Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.
~Edgar Allen Poe
Being a nun is nothing like what you might imagine. In fact, it goes so far beyond the imagination of the average person, I barely know where to start. I had—who knows why?–dreamed of being a nun, off and on, since I was a little girl. Even before I was Catholic, which is odd yet so like me. But I didn’t actually do anything about it till I was halfway through college. At the age of forty. ( That’s another story, for another time.) And that decision almost guaranteed that it wasn’t going to work; giving up all autonomy after a life lived pretty much on my own and my own terms was, ultimately, just not something I could do. To finally turn away from a dream that had tugged at me my whole life was not an easy thing either.
But it was an . . . experience. Eye-opening, mysterious, mundane, scary, daunting, mind-numbing, all in turn. And it changed me—not all for the good. There is a lot of unresolved anger over how I came to leave, the way it happened. Again, another story. But one of the good things, of the few I still cling to, is that I did and saw things I would never have had the chance to otherwise. People think of being a nun as having a totally restricted life, and in many ways it is, it can be—emotionally, mentally. You have to put yourself at the bottom of the list, in terms of needs—if you’re on the list at all. But the order I was in was also very active, rolled up its sleeves and did whatever needed doing, went to school, travelled the world, and for a while, I had the benefit of that last one especially. And one of my strongest memories—being an art history major at Barnard in NYC—was the time that being a nun got me a “special pass” to see the Sistine Chapel, before hours and while it was still being restored in the late 1990s.
The huge, ancient room echoed in its early-morning emptiness. Before the crowds, before the postcard-buying, “tick this place off our checklist of must-sees” shuffling tourists visiting Rome who didn’t have a clue of the enormous, stern beauty they were about to see. Before any of them got there . . . the place was mine. The four other people there—the sisters, the priest who had finessed our special visit—I could ignore for the moment. I walked into the Sistina, and my eyes went up . . . up to the most perfectly conceived and rendered versions of the human body we can ever hope to see this side of the veil. And I don’t even particularly like Michelangelo. But at that moment, I loved him. Only he could have made a plaster ceiling breathe.
Once this priest found out that I’d been an art history major, and that one of my professors was the chief opponent of the restoration going on at that moment, nothing would do but he had to get me into the Sistine Chapel. He bulldozed my Mother Superior into it—and she is NOT a woman easily bulldozed by anyone. (More about her later, I’m sure.) He had been able to get us in because he worked at the Vatican (don’t believe anyone who tells you connections aren’t everything).
And right then he was trying to get my attention, but I was lost. In awe, in love, in another world that couldn’t possibly exist for anyone but me, so why was he trying to even talk to me? I stood there, jaw actually slack, stunned and oblivious to anything that was not connected to a sight that went so far beyond the word beauty as to be laughable. How could I take it all in and keep it, preserved in my head forever, so I could see it whenever I wanted? The idea of taking a photograph was, again, laughable. This work of art could never be properly reproduced. No work of art really can be, but this . . . this, even more so.
I wish I could see it again, just like that—almost alone, undisturbed, in the hushed, reverent space it deserves, and seldom is given. And I could almost cry when I think, I never will.