“Are you a believer?” asked the monk who showed him to his room. Before Thomas could answer, the little man added hastily: “I’m sorry, it’s none of my business.”
Thomas smiled thinly. “Actually,” he said, “I’m mostly here for the peace and quiet.”
The monk nodded: “A good thing. Even mealtimes are silent here. You are of course welcome to talk outside of the monastery’s walls. But overall you’ll find silence a welcome break from the world.”
Thomas couldn’t have agreed more.
“You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Bernard had assured him. How about not doing anything I want, Thomas thought. A retreat on a monastery in a small island off the coast of Cannes, in February to boot, wasn’t his idea of a holiday. But Bernard had found himself stuck in Paris when rehearsals ran overtime, with non-refundable train tickets and reservation.
“You might as well use it,” he had said. “Consider this a gift. I didn’t get you anything for your birthday anyway.”
Thomas’ birthday had been five months before. He wondered if this was Bernard’s covert way of evangelizing him and had been perversely tempted to turn him down. But it was a free vacation, one he couldn’t afford but badly needed. And he trusted Bernard to keep it a secret. (“Thomas l’incrédule” in a monastery! He could only imagine his entourage’s reaction.)
There was also some petty revenge in not letting Isabelle know where he was. Not that she would care. He realized he didn’t want to think about Isabelle right now. Which in a way was a welcome change.
Within its tall white walls, the chapel is unadorned except for the wooden Christ on a cross above the altar. There are only a handful of people seated, barely more than the group of monks who presently enters from a side door and without preamble starts singing.
Unaccustomed to the simplicity observed by the order of Cistercians, Thomas is unexpectedly moved by both the church and its service. Here are men who have renounced the world for a higher power to which they offer their best. The singing demands no applause or recognition. It's a humble offering to something they recognize as greater than them.
In the face of such humility, Thomas finds himself holding his breath.
Time has taken on another rythm.
He doesn’t notice the girl right away. At least, he doesn’t notice if she is pretty which is Thomas’ criteria for noticing people. From where she sits he can’t see her face. Yet something about her catches his eye. It’s in the way she holds herself, head bowed to one side as if listening to something so far off, or so quiet, that Thomas could never hear it.
When he wakes up the next morning it is still dark. Mostly because he has nothing to do and even less to lose, he attends Lauds, the first service of the day at 4:15 a.m. This time there’s only half of them in the chapel. Somehow he’s not surprised to see the girl among them.
Later that day. Sitting on the lawn beneath his window, unable to move, one thought in his head: “Rain on this scorched earth of mine.” He doesn’t know where this came from. A line he read, or worked on, falling down from the recesses of his memory like something stored on a higher shelf and forgotten? All he knows is that it is exactly how it feels. He doesn’t know either why tears are flowing from his eyes. But of all those things, understanding is not the most important.
Bundled up in his parka, he sits reading on a bed of rocks facing the sea, when the girl passes him by. She doesn’t acknowledge his smile and keeps walking. He resolves to ignore her for the rest of his stay.
He’s still at the same place when she walks by again one hour later. This time she stops and gives him such a bright smile he’s too taken aback to remember his promise.
“Can we talk?” she says, in a tone that implies she will not be offended if he won’t. He’ll soon find out that “Can we talk?” is a form of courteous greeting, just like “Are you visible?” is the polite inquiry in theater before entering a dressing room.
“I apologize if I was rude earlier,” she says, sitting next to him. “When I’m in prayer, the world tends to stop existing.”
“I wish I knew how to do that,” he answers. In a couple of sentences, they have already said more about themselves than people will in a whole evening.
“To do what?” She smiles. “Pray? Or shut out the world?”
“Both, I guess” he says, surprising himself – but not her, it seems.
“Your first time here?”
“My first time everywhere,” he says, “at least that’s how it feels.” In her smile he sees she understands what he doesn’t need to explain, not even to himself.
“What are you reading?” she asks, indicating his book. He hands it to her, slightly embarrassed.
“ ‘Ghosts Stories of an Antiquarian’.” The title seems to amuse her.
“I thought this would be the perfect place for it,” he says, half-apologetically.
“We’re not big on ghosts here,” she says, “except for the Holy ghost of course.”
“But a guy born of a virgin, walking on water and raising the dead, that’s fine with you?”
Her laughter is loud and clear. She’s had that conversation many times before.
“I don’t believe because of that,” she says. “And if anyone told me they did, I’d send them to a shrink, not to church. No, I believe in spite of it. Like love, it starts with a miracle inside. That makes it easier to accept the other kind of miracles.”
“No offense, but I don’t think anything could make me accept those crazy tales.”
“You’re a Thomas all right,” she smiles. “You need tangible proof.”
“I believe in what I can see, yeah.”
“And what you can touch. Have you ever been in love, Thomas?”
He feels himself blushing: “Yes. I guess so.”
“You guess. And could you be sure you’d be loved in return?”
“Well, no, but you always hope –” he breaks off, thinking of Isabelle.
“Hope, like faith, is a leap in the dark. And so is love. Loving is not knowing but hoping for the best. And in this world, wouldn’t you say hope is the most important thing?”
“I thought faith didn’t leave room for doubt,” he says.
“Faith without doubt is fanaticism. Man’s hubris was the original sin. Doubting everything but himself. When doubt should always be within us, if only to avoid fanaticism. Doubt is not betrayal. It is the humility to avoid putting our limited knowledge above everything else. Doubt is the door we leave open. And sometimes, an open door is all Jesus needs as invitation.”
They spend the rest of the day talking. Claire is 26, only a few years younger than him, and this retreat is for her “a welcome break from the convent.”
He is surprised. “The convent?”
“I’m a nun,” she says simply.
He looks at her; her ash-blond hair almost shoulder-length, her blue eyes and open smile.
“This is crazy,” he says, almost to himself.
“What’s crazy?” she asks a trifle defensively, though still smiling.
He hesitates: “Well to start with,” he finally says, “this is the first time I see a nun wearing jeans and boots.”
“Try walking on those rocks in a nun’s habit,” she says. “Now, that would be crazy.”
“But you’re so young.”
“You know…” He doesn’t dare say “for giving up your life”.
“Too young to make my own decisions?” she teases. “Funny, no one told me I was too young when I would get high and sleep around.”
“What ‘what’?” She raises an eyebrow at him. “I was born a virgin, I wasn’t born a nun.”
They laugh, newly at ease with each other.
“When I took my vows,” she said, “everyone around me was like: ‘But darling, why bury yourself alive?’ It never occurred to them that I was actually freeing myself.”
She considers. “Maybe from what society expected of me. To be a wife, a girlfriend, a career woman, a social animal, a ‘liberated’ being. There is such a thing as the conformity of non-conformism.
But it wasn’t so much a freedom “from” than a freedom to. The freedom to go to Christ, to follow my belief without useless obstacles on my way. Freedom is about the art of letting go.”
They talk till the bell tolls for Vespers.
After the evening service, she remains in prayer and he feels the need to be alone with his thoughts. By a tacit agreement they do not seek each other’s company after dinner. They meet again the next morning, as they will on the following days, on the same spot of rocks facing the sea. The conversation always starts without preamble, as if there had been no interruption.
He never wanted, he tells her, to be among those who turn to religion because they fear death.
“Some do,” she agrees. “Others turn away from religion because they fear life.”
“Really?” Thomas bristles. “As opposed to those who choose to lock themselves in a convent?”
Far from looking offended, she gives him another gentle smile and he feels ashamed of his outburst.
“Believe me,” she says, “facing life isn’t half as scary as facing yourself, sometimes, and you do a lot of that when praying.”
He finds he can tell her anything. She’s not even phased by his blasphemous past. In fact, she manages to shock him when she calls his blasphemy an act of faith.
“Why waste time insulting someone who doesn’t exist? Or defy Him to show His face?”
He can’t answer that one.
“Maybe,” she says softly in his silence, “it means you are searching for Him. More than anything in fact, or you wouldn’t be that angry not to find Him.”
“Maybe I’m not angry so much at God than at the Church,” Thomas says. “I mean, who talks about love one minute and calls for death to gays the next?”
“And for those who eat shellfish and wear garments of two different clothes?” she finishes for him, rolling her eyes. “Don’t start with the Leviticus. The Old Testament is about man’s search for God, complete with hits and misses. The New Testament is about Jesus saying: let’s keep it simple and to the point. Why don’t we start with that. Just the main commandment is enough to keep us busy for a lifetime.”
“Love thy neighbor, right?”
“ ‘As I have loved you.’ The part people tend to overlook.”
“As in: go to hell? Look at all the state of the world. What kind of God lets that happen?”
She sighs: “The kind that lets you be free. Even when His heart is breaking. Because this is what you do when you love. Adam wanted that free will, didn’t he? Or let me ask you in return: what kind of love controls and imprisons you?”
“But couldn’t He prevent evil, in his all-goodness? Or what’s the use of prayer then?”
“As I’ve said, we shouldn’t presume to get all the answers in this lifetime. All I know is that whatever happens, God is always there as your friend. Sometimes, the best thing a friend can do is walk by your side in silence.”
Thomas remembers how infuriated he had been by well-meaning platitudes at his father’s funeral, and how Bernard had been the only company he could stand then, if only because Bernard always seemed to know when to keep silent.
“Loving your neighbor would be easier if they’d shut up once in a while,” he admits.
“And loving yourself would even be easier if you understood God’s love,” she answers. “ ‘How can God love me if I can’t love myself’, isn’t it what you’re thinking?”
“You see through me a little too well, Sister Claire.”
She smiles: “Like children with their parents, we equate love with approval. But God, like the good parent He is, loves us not with pride but with patience and understanding. And the compassion for our foibles, which is His mercy.”
“If God is all about love and mercy,” says Thomas, “how come so many Christians aren’t?”
She sighs. “I’m always amazed at those who hijack the Bible for their own purposes and don’t see the contradiction. If they took the time to read it, you can be sure the good Book would be the first they’d ban.”
“Why would they?” Thomas is in no mood to be swayed. “Such good opium for the people? Keeping them meek and humble instead of making a revolution.”
“Oh yes, that old chestnut. Because telling slaves they are equal to their masters wasn’t enough of a revolution in its time? Now let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the man who got crucified for this was just a mere mortal. A carpenter changing the face of the world? That’s an even bigger miracle than walking on water, if you ask me.”
“And what if he was just a man,” she goes on, “climbing up the Golgotha and falling down not once, not twice but three times.
And each time getting up, without a word against those jeering at him and spitting on him, and taking up his cross again without a complaint. Think of Jesus as just a man and you will love him even more.”
Her blue eyes are filled with tears. He feels his own eyes welling up but this is one thing he has stopped questioning by now.
“I guess I just need some kind of sign,” he says.
“How Thomas of you,” she smiles. “And what if all you needed was to open your eyes? Of course, simplicity can be the most complicated thing of all.”
“Did you get a sign?” He asks her.
“How did I get the call, you mean?” She pauses in contemplation. Then: “I won’t bore you with my life story. But let’s say I was at a point where I truly felt alone, until –”
She pauses, eyes far away.
“Yes?” Thomas prompts her.
“Until I felt His presence within me. One that had always been there and knew me better than I knew myself. And loved me too, better than I ever could.”
“What did you do?” Thomas asks, genuinely curious.
“I laughed!” And she does laugh now. “I laughed so hard, like a joke it had taken me forever to get. And I laughed at myself for not getting it sooner.” She turns to him, radiant. “And what a joy it was. Like a light suddenly turned on and you see the world better than you ever have. And what you don’t see, you learn to accept.”
On his last night, after dinner she invites him into the empty chapel.
“I asked the monks for special permission,” she says. “I’d like to teach you a dance.”
The dance is done without touching, she explains. The dancers face each other, looking into each other’s eyes for God within.
She puts on the music. He mirrors her every move and sees himself mirrored in her. They dance and he feels naked yet unafraid, beyond the need to impress or seduce.
The memory of dancing with other girls, when desire hid a desperate search for connection, no matter how brief or false when bodies temporarily triumph over mind – if only to give a soul a respite from its solitude.
Not here. They dance and whatever they see, is only for them to see.
She is not there to see him off in the morning. Part of him was hoping she would be. Yet he feels strangely fulfilled.
As he leaves the abbey for the last time, his step is giddier than it’s been in ages. He wonders why he should feel such energy, and such joy inside.
And then it clicks.
He starts laughing, laughing so hard like one laughs at a joke it has taken forever to understand – laughing both at the joke and at one’s failure to understand it sooner. He’s laughing so hard it’s a relief no one is around to witness it, he tells himself. They would think he has completely lost it, and this makes him laugh even more.
When he reaches the pier, he has the laughter under control but he’s still smiling with the joy inside. Brother Paul from the abbey is waiting there to say good-bye.
“I hope your retreat was beneficial,” he says.
“It was,” says Thomas. He wishes he could say more but knows they lack time. Somehow the monk seems to understand for he looks Thomas in the eye and nods, his smile more than mere politeness.
Presently the boatman calls for the passengers to embark.
“Please say goodbye for me to Sister Claire,” Thomas says. “I’m sorry I missed her this morning.”
“The young nun? From the convent of – ?” He realizes he never knew what convent she came from.
The monk stares at him.
“But Sister Claire…” Brother Paul catches himself. “Sister Claire left us – some time ago.”
“You mean, she took an earlier boat? But I thought this was the first…”
His voice trails off. They stand looking at each other.
Finally the monk takes Thomas’ hand in both of his.
“God bless you,” he says, “on your journey home.”
The island is getting smaller. Thomas stands on the deck, his journey home only starting. There is a voice inside his head and he thinks he can almost hear the smile in her voice.
Doubt, he reminds himself, is the door we need to leave open. And not every question has to be answered in this lifetime.