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The Tulip and the Popeby Deborah Larsen
Synopses & Reviews
Becoming a Postulant
Blue smoke curled out of the taxicab windows.
The driver, who had just parked outside what looked like a stone mansion, waited; he had most likely been through this before. Three of us, three young women, sat in his Yellow Cab and smoked our cigarettes.
The mansion was the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And this day, July 31, 1960, was Entrance Day, the day we would give our lives to God by joining the convent. About two weeks earlier, on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, I had celebrated my nineteenth birthday.
Other taxicabs were pulling into the motherhouse like limousines to the Oscar awards or like horses to the Bar X corral. One hundred and eighteen of us wanted to become nuns.
Many of us were edgy and sat smoking and speculating a little, like starlets or cowpunchers before it was time to crush out the cigarettes or flick them away and do the next things that needed to be done.
Edgy, yes, we were-but also blithe to become nuns, just as Thomas More had been blithe to bare his neck and have his head neatly sliced off by the likes of the black-hooded executioner in A Man for All Seasons. Thomas was so chipper because he knew he was headed for God, would see God face-to-face. Robert Bolt has Thomas say-or maybe Thomas said it himself—that God will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.
In a way, we were going to Him now.
I was going to Him now. When I died, why would He refuse me if I had been a good nun? It was quite a bit like being a princess; eventually I would come into my own and inherit the transfigured earth and the kingdom of heaven.
Maybe the Yellow Cab driver, unless he was Catholic, actually did think he was my executioner. I would give him a big tip, all the money I had left, and I would give him the rest of my cigarettes.
The motherhouse, the convent of wine-colored stone, looked huge as a Cotswold manor house or an estate in Croton-on- Hudson. But the river at the base of the bluffs on which this building stood was the Mississippi, as it flowed past the southern edge of the city of Dubuque, Iowa.
In 1960 most of us didn't know much about the path of the Mississippi or the life on it or where the bluffs began or ended. Did the river mostly remind us of the flux of all things, or even of Jim and Huck? It did not. It might have been the Tiber or the Loire, the Tigris, the Ruhr, or the Yangtze. No matter. What we wanted that day was to become nuns.
We didn't give a fig about our position in the landscape.
My friends Teresa (Tessa) and Kathleen (Kathy) and I thought of ourselves as savvy. We knew what to do because another friend's sister, who was already a nun in the order we were joining, had told us the tradition. On Entrance Day we were to give our last cigarettes to the cabdriver.
We three had come in the Yellow Cab across a bridge over the river, from the train station in East Dubuque, Illinois. We had gotten on that train at Union Station in Saint Paul, Minnesota-our hometown.
Twelve young women in all had come from Minnesota to be nuns, but I knew Tessa and Kathy the best. I had been friends with Tessa since we were both about five years old. She had lovely black hair and an interesting, angular face and white teeth; some of he
Presents a memoir of the author's time spent in a Mississippi convent, where, although intent on pursuing her desire to become a nun, she gradually becomes aware of the pleasures and emotional complexities of the world she has left behind.
In the heat of midsummer, in 1960, nineteen-year-old Deborah and several other young women share a cab to a convent on the Iowa bluffs of the Mississippi River. The girls, passionate to become nuns, heedless of all they are leaving behind, smoke their last cigarettes along the way and enter their life as postulants. In the same precise and beautifully crafted prose that distinguished her successful novel The White (“a brutal and beautiful novel”–The New York Times), Larsen’s memoir lets us into the hushed life inside the convent. We learn about such practices as “custody of the eyes,” the proper devotion to the rule of one’s superiors, and the importance of avoiding “particular friendships.” Her intimate episodic account captures the exquisite sense of peace–even of Presence–that dwelt among the women, as well as the strangeness of living under such strict rules. Gradually, she admits to a growing awareness that there is much life and beauty outside the motherhouse, which she is missing. The physical world–the lush experience of the tulip she stared at in the garden as a girl, the snow she tunneled in, and even the mystery of sex–begins to seem to her a significant alternative theater for a deep understanding and love of God.
With The Tulip and the Pope, Larsen delivers a swift and moving exploration of Christian experience and young womanhood in a more innocent time, and a message of devotion that extends far beyond the high walls of the convent.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Deborah Larsen grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and currently lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She teaches writing at Gettysburg College, where she holds the Merle S. Boyer Chair.
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