The Perfect Nun

The Tulip & the Pope by Deborah Larsen (Vintage)

In high school my best friend, Cathy, who went to an all-girl’s Catholic school kept telling me, “The nuns say I have a calling.” We used to crack up laughing. After all, it was Cathy who swiped her father’s cans of beer from the fridge and her mother’s Kools from her pocketbook, and hung out with hoods. “No way am I going to a Catholic college,” she’d insisted, and we made plans to go away to a state school together and be roommates and have love affairs. But, to my shock, Cathy entered a convent after high school and cut herself off from me completely.

That’s why I leaned forward in my chair, gripping the book hard, as I read Deborah Larsen’s spiritual memoir, The Tulip & the Pope.

It begins in the summer of 1960. Deborah Larsen (then Maertz) and two of her friends from Minnesota are in the back of a cab, desperately taking the last drags of their cigarettes, Deborah smoking two at a time. They know that at the end of their journey they will have to hand their remaining cigarettes and all of their money, except a $50 dowry, to the cab driver before they enter the convent of Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Dubuque, Iowa.

A Mind Full of Martyrdom

Inspired by A Nun’s Story, the 1956 novel by Katherine Hulme that later became a famous movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Deborah leaves a life of dates, smoking, and party-going, to become the “perfect nun.” With her mind full of martyrdom—Thomas More, chipper to bare his neck to the executioner because he was so sure it would bring him closer to seeing the face of God, and Joan of Arc, burnt at the stake despite her heroism in leading the French resistance against the British invasion in the Hundred Years War—Deborah is disappointed to be handed a small vegetable peeler instead of a scrub brush for her chores. When it’s time to get her hair cropped, she imagines Audrey Hepburn getting her long, thick brown hair shorn, and it’s easier to part with her own, especially since her own hair is curly at a time when straight hair is all the rage. And there is the added delight that Deborah tries to keep in check for humility’s sake, of people remarking that with her dark veil, she looks like Jackie Kennedy.

In a quirky series of short pieces that read like prose poems with titles such as “Pajama Legs,” “Skin,” “Raw Eggs, a Green Sweater, and Ham,” Larsen takes us inside the hushed life of the convent where the scratch of Brillo on the pots after the noon meal and the buzz of the electric polisher and a sneeze only emphasize the silence instead of disturbing it.

There is a number for everything—her spot at the postulant table, her communion number, cubby number, etc. In the midst of hearing all these rules, Deborah gets distracted. She wants something. What? A cigarette. This craving becomes a refrain in her early days at the convent. There’s a chapter called “Smoke.” And because no one is allowed to eat anything other than what the convent provides (packages from home are considered property of the group to be distributed and shared), she becomes dogged by food cravings. There’s even a chapter called “Weiners.”

Doing Without Books

Postulants aren’t allowed to watch TV, read newspapers, and all their incoming and outgoing letters are read by superiors. Worse for Larsen, they aren’t supposed to have books of their own. In an ironic lament, Larsen writes, “You can do without the books you fall asleep with, the ones that smell like pulp mill or mildew or the ones that smell like Belgian linen.”

“Larsen takes us inside the hushed life of the convent where the scratch of Brillo on the pots after the noon meal and the buzz of the electric polisher and a sneeze only emphasize the silence instead of disturbing it.”

A postulant must not have friendships outside or even inside the convent. They are also expected to break all attachments to their families. When it’s announced that her mother has brain cancer, Deborah is discouraged from going to visit her. And Deborah, a girl who had so loved the outside world that she used to tunnel in snow, stay outside in pouring rain, and lay under a tulip to observe its underside, (the inspiration for the book’s title) is expected to follow “The Custody of the Eyes,” averting her eyes to shut out other people and the nature to focus more on God. Larsen gives us a diagram of the marbles that make up the body and how to align them for perfect posture, the lists of rules for hygiene, what possessions a nun is permitted, even the underwear she is allowed and what stores to buy it in.

Holy Life

In 1965, while going to college in Chicago, Deborah meets a woman professor who has a husband and three children, a woman with a vocation outside the church, and Deborah’s eyes begin to open to other possibilities for herself. She also becomes engrossed with the writings of theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and others who lead her to the conclusion that “life in the world was holy and not second best.” Nature, sex, friendships, working both inside and outside the church, are all part of a spiritual life. She even meets a professor who is an atheist and turns out to be a nice guy. After many visits with her confessor, Deborah leaves the convent.

But she respects that the church provided a way for women to have a career at a time when it wasn’t easily available. A nun’s college and post grad courses are paid for by the church and a nun’s life allows her to dedicate herself to a life of service without the distraction of family life, and know that, at every point in their lives they will be taken care of. Also, all that silence and meditation has given Deborah the ability to concentrate and learn anything. Today, she’s a writing teacher, a poet, a novelist, a wife, a mother, and her faith, no longer shaped by the Catholic Church, is powerful.

Deborah Larsen’s book is not only about nuns and about her own journey to her very personal faith, but about literature as well. Larsen quotes everything from fairy tales to theologians to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. She compares reading theological articles to the joy of stuffing your mouth with Milk Duds while watching a movie, and that’s just how I felt reading The Tulip & The Pope.

Forty years later, when Larsen returns to the convent to do research for this book, she finds the Sisters of Mount Carmel wearing mauves and greens and patterned scarves instead of habits. And they are, as Larsen says, “ungraspable in their individuality and distinctiveness.” Each is warm and open to her, looking her straight in the eye.

Maybe it’s time I look up my old friend, Cathy.