What I learned when my best friend became a nun
I met Laura when I was 14: frizzy haired, pimply, and armed with braces, I had a love-hate relationship with her from afar in our honors English class. She was quiet, shy, and prim in a way most pre-teens are decidedly not, or at least, in a way I definitely was not. To make it worse, she started dating one of the most popular guys in our class in high school. In spite of that, I couldn't exactly hate Laura. She was too nice and unassuming to dislike. But for a while, I kept my distance.
Our friendship came to fruition the summer after our junior year of high school. We played more rounds of gin rummy and pounce than I care to talk about. We huddled together in one corner of a tent when it started flooding on the west side to stay somewhat dry and warm. We traded snacks and stories about what we wanted to do with our lives. (I'll tell you what, if you ever need to get to know someone, be confined in a cramped space with poor conditions. It works wonders.) When Laura and I went back to school that fall, we spent more and more time together.
To say the least, senior year was hell. I went through one tumultuous upheaval after the other, sunk into a heavy depression. I spent most of my time alone or unable to get out of bed when I wasn't in school. The only reason I survived that year was due to the people around me, and Laura was among them. They weren't aware of everything that was going on, but their support and love helped tremendously. I survived and we graduated. Laura and I were both going to the same college, living near each other, even. From that time on, we were basically attached at the hip.
Neither one of us were partiers, we didn't make close friends easily, and we were both focused on our studies. Around sophomore year, we started living with three other people who were essentially strangers. We were living in our first apartment, paying bills, and trying to be responsible. It was rough. We were sharing a room. We were trying to get along with our roommates, navigating career paths and relationships, and trying to keep our heads above water between bills, work, and school.
I knew something had been bugging her when we left for winter break. It was just one of those things you sense when you know a person well enough. When she walked out the door that December, I knew the next semester was going to be hard. There was more stuff to do, new schedules, new rhythms. But we didn't really talk about it until April.
That was when she told me she wanted to become a nun. I wasn't, actually, all that surprised that she wanted to go more deeply into the church. Mass was a weekly thing for Laura; she went to prayer groups and volunteered. Religion was something she cared deeply about. Besides, "angelic" and "holy" were adjectives often jokingly applied to her name the entire time I'd known her. She'd been talking to religious figures in our life for a year by then.
I was shocked by her plans, though. The order she'd chosen was the Sisters of Life, based in New York. What she hadn't wanted to tell me was that, by today's standards, this order was cloistered. These aren't the kind of nuns who are nurses and teachers, interacting with people in the world, the ones who have access to technology and cars and other conveniences of lay people.
This is decidedly not how the Sisters of Life operate. No phones, except the communal landline. No television. No internet. No personal possessions outside the allotted amount. No car, no personal schedule, and communal living. They go out as a group, and they work, live, and pray as a group. Visits home are limited, and visitors are regulated to scheduled times during the year. As a 19-year-old struggling with my own big life decision, I was totally taken aback.
But Laura loved it. The Sisters of Life was the epitome of her dream job and soulmate. She had one visit and that was it; she was going. Her determination didn't shorten the application process, which I was thankful for. She had to finish her college degree, go through rounds of interviews, get recommendation letters, go on retreats, and then get a physical and psychological evaluation. As usual, Laura passed with flying colors. By the middle of our senior year, that was it: her after-graduation plans were becoming a nun.
By the time that day came around, I had been asked a hundred thousand questions by a dozen different people, most of whom had no business asking. I gave them a stock answer: It's her decision and I'm supporting it. That was the truth; I did my best to be completely supportive of every step. I was there when she told people, I was there to make sure the insensitive people got an earful, I was there especially when she had doubts and fears she couldn't voice to anyone else. Any sign of indecision on her part provoked either ridicule or a stream of alternatives from friends and family. I just patted her hand, told her she would be fine, and that she absolutely was not "wasting her life and talent."
That isn't to say I was thrilled at the prospect of her decision. It was hard to imagine your bestie away from the phone on internet or basically any method of communicating with you for long stretches at a time. But it got better. It got easier. I got over myself and realized that the distance would be like most of my long distance friendships. We would survive it as friends.
So we graduated again, and went our separate ways for the summer. I had classes to finish up and a job. She had a family to spend time with and people to see before she left. She'd brought up the idea of me coming to New York with her and her family once or twice before she left. They were planning a week-long trip to spend some quality touristy time with her before the entrance ceremony. I wasn't sold. I was still struggling. I didn't know if I could do it. But I suppose even when I insisted to my mother that I was categorically incapable of going with, that I really knew I was inevitably going to end up there, in the Bronx, standing on the sidewalk while she hugged her parents goodbye, and watching her walk back into the convent in her postulant outfit.
So I went and, honestly, had an amazing time exploring New York. We drove to Connecticut to stay at the gorgeous retreat house the night before. I went to bed early, too tired and upset to intrude on family time. The next morning we drove to the house in the Bronx where the 13 postulants would be living for the next year. It was a gorgeous little place across the street from a church with the Long Island Sound not a five minute walk away. Her bedroom overlooked their serenity garden. The sisters were overjoyed and excited to see so many people there, supporting these women. I was still a little sullen; I was annoyed that they were so happy to be getting my best friend full time and that I had to give her up. That feeling didn't pass until after the ceremony mass. It didn't pass until she bounded out of the church doors to meet us, smiling like an idiot and just glowing. That's when I felt that first moment of pride. It just swelled up within me, and I couldn't help it, I just melted. She was so happy and it was infectious. We returned to the Postulant House to have lunch, and sitting there on that beautifully sunny day surrounded by these nuns who were happy and intelligent and joyous, I finally felt calm. I finally knew that she was going to be safe there, happy and looked after. That was the moment I knew I'd done right; that this was the way.
Still, leaving her there was one of the hardest things I've ever done. As it turned out, her sister-in-law Christine gave the best advice. She told me one night while we were in New York that it would take three months for us to adjust, and then it would be like nothing was changed. Everything would just fall into place. I didn't believe her, but I held onto that timeline for dear life. And she was right. I got a couple letters and eventually a phone call. She came home for a week at Christmas, more letters and more phone calls. Everything became routine, our friendship lasted and thrived. I think about her all the time, factor her into decisions, write to her when I have a spare moment, and send out positive thoughts when I don't.
And she's happy. Really, truly happy. When she came home this summer, a couple months out from graduating to a novice, I took careful stock of her attitudes, speech, and mannerisms. Nothing had changed. Yes, there was an adjustment to pop culture and loud noise. Talking to a lot of people in short period of time wore her out, but nothing important had changed. That's all I cared about. I was terrified she'd develop hive-mind or be incapable of a certain level of joking, or would become intolerant of my pervasive lack of respect for authority and irreverence. She wasn't and she didn't. She was the same as she ever was.
I tell people I don't have the luxury of forgetting about Laura. She spent a lot of time taking care of me and supporting me through rough times, and now it's my turn.
Katie Swintz is a book-loving speech pathologist-in-progress who prefers dogs and babies to other humans. My tumblr is bringonthedeluge.
[Image courtesy Touchstone Pictures]