FROM NOTEBOOK #3
The first time I entered St. Francis, I was in a daze. The convent was unsurprisingly spare, but welcoming. There was a bit of an improvised gift shop where chocolate truffles slowly melted on the shelves, and an equally haphazard “front desk”. Past a heavy door, which swung on its hinges instead of locking, were the living quarters, and the rest of the building.
It took a lot of convincing for me to allow Tomasa and Giovanna to bring me there, as the proposal seemed ridiculous and embarrassing to me. They had asked a number of times in the past and every time I had politely turned them down with reasonable excuses. As a lapsed Catholic, I had my reservations about the clergy and their constant attempts at conversion. My friends, who had gone to religious schools where nuns and priests governed, had few good things to say about them; about their rigid vigilance, their glowering menace. I could never have considered the nuns my “friends” because our lives and backgrounds were so dramatically different, that I knew our relationship would never develop beyond the very specific circumstances that lead us to meet in that summer. I mentally categorized them as part of a group of kooky acquaintances, which I was secretly kind of proud of having, but would be embarrassed to reveal to others.
But it was Friday, and we were allowed to leave the office early. I could have darted straight home, made plans for the beach, but instead I absentmindedly wandered into the old mall again, telling myself I was going to check out this thing or another. It was hard for me to admit that I wanted to see them, the two people with whom I had built a genuine rapport over the last couple months. I told myself those weren’t my intentions, but it was blindingly obvious.
And conveniently enough, there they were, fanning themselves with the lids of open chocolate boxes, readjusting their coarse and boxy habits, which I could only imagine wearing in such heat. We immediately struck up a conversation with a rehearsed kind of joviality that was so pleasant to me at the time. Tati, if there’s something to be said about nuns it’s that they know how to make people feel welcome without ever overdoing it. This little space felt so refreshing when compared to the air-conditioned nightmare of the firm. We got to talking as usual and, without realizing, I mentioned that I was free for the afternoon. The nuns were delighted, and insisted that I come with them to the convent for tea. At this point I was feeling the kind of weird, warm tingles that sometimes slide down your back when you go to the hairdresser, or when a soft-spoken receptionist tends to your needs. That kind of hypnotic warmth that I associate with, I guess, service and comfort. And it almost made me want to cry. I said yes.
Whether the nuns’ intentions were purely altruistic or whether there was a conversion motive, I don’t know. Maybe they saw potential in me to be like them. Who even becomes a nun in this day and age? I have to assume they’re low on numbers. But I didn’t care about any of this at the time. As soon as I accepted, Tomasa and Giovanna burst into a thrilled chit-chat and beamed with what seemed like genuine joy, as they probably hadn’t entertained a guest in a while. They seemed to be amused by how the sisters would react to their guest, and began to work out the logistics of the operation. I don’t know much about convents, but I’m sure nuns aren’t allowed to simply bring in people off the street. At the same time, it didn’t seem like they were doing this in secret.
It’s not surprising that there was no air conditioning at St. Francis, or any similar amenities. Despite the background hum of comings and goings, errands and small talk, beyond the storefront was a place of monastic contemplation. I think the heat started to get to me at that point. I began to feel childlike, impressionable, far too easy to guide. Tomasa and Giovanna lead me through a back door that opened into a wonderful little corner of the convent’s inner patio, a sunlit place with little more than an iron-legged marble table and a few, thin chairs. The arrangement looked like it had stood there, unperturbed, for a thousand years. It sat in the middle of a walled little corner of the patio that was separated from the main square by a tight hallway, as if built in secret. The side and back walls were covered in greenery that was soothing to just look at. In a moment I became aware that his was, without a doubt, Tomasa and Giovanna’s secret corner, a place where they came to find some privacy, to tend to the plants, to drink tea and eat cake and gossip about the other sisters. I feel weirdly humbled to have been let in. I heard the moving-around of furniture behind me and then the door closed, and immediately I began to hear baby wrens, chirping in the distance. I no longer felt like I was in the city. And I began to relax, to let go in ways I hadn’t allowed myself to do for months.