As I hurried across the college garden to the dining hall, I realized with a certain wry amusement that my little gesture of defiance had occurred on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. That morning, the nuns had knelt at the altar rail to receive their smudge of ash, as the priest muttered: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This memento mori began a period of religious observance that was even more intense than usual. Right now, in the convent refectory, the nuns would be lining up to perform special public penances in reparation for their faults. The sense of effort and determination to achieve a greater level of perfection than ever before would be almost tangible, and the spiral staircase this was the day on which I had deliberately opted to be late for dinner!
As I pushed back the heavy glass door, I was confronted with a very different scene from the one I had just been imagining. The noise alone was an assault, as the unrestrained, babbling roar of four hundred students slapped me in the face. To encourage constant prayer and recollection, our rule had stipulated that we refrain from speech all day; talking was permitted only for an hour after lunch and after dinner, when the community gathered for sewing and general recreation. We were trained to walk quietly, to open and close doors as silently as possible, to laugh in a restrained trill, and if speech was unavoidable in the course of our duties, to speak only “a few words in a low voice.” Lent was an especially silent time. But there was no Lenten atmosphere in college tonight. Students hailed one another noisily across the room, yelled greetings to friends, and argued vigorously, with wild, exaggerated gestures. Instead of the monochrome convent scene—black-and-white habits, muffled, apologetic clinking of cutlery, and the calm, expressionless voice of the reader—there was a riot of color, bursts of exuberant laughter, and shouts of protest. But whether I liked it or not, this was my world now.
I am not quite sure of the reason for what happened next. It may have been that part of my mind was absent, still grappling with my essay, or that I was disoriented by the contrast between the convent scene I had been envisaging and the cheerful profanity of the spectacle in front of me. But instead of bowing briefly to the principal in mute apology for my lateness, as college etiquette demanded, I found to my horror that I had knelt down and kissed the floor.
This was the scene with which I opened Beginning the World, my first attempt to tell the story of my return to secular life. I realize that it presents me in a ridiculous and undignified light, but it still seems a good place to start, because it was a stark illustration of my plight. Outwardly I probably looked like any other student in the late 1960s, but I continued to behave like a nun. Unless I exerted constant vigilance, my mind, heart, and body betrayed me. Without giving it a second’s thought, I had instinctively knelt in the customary attitude of contrition and abasement. We always kissed the floor when we entered a room late and disturbed a community duty. This had seemed strange at first, but after a few weeks it had become second nature. Yet a quick glance at the girls seated at the tables next to the door, who were staring at me incredulously, reminded me that what was normal behavior in the convent was little short of deranged out here. As I rose to my feet, cold with embarrassment, I realized that my reactions were entirely different from those of most of my contemporaries in this strange new world. Perhaps they always would be.
But there may have been another reason why I kissed the ground that evening. Ever since my dispensation had come through, many of my fellow students and tutors had made a point of congratulating me. “You must be so relieved to be out of all that!” one of them had said. “It never seemed quite right for you.” “How exciting!” others had exclaimed. “You can start all over again! You can do anything, be anything you want to be! Everything is ahead of you!” It was true, in a sense: now I could fall in love, wear beautiful clothes, travel, make a lot of money—all the things that, most people presumed, I had been yearning to do for the past seven years. But I didn’t feel excited or relieved. I didn’t want to do any of the things that people expected. I had no sense of boundless opportunity. Instead I felt, quite simply, sad, and was constantly wracked by a very great regret. When I pictured that dedicated Lenten scene in the convent, it seemed unbearably poignant because it was now closed to me forever. I mourned the loss of an ideal and the absence of dedication from my new life, and I also had a nagging suspicion that if only I had tried just a little bit harder, I would not have had to leave. There had been something missing in me. I had failed to make a gift of myself to God. And so I felt like a penitent, and perhaps, when I kissed the floor that night, I had unconsciously wanted—just once—to appear in my true colors to the rest of the world.