Would it surprise you to know that I wanted to be a nun when I was a little girl? Despite all the horror stories my mom told me about going to Catholic school in the 1940s, when nuns were remote authority figures at best and palm-whacking sadists at worst, I still found something intriguing and even beautiful about them.
By the time I was a kid, nuns wore a “modern” version of their vestments that looked like a postal uniform: navy polyester skirts that showed their calves, as well as a shortened wimple. I preferred to imagine them as my mother had described: sweeping along in floor-length black robes, rosary beads in hand, their veil concealing their neck and much of their face as well. Even as a child I understood that this had a purpose. Their uniform was supposed to make them inaccessible. Unlike the other moms I knew and my women teachers at school, whose breasts, bellies and hips were accentuated by the stretchy fabrics of the late 1970s, the bodies of nuns were not available to other people. Not for men to fondle, not for children to hang on to – not even for other women to look at. Their physicality had been removed from the ordinary world and consecrated to a higher purpose.
That sense of an ordained privacy appealed to me – I had been so invaded by adults. But I was drawn just as much by the aura of mystery that surrounded nuns. We’ve lost the word “priestess” now, but what better describes a woman who decides not to go down the well-trodden road of marriage and family and follow the numinous path of Spirit?
At around the age of 14 I started wearing my own black robes. Being the lone Goth in a heavy metal high school made me an object of suspicion and even fear. Occasionally another kid would ask, “Are you a Satanist?” but nothing could have been further from the truth. I was still going to church with my mom every Sunday. When I once wore a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt up to the communion rail, the priest was so surprised that it took him a moment to hand over the Eucharist. (One of my other favorite bands was The Jesus and Mary Chain.)
Just a year or so later, everything changed. My dear, I wish I had known you then, I wish there had been someone like you in my life whose clarity and steadfastness I could have held on to, because it was one of those times when all the anchors came unmoored. One of the primary upheavals was that my best friend started having sex with her boyfriend. She had been my other half since childhood, the person who could finish my thoughts, and whose calls I picked up before the phone even had a chance to ring, but the moment she told me she had lost her virginity it was like a chasm opened up between us. In an attempt to meet her again on the other side of that cold hollow, I “got rid” of my own virginity soon after. But the strategy didn’t work. My best friend and I had become uncoupled. I felt alone and exposed in a way I’d not known before.
Not long after came the Sunday at church when the deacon instead of the priest delivered the sermon. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” he warned, and I felt he was speaking directly to me. I felt condemned by a moral judgment. Beyond that: to me it seemed that I had been cast out, told in so many words that I was beyond redemption. Without saying why, I told my mom I wasn’t going to church anymore.
My dear, let me pause here for a moment. How strange that this letter, which I started as a way to tell you about my recurring aspirations to become either a nun or monk, turned into a discussion of sex. But what I realize now as I write this is how connected those two apparently opposite desires have been in my life. Believing that safety and intimacy could not co-exist, I concluded that the only relationships I could trust had to be entirely one thing or the other: either sex, spirituality or Platonic friendship. Only these categories were “pure,” untainted by the muddled grasping of human desire.
It disappointed me at first that Islam does not have monastic orders. (If there were such a thing as a Sufi nun, I’d have signed up long ago.) Instead, there is the veil, which seems to mark such a borderline these days: whether you see it as a barrier to cultural understanding or as a last line of defense depends on what “state” you believe yourself to be in. I know the hijab can also be just a token of identity, though I feel its true function is to create a personal sacred space.
That sense of being responsible for your own religious customs – like the ritual prayer – is something I cherish about Islam. And because there’s no clergy, you become your own spiritual director, having to find the balance for yourself. It’s helped me to understand Islam as a middle way, meaning a kind of moderation in which asceticism and indulgence are both discouraged. Surah Ar-Rum says that one of Allah’s signs is that He created mates for all of us, “that you may dwell in tranquility with them.” Marriage, you said, is half the faith.
I’ve been told by several intuitives that in past lives I was both a monk and a priestess, which is why I feel so drawn to the contemplative life. But, they have then gone on to say, that’s not your path this time around. For the sake of argument, let’s take “past lives” metaphorically, since reincarnation isn’t accepted in Islam. There certainly have been times in the past when I became a virtual hermit, living more in the Unseen than in this material world. That feels safe for me. And it is reassuring, even uplifting, but maybe it’s not my path of growth.
My dear, this has been one of the greatest struggles in my life, to be in my body at all and especially to be in my body as a woman. I’ve always identified much more with my mind and spirit. To be considered physically attractive, which is the primary way that women are evaluated in this society, doesn’t help me know what to do or even who to be in a given moment. I genuinely like and appreciate men, but when my male friends suddenly turn into “admirers” or I’m confronted by other ambush expressions of interest, my first instinct is to flee.
It’s something I need your help with, sweet friend of my heart – I must be here in this form for a reason. Can you tell me what it is?
Drawing close to you, and reaching for your hand,