For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write somewhat coherently about my experience of living in a convent part-time this year. Throughout my life, I’ve been to my fair share of convents and monasteries, and even after living in one, there are still perhaps some mysteries. The following are some initial (and maybe will be added to) thoughts as an informal, but long-term participant-observer:
To some of my skeptical friends, I’ve half-joked that I lived in a radical feminist community – which is maybe not so far from the truth, because if the word ‘radical’ is referring to the ‘root’ of something, then there’s something to it. Not only has this tradition existed for a long, long time within the Catholic Church, it also is a basic (though not unsophisticated), self-contained functioning society. And when we start to dig into the specifics of everyday life, it turns out that they engage in some of what to the rest of the world sees as lifestyle trends for better quality of life.
Some immediate realities make this life choice ‘radical’ for 2009: there’s really not much choice in terms of wardrobe, what time to wake up in the morning, where to live and work, if and when to travel, what to eat and when, and there’s only €4 in one’s pocket and one free day every month. As a result of these issues, which could be seen as limits, I would argue that they actually cause the individual personalities to be that much more clearer and to in fact shine.
For the most part, the crew I lived with is happy and they really get along well with each other. News flies around faster than the speed of light and sound combined, which at first was a bit intense for me, and they explained to me it was as if I was living in a house full of my aunts or in a big family in which everyone really does care about each other. These analogies to family are not accidental, because the community becomes the family, not to the exclusion of ‘biological’ families, but for example, holidays are spent with the community and generally they spend only 2-3 weeks in the summer with family family. And, as I said that news flies around faster than the speed of light and sound combined, that means learning diplomatically to keep your mouth shut sometimes.
The composition of the particular community where I lived was kind of interesting because on a personnel level, everyone is able to support each other by what they do for the community. Half to two-thirds work outside the convent, as teachers or in hospitals, and the rest are retired or work as support staff at home. Every day, in addition to cooking lunch for around 25 sisters, they prepare lunch for 5+ priests from the local parish, and local laity who are unable to cook for themselves (think Meals on Wheels, without the wheels). This means that there are 2 head cooks with 2+ support crew, plus the older, retired sisters also help when necessary. As I’ve written a lot elsewhere on this blog, they eat really well! The sisters who work outside help support the community through their paychecks, and in turn they are supported in other ways by the sisters who work at home.
When considering that for the most part, this is a crew of well-educated women who are (I hate to use the following, but can’t think of a better phrase) giving up relatively a lot, I’d always keep in mind the way it was once explained to me by one of the sisters here, who in her work has tons of responsibilities and headaches: sometimes, it’s easier to live this way, because there are a lot of decisions she doesn’t have to make and she is supported by the work others do.
One really cool thing, which to the West is some kind of hipster foodie/recession-induced fad, is the combination locavorism/food preservation activity that happens. Since there are 25+ people to feed every day, canning prepwork is done as a team -- everyone sitting around the dining room table armed with knives. This means that at various points this year I participated in peeling and cutting tons of apples and helping to sort and clean 32 kilos/70 pounds of strawberries to be made into compote and jam. This week was the right time for cucumbers, so pickles were made, and I blogged earlier about making sauerkraut, in which industrial laundry carts were filled with cut (with a manual meat slicer) cabbage. This also means canned beet (which is high in iron content and therefore good for women!), a personal favorite. I could eat beets all the time. Sundays there’s some kind of cake dessert, plus everyone gets some fresh fruit, chocolate or both. There’s meat on Sunday, which is not to say there’s not some kind of meat the rest of the week, but there isn’t really. This is economical, but it’s also sustainable – meat everyday is really unnecessary. And in this way I have discovered the magic of creamed squash and also this dumpling sort of thing referred to as fake chicken (breadcrumbs, chopped parsley and whipped egg whites mixed together and baked on a cookie sheet).
Of course housekeeping duties are done by assigned turns, so dishes after breakfast and lunch are usually done by the older, retired sisters who are at home, and dinner dishes are done by the sisters who work outside the convent and are home after dinner. The place is of course immaculately clean – though this can also be partly attributed to the fact that they’re Slovak females.
It’s not all work – moderate television watching does happen, especially Saturday and Sunday evenings. One of the sisters, who is a totally sweet and nonviolent sort of person is really into CSI, and is more than happy to give her opinion on the various spinoffs (Miami is the best, New York’s alright, Las Vegas is not that great). There’s one computer for everyone’s use in the library, but those of internet-using age also have it at work so there’s not too much of an issue with access. And, on appropriate occasions (or when someone goes home for the weekend and gets some domaca from their family), we’ve been known to put back a shot together. This crew is quite of the world and very much in touch with the community in a positive way.
Which brings me finally to the idea of spirituality – which is actually inherent in everything above to begin with. I didn’t pray with them too often in the chapel, though when I did it was very powerful. Every day before dinner there’s a period of spiritual reading, in which they communally decide on what they want to listen to and then someone reads aloud. While this is happening, they’re often also sewing, embroidering, doing mindless paperwork or nodding off while trying to appear to be in deep thought and concentration. Then they read the necrology for the day and it’s time for dinner. But really, the spirit is such a part of the fabric of the day though also noninvasive. When someone says “Pán Boh pomáhaj” or “Pán Boh zaplať” they mean it, and I’ve heard it thousands of times.
The environment is truly life-giving. Do I think I could do it? With a great deal of respect, no. It was always good to be able to go back to Prešov, and yet Sundays I pretty much ran back to Ružomberok because of how pleasant it was for me to be at the convent, but by Wednesday I was ready to go again! But I’m most grateful that I was given this opportunity to have such a look into this world and to be let into it and supported by it in the way that I have been.