Dialogue with a Carmelite

Our purpose here is to relate an experience honestly lived and honestly transcended. Unless we are willing to limit our role as purveyors of information, we cannot refuse to relate one kind of experience because we would rather talk about another. There is no special audience for this kind of truth. Truth is not aristocratic or exclusive but belongs to everyone, and the most homely item of local news is as unfathomable as anything that happens anywhere in the province of heart and mind. Heart and mind, we believe, are the world’s most widely shared possessions, and even though we expect to be attacked in any number of contradictory ways for printing this story, we think it our duty to do so.

Q. Do you think that the ‘truth’ about the Carmelite convent in which you lived for fifteen months is of such a special kind that not everyone will be able to understand it?

A. I don’t think so. Anyone who is open to an honest account of a sincere experience will agree, I think, and will not claim to understand more than can be understood.

Q. Are published accounts of the Carmelite life true or false?

A. It’s not that they’re false, just that they’re as far from the truth as my own ideas about the life before I entered the convent. The difference is just as great. You imagine a kind of moving picture of a life in which people pad around silently and peace reigns in the cloister. But that picture is false.

Q. In other words, the Carmelite life is very different from what one would expect.

A. It is impossible to imagine in advance what the life is actually like. But there is nothing shocking in that, since a person enters a convent only after deciding to give up everything human. Everything in the convent is opposed to nature, but that one expected. That is not the problem. The problem is whether or not one can endure such a life. And generally one can. Nature is clever. It adapts, it compensates in all sorts of ways

Q. For example?

A. For example with laughter: within half an hour of entering the convent I was horrified by the laughter. It was twelve-thirty in the afternoon, recreation time, in the middle of spring. I wanted to leave immediately. The mistress of novices and twenty Carmelites were laughing raucously. I wondered what they could be laughing about in a Carmelite convent. It was horrifying. You enter the convent with an idea of the absolute. You expect to find a very serious, mystical atmosphere. And instead you find twenty nuns laughing their heads off.

Q. About what?

A. About everything. About nothing. Seldom in my life have I found it possible to laugh. They laugh because a chick is born black rather than yellow. Or because someone spilled some soap. They laugh over trifles. That’s what I meant when I said that nature adapts, that nature is very clever. Broadly speaking, the nuns considered to be good nuns are happy nuns.

Q. Are the two hours of recreation period the only time that the Carmelites are allowed to talk among themselves?

A. Yes. The constant silence is also very hard on the nerves. But it is busy silence, mind you. Nuns work. They mend linen. They rebind books and missals, sometimes works by Claudel and Péguy. They make hosts, reliquaries and holy images. But reading is out of the question, except for religious books. It’s a frightful intellectual vacuum.

Q. Leaving aside the aspects of convent life that everyone knows about, can you tell me what is hardest to bear?

A. Everything is hard. You sleep only six hours a night, professed nuns and novices alike. During morning prayers some of the nuns fall asleep on their knees as they sway back and forth. The dress is also hard to take. It’s the same the year round: a used frock in summer, a new frock in winter, with a tunic of white wool underneath. After six months, when you’re no longer a postulant, they take away all your underwear. Winter and summer you’re naked under your frock. For washing you have only one pitcher of cold water each day, and once a week a large jug of hot water. You have to make do, and people do. You used to have to wear a white wool gown while washing. Everything is hard, except the work.

Q. Doesn’t the work compensate for the constant silence?

A. Not entirely. The work is a physical occupation that leaves the mind free. It’s supposed to be done, moreover, in a prayerful frame of mind. But when you have a complicated job to do, you feel relatively happy.

Q. Can you tell me something about the two-hour recreation period during which the rule of silence is suspended?

A. The triviality of the conversation is astonishing. Since all personal conversation is supposedly forbidden, as is any allusion to one’s past, the Carmelites gossip like housewives. I think that women suffer more than men from the rule of silence.

Q. What you’re telling me is terrifying. Is that the wrong word to use?

A. No, that’s the right word. One feels panic, vertigo, at discovering this void. Fortunately, you’re not always aware of it. One takes an enormous risk gambling one’s life on an absolute of this sort. The proportions of failure are so great that the mere prospect is terrifying.

Q. Is there any kind of private life or society that develops in spite of the community’s taboos? Can one speak of a society?

A. Yes.

Q. In what sense?

A. In relations between the nuns and their superiors. In the nuns’ work relations. In their mute interactions, their gestures. Of twenty nuns, three or four effectively manage not to have any social relations with the other sisters. Some don’t even have to fight the temptation, but such cases are quite rare. A society is born, in fact, when a nun finds it more pleasant to meet one of her sisters in the corridors rather than another.

Q. Do you think that the physical hardships you mentioned a moment ago, by themselves, can destroy a person’s faith?

A. No, because those hardships have always been there and are equally difficult for everyone – the older nuns speak warmly of their initial difficulties, of the enormous appetites they used to have, and so on. In any case, the hardships are an intrinsic part of the faith. One comes looking for hardships to face, even if one is surprised by what turns out, in fact, to be most difficult. And then there are ways of releasing the tension, outlets for the rage that one feels at one being able to put up serenely with the difficulties.

Q. Corporal penances?

A. Yes. Twice a week the nuns ‘discipline themselves’. It’s done in a group in the chapel choir. Frocks pulled up to the waist, the sisters flagellate themselves with scourges of plaited rope. All the lights are extinguished and black curtains are drawn, and everyone recites the Miserere. Although this act is in theory a penance, that is, a positive act of love of God and renunciation of oneself, it is also, in fact, a necessary physical outlet, a way of expressing the rage that one feels against oneself.

Q. Is there a sexual component? You are free not to answer, of course.

A. I will answer. Yes. There is, quite simply, a necessary sexual component, although most nuns are certainly unaware of it.

Q. You said earlier that nature is very clever. Would you say that it is even more clever in its sexual aspect?

A. Man is forgotten. But despite the impersonality of the relations, it is undeniable that in every convent certain nuns exert almost amorous powers of attraction in others.

Q. Can one speak of love?

A. Probably. By way of shrewd compensations, more or less consciously adopted.

Q. Let’s get back to penances. Is there not a danger that progress in psychology and psychoanalysis will change our understanding of the meaning of penance?

A. Yes. Especially since Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila warned against the ‘self-seeking’ involved in excessive penance. This is the reason for the prohibition against practicing certain kinds of penance without the approval of one’s superiors. The mistress of novices reminds you of this rule about a month after you enter the convent, when she instructs you in the ‘discipline’ of the establishment. The reminder is also couched in indirect language. From then on the subject is never again mentioned.

Q. Are there voluntary as well as compulsory penances?

A. Yes. There are iron brackets with claws that you put around your arm. Nobody forces you to, however – absolutely nobody. The goal is not suffering but the exercise of willpower; you fight against any tendency towards self-indulgence.

Q. Now that you have some distance from it all, do you think that these exercises of the will were absurd or not?

A. No. they may seem absurd to you, because these ascetic practices have no equivalent in ordinary life. But they produce extraordinary results. They help to keep the nuns balanced and lucid and to teach them about the nature if man by teaching them about themselves; they also teach the nun about the infinitely many ways in which God can be loved. Nuns are exceptional people. The will to prayer is not an idle phrase. These practices may shock you, but they are in the tradition of the Desert Fathers, the eastern tradition, and very common in the contemplative orders.

Q. Do you see nothing in lay life even remotely equivalent to this kind of experience?

A. Religiously speaking, people who have faith would answer you by saying that in ordinary life, in society, the love of God can be achieved through equal fervour in prayer, though much more rarely than in the convent. The reason is that the cloister is organized expressly for the contemplation of God; with all human distractions and interests eliminated, it is the ideal place to achieve a perfect love of God. Humanly speaking, I don’t feel that the constraints of prison are comparable. I will say this, though, based on personal knowledge – I was held for several weeks once as a political prisoner: since one goes to prison against one’s will, prison is an even more perfect renunciation of personal will than is the voluntary decision to enter a convent. In a Carmelite convent you are among peers. In the eyes of God you are nothing, but that nothingness leaves your dignity intact. What is more, you have the sense of an exceptional vocation. You don’t go to prison with the same degree of self-esteem with which you enter a convent. Or at least few people do. Though come to think of it, the writings of Jean Genet remind me of those of Saint John of the Cross. Genet’s experience of abjection is of a mystical order because he doesn’t avert his eyes and finds salvation and dignity in rebellion.

Q. Does prison provide its own outlets for rage?

A. Of course: rebellion. That rebellion has no limits, since one’s jailor is by definition contemptible, even if he is not personally a bastard.

Q. Is the opportunity for what you call unlimited rebellion one of the ‘attractions’ of prison?

A. Yes. It’s also a gift. I have seen delinquents on whom prison exerted a kind of fascination, much like the fascination that the convent exert on certain Carmelites, especially the simpler girls. Because, you know, there are nuns who claim to have endured twenty years of darkest night when in fact they’ve simply spent twenty years in a vacuum.

Q. Is it difficult to become a Carmelite?

A. Yes. Not just anyone can enter the convent. Vocations are reviewed. In principle a dowry is required. Only applicants judged superior are admitted without a dowry. Certain convents are wealthy, others poor; this raises a variety of problems. The resources of a small, cloistered community living in accordance with a centuries-old model are limited. With that we come to the thorny problem of money and the Church. The Church is an established power: that is its strength, but it is also the reason for its sterility.

Q. Can religious communities be viewed as democratic?

A. No, they are the opposite of democratic. The lay sisters are like the convent’s servants. They do the heavy work. They do not attend services (although they recite the rosary a good deal) and spend much less time in the choir. They have, quite literally, no voice in the chapter. In other words, when the nuns begin deliberating matters concerning material and spiritual welfare, the lay sisters are asked to leave the meeting. Although lay sisters, it is generally acknowledged, can be as mystical and holy as choir nuns, they are in a social sense second-class citizens. They must suffer from this.

Q. When a person becomes aware of her singularity – in this case, her vocation – does that awareness persist after the act in which it is expressed – in this case, entering the convent?

A. It is not supposed to last. But it is the simple girls who best resist the temptation to make it last. Everything in the rule of the order is in fact designed to combat the cult of the self.

Q. Does religious obedience leave, in principle, any freedom of mind whatsoever? I am thinking, in particular, of political freedom.

A. No. You do not allow yourself to judge your superiors. At election time you are very strongly advised to vote for certain political parties.

Q. It took you six months to leave the convent?

A. Six months, yes. Many novices decide to leave. After taking vows, however, very few women leave. Every resignation is treated as a special case, I think. One enters with the intention of offering blind obedience. Bear in mind that obedience is one of the three vows – along with poverty and chastity – that one prepares to take. If you doubt your vocation, you therefore continue, for a certain length of time at any rate, to trust your superior, who tells you that doubt is a common temptation.

Q. How do you overcome this contradiction?

A. The only way is to persist. I persisted for six months. I know one case where it took two years. Some people, you see, just physically cannot stand the convent life. In such cases the superior decides that you should leave. But in the kinds of cases I’m talking about, dogged persistence is the only way.

Q. What happens once you’re out?You feel stripped, naked. But you continue for a long time to be obsessed with both the convent life and the ideal you’ve renounced, even though you were absolutely determined to renounce it. Because if you really threw yourself into the experience, you were totally invested – totally. For example, the time you spend in choir (seven or eight hours a week) is not a time of rest, even if you can’t say, either, that it’s a time of feverish intellectual activity. Prayer is the expression of faith, and even if you believe that faith is a product of the mind, prayer is real. You can no more deny its reality than you can deny the reality of other products of the human mind.

Q. What sort of nostalgia does the love of God leave behind, and what possible compensations are there for that love?

A. You’re talking about a state of mind that has become so foreign to me that I find it difficult to talk about. When I lost the faith, I suffered because I was no longer able to pray, I no longer had anyone to whom I could address my prayers. The only equivalent I see is the absolute and definitive despair that one feels when love comes to an end.


– Duras, interview with ex-Carmelite, from Outside: Selected Writings, first published in France-Observateur, 1958 (tr. A. Goldhammer)




Comments are closed.