by Martine Legge
I SEEM completely unable to meet, without a sense of shock, nuns I once knew veiled from chin to toe in their mysterious, concealing black habits, bouncing about today wearing jumpers and skirts with only the familiar Cross around their necks as a reminder of the solemn vows they have made—vows which, during my convent childhood, I saw as expressly conceived to cut them, as far as one could see, off from the world of flesh and blood and heart.
The changes in convent life during the past 25 years have been so unbelievably radical that a sharp memory returned to me recently of a winter I spent in Rome a year or so after the war.
It was the coldest for over a century — so cold that the bones of one's face felt hollow from the ache of it. The political situation was also none too cosy; post-war Communism was creating a situation every bit as inflammable, so people said, as the days before the Risorginiento.
Despite these depressing reports, my parents decided that I'd emerged so unpolished from a war-careless England that a little Continental brushing up, at any price, was necessary. So off I went with an American school friend to a convent in Rome soon after Christmas.
The months I spent there have left nothing very significant in my mind except a memory of terrible cold and one particular incident. That day we were left with nothing in particular to do—a rare event at a time when recreation was rigidly regimented into well-defined areas of activity, presumably planned so that no one would have a morsel of time in which to go astray in any way. Delighted by this unusual piece of luck, we mooned about and gossiped in our bedrooms which was, needless to say, strictly forbidden.
Soon my American friend
and I had worked up a reasonable fug in my room, closing the windows and sealing the sashes with, sensible underwear, previously despised but now appearing to us like a blessed provision on the part of wise and farseeing parents.
Among the long list of forbidden possessions I'd been told not to bring, but did, I'd secreted a spirit lamp and in no time we were relaxed and warming up nicely in our overcoats, making toast with pieces of bread from breakfast.
Suddenly the door was thrown wide open and there stood a nun, her face hardening into a mask of pure horror. We must have looked a bit silly to be sure, blinking like owls caught in a torchbeam with pieces of smoking bread raised half way to our mouths, frozen by fright into a foolish tableau.
"Open the window," she hissed. "Blow out the lamp, tidy up the mess and make yourselves scarce immediately." Did we not know she asked in tones of sephulehrel surprise, that the Cardinal was coming round to bless the house?
She left us noiselessly as she had come, but not without first promising us a future which sounded like something out of Dante's Inferno, My American friend exploded with anger at the idiocy of raising what she considered innocent and legitimate enjoyment to the level of mortal sin. "O.K." she cried, "if everything is to be blessed except us, let's not be mean about it."
Bending down, she pulled the pot de chainhre from under my bed — an object of sudden beauty in those dreary surroundings, flawlessly white with a delicate tracery of faint blue flowers picked out inside.
Swiftly she wrote in forbidden lipstick along one side, Voglio anche la henedizione ("please bless me
too") and laid it reverently upside down upon the bedspread.
How an Italian cardinal reacts to such a scene we were never to know, but the vigour with which the nuns reacted, with a detailed programme of punishments, could only have stemmed from a community in which sin as well as fun was rare and vicariously enjoyed with a gusto unknown to the mere worldly.
After a few weeks our drama tailed off into dull routine, as dramas inevitably do. We rejoined the human race. But the experience, although hilarious in some aspects, left us with a certain bitter feeling. Soon we departed for Easter and England with mutually polite expressions of regret.
Later during the holidays my father unfolded a six-page letter from the Reverend Mother written in a beautiful scratchy purple band. To my surprise she discussed my successes and my failures with great fairness and good sense.
She didn't dwell upon the "great misdemeanour", merely glancing over the incident with a few elegant phrases to the effect that Pope Gregory's famous remark vis a viz the British had obviously been misconstrued — perhaps a matter of courtesy rather than fact.
But I wish she'd come clean a bit sooner. We'd have got so much more out of our stay if we hadn't been so frightened of her, an alien creature remote on the green hills far away.