Destine (to): send a religious to a certain home or work. This home or work is called “destiny”. The destiny of a religious is usually decided without considering the religious herself, who accepts it for the sake of obedience.

Detachment: attitude or act of indifference towards personal things, affections and interests as part of the ascetic path.

Discipline: instrument for flagellation or lashing with purposes of mortification or to serve a penance. In the convents normally they use disciplines made of rope, rough fibers, leather with metal tips, or chains. Although many congregations don’t use it anymore, flagellation or “taking discipline” is still practiced in some. It is performed in community or alone, as self-flagellation on the bare skin of shoulders, thighs or buttocks, while the religious recites one of the penitential Psalms, such as the Miserere.

Dispensation of Vows: permission issued by the competent authority to free a religious from the religious vows she had taken. In some cases, the permission must come from the Vatican.

Divine Office: also known as canonical hours or liturgy of the hours, it is the set of official public and also community prayers “marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayers”. It consists primarily of reciting or singing aloud psalms, biblical fragments, hymns and other texts of the Fathers of the Church. The main hours are Lauds, Vespers and Completes, written in the Book of the Hours.

Dogma: article of faith revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church presents as necessary to be believed if one freely chooses to be a Catholic. Dogma is considered to be both divine and Catholic faith. Divine, because of its believed origin and Catholic because of belief in the infallible teaching binding for all.

Dowry: amount of money, established and updated periodically by each congregation, that must handed out by the family of who enters the religious life and that must be returned to the religious herself if she decides to leave. If the person in question dies being a religious, the dowry becomes part of the inheritance of the Congregation.

Enclosure: seclusion and even physical isolation regime in which some congregations live, mainly those devoted to the contemplative life (see). This name is also used to call the area of each religious home or convent (see) whose access is forbidden to the lay persons and where the cells (see) are located.

Flagellation: see Discipline.

General (Provincial) Chapter: congress or council of religious holding a general or provincial authority position in the congregation to discuss matters of legislation, finances, etc., of their constituency. Also, in these meetings can be decided the approvals for all professions, income, transfers, leave of absence, expulsions and secularizations of nuns.

General Home: house or convent where the superior (see) or general mother resides, together with the General Council.

Habit: suit or dress distinctive of priests and nuns. In Mexico, due to the nineteenth century liberal legislation, its use was proscribed; for this reason many congregations founded in this country after those dates have no habit at all. One century later, when the legal existence of religious organizations was recognized in Mexico, the public use of habits was legally permitted.

Hierarchy: also called “order”, it is the organization chart of a religious congregation showing the ranks used as a base to assign certain privileges, seats in places of prayer and common life and responsibilities according to a certain order. Usually, the superior leads the precedence, its council and then the sisters in the order they joined the congregation. This order of entry is often preserved through the assignment of a unique and unrepeatable number at the time each sister is admitted to the novitiate or takes her vows.

Juniorate: third training stage of a religious, and first after taking of vows (see). Its length varies from one and three years that are usually devoted to practice what will be their apostolate (see) while they acquire the theoretical knowledge in this regard or they complete their professional training. At this stage, the religious who have already taken their vows are called juniors.

Lauds: is a divine office that takes place in the early morning hours. In the ordinary form of the Roman Rite (Liturgy of the Hours), as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, it is one of the two major hours.

Leave of Absence: permission given to a religious so that she can leave the religious home or convent for a limited time and for a specific purpose.

Local Superior: (see Superior) nun who runs a Community (see) or a religious home, with a variable number of nuns at her command and care. As part of her responsibilities she has to manage the finances, to establish the rhythm of life, to determine the community schedule and activities, to serve as a spiritual guide to each of the nuns under her care, to interpret the constitutions and adapt them to the local reality and even to interpret the guidelines, dogmas and others norms of the Church. In practice, the nun or common religious must obey their local superior with a blind obedience (see) and consider her as the spokesperson of the divine will.

Matins: also known as vigil or morning prayer, it is the first of the canonical hours or Divine Office; it is recited first thing in the morning or at midnight.

Miserere: psalm 50 which in Latin starts with the word Miserere.

Modesty: attitude considered virtuous which consists in systematically denying all the goodness of oneself and accept criticism about everything bad. It is also used as a synonym for “care of the senses” (see).

Mortification: action directed at moderating or “controlling” the tastes and physical or sensory tendencies; Mortifications may be assigned by the superior or confessor, or chosen by the religious herself; they are especially practiced at certain periods of the liturgical cycle, such as Lent. Typical mortifications of the religious communities are: take the discipline (see), wear a cilice, sleep on a board or on the bare floor, omit sweets, desserts and other preferred foods, eat on the knees, ask for forgiveness in public for one’s faults, recite a prayer kneeling on the tips of the fingers, prostrate oneself in a place of passage so the other sisters “walk over her”, carry a cross, and deprive of activities, visits, correspondence and any contact or enjoyable activity.

Mother: it commonly stands for religious. Within a congregation, in years prior to the reforms of Vatican II, so were called the religious with greater preparation and economic resources, who were basically responsible for the apostolate of the Congregation, by contrast with the sisters or lays, who were the sisters responsible for the domestic chores. Currently, it’s a name reserved to the local, provincial, regional or general superiors, as well as to the mother instructor of the novitiate or mother teacher.

Mysticism: state of union with God in a kind of ecstatic contemplation which may be continuous or occasional. It is considered a state of perfection that can be reached through the practice of asceticism and meditation and the contemplative prayer.

Novitiate: second training stage of a religious, just before the first temporary profession. It lasts between one and three years, in which the novices wear the habit of the congregation with some differences, such as the white veil instead of the dark of the professed nuns. The novitiate is usually performed under the direction of an experienced religious who is called mother teacher or teacher of novices.

Nun: although it strictly refers to women who take their solemn vows, in practice it is used as a somewhat derogatory synonym of religious woman.

Obedience: one of the three vows, simple or solemn, taken by the religious and through which they commit themselves, under penalty of committing a mortal sin, to comply with the constitution and regulations of the congregation and to obey the orders of their superiors.

Particular friendship: so is called the “private” friendship between two nuns that excludes the others. It is explicitly condemned because it threatens the unity of the whole community, but its violent demonizing and repudiation can only be explained because it is considered a synonym for lesbian relationships, an attack against the community life, and thus it is constantly discouraged, condemned and anathematized in the constitutions and teachings of the religious life. It is one of the most explicit and repeated prohibitions, although, with some exceptions, its relation with lesbianism is never openly mentioned.

Penance: ascetic practices generally imposed by the mother superior or the confessor to pay for faults or make merits. They can consist of prayers, meditation time, perform a work of charity, flagellate oneself or carry out any mortification (see).

Pool: group of young women who enter the religious life at the same time and who go through the various stages: postulancy, novitiate and juniorate, profession etc., simultaneously. It is equivalent to “generation” or cohort.

Postulancy (Postulate): first stage of a religious’ training, prior to her novitiate. Currently it has taken different forms in different congregations, incorporating the aspirant stage, the pre-novitiate, etc.

Postulant: young woman who thinks she has a vocation (see) and, to clarify her doubts and to be observed by the congregation in which she expects to be admitted, lives in a religious community and participates in some of its activities. Usually it is the training stage previous to the postulancy (see) and the novitiate (see). The postulant keeps being a laywoman, no commitment binds her to the congregation and she usually dresses as she does normally, although in fact she emulates a great part of the behaviors, obligations and routines of the professed religious (see).

Poverty: one of the three vows, solemn or simple, the sisters usually take. It entails renouncing any kind of private property, both goods of considerable value and everyday objects, which are considered, therefore, “granted for the use” of every religious or put in her care, but not as her property.

Professed Nun: religious woman who has finished the novitiate stage and has taken her votes.

Profession: ceremony in which, through vows (see) with God, the novice commits herself to comply with chastity, poverty and obedience in line with the rules of a specific constitution. In some congregations the ceremony still includes some bridal type elements—such as the white dress the novice wears at the beginning of the ceremony and that she replaces with the habit—and mortuary ceremonies, as the change of clothes, the prostrations, etc. The perpetual, final or definitive profession is the one during which the religious commits herself to keep her vows and the mentioned rules in perpetuity. This ceremony usually is notable due to the delivery of a wedding ring which signals the wedding or alliance of the religious with Jesus Christ.

Prostration: practice consisting in lay face down on the floor and that has several ritual purposes. It is used as a proof of extreme reverence; likewise, the prostration prior to the profession is a hint that the religious is dying “for the world”; another variant is the prostration in a hallway or doorway so that the rest of the sisters pass over her and, symbolically, step on her and humiliate her.

Province (Provincial): section of a congregation integrated by several communities, homes or convents, usually within a same geographic area, and ruled by a superior and provincial council

Recess: time of recreation that originally had the purpose of mitigating the rule of silence harshness within the very strict congregations or those with contemplative life.

Refectory: community dining room in religious homes or convents.

Religious: person who belongs to a religious order or congregation. If the religious is a woman she is ordinarily called nun (see), a term that entails some scorn; during their face-to-face dealings with female religious, the laypersons call them mother or sister (see).

Retreat: ascetic practice consisting in leaving regular activities for one or more days to devote oneself exclusively to pious practices: prayers, meditation, pious readings, examination of the conscience, etc., usually keeping a solemn silence. On certain dates, all the nuns of a convent usually have these retreats; these dates tend to be the last day of the calendar year, the Holy Week and the eve of any designated celebration.

Scruples: conscience concern, usually excessive, regarding the fault provoking them.

Secularization: permission granted to a religious to live, without breaching her vows, outside her community under the jurisdiction of the local bishop or similar authority, instead of being under that of her immediate superior.

Self-examination: daily practice which is performed at the end of the day in many convents. It consists in reviewing the individual behaviors in the light of the rules, constitutions and virtues.

Seminar: in some congregations it is used as synonym of novitiate (see).

Silence: ancient monastic practice consisting in avoiding any conversation at all times and places—with the exception of certain places and times—in order to favor prayer and God’s continuous presence. As a rule, silence must be absolute in the Chapel, the dormitory and the enclosed zone; sometimes also in the refectory and, to a lesser extent, in the work areas, where, however, it is also recommended to voice only what is strictly necessary. The time between the last evening prayers and the next day breakfast, when talking is especially prohibited, is called Great Silence, Sacred Silence, Solemn or Profound Silence. Many communities dedicated to active life have mitigated to a greater or lesser degree the rule of silence, which however still tends to be in force in the formation homes or novitiates.

Sister: synonym for religious in the current time. Until the 1960s, this term designated the religious women—usually with limited studies and from poor families—who performed manual and domestic tasks for the mothers (see) and who were performing the apostolate of the Congregation.

Superior: religious responsible for the management of a Community (see), province or Congregation (see) and who are called local, provincial or general superior respectively. In most cases, the superiors are appointed by a higher instance or authority, which sometimes is a Bishop, a superior or a council (see). This position can be filled automatically by who meets certain requirements or it can be a rotary position between several religious who comply with the requirements established for that purpose by each congregation, but some other times the superior is elected by the members of the Congregation, community or province who have the right to vote, or appointed by a higher authority.

Treasurer (or Procuratrix): sister responsible for the administration of the economic resources of a community, province or congregation. She reports to the superior.

Veil: part of the nun’s habit which symbolizes the consecrated virginity; its color usually identifies the stage of the nun’s formation.

Vocation: within the tradition of the religious life, it is believed that while God assigns a “mission” to everyone, He only calls “personally” some men and women to tell them that it is his will that they consecrate themselves to religious life. Within the women’s congregations it is considered a declaration of God’s love to a woman for her to be his wife. It is both an invitation and an obligation: who refuses, commits treason and is exposed to a life of frustrations by having dared to disobey God; who accepts it and “follows her vocation” may be a good nun, while who fools herself and without vocation enters the convent will be doomed to failure.

Vows: public promises made to God, and sanctioned by his hierarchy, to carry out actions or keep up conducts aimed at perfection and more zealous than those required of the majority of the believers. When taking the vows, the priest or the nun promises to comply with certain rules under penalty of committing sin. The most common vows within religious congregations are those of poverty, chastity and obedience. Vows can be simple or solemn. Normally, the solemn vows are those of enclosed religious orders, while the majority of the nuns take simple vows. The vows may be perpetual, if the promise is for life, or temporary, if they are taken for a definite time.

Withdrawal: synonym of modesty (see).

Wimple: part of the nun’s habit, generally white, that is used on the head and under the veil

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boswell, John, Cristianismo, tolerancia social y homosexualidad, Barcelona, Muchnik, 1992. (Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality)

Brown, Gabrielle, El nuevo celibato: un ensayo sobre la abstinencia sexual, Barcelona, Grijalbo, 1982. (The new celibacy: Why more men and women are abstaining from sex and enjoying it)

Gaspar de Alba, Alicia, El segundo sueño: cuando la pasión triunfa sobre la razón, Barcelona, Grijalbo-Mondadori, 2001.

Grajeda, M. M., ¿Vale la pena ser monja?, México, Posada, 1989.

Grandes, Almudena, “Las cuentas de Valentina”, El País Semanal, 11 de diciembre de 2005, p. 100.

Goffman, E., Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, New York, Anchor, 1961.

Hite, Shere, Mujeres y amor: nuevo informe Hite, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1988. (Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress)

Mujeres sobre mujeres, Madrid, Punto de Lectura, 2001, pp. 246-251. (The Hite Report on Women Loving Women)

El orgasmo femenino, Madrid, Punto de Lectura, 2003, pp. 246-255. (The Hite Report on Female Sexuality)

Informe del Departamento de Estado sobre Libertad Religiosa Internacional 2006 (State Department Report on Internationa Religious Freedom), United States Embassy, September 15, 2006, available at: .

Kehoe, M. (comp.), Lesbians over 60 speak for themselves, New York, Harrington Park, 1989.

Lagarde, Marcela, Los cautiverios de las mujeres: madresposas, monjas, putas, presas y locas, México, UNAM-Dirección General de Estudios de Posgrado, 1997.

Manahan, N. and Keefer Curb, R, (eds.) Lesbian nuns: Breaking silence, Tallahassee, FL, Naiad, 1985.

Masferrer Kan, Elio, La formulación del campo religioso mexicano al inicio del milenio, [consultado el 5 de marzo de 2007].

Paz, Octavio, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe, 2a. ed., México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983.

Porter, Elisabeth, “Mujeres y amistades: pedagogías de la atención personal y las relaciones”, en C. Luke (comp.), Feminismos y pedagogías en la vida cotidiana, Madrid, Morata, 1999, pp. 66-86.

Raymond, Janice G., A passion for friends: Toward a philosophy of female affection, Boston, Beacon, 1986.

Revueltas, José, Los muros de agua, México, Era, 1978.

Ruiz Abreu, Álvaro, “La sor Juana de Octavio Paz”, “Dominical”, núm. 208, El Nacional, México, 15 de mayo de 1994.

Sánchez Visal, Agustín, Dalí, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1994.

 

Graciela Enríquez Enríquez

coordinated this edition of 1 000 copies

This work care was the responsibility of

Yvette Couturier

Printed August 2009

Cover design

Retorno Tassier, S.A. de C.V.

Río Churubusco núm. 353-1

Col. General Anaya

03340, México, D.F.

Publishing Graphic Design

Solar, Servicios Editoriales, S.A. de C.V.

Calle 2 núm. 21, San Pedro de los Pinos

03800, México, D.F.

55 15 16 57

The composition used

Baskerville font in sizes

9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16 and 22 px

Published by

DEMAC

1 Group of ministrels

2 Term coined by Janice G. Raymond in A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection (Beacon Press, 1986)

3 Elisabeth Porter (1999).

4 Cfr. Janice G. Raymond (1986).

5 Modified lyrics for the Mexican national anthem music: Motherland, motherland: in heaven your eternal destiny gave you a rebel in every son; a revolutionary in every university student.

6 Modified lyrics for a popular ballad: Riot policemen assassins: may the devil take you with him.

7 Mexican shredded beef stew prepared with red or green tomatoes.

8 Sort of stuffed and fried maize pancake.

9 Devils in the Convent: Sex and Religion in New Spain

10 Women Captivities: Motherwives, Nuns, Whores, Prisoners and Madwomen

11 Later on I devote an essay to present and gloss Marcela Lagarde’s work.

12 Almudena Grandes, “Las cuentas de Valentina”, El País Semanal, Sunday, December 11, 2005, p. 100.

13 In the chapter devoted to the gyn/affection I describe Raymond’s theory.

14 Quoted in G. Brown (1982).

15 The Second Dream

16 Dessert made with milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon and wine.

17 It took years me to make sense of this nightmare witnessed by many nuns, but which only one of them accepted to comment with me, today also a former nun. She tells me, honestly, that she believes that the devil, or evil forces, filled the environment. That the mother superior in question used sorcery to control people, and when someone didn’t obeyed her indications, she used to lose control and decorum; that evil overflowed her. Could that be so?

18 Abbreviation for Universidad Iberoamericana

19 Abbreviation for Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

20 Nickname given to the people born in Mexico’s Federal District by Mexicans born elsewhere in the country.

21 Samuel Ruiz García (2003), “¿Educar para el individualismo o para la responsabilidad social?”, Sinéctica, ITESO, num. 23, pp. 3-10.

22 All the names are changed, invented. But this woman exists, and her daughters and her lover priest also exist.

23 In 1961, the sociologist Erving Goffman defined these institutions, whose prototype is the psychiatric patient refuge and other captivities.


Misereres and Exsultates

We don't know much of Mexican Catholic nuns. How many are there , what do they think, what are they in search of, what are their dreams or nightmares? We don't know how they survive in an ideologically hostile environment, how they preserve their medieval structures, how they support themselves, love and live power, sexuality, economy, solitude and death. In this book the author writes about her ten year experience in the convent through essays and reflections about nun themes. This book can cause unease, dislike and incomprehension since the author is an ex-nun that has become a lesbian activist and an atheist. For some, her writings may seem ridiculous instead of dramatic, boring instead of sublime, grotesque instead of intimate. Some readers might even see pornography, bluntness , or aggression where the intention was only to show how complex everyday life among women living together is.

  • ISBN: 9781311605269
  • Author: DEMAC A.C.
  • Published: 2016-02-24 18:05:15
  • Words: 59764
Misereres and Exsultates Misereres and Exsultates