My dad cried the day I stood next to the altar reading from the book of Ezekiel.
I was speaking God’s Word in Spanish during the courtyard Mass in front of the thirty-something women – all dressed in long, gray habits, veils that covered their hair – in front of my fellow aspirants and their religious families. It was the first time he saw me all week after dropping me off at the little convent in Guadalajara. He was the only atheist in the pews.
I didn’t know that he cried that day. I didn’t know until a year later, the next spring break I spent at the convent I hoped to join.
My dad and I walked into the 7-Eleven at Plaza Guadalajara on a summer night in late June after I graduated high school. It was the first trip we’d taken together since he announced he wouldn’t be married to my mom anymore. I still hated him for that.
Martina was working the night shift at the convenience store. As she rang us up, my dad and I introduced ourselves and prompted conversation. We had an ongoing competition to see who could practice their Spanish most.
I was wearing the diamond cross on my neck. It’s the Tiffany’s cross my dad bought me two months before the announcement, and it’s clung to my neck since. I usually hid it under my shirt when I was walking the streets of Mexico. But the cross gleamed proudly on my chest that night.
“She’s gonna be a nun someday,” my dad said, pointing to my cross. Martina hadn’t been to church in years. We talked about the different ways we were raised Catholic. She wanted to take me to the convent in her neighborhood, Huentitán Abajo, when she knew I was serious about entering religious life. The next day, we were on the train with Martina to visit Las Hijas de Jesús Buen Pastor (The Daughters of Christ the Good Shepherd).
I knew I wanted to be a religious sister – not a nun, as my dad said. Religious sisters aren’t cloistered; they live in the city and work daily with the surrounding communities. I had known for a couple years at this point. But I hadn’t decided where. I applied to college per my parents’ request. The gift was my dad’s way of showing acceptance for my decision, but he and my mom agreed that I had to have a plan for after high school.
It didn’t look like a convent, not from the outside. The tall, stucco walls crowned with electric wire were anything but inviting. Martina pressed the call button next to the massive steel doors and explained who we were. Sor Lilia opened the door and invited us in.
Her habit brushed her ankles and her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. The gray in her tunic was two shades darker than her veil. Short-cut hair poked out of the coif that brimmed her face. Her belt drooped loosely around her waist. There was a pocket on either hip to fill with rosaries, a pocket watch, prayer cards and whatever else needed safekeeping throughout the day. It was almost impossible to see her bright blue eyes because she squinted every time she smiled. She always smiled.
Sor Lilia showed me around the convent. We sat and talked in the garden for hours. Other sisters who were watering the flowers and sweeping leaves introduced themselves. A Marian statue guarded the garden. She was beautiful, carved out of white stone. Her soft smile was inviting and comforting.
Classrooms and a playground lined one wall of the convent. They taught children up to fifth grade.
The kitchen and dining room were situated on the adjacent wall. Three sisters cooked three meals for the convent of 35 – and whoever was visiting. They cooked for the school children. But only the sisters and postulates – who lived full-time in the convent, but had not yet taken their final vows – could eat in the dining room. A photo of Pope Francis blessed the wall above the dining tables. There was a TV across the room so they could listen to the pope’s speeches and announcements. On Wednesdays, they spoke only in Italian to ensure they could understand his words.
The other wall housed the sisters. Only they knew what it looked like inside.
I’ve said the rosary countless times with the sisters around that statue. I’ve taught those kids math and religious education. I’ve sang songs with them, dug holes in the playground with them. I’ve eaten in the dining room with the sisters. My hands have cleaned seemingly infinite dishes in that kitchen. I dreamed of living in the sisters’ quarters.
For a year I was under Sor Lilia’s wing. We talked weekly and went over the homework she assigned to me. I spent evenings in the chapel in Oklahoma reflecting on the questions that the homework provided. I dug into my prayer life, my history with depression and past boyfriends. I was completely transparent. I craved to be back in the convent any time I wasn’t. I craved the joy that the sisters had. I craved religious life.
I visited the convent on weekend trips throughout the semesters my first two years of college, and stayed for whole weeks when I had breaks in school. Sor Lilia was moved to a convent in Veracruz so Sor Latziry took me in and helped guide me through my discernment, the period of time I was contemplating religious life. But I missed Sor Lilia. I missed her messages every week. I missed the blue eyes always hidden by a smile.
“You’ve never used a mop before?” Karla asked. We became close friends as aspirants. We had the same birthday.
“Never. We’ve always used a Swiffer Wet Jet.” Karla, who grew up just down the road from the convent, didn’t know what that was. She critiqued how I wrung out the water and dragged the soppy mop around the tile. That became my new regular job there – and a joke between the girls.
When a sister had a birthday, the convent threw a party. At the last party I was at, there was wine. Lots of wine. Enough wine for 35 sisters, the six postulates who lived there and me. Enough wine to get me to teach all the sisters the two step and the Cotton Eyed Joe. Enough wine that the veils came off, and the women’s short hair – hidden since their final vows – bounced as they moved. Enough wine to keep us awake 30 minutes later than usual. We’d been up since 6 a.m., and we’d be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow. And every day after that. The next morning, we regretted losing those 30 minutes.
The next evening, the sisters, the postulates and I gathered for dinner one day after evening prayer. There were stacks of dozens of fresh tortillas scattered across the table to accompany the chile verde stew I helped prepare.
Sor Laura asked how my family was, especially my dad. He’s the only family member any of the sisters had met. I explained that I was hesitant about him dating again – he had a girlfriend he hid from me for months. I explained that my brothers and I felt he had no regard for our feelings – that he didn’t care that he tore the family apart, and could carry on unscathed.
“He cares, Josie,” Sor Laura said. I shrugged.
“A year ago when you were reading at the Mass, I sat next to your dad. He cried and cried while you were up there. He cares.”
My dad? I hadn’t even seen his eyes water before. The only time my mom saw him cry in the twenty-something years they knew each other was when his own dad was taken to prison.
I was silent. I didn’t know what to say, how to react to something I couldn’t imagine. Crying? Why? What moved him? What was he feeling? Was he proud? Was he reflecting our family’s recent years?
I never dared ask any of those questions. I would rather dream of an explanation than try to pry it out of him. But he cried. My dad cried.
The night I learned that my dad cried was my last night at the convent. It was the beginning of my last month as an aspirant. It was the last night I would see the sisters. The breakup was a month later.
For years, the convent was my plan, my dream. For years I was “the girl that’s gonna be a nun.” The sisters had given me the best years of my life at that point. They showed me the joy of obedience, taught me the beauty of poverty and living humbly and strengthened me to live chastely.
But, suddenly, I began to dread the convent, the prayer, the assignments. I was overwhelmed with the idea that maybe I stayed an aspirant because it was easy. It was comfortable and reliable. It began to feel selfish. So it was decided, after talking with Sor Latziry, I would take a break.
I didn’t doubt God or His plan for me. But the pain of losing the sisters as my forever plan pierced me.
The next Sunday, one of my mentors at church asked how the sisters were. My eyes turn red and fill with tears.
“We broke up,” I told her, crying into her shoulder.
“I’m so excited for you,” she said. I tried to show her my confusion, but she wouldn’t unwrap her arms from my body. “You were so happy, filled with so much joy in your time with the sisters. Whatever God really has planned for you will be even better.”
I didn’t know something “even better” existed. I didn’t understand that moving to Mexico and becoming a religious sister was not my ultimate path to a joyful, fruitful and worthwhile life. All I understood was that I had to find key elements to take from the convent and implement them in my new, secular life.
Those two years have helped me never desire wealth, because I lived the freedom of owning nothing. Start dating, but never love a man that loved me any less than the sisters. Somehow forgive my dad for marrying a woman I had met only once. And celebrate all my birthdays drinking wine and dancing until bedtime.