Wednesday, 16 January 2008

At the monastery

From ancient Egypt to modern Thibet, the idea that "by means of regulated labour and the strict discipline of the senses and appetites, it was in the power of man to perfect his moral nature" has motivated the creation of communities of monks. In 1748 I had moral perfection very much on my mind, having returned from my first visit to China, still disguised as a man. It is hard to explain to modern reader how in that age we so completely accepted the belief that man was physically and intellectually equipped for perfection, but woman, with her "inverted" sex and passive nature, was flawed. I had travelled to the ends of the earth and back again and found all peoples in agreement on this point. On the contrary I deeply felt myself the equal to any man, and resolved to discover the truth among the deepest thinkers I could find. So without shedding my disguise I applied as a novice to XX.
I was not the only woman to have done so. Saint Margarita of Antoich held marriage in such horror that she fled the nuptial chamber and took refuge in a monastery under the name of Pelagius, eventually becoming prior of a convent. Her disguise was so complete that when the portress of the convent became pregnant and Pelagius accused of being the father, she was expelled and continued her devotions as a hermit nearby. Her true sex was revealed only upon her death. Saint Hildegund entered the Cistercian order as a lay brother until her death, and of course the life of Joan of Arc is well known. I felt there was no other way for my arguments to be taken seriously unless my listeners believed they emanated of a man.
I lived and worked with the lay brothers, awaking in the middle of the night to light the candles and set them in place at the choir, the chanting of the Pater, the Ave and the Creed, the reading of the psalms of the Nocturn, the first lessons, the Responsorium, Lauds, and back to the dormitory for our second repose, the morning Mass, awaiting the priests and seniors to finish in the lavatoriums, the daily Chapter, from which we novices were excused, until the sounding of the tabula sonatila, three strokes on a wood block, representing our coming into the world, our passage through life, and our transit through the portals of death, the signal that we might commence talking. The period of Parliament, during which the business of the monastery was conducted, was for novices a time to walk with our teachers and ask questions about scripture and regular observance. Then High Mass at ten, processions with relics and banners, followed by dinner in the refectory, washing and then several hours devoted to reading or labour. The youngest of us were encouraged to play outdoors in simple games and amusements, for it was the belief that as "bows always bent" we risked losing the power of "aiming straight at perfection". I usually engaged someone in a game of chess, or bowling on the lawn. We were not gloomy monks, and always surrounded by cheerful brethren. We worked through the afternoons, in the bakehouse, the cellars, the alehouse, or the fields. About five in the afternoon we returned for Vespers, and supper, followed by the collation when we were given a little wine and bread to last us until dinner the next day, and at last the bells called us to Compline and bed.
So my days passed in a calm and healing.
I had entered the monastery confused and restless: for I had escaped the Devil only a few short years earlier, and was thinking deeply on all I had learned in China. This was immediately noticed by my seniors, who gently encouraged me, without knowing why I suffered.

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