This fall, a friend began her life as a Carmelite nun. Becoming a cloistered nun is, in a way, like choosing your death. Though she’s just reached her mid-twenties, I may never see or hear from her again. She can only receive visitors a year after her entrance, six years after, and 25 and 50 after. In between, time stops, and our last contact gives a final imprint, our lasting memory of each other.
It’s hard to understand the life’s work of someone who has chosen to close herself off from society. I have work to do everyday and constant cares and concerns. She lives in silence and prayer.
I made a small request of her when she joined, a prayer intention that was very important to me at the time. That intention now plays a different role in my life, but for her it will always be the same. If I never see her again, her memory of me will always be bound up with that prayer.
In a way, that makes her more honest than me. She remembers me better than I remember myself. Earthly life can be fickle. As our circumstances change, we come up with all kinds of excuses for forgetting the things that were once important to us. We feel the weight of the world and the desire to constantly pursue the novel, and the old falls aside as part of a past life. But that old thing that I’ve given her will be always be present with her prayers for me.
I hope I can love like her. All she has now is her silence and her prayer. She’s given up everything else for them. So when she prays for me, she gives me everything that she has. Everything is affixed to a religious promise made at barely 25.
I suppose it’s easy to romanticize her life. I wonder if there are days that she regrets her decision, as she’s holed up in the Carmel. I’m sure she wonders what life is like outside, with the coffee shop conversations and careers and her family.
I have access to countless books, lectures, and courses, but I suspect that she has learned long before me one of the greatest lessons of ancient philosophy: the things that truly exist are the things that last. You love what you loved. I think often of the promise that spouses make at their wedding: to have and to hold for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. I wonder what this promise means after a couple divorces. The test of the promise, like the test of all promises, is life. The answer to whether we meant what we said can only be the answer to whether we mean what we said.
That’s why I have two questions when my friends’ significant others say things like, “I love you” or “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” I want to know whether that person has said those things before and, if so, what those words mean to them now. It’s a question of honesty, integrity and philosophy. Were they the simple vows of a novice or solemn vows for a lifetime? And should you be bound by your folly when you meant the latter at the time and wished the former later?
A philosophy professor once remarked that you’re old enough to marry when you’re old enough to be in love. This seems silly, and we’re left wondering whether we’d be better off with the marriage arrangements of Thomas More’s “Utopia,” in which a couple is presented naked to each other prior to marriage. Those of Utopia “wondered at the folly of mankind in all other countries; who, if they buy but an inferior horse, examine him all over and take off his trappings; yet a wife, on whom dependeth the happiness of the remainder of life, they take upon trust, regarding only her face, and leaving the rest of her body covered, where contagious and loathsome disorders may lie concealed.” Similar tests of “sexual compatibility” and cohabitation mark the realism of contemporary life. And perhaps More’s Utopia, which prohibits divorce, is less honest than modern life, which is aware that deformities can take years to uncover.
I don’t think my friend the Carmelite is a realist, in the modern sense. She fell in love and made a choice. In a few years, she’ll make her final vows. And setting aside all possibilities of future contingencies, the vow takes the horse as it is. She focuses on eternity and prays for lasting things.
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, January 21, 2016.