In my early 20’s I was a novice in a monastery in Santa Barbara. The religious tradition doesn’t matter; the story I will tell could have happened in any tradition.
I was one of two young men who staffed a small residence used by the church’s cleric when he visited on weekends. We also did other landscape and household maintenance for the church and for the convent across the street, which housed a small group of nuns.
One night an obviously mentally ill young woman showed up on the steps of the church. She had come to talk with the cleric. The nuns in charge (they were the first to come upon the young woman) told her that the cleric wouldn’t be there until the weekend, a few days away, and that she should come back. The young woman said she’d wait.
The woman was known to the church, and had come before in similar circumstances. The staff had contact information for her parents, but they lived over 100 miles away, and it was too late to arrange transportation for her to return to her parents’ home. The parents had to retrieve the young woman from situations similar to this on prior occasions.
One of the senior nuns said to me: “She can’t stay on the church steps. She could kill herself there.” The nuns told her that she could come back in the morning after staying in a motel overnight, one that they would arrange for her. I was called to drive her to the motel. She was reluctant to go, but the nuns convinced her to allow me to transport her to the motel.
I did as I was asked. This was my first occasion to be around someone who suffered so obviously from mentally illness. As I drove, she talked to herself, quietly at first, repeating various phrases over and over. Her self-talk got louder as the sound of the car speeding through the night got louder. I was able to get her to go to the motel, but she was not at all happy with the arrangement, and I felt uneasy in the situation.
As I fell asleep that night, I realized what had been bothering me, which was this: the nuns’ fear wasn’t that the young woman might take her life, but that she might do so on the church steps, with the unwelcome publicity that would bring.
The young woman didn’t take her life; at least not that night. I don’t know what happened to her, other than that they sent her to her parents house on a bus in the morning. I also found out that they never intended to let her see the cleric. That morning I packed my slim bag and left, and never looked back.
You could say I was inexperienced and overly idealistic. Of course, you’d be right. But just as I know the sun comes up in the east, I know that place was no place for me.
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2 years ago