A Nun's Story

By Deborah Larsen

Knopf. 265 pp. $24

Last fall, my Catholic grammar school in Queens, N.Y., held a gala reunion for all graduates since the school's founding in 1962. Eight of my classmates from the class of 1969 showed up, as well as two of my former teachers, both of them still nuns. Talking with these devoted teachers and looking them in the eye (probably for the first time) confirmed what I had sometimes suspected in the decades since my graduation: These nuns, like most of my other teachers throughout grammar school, were, at most, 15 years older than I. When they were teaching me throughout the 1960s (whose signal moment, for me, will always be an image of Sister Mary William crying into a big white handkerchief in front of my stunned third grade class when word of the Kennedy assassination reached us), many of these women were only in their mid-twenties. They were so very young to have already made the decision to completely commit their lives to God.

Deborah Larsen was one of that generation of nuns who joined the convent when religious vocations (and parochial school construction) in America were at an all-time high: She entered the order of the Sisters of Charity in 1960, when she was just 19 years old. "Our hair shone. Our eyes shone. Most of us were not long out of the womb," writes Larsen in The Tulip and the Pope, her evocative and intelligent memoir of the years she spent in the convent. The memoir opens on a comic and chilling scene where Larsen and two other young women sit in a taxicab outside the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Dubuque, Iowa, smoking their last cigarettes. Once these raw recruits throw down those cigarettes and walk through the convent doors to be admitted as "postulants," they'll be stripped of their civilian clothes, secular names, and, eventually, their hair. Contact with family will be severely restricted: Larsen recalls how letters from her parents were slit open by the mother superior and censored. The postulants will practice silence, as well as "custody of the eyes," in which they will train their eyes downward, lest they become distracted from the meditative state by colors or shapes or the gaze of another person. Collectively, their sense of touch will atrophy because touching -- whether one's own body or another person's or "the head of a canary or the back of a tiny turtle" -- is forbidden. As Larsen describes it, that first year in the convent is like a very slow amputation; by the end of their probationary period, all that will remain of these idealistic young women is their brains and souls.

In her stark historical novel, The White, based on the account of real-life Indian captive Mary Jemison, Larsen carried readers off into the wilderness of the 18th century; The Tulip and the Pope effects a similar miracle of time travel. Larsen summons up a lost world of pre-Vatican II Catholicism -- a world of deference, incense and certainty -- which will be familiar to Catholic readers of a certain vintage and fascinating to any reader curious about religious faith and the stony places to which it can sometimes lead its adherents. Writing at a 40-year remove from her convent experience, Larsen -- who is still a spiritual person but no longer an observant Catholic -- teases out the attractions the monastic life once held for her (among them, its sense of coherency and community) and recounts how her vocation eroded as the Catholic progressive movement and the possibilities it opened up began to flourish in the mid-1960s.

Most of the chapters in The Tulip and the Pope are short -- some less than a page -- and, as their titles suggest, they often read like prose poems on religion and its occasional absurdities: "Black Becomes Us," "Joan of Arc's Kneecaps," "Gregorian Chant and the Congo," "Pajama Legs."

Larsen conjures up internal soliloquies -- the kind that must have been running in her head all the time she was in the convent -- so that readers are placed in the position of overhearing her dialogues between self and soul. Recalling the convent's ban on books, she says: "Surely you can do without your very own books for the rest of your life, can't you? You can do without the ones you fall asleep with, the ones that smell like a pulp mill or like mildew or the ones that smell like Belgian linen." Ultimately, Larsen couldn't do without those books; nor could she do without the "particular friendships" the convent forbade, nor cigarettes, nor colorful clothes, nor, in short, the wider world.

Without disparaging or sentimentalizing the convent world that once was her life, Larsen conveys its drowsy power. Much like my old Catholic grammar school -- which, according to neighborhood gossip, just escaped being placed on the cardinal's recent list of "schools-to-be-closed" in this era of downsizing -- the convent is, for Larsen, an enduring site of longing and dismay. *

Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," is the author of a new literary memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."