SISTER ELIZABETH'S DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. | By: Terry Collett | | Category: Short Story - Confession Bookmark and Share


You hear the cloister bell ring that tells you it is time to rise to the five o'clock dawn. You want to lie there, wrap yourself closer in the blanket and shut out the cold day. You see in your mind's eye an endless series of mornings stretching onwards and outwards. You squeeze your eyes shut for a few moments to keep out the reality of the morning. The bell persists. An inner voice speaks and you reluctantly rise from the warm bedcovers and settle your feet on to the cold wooden floor. Then you kneel down in your nightgown and say an Ave and Pater Noster. The day starts here, you sense it enter you. The words leave your tongue and fill the room in whispers and (you hope) Heaven. There is darkness. It embraces you. You tear at its fabric but no light comes. Only mornings like this. Seemingly so endless. Blackness around you as if you're blind. Doubts whisper about you. And then a voice from the door says:" Benedictus." You reply, but your words seem to lose themselves somewhere across the room of your cell like drowned souls.

After Matins, standing in the refectory, you secretly gaze at your sisters in Christ as they stand with eyes lowered to the refectory floor or eyes turned towards the brick wall and their own thoughts. The Grand Silence has kept you all apart soundless. Next to you, Sister Rose, her eyes downcast, her mind elsewhere, on God, no doubt, you hope. And across from you, Sister Jude, her eyes peering at the polished floor of the refectory as if some sign were there. You gaze childlike, unaware of breaking rules momentarily, until you turn and see Sister Perpetua glaring at you and shaking her head. You lower your head now, blushing, focusing and you see the pattern the wooden floor makes and how polished it is and what work went into it for the sake of God.

The coldness of the church hits you as you recite the office of Lauds. Turning pages, you wish for it to end, not out of impiety, but because your body hates the cold and your mind wanders when the body aches. Next to you Sister Rose sings out of tune and her voice stands out from the others like an exiled rebel. If only she would listen, you say to yourself, she'd hear her own sound against the choir. Across the aisle you see Sister Thomas, her mouth wide open her eyes closed as if in secret communion with God. You lower your eyes to the page. The black and red print blurs. All is awash as if water had drowned you. You mumble now, the sound a mere whisper, the chant a passing shadow.

After Mass, in the cloister, on your way to the novice's room, Sister Dominic stops you. "I understand you're with me today," she says briskly. You bite your lower lip and nod. Out in the cold, all I wanted, you sigh inwardly, but outwardly smile weakly. "Sister Perpetua says you were best for the task," she adds, looking passed you, as if another was behind you awaiting her attention, but none is. You follow like one condemned, darkness caressing you. Years of this, the voice says inwardly. Years and years and years.

After the office of Sext as you walk slowly towards the refectory for lunch, you glance out at the cloister garth and see how the sunlight gleams on the damp grass. You remember grass damp like that when Richard, who termed you his girlfriend, took you up on the Downs early one year to show you the view. He held your hand and spoke of his wanting to act in films and on the London stage. You listened half-heartedly, staring across the vast scenery as if uncaged for the first time.

As you enter the refectory, you recall Richard wanting to kiss you that day and letting him you felt guilty because he wanted to do more and you wouldn't let him. You bow towards the crucifix up on the wall behind the Abbess's table, then cut two thin slices of bread before making your way to your table where you stand and wait for prayers to begin. When you told Richard you wanted to be a nun he stared at you as if you were unhinged and needed help. His face seems vague now and so it should, you tell yourself as grace begins and voices around you lift you away from your past.

Sister Martha says nothing as you wash up and dry the dishes. Her calm features make her seem miles away. You remember little of the readings during lunch; your mind wandered back and forth over your past like a ship caught in a storm. If only my prayers seemed real, you tell yourself as you dry the last of the plates and stack them neatly away. Your prayers seem to hang about your head unable to lift off and away, like flightless birds. Glancing at Sister Martha you wonder if you should ask her about the darkness about you. She stands before you, her hands joined together as if in a silent prayer. Her eyes settle on you for a few moments as if she knew something wanted to come from your lips. But you say nothing. You bow and leave the kitchen in silence. "Sister Elizabeth," she calls as you walk along the cloister. You turn and she wanders up slowly as if time had little meaning. "I have a feeling you want to ask me something," she says.

"It’s nothing," you reply. The nun in front of you frowns. Shaking her head she smiles. "Nothing, really," you insist, but blushing now.

"Nothing can be a problem, too," she says softly. "Without God in our lives there is only nothing. And if He seems absent, nothing can crowd in, even in those who try and devote themselves to God."

You want to speak, but your lips seem sealed. "Darkness," you utter,” everywhere." You want to be embraced by someone and held tightly; you want to be told all will be well again and that God hears all and sees all. The nun nods.

"Light will return," she says,” light will return." and she's gone,
as if in a dream.

After the office of None, standing with the other nuns in the cloister garth, cup of tea in your right hand, you move your eyes stealthily over those about you. Sister Rose is talking to Sister Perpetua, a glum look about her mouth. Sister Thomas chewing on cake, nodding to Sister Norbet, and standing just opposite you now, her eyes on you, Sister Scholastica. She moves slowly forward and bowing her head slightly, she says, “May I talk with you, later?” You wonder what she can possibly want to talk with you about, but say yes in a whisper. She moves away. You feel exposed as if suddenly you were undone and naked. The darkness closes in.

Sister Scholastica asks you to follow her and you do. She takes the path down through the woodlands to the private beach. She says nothing as you walk along beside her; she seems to be elsewhere, as if in prayer. When you come to the pebbles on the beach, she stands looking out to sea, with you beside her in silence." Sister Martha asked me to speak with you,” Sister Scholastica says suddenly breaking the silence.

"About what?” You say.

"She says you were experiencing what is termed the dark night of the soul," Sister Scholastica replies.

"I feel lost and doubt my vocation," you say with a sigh. The sounds of the sea seem close and loud and above seagulls call circling. "I think I am losing my faith," you add looking down at the pebbles.

"Faith is a gift from God, Elizabeth. You have not lost it, merely
misunderstood what it means to have faith."

"And what does it mean?” You ask, feeling tired.

"No one can have faith in God without loving Him. To love Him means to do that which He asks and to accept that which He sends you. If you have that then even if His presence seems far away, you have the essence, the heart of faith," Sister Scholastica informs gently.

"But nothing seems to get through to God as far as I can see. My prayers seem unanswered; my daily routine seems pointless; my vocation to be a nun seems to be a mistake." You pause. Tears feel close. Staring ahead at the sea you continue:" All around me is darkness. I feel as if my life is empty and getting emptier each day. And God seems to have abandoned me," you say still staring straight ahead.

"Do you want to leave St Benedict's?” Sister Scholastica asks in a voice so soft it makes you want to cry. You shake your head in negation. "Even the great saints had times of spiritual darkness. T.S. Eliot says that darkness declares the glory of the light. Our love of God is an act of faith which clings to Him no matter how we feel or what we experience," she smiles and touches the sleeve of your habit. "God is here; He always is. If He seems absent, He is merely testing your love and thereby your faith, Elizabeth." She stops and gazes at you. You see only a blurred image of her. Tears fill your eyes. She embraces you as a mother would a pained child. And you hear her gentle words about you soothing as a soft kiss.

After the office of Vespers you remain in the church kneeling in your place in choir. The words of Sister Scholastica echo within you, but the darkness is still there. Sister Luke is up by the altar moving things about in her tasks. She seems far away like God. You stare at her for a few minutes, then close your eyes. You remember Richard saying that faith in some holy cause was a substitute for our lost faith in ourselves. He seemed so confident in his statement as if you were a wayward child needing his guidance. Behind your closed eyes, kneeling with head bowed, you sense no regret of leaving him behind. He wanted more from you than you were prepared to give. And that day when you let him kiss you, he wanted more and you refused. He said coldly that chastity was the most unnatural of sexual perversions. After that there was silence between you and it all seemed to end that day his fondness for you such as it was.

"Are you busy, Sister Elizabeth?” Sister Luke says breaking you from your thoughts, not prayers.

"No, sorry, Sister..." You stand and gaze at her. She stares at you with her stern eyes. Her mouth seems fixed tight as if talking was an effort.

"Sister Perpetua says you can aid me in the sacristy," she says. You follow her down the aisle, crossing yourself as you go. You feel tired, wish for bedtime and sleep, and hope the darkness will soon end. In the sacristy Sister Luke points to this and that and tells you where such and such goes and what is used by the priest and when and why. Her hands, you notice, have a certain poise in their motion. You watch her hands as they move from task to task like dancers in movement. Her features have a fixed but calm concentration about them as they perform the tasks as if each task were a prayer. To pray is to work, to work is to pray one of the old nuns had told you once. And here you tell yourself is the proof. You never noticed before.

"Thank you, Elizabeth," she says suddenly. Her face lights up. "You have done well. You can go now; I think your Latin classes are due." Sister Luke nods her head for you to leave and her features become fixed again. Like doors closing. Like a light turned off.

As you sit in your cell reading after Compline you think about Sister Scholastica's words. Darkness is still about you. Each task an effort; each word of prayer fruitless. Even reading tires you. You close the book and walk to the window. Outside it is getting dark and the cloister is only lit here and there by small lights giving off shadows that disappear into blackness. You watch as Sister Gregory plods along the cloister in and out if the darkness and then vanishes from sight like a vague ghost. You wonder if may be that was like you and your faith: in and out of the darkness and then one day vanishing into the blackness without word or warning. You close your eyes and hope the darkness does glorify the light and God there loving you.

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