Sunday, December 20, 2009

“She Could Kill Herself There!”

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.


  1. Well, Dan, I can certainly tell which organized religion you've run from. Me, too, and I might add that the Badger could also tell some tales.

    I was 8 when I stopped believing. You have read a little of my story. You know about my brother. It was springtime and we were in the "religion" part of our instruction. It was 3rd grade and I LOVED Sister Maren Therese. But that afternoon, in "religion" I learned that my father was doomed to hell because he would not consciously choose the true church and my brother would spend eternity in limbo because he could not embrace the true church. I loved my father and my brother. I may have been only 8, but I knew there was something very, very wrong with those penalties. I've spent the ensuing 49 years running.

  2. Actually, it wasn't catholicism, but I'll leave it there. I don't talk much about it because things can get so easily misunderstood, and confused with some kind of cultism. In any case, you're my blogging guru. I love your willingness to stick yourself out there. Keep up the good work.

  3. Sorry, Dan, I thought I spotted "Catholic" in all caps ~ projecting just a little of my own stuff, huh? ;~} And you're right. It doesn't matter which particular creed.

    Blogging guru is more than I deserve, but I appreciate the kind words. My willingness to stick myself out there is a first in a lifetime of silence and hiding. I'm just letting the sun shine in, for good or for bad, but finally.

    May I say I've really enjoyed your past few posts. Same are about cyclists, but not about cycling. It lets us see other interesting facets of the person you are.

  4. I suspect it is part of what drives people insane, Dan,the business of being told one thing and then finding that those in whom we've put our trust let us down. They go off and do the opposite of that which they promised.

    This is not the full story, but I understand your position here. I too have had seminal momenrs when someone's behaviour, particularly someone in authority, has caused me to rethink whether I actually want to be around that person or group of people anymore. And I too, have packed my bags and moved on.

    I don't think it is naive or overidealistic. I think it helps maintain your sanity to move away from those who behave like hypocrites. t

    Thanks for joining my blog. I'm lokooking forwatd to reading more of ours.

  5. Limes: Yes, I found Elizabeth through your blog. Now I have 2 that I look eagerly to. Thanks for both contacts.

    I love the idea of making our own traditions, and the one you've made of enjoying winter soltice outdoors. Just bring that warm sleeping bag. Looking forward to many more wonderful pieces from you.

    Speaking of that, there was some recent email traffic among some cycling randonneurs (distance nuts) about joining in a particular french tradition of especially long distance, epic riding; montanards(sp?), I think they were called. After awhile the discussion shifted to an alternative idea of developing some local traditions of our own, modelled on how we really want to ride in our local area; epic mountains, etc. So ... let the fun begin!

    Elizabeth: I'm so pleased to have found your jaw-dropping writing. You have wonderful insight and observation skills. We are the happy beneficiaries of your writing retreat.

  6. I think I may have known this woman. Or at least one much like her. I met her in the park outside the LA County Art Museum. She told me she was crazy, schizophrenic, I think she said. We spent much of the day talking and I gave her my phone number (this was 1967 or early 1968) and didn't ever expect to hear from her. She said she travelled a lot between LA and Santa Barbara. I was wrong. I got a call from her one day from some mental institution and could I come get her out. I wasn't able to, and I wonder whatever became of her. Probably ended up at that monastery in Santa Barbara.