This article is excerpted from River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Helen Prejean, CSJ.
At the close of the evening meal I’m performing what our Holy Rule calls a “practice of humility.” Along with a few other Sisters I’m kneeling at Mother Anthelma’s table to ask for a penance. Pinned to my veil is a placard that states my failing: “Most uncharitable,” but I have to announce my fault out loud, too: “Mother, please give me a penance for having mean and unloving thoughts about another Sister.” The idea behind the practice is that by declaring our faults publicly, we might be stirred to strive more earnestly to overcome them.
When you’re going to do a practice of humility, you go to a drawer in the dining room and select your failing from a wide selection of placards: “Unrecollected,” “Proud,” “Gossip,” “Selfish”...You pin it on and wear it during the meal. In among the placards there is also a string with a piece of broken dish tied to it. That is worn around the neck for failing in the vow of poverty by breaking something.
Among us novices, when we know a fellow novice’s failing in poverty ahead of time—like the time Sister Eugene broke a toilet seat—we’re over the top in anticipation about how she will phrase her failing to Mother. If she says “toilet” anything, the solemnity of the practice will be extinguished by hoots of laughter emanating from the novitiate side of the dining room. It doesn’t take much to set us off. With no TV or radio, we’re starved blind for entertainment. One time our table of six giggled through the entire meal, losing it every time we glanced toward Sister Anne Meridier, who’d pinned the placard “Unrecollected” upside down on her pious little head. It doesn’t help matters that meals are supposed to be eaten in solemn silence.
I have to say that the main reason I’m wearing this “Most uncharitable” placard is because of Sister Roseanne (not her real name). She has one of those bossy, pushy personalities, and in the close, constricted life of the novitiate . . . well, that can drive you nuts. Sister Roseanne had rushed to be the first one to arrive at the novitiate on entrance day, knowing that the “band” (class entering together) would be referred to as “Sister Roseanne’s Band.” It burned me up that she did that, which proved to be but a small harbinger of her dominating character. And now that everything in the novitiate is recoded into religious ideals, she’s doing her level best to be Number One Novice—even in holiness.
Well, to be truthful, competition gets me going, so at first sound of the 5:00 a.m. bell (the bell is the voice of God) the two of us throw on all ten pieces of the holy habit—kissing dress, veil, and rosary as we go—and race lickety-split to be first in the chapel for morning prayers. All it took to launch the race was a casual remark of our novice mistress that a really fervent novice would not only be on time for prayers but would hasten to the chapel early so she could have a few extra minutes with our blessed Lord. That was it. The race was on.
Another thing that galls me about Roseanne is that during meditation—she sits right behind me in chapel—she’s always fiddling and rustling. She can’t keep her hands still, cleaning one fingernail with another, click, click, click, and sighing deeply, one sigh after another. They reverberate seismically through the chapel—where, with everyone quietly meditating, you can hear your own breathing. So imagine click, click, sigh behind you constantly when you’re trying very, very hard to quiet your soul and enter into the depths of mystical prayer with God.
At our weekly conference, our novice mistress, Mother Noemi, talks to us about putting up with one another’s faults and foibles. Now, there’s a new nun word, foible, part of a whole new lexicon I’m learning, like edifying (good example), and modesty of the eyes (eyes lowered to avoid distractions), and religious decorum, which covers a multitude of actions: speech (demure, never raucous), walking (never swinging arms), singing (like the angels with clear notes and blending voices), politeness (answering “Yes, Mother,” “Yes, Sister”; avoiding nicknames), and even blowing your nose in nunly fashion (with men’s large white handkerchiefs).
And now foible, a quaint little word if ever there was one. I’ve seen it written but never heard it used by real people in real conversations. Well, ol’ Click may well be the Foible Queen of the World. As far as I know, I don’t have too many foibles, but you can never be sure. As Mother says, self-knowledge is hard to come by; we all have blind spots because of pride, which we’re born with as Daughters of Eve, and pride blinds, while humility opens the eyes of the soul.
Lord knows I need humility just to handle Click. I’m praying for a divine infusion of grace to overcome all the mean-spirited things I hope happen to Roseanne, the most benign of which is that Mother will move her place in chapel and foist her onto other poor souls. And it is such thoughts that now bring me to my knees at the feet of Mother Anthelma.