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It's five o'clock in the morning in the cloister chapel. I am sitting alone with the nuns and Helen. Darkness still peers through the tall, tapered panes. Nothing but black sky is visible, for on the east wall angled wooden slats shutter the lower column of every window, and on the west wall, instead of real glass, a mural of painted windows reveals only slits of painted sky. A life-sized Jesus droops on a massive cross above the altar; his pastel, plastic body—knees, elbows, and jutting ribs—is smeared with ochre, ash, and streaks of crimson. A ring of barbed vine weights his head. And, as if one were not enough, a second battered Jesus hangs from a second cross on the opposite wall.
Everything is washed in yellow light that shines from two rows of lamps, each one suspended on a thin cord from the rafters. Rising up to the windows, but turning back on itself, the light seems trapped. The many pairings—Christ with Christ, window with window, pew with pew—increase this sense of inwardness. Even the room itself is mirrored by a second, public chapel, which faces this one through a square window behind the altar. Later, people will shuffle in for mass, and we will see their heads bobbing above the sill. They, in turn, will strain to catch a glimpse of the nuns. But at this early hour the velvet curtain is drawn, so we are closed in with crosses, painted and shuttered glass, empty benches, and yellow light. We have gathered to sing in the dawn.
The nuns line the back pew, darkly hooded and still. Like one in a row of ancient boulders, each broods alone, her body and mind hunched within itself. The nuns live here, just ten women in this forgotten cloister, which was once just a farmhouse on a hill—the "little old house" they used to call it. But the world has grown up around them, and now the cloister, chapel, and retreat house sit on a busy intersection in Pittsburgh. Some [End Page 10] have lived here, in silence and ceaseless prayer, close to half a century. They never leave. Only four visits from family per year; friendly letters only at Christmas. A brief absence is granted only for critical illness or death in the immediate family. This is the second morning of my first visit. After a series of letters passed through a metal turnstile and names called through the thick door—Sister Mary Elizabeth of the Agonizing Cross, Sister Paul Marie of the Blessed Trinity—the nuns allowed my sojourn into their bricked-in world.
The only other outsider is Helen. She sits several pews up and to my left gazing at the bloody Jesus with an expression of fresh awe. Mother Superior introduced us two nights ago in the narrow hall outside the chapel. Mesmerized by hours of cloister silence, we both fumbled through a formal exchange. There was something impish in the pageboy cut of her hair, in the way her bangs hung in a thick, uneven shag across her brow. Her dark eyes, like stones underwater, looked out at me but remained distant. I studied her as we made our way silently through the convent to the second floor of the retreat wing. She moved with long strides, her arms swinging arhythmically beside her. Each part of her body and movement contradicted some other part: her eyes called the swagger of bangs into question; her arms, not quite sure of themselves, were sobered by the forward purpose of her torso; even her voice, mixing a low drone with a rasp, was at odds with her freckled grin. Although in her mid-forties, she seemed both boyish and old. Before turning to her room she pulled me close in a tight, spontaneous embrace. "Knock on my door any time," she said.
Helen is here to contemplate becoming a nun. For the next ten days she will consider...