An Unconventional Calling
I'm not religious. I'm not even all that spiritual. But I am drawn to convents. My fascination began about five years ago, when I was teaching English in Seville, Spain. I'd heard that the nuns of the Monasterio de Santa Paula made incredible jams, so I ventured over to buy some. Hidden behind high stone walls, it was everything I'd imagined of a Spanish convent: a quiet world with worn flagstones, a garden cloister, and lots of arches. Jars of orange marmalade and a delectable sweet-potato jam lined the shelves of a storeroom manned by one old nun. We spoke quietly. I found myself returning whenever I had out-of-town guests: It felt like a discovery worth sharing.
While in Seville, I met Israel, a Spaniard who would eventually move with me to Boston and become my husband. I knew Israel's family had gone on religious retreats, but I was still shocked when, two years ago, his sister Ana entered a cloistered convent in northern Spain. She was 25 at the time, with a high-paying accounting job, a large circle of friends, a body like Shakira's, a loving family—and a calling from God. She gave up everything (except the calling) to live in a convent for the rest of her life.
On our semiannual trips back to Spain, Israel and I—and our 14-month-old daughter, Belén—stop to see Ana at the Convento de Santa Clara in Lerma, a tiny old town north of Madrid. There, the nuns usher us into a room divided by a metal grid, and we chat with Ana through the bars. Her sister nuns crowd in next to her and ask us about our lives. What was the weather like in Boston? Was Belén good on the flight? Are we enjoying Lerma? At first I was shy, thinking that I shouldn't remind them of what they're missing, but then I realized that they like to hear about what's going on; just because they've taken a vow not to interact with the world doesn't mean they aren't curious about it.
I love their high voices and clear, unhurried diction. They wear sandals without socks—in a convent with little heat—and brown tunics with a white cord tied in four knots to symbolize their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure. They reach through the rails to let Belén grab their hands and help her stand up against the metal poles. Sometimes they'll sing us peppy songs about Christ. I'm amazed to see how radiantly happy they are, especially since all the while, I can't help but wonder what it must be like to not be able to eat what you want, when you want; to be cold so much of the time; to be awakened by bells in the night in order to pray; to not be able to read a good book, watch a movie, or go to the beach again.
Each time I enter Ana's convent, I feel like I step into a world that hasn't changed in hundreds of years. The nuns are so welcoming that I feel comfortable and loved. They're so open about praying for us—in a quietly confident way—that I get a sense of peace. Our visits are still tinged with sadness because we'd like to see more of Ana, but the experience is akin to finishing a great book that ends on just the right note: You're sad that it's over, but you also have the sensation that all is as it should be.