The Tulip and the Pope

A former nun turned poet and novelist, Deborah Larsen has written a vivid and nuanced memoir of formative years spent in a Midwestern religious order four decades ago. The Tulip and the Pope is a story of achieving adulthood through the doors of a convent. In 1960, at age nineteen, Larsen entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). It was a common choice for a girl of her time and place, with vocations at an all-time high and alternatives limited. Larsen knew no career women and few joyful marriages. She knew the BVMs, who had been her teachers in high school, to be intelligent, purposeful, and essentially independent. The convent offered safety and opportunity at once, and Larsen believed that becoming a religious would bring her closer to God than she could be through any other means. After a year of college, she and two high-school classmates took a train from St. Paul to Dubuque and a taxi to the motherhouse. In the cab she smoked two last cigarettes and handed the rest of the pack-along with all the money in her handbag-to the driver. She was as ready for what lay ahead as an adolescent can be.

The highly codified regimen in the convent constricted her life. Eager to correct what she feared was her “crooked self,” Larsen found that the self-examination this correction required of her bred a scrupulosity that grew “like mold.” She missed her books, and the comfort of a kiss at bedtime. Despite her wish to reduce the clutter and fallibility of life outside the convent, Larsen found the lessons and diagrams about exactly how to stand, sit, kneel, and walk stultifying; and the convent’s “custody of the eyes”-restriction of just about everything-at times oppressive.

The heels of our black shoes were soft. We were to keep to one side of the hall, close to the wall; we were never to walk right down the center of any passageway. We made no noise; we went catlike from place to place like Carl Sandburg’s spooky fog, and sometimes, I think, we even spooked ourselves.

And yet the rules worked, limiting some perspectives but enlarging others.

Even before the six months of postulancy ended, Larsen found she had drawn closer to God in the direct way that membership in the order promised. “Something that felt authentic was building,” she writes, “a sense of Presence.”

We could also live with ourselves, we found out. We didn’t have to be talking with someone all the time or listening to music all the time. We didn’t have to be doing anything all the time or any of the time. We learned what containment felt like. And at the center of it for me was Something, not nothing.

The first part of her novitiate over, Sister Deborah Mary returned to college and the outside world, first in Dubuque and later Chicago, where the education and enlightenment the BVMs gave Deborah opened the world to her. Through her studies, especially that of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s life in China, the young nun discovered other cultures and religions. She met an atheist on terms of mutual respect. She visited people in the Cabrini Green housing projects, and didn’t know how to help them. A professor, with a husband and children and “a real, honest-to-God intellectual’s apartment,” showed an alternative way to live and, in telling Deborah she was a poet, offered her a new vocation. At the same time, she more and more felt the constraints of life as a nun. When her lively, forceful mother died, Deborah regretted all the time she hadn’t had with her, including visits her superiors had denied her. And, as is true in much of Larsen’s often gentle and always generous telling, irony is present. Death brought the “vacancy” of loss to her for the first time, but also the occasion for connection and pleasure. She liked the flowers and furniture at the funeral home back in St. Paul. She enjoyed the sociability of the wake.

Increasingly, she heard the lure of a train whistle, actually audible at the motherhouse, and now imbedded in her imagination. The train trip she visualized would carry her-in lay clothing, instead of the black habit she had wanted and found elegant-back to the world. The trip would be full of fun-from the fatherly conductor’s “All aboard” to the dining-car meals and the dome-car views-and it would be an escape. The train Deborah longed for was a place where she could speak to anyone she chose and at the same time be by herself, on her own and going somewhere.

Gradually, Larsen came to understand God in a way different from the one she had known only a few years earlier. The change wasn’t merely a matter of her personal perception; it was the 1960s, and theology itself had changed. In the convent library she read liberal Catholic journals and found that “God was presented as kindlier” now. That sex was good. That maybe nobody would go to hell after all. “God’s reputation soared in my eyes,” she writes. Larsen stopped being an eschatologist and became an incarnationalist. Obedience of the type she had learned as a novice became impossible, and her former idea of “the Great Chain of Being”-links, like those in a paper chain, joining her to her superiors and onward to God-came apart. She wanted independence, the freedom to form and follow her conscience outside a religious order’s strictures. As signified by the tulip and the pope of the title, her beliefs were shifting away from the church’s structure and rules to a view of the world in which the physical embodies the spiritual, and vice-versa.

Before her final vows Larsen left the convent, with some regret and shame, but mostly with relief at having made a necessary decision. Though a few of the sisters disapproved, most understood. They were practical as well as philosophical; they had helped form Larsen, and they made her ready for the world she chose.

Though constructed of a hundred-plus short sections, The Tulip and the Pope is a smooth, fast, and fully unified narrative. Like her 1991 book of poetry, Stitching Porcelain, and her subsequent novel, The White, Larsen’s new work is honest, economical, and beautifully imagined. Using a voice contemporaneous with the girl she was, yet informed by the distance of adulthood, she writes with an immediacy that lingers, and speaks to the reader musically, as a poet, letting one hear the quiet behind her observations. Toward the memoir’s end, Deborah, twenty-four years old, stands on a snowy street in St. Paul, headed toward the future. It’s a future a reader hopes to share, in whatever form this gifted and intelligent writer chooses to offer.

Published in the 2005-11-04 issue: 

Madeline Marget, a frequent contributor, is the author of Life’s Blood (Simon & Schuster).

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