Saturday, April 11, 2009

St. Ruby Apolline

Six years ago, I read Carol Flinders’ Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, and decided to be a nun. I am not nor was I raised Catholic or Christian. I am, apparently, quite susceptible to the Christian ethos in its mystical form, particularly the deep longing for union with the body of the Christ.

The metaphysical significance of the Christ’s death is without parallel. In allowing himself to be murdered, this being—a man, a father-god and a son-god—commits suicide, parricide, infanticide and deicide in a single event. To my knowledge, there is no similar death in any of the world’s mythologies. Through this single act of complete annihilation, the Christ enables the world to begin again.

The women in Flinders’ book join with the Christ in ecstatic prayer and meditation. Their writings are frank and frankly fantastic, in the original sense. Although they experience actual pain when, for example, the Christ pierces them with a sword of light, it is with a mystical, rather than a physical, body. Because it is mystical, it can transform; it is a space of change. St. Catherine of Sienna, as I recall, wrote of a visions in which the Christ had female breasts that nursed her.

Well, I thought, that sounds good.

So I made up a story about how I would say good-bye to my family and enter my contemplative, ecstatic life.

I would see them for the last time in a small Gothic cathedral, with angels carved in the buttresses, and statues of my female saints half-shadowed. There would be a priest and a nun waiting behind a set of iron scrollwork doors. I would kiss my family good bye, turn and open the doors. I would hear them clang shut behind me, hear the nun or the priest turn a key in the lock.

Of course there would be music playing. I selected the alto/countertenor solo Cum dederit delectis suis somnum from Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus, “Unless the Lord”) and listened to it over and over, as the sound of metal against metal echoed in that cathedral. I cried. It would be so beautiful.

Except I don’t speak Latin:

When he has given sleep/to those he loves
Behold, children are an inheritance/of the Lord
A reward, the fruit of the womb.

Fructus ventris sounds gorgeous, and the solo is mournful, desperately so, which is why I love it. But even a heathen like me knows that nuns aren’t supposed to have children.

I encountered further difficulties during the chapter about St. Teresa of Ávila, who is the subject of Bernini’s famous sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” My problem was that her father was a converso—a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. Her grandfather was also a converso, eventually condemned by the Inquisition for returning to Judaism. Times being what they were, it is almost certain that her grandmother and mother were blood Jews. This means that under Jewish law, St. Teresa was Jewish. As am I.

I read this and my dramatic farewell scene fell to pieces. A Jew! One of two women Doctors of the Church! What the hell?

I’m still not sure why; I only know that when I looked up from the book, I was no longer in my pretty little cathedral turning away from this world to live in another. Thank whatever gods there may be that I waited until after reading this chapter to call my mom.

You never know how Jewish your not-really-Jewish-actually-more-of-an-atheist-than-you-are-mother is until you tell her you’ve been considering going over to the Dark Side. And not only the Dark Side, but the Big C Dark Side, the full-on-Jew-killing-too-bad-about-those-Nazis Dark Side. My mom has hung in with me through Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, generic neo-paganism and tarot cards, but I should have remembered that the Big C was an absolute no-no.

I dated a Catholic when I was in high school. He gave me a pretty rosary, as a sort of love trinket, with a pamphlet explaining how to use it. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; the “Hail Mary” is a beautiful prayer. I never prayed with it, but I hung the rosary on my wall. One day, my mother noticed.


So I did.

Identity is a strange thing. Above all, I am an aesthete. I love and believe in things to the extent that they are beautiful. It’s the life of an outsider, though. I am always apart, watching. I love beauty and I’m afraid of it, because each time I find it, it annihilates me and I have to start all over again, remember some fragment of who I was, rebuild something like a Self until the next painting or play destroys me.

Gods. My poor mother!


  1. For me it's important to remember that I love all the poetry and music, and I'd be better off if it was all in nonsense rather than a language that could be translated.

  2. 'Tis true, 'tis true. I like listening to music in languages I can't understand. The urge to translate is always there, but sometimes I resist it. Something comforting about the sound of a human voice but without having to worry about what it's saying.

  3. Probably a wise decision. Catholicism and feminism are an uncomfortable mix. Even Muslim women get more respect.

    I can completely go with the fantasy. Great choral music is so beautiful, as a background soundtrack it can make most anything seem like a mystical life-changing experience. And I'm sure the following 50 years would have been rich and fulfilling, and another 50 years after that you might have ended up a canonised saint, who knows...

    Ah, Catholics aren't so bad. Yes, they went through a phase there for about six centuries, but who didn't? Then I look at the current pope, and for some reason my blood turns cold. The man even looks like an aged Bond villain.

    Have you ever heard of Karen Armstrong? She's an ex-nun who's written several books on the Abrahamic religions. "The History of God" is a great antidote for religious fantasies.

  4. Ruby, anniemor here, I loved that, I laughed so hard at the grandmother's heart attack (cruel fiendish Catholic that I was). As a child, my mother had hopes for me being a nun and trailed me round contemplative order convents. Some hope! I had enough nuns at school to last a lifetime, bless them all. Great stuff. x