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The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns

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There is something vital and totally relevant about the religious life as practiced by nuns today. There is a reason why we are fascinated by these women who maintain a mysterious aura even when they are no longer cloaked in the garb of old. What draws women to this sacrificial life? What is the gratification that comes from taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? How can a woman pursue full status in an environment that many deem misogynistic? What are the secret struggles and fears that wage battle ...

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Overview

There is something vital and totally relevant about the religious life as practiced by nuns today. There is a reason why we are fascinated by these women who maintain a mysterious aura even when they are no longer cloaked in the garb of old. What draws women to this sacrificial life? What is the gratification that comes from taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? How can a woman pursue full status in an environment that many deem misogynistic? What are the secret struggles and fears that wage battle behind the serene exterior? people are endlessly fascinated by the mystery of nuns as they walk among us in the world.

In The Calling, Catherine Whitney follows the daily routine of a Dominican community for a year. She reveals a rare inside view of these lives of devotion, while answering the questions that most fascinate the lay public. The Calling is Whitney's search for answers from a community that has existed for centuries but is still evolving. The story contains elements of romance, personal heroism, suffering, existential anxiety, and boundless joy. It is a human tale cloaked in a superhuman mantle.

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Editorial Reviews

Mary Elizabeth Williams

The black-robed, guitar-strumming, knuckle-rapping bride of Christ may be a vanishing image, but it's still a powerful one. Nuns hold an irresistible fascination. They represent all that is strange and exotic about the Church of Rome; they are its scariest taskmasters and its sweetest role models. Catherine Whitney, an author and convent-school survivor, understands the mystique of the females who work within an organization not known for its equal-opportunity policies, and in The Calling she attempts to discover the real women behind the simple appellation "Sister." Whitney gets too muddled in her own tangents at times, but the slow dawning of her own change of heart is a gently affecting thing to behold.

The Calling is subtitled "A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns," but that phrase has almost no correlation to the contents inside. Instead, the book traces the author's return to the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross, the nuns who taught her in her suburban Seattle youth, and does a where-are-they-now with the ones she remembers. Whitney charts the women's histories from their earliest inklings of a vocation through either their continued service, working with the Northwest's neediest, or the relinquishment of their vows. Throughout, she tries to unlock the riddle of that mysterious prize the church dangles before its youths: the calling, the experience of being singled out by God himself. Saints heard voices or saw signs in the sky, but how did these modern woman know what they were meant for? And is a calling something that only those bound for the convent can have?

Whitney is candid in detailing her own complicated relationship with both Catholicism and the women who instilled its tenets in her, but her thought process is too raw and convoluted on the page. She zigzags from her own history to that of the convent to those of the nuns in a manner that can only be described as slapdash. She freely talks about her agent and her editor, but their presences would have been far better appreciated if they'd been seen less and felt more. Had she truly stuck with the concept of a year in the life, or dug in her heels and written a memoir, the resulting book probably would have been fine. As it is, it feels pulled in different directions, with occasional awkward jerks into cohesiveness. And despite the glossary of Catholic terms Whitney provides in the back, she flubs the meaning of the essential Catholic notion of the Immaculate Conception, referring to it as Christ's conception rather than as that of his mother.

But for all her awkwardness, the sincerity of her adult appreciation of the sisters and of the faith she strayed from is indisputable. While nuns are still largely viewed in popular culture as sassy cohorts of Whoopi Goldberg or dour-faced advisors to death-row inmates, Whitney is determined to show them as women with passions, problems, eccentricities and doubts. If they lose some of their heavenly mystique in the process, they gain a reassuring dose of humanity in its place. Survival depends on relevance -- not on, as they say in the convent, old habits. And if the Sisters of Saint Dominic can convince a hardened Catholic-school vet like Whitney that they still have a place in the world, they can convince just about anybody.
&151; Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
For Whitney, examining a year in the life of a convent was a journey of self-discovery. That's why her carefully researched study adapts well as spoken audio: it conveys a strong sense of personal curiosity that pulls the listener along. Herself the product of a Dominican church school in the 1960s yet having long since strayed from the strict dictums of the faith, Whitney wanted to know why other women had instead felt "called" to become nuns (especially, among her own age group, the daughters of the libertine 1960s). This led her to interview nuns of the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross, members of a secluded estate-turned-convent overlooking Puget Sound in Washington State. Her ethnographic research seeks to answer the question of whether independence--of thought, sex or religious belief--can be attained within the closed patriarchal society of the Catholic Church. Narrator Breck carefully preserves Whitney's serious and considered tone. Based on the 1999 Crown hardcover. (May) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Centering her latest book on a 1997 storm and landslide that threatened a community of Dominican sisters near Seattle, baby boomer Whitney weaves in a memoir of her Catholic youth in the area and the indelible stamp left by the sisters who taught her. Although a self-described lapsed Catholic, Whitney carefully probes the community's history and the changes in religious life since Vatican II. Through interviews with former teachers and classmates, whose poignant stories often bespeak great courage and dedication, her own admiration and self-discovery emerge. Whitney has coauthored numerous publications on health, nutrition, and parenting, including the best-selling Eat Right 4 Your Type (LJ 2/1/97); she makes occasional errors of description but generally provides a realistic view of the enduring life of active religious sisters in a fictionalized style based on fact. The past remains surprisingly alive for her. This well-written book is recommended for religious collections where there is interest.--Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY
School Library Journal
YA-Whitney begins her account with the tremendous storm that hit Edmonds, WA, in January of 1997. An ensuing landslide removed an entire section of the Rosary Heights estate and threatened to take the remainder of the land on which the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross had established their religious community. This event persuaded the author to gather the history of these Roman-Catholic nuns. The storm parallels the turmoil and change this religious order survived throughout this century, especially during the 1960s and '70s. The Sisters share memories of their call to the order as well as stories about those who have left and those who have died. The storm also parallels the tempests in Whitney's own soul. When her agent asked her to write a book on nuns, the author readily agreed, perhaps intuitively knowing she would be led to examine her own feelings and beliefs. She returned to Edmonds, to many of the same nuns who had taught her in school, to the religious order she almost joined. She was greeted with love, acceptance, and joy, and she felt her life come into focus as an inner renewal began. A realistic, moving account of a contemporary religious order, its fascinating women, and the author's personal journey in faith.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Lisa Belkin
...[T]houghtful and absorbing....[Whitney's] untested voice is an eloquent one. The strongest and most moving parts of this story are of a grown-up Catherine looking back on the path not taken....[T]his book is ultimately a nostalgic, bittersweet look at a world that may soon be gone.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Whitney (Whose Life? A Balanced, Comprehensive View of Abortion from Its Historical Context to the Current Debate) returns here to her Catholic schoolgirl roots in a work mingling autobiography and ethnography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609805824
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/22/2000
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In the Shadow of the
Tabernacle


Rosary Heights
Edmonds, Washington

— JANUARY 1997


The Pacific Northwest was hardly a stranger to rain, but it was usually more friend than foe. Rain fell often on Seattle, as if from a great lawn sprinkler, emitting a steady, benevolent drizzle. It nourished the crisp evergreen vistas and swept the urban smog from the skies above. The natives had grown accustomed to the damp air, but the recently arrived Californians, lured to the chilly Northwest by Bill Gates's Microsoft and the bottomless riches of technology, despised the weather. They found the rain and unrelenting wind whipping off Puget Sound more agonizing than bracing. Old-timers scoffed at their delicacy and chuckled gleefully when they encountered Californians heading back down to the more temperate south.

    But the storms that brewed along the coast this winter were different, ominous. A cosmic shift in weather patterns had battered the Northwest with severe storms since Christmas. First came the snow, piling to over two feet before the warming air from Puget Sound turned it to rain. High winds sent gale after gale of showers pounding down on the city, felling trees, flooding streets and houses, and collapsing power lines. Interstate 5, the main highway connecting the western coast of the United States with Canada, had been barricaded at major points from Vancouver to Oregon because of rock and mud slides. Snoqualmie Pass, the mountainous egress east, was too dangerous to cross. Schools were closed due to rain, which was an unprecedented event for the children of Seattle.

    Day after tumultuous day, the swollen waters of Puget Sound crashed against the docks and wood pilings, reducing them to timber and sending hundreds of suddenly homeless seagulls cawing and shrieking across the leaden sky. Weather reports predicted more of the same.


As the sky darkened on yet another storm-tossed night, Sister Helen watched from a large bay window in the meeting room of Rosary Heights, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross. The spacious gathering place had been the chapel in more populous times, but it was now kept empty, reserved for lay retreats and community meetings. Wide French doors with spotless glass panes normally provided an expansive sight of the property, but this evening the view was murky and threatening.

    Normally, Sister Helen would be serving dinner at a homeless shelter for women in downtown Seattle. But the lone road servicing Rosary Heights was flooded and blocked with a web of fallen branches. There was nothing to be done but to wait out the storm. Helen frowned with concern as she watched the trees on the property sway and dip toward the ground. Every so often, the sharp crack of a breaking tree branch, or the sudden spatter of sharp pebbles and uprooted brush against the glass, sent her heart racing furiously.

    Rosary Heights stood on one of the most beautiful pieces of land in the Pacific Northwest. High on a bluff north of Seattle, overlooking Puget Sound, the main building was an imposing redbrick English Tudor-style house. Its twenty rooms featured lovely groupings of bay windows, and an interior of sumptuously polished hand-carved oak paneling. A smaller cottage, separated from the main house by a cobblestone pathway, had once been a four-car garage and carriage house. The sisters had long since converted the upstairs of the carriage house to bedrooms and guest rooms. The downstairs was dedicated to archives containing the entire history of the order.

    The fifteen-acre estate had been purchased by the Dominican Sisters in 1956 from the widow of the president of Boeing. Later, eight acres adjoining the original property were added to house the large novitiate, expanding the grounds to twenty-three acres. Some of the land had been sold off since, but the initial acreage remained, keeping the estate secluded and invisible to passersby. A quarter-mile-long tree-shaded road led from the entry gate to a circular front driveway paved with cobblestones. Fragrant gardens and delicate statuary provided small meditation areas along the front of the main building. A winding dirt path behind the carriage house led to a wooded trail, where blue jays, sparrows, robins, and hummingbirds kept up a continual chorus of song, even during the winter months. Around the back, through a trellised archway, was a large yard and more gardens, leading to the commanding bluff and a magnificent stand of stately evergreens partially obscuring the incredible view. The centerpiece of the yard was a tall, slender black cross that rose from a cluster of carefully tended greenery and was starkly silhouetted against the sky.

    Directly below the top of the bluff was a tennis court, built by the original owners, and a swimming pool. The swimming pool had been built in the early seventies for a television version of the movie Diabolique, retitled Reflections of Murder. It starred Joan Hackett and Sam Waterston. The exterior of Rosary Heights had been rented so it could represent a boys' school where a murder had occurred. A crucial scene involved a swimming pool, so the producers had one installed. After the filming, they donated it to the Dominican Sisters. In the following decades, both the pool and the tennis court fell into disrepair. The sisters couldn't afford the upkeep on either, and many of them were embarrassed by the opulent lifestyle these luxurious accessories represented. The dry pool, paint peeling and fading, was now littered with cast-off tennis balls and dried leaves; there was no longer a net or lines on the tennis court. Neither was even visible from the motherhouse, unless one walked to the edge of the bluff and looked over.

    In itself, property meant little to the sisters. Their vow of poverty precluded attachments to land or possessions. But it was impossible to remain detached from the natural beauty surrounding them; an emotional connection to Rosary Heights was nearly irresistible. There was only one way to describe it: God was in this land. Although Rosary Heights had once been the estate of a rich man, any scent of wealth had been scrubbed from the floors and walls by hundreds of postulants and novices over the years. They had swept and polished in silence, their humble work a form of meditation. Many a sister had sat praying fervently on one of the benches placed near the edge of the bluff, inspired by the faraway peaks of the majestic Olympic Mountains, or walked along the shaded paths, where one could almost feel a divine presence rustling through the swaying trees. For most young postulants, Rosary Heights represented their first experience of the contemplative life — the state of being. No words to lead them, no actions to define their purpose. Just stillness and silence: simple, open living in the presence of the Almighty.

    But Rosary Heights was just a piece of land, a space. Spiritual transcendence required more than a space. True inspiration, real devotion to the sacred vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, had to come from within. Only the heart was capable of remaining steady in its faith and devotion to God. The land was temporal. Still, the existence of an established motherhouse was comforting to those who remembered the itinerancy of the order's beginnings in the Pacific Northwest. In those early years, the sisters had been housed in rickety buildings atop odorous, flooding tidal flats in Aberdeen, Washington. They had been forced to build makeshift novitiate dormitories in empty schoolrooms. Later, they had crammed into tight quarters in Seattle and Everett. At last, with the purchase of Rosary Heights, there was a real motherhouse — a place where one could go to begin a spiritual search, or to follow a call. Even the women who had left the order over the years returned to Rosary Heights on occasion. They were drawn by the powerful pull of the sacred, nostalgia for their younger years, and something else; they were always welcomed by their sisters. It would perpetually remain their home, a place where they belonged.

    Sister Helen was the de facto Mother Prioress of the order, although in these modern times, she was called the president. She served as the head of the Leadership Team. Along with three other sisters, Sister Helen was responsible for the order's ministry, its common life, and the treasury. Helen was mindful of her place in the shifting continuum of religious history, but she had few of the guideposts of the order's former prioresses — "real prioresses," she sometimes called them — whose decisions were supported by the rigid edicts of a centuries-old rule and the iron mantle of their authority. That had all given way to the modern religious order — not just for these Dominican Sisters but also for most of the Catholic religious orders in the United States. Portraits of the prioresses, stern, wise, strong women who had devoted their lives to establishing the order on the West Coast, kept a framed vigil on the walls of the motherhouse. There was Mother Guilelma, the beloved first prioress of the Congregation of the Holy Cross; Mother Angela, who had served two terms and had been responsible for the community's formal acceptance by the Vatican; Mother Austin, who had ushered in a period of phenomenal growth during the post-World War II decades; Mother Frances, whose term had been marked by financial strains but who had succeeded in giving the order its first true motherhouse in Rosary Heights; and Mother Dominick, who had allowed the fresh winds of modern thought to sweep over the dusty traditions of the past. Mother Dominick's final task had been to make her role and her title obsolete. She was the first to return to her birth name when that option became available, and she asked to be called Sister Hilary, even while still the prioress. Sister Edwina, once the formidable principal at Holy Angels Academy, was chosen as the first president of the order under its new leadership structure. Sister Edwina was a brilliant woman, knowledgeable about culture and the arts. Her love of Renaissance poetry, customs, art, and architecture was legendary, but Sister Edwina could also display a caustic wit that was decidedly modern. She had no patience with false piety. Once she was said to have created a near scandal among certain traditional nuns. A group of sisters were gathered in the recreation room, and one of them was railing against a recently published book entitled Lesbian Nuns. "It's disgusting" she said. "There are no lesbians in the convents." Sister Edwina responded tartly, "Oh, Sister. What do you think community life is? Don't you think that when women choose to live together for sixty years it implies that they prefer women to men — that they're more comfortable being in a society of women? I'm not speaking of sex, but of preference." The silence in the room was palpable.

    Sister Edwina's death from cancer in 1996 was a bleak occasion for hundreds of sisters and former students who had been touched by her rare spirit. Sister Hilary was still alive, and a vital part of the order. She remained at Rosary Heights after she had stepped down as Mother Superior. Although now quite elderly and hard of hearing, her very presence could fill a room with calm and faith. Her eyes were clear and shining, full of love, and set deeply in the creases of her wizened face. She had a wisdom and selfless attitude that assured her spiritual leadership, and Sister Helen turned to her often for guidance and inspiration. A woman of substantial leadership qualities and intellectual gifts herself, Helen nevertheless often felt humbled before the uncertain crossroads that lay before the order.

    Sister Helen presided over an order that was undergoing a metamorphosis — although harsher critics described it as a slow death. It required a powerful act of faith to believe the order would ever be resurrected, especially as the slow fading away of the cherished community of the past continued. Sister Helen possessed that faith, although it didn't ease the careworn lines etched prematurely into her forehead. The changes of recent decades had been so radical that they had shaken the very foundations of all religious orders. Their own Dominican order, designated by Saint Dominic himself as the Order of Preachers, was less visible than ever in the teaching and preaching arenas. Their new mission encompassed the world. Few of the remaining sisters taught in schools or nursed the sick in hospitals, which had been the dual missions of the order since its inception. The Dominican Sisters of the Holy Cross could now be found in the homeless shelters, the prisons, the community development projects of urban ghettos; in the isolated outposts of a Mexican trailer park to the south, and a Native American reservation to the north. They were involved in the creative arts, the law, and in counseling, teaching, and studying at the universities. They were engaged in the loving care of the elderly sisters who lived out their final years at Assumption Convent, the order's retirement center; in distant foreign missions; in parish leadership positions and the training of a burgeoning community of lay associates. The disparate paths of the Dominican Sisters were bound only by the ephemeral philosophy of their founder, Saint Dominic — and by their enduring faith.

    Sister Helen turned away from the window. The course of the storm was in God's hands. She stopped for a moment to say a prayer in the small chapel off the great room, easing herself onto the padded kneeler and feeling, as always, the transcendent peace — that moment of quiet — that came from being in the sanctuary. The chapel was dark now, except for the flicker of deep ruby and blue lights glowing from the votive candles near the tabernacle. In the daytime, the chapel was bathed in brightness and cheer, even on overcast days. Multiple windows on three sides of the room looked out on well-tended gardens to the north and east, and the massive bluff to the west. When the house was privately owned, it had been the nursery, and it was easy to imagine the delighted babble of children at play in the warm, sunny room. Now it was designed for prayer, with two rows of lecterns, kneelers, and chairs facing each other, and an altar at the end facing east. Sister Helen watched the light flicker and an old saying popped into her head: The Dominican Sisters always live in the shadow of the tabernacle. As long as God was in his tabernacle, they were safe. She blessed herself and glanced at her watch. It was 7:30 P.M.


In the recreation room on the second floor of Rosary Heights, a television droned on with endless weather reports that explained nothing. Sister Amanda looked up from her five-thousand-piece puzzle in annoyance. "They've been saying the same thing for two hours. There's a storm. We know that. Maybe we should try the radio."

    From her rocker, where she sat swaddled in a robe and afghan, Sister Hilary smiled at Sister Amanda. During her term as prioress, one of the most hotly contested debates had erupted over the introduction of television. Many of the older sisters were scandalized when several convents received permission to buy TVs in the early 1960s. But Mother Dominick had been very firm on the matter. She had bought the first television for the order. The world was changing, and they had to keep up with current events. Now, it seemed, television was often irrelevant. It didn't seemed to focus on anything of real importance to people; it had become background noise as reality continued around it.

    Across the room, Sister Martha, a frail older woman with almost translucent skin, sat in her nightgown and pale blue bathrobe, sipping tea and talking to Sister Joanne. Martha was suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but her weakness had not affected her sweet disposition, or dimmed her spirit. Determined to remain at Rosary Heights, rather than be cast off to a secular hospice or even to Assumption Convent, she continued her duties as supervisor of the kitchen.

    Sister Joanne, in a fuchsia sweatsuit, chatted cheerfully, with an animated youthfulness that belied her sixty years. Sister Joanne's face shone like a beacon, filled with the light of her own optimism and spirit. Naturally given to laughter and cheer, this stalwart Canadian refused to let things get her down.

    She loved Sister Martha deeply. The two women had formed a bond many years ago when Joanne was a postulant and Martha was postulant mistress. Joanne had never forgotten the day she was assigned to the laundry, where she was washing Sister Martha's habit. No one had told her that the heavy white serge robes were to be washed in cold water, and Joanne had set the machine's temperature on hot. When the robe had emerged, shrunk to half its original size, she nearly had a heart attack. It had been a serious error. Each nun possessed only two habits, and she had just destroyed one of the postulant mistress's. She felt that she might as well pack her bags right then and there. When Sister Martha was told of the disaster, she never displayed a hint of anger. She merely reproached Joanne by saying, "You must remember to wash the serge in cold water, my dear. Else we'll soon be left with nothing to wear!"

    Joanne had marveled that Sister Martha had not shown even the briefest fit of temper. "Anyone would have yelled and been upset. I know I would have." The postulant mistress's gentle spirit made a deep impression on Joanne. She was, indeed, a role model for the young nun, and later became her friend.

    As the evening progressed, the recreation room grew chilly. The air seemed to settle. There was a sense of expectation, of impending crisis — the way everything becomes eerily still in the moments before some horrible disaster. And at 10:30 it came — a deep rumbling vibration, followed by a great heaving sensation. The ground beneath the motherhouse lifted briefly, then shuddered. The windows trembled, and streams of cold air poured in through the sills and baseboards. From all parts of the house, sisters hurried to the main floor. Sisters Adella, Amanda, and Magdalene, whose rooms were in the carriage house off the main building, raced across the courtyard, becoming instantly drenched as they stumbled over fallen tree branches, loose rocks, and uprooted shrubbery. The small group of sisters huddled together at the window of the great room and watched in terrified awe as the edge of the bluff broke away, snapping the massive evergreens and tossing them into the angry waters below as if they were matchsticks. For a breathless moment, it seemed as if the monstrous storm would swallow the entire hillside, taking them with it. But the violent destruction stopped just short of the shrine of the black cross.

    Peering helplessly from the window into the dark, the sisters were unable to see the true extent of the damage. Only later would they learn that the entire midsection of the two-hundred-foot-high bluff, weakened by the relentless pounding of the water, had spewed out tons of mud, earth, and boulders with the force of an explosion, collapsing and crashing onto a passing Burlington Northern freight train on the tracks below. Five freight cars had been swept into Puget Sound, leaving the rest of the train and its tracks buried under tons of debris. None of this was visible from the motherhouse.

    The sisters debated their best course of action. Would the house hold? If they did decide to leave, could they make it safely to the road? If they were able to make it to the road, would there be a way out? Finally, a compromise was reached. Calculating the distance between the black cross and the house, Sister Helen said, "If the cross goes, we'll leave. For now, we'll stay together in the motherhouse."

    In the early-morning hours, a second avalanche jolted the grounds. The sisters sprang into action. There were no longer any questions. They must leave. Sister Joanne ran to telephone 911 and Dominican House, the convent at Saint Matthew's, where they would seek shelter. As the wailing of sirens sounded in the distance, Sister Helen scurried along the hallways, tapping on doors. "We'll meet at the front. Ten minutes. Hurry. We need to leave."

    Ten minutes! Not even time to say good-bye. As the sisters drove away from their beloved motherhouse, each one of them privately wondered if they would ever return — or what they might find if they did. Sister Joanne thought longingly of the order's archives — the written records and valuable artifacts of the Dominican Sisters' history in the Northwest. Sister Andrea pondered the fate of her vegetable garden, which she had so lovingly tended over many years. Sister Magdalene fretted over the computers and business files in the office upstairs. Sister Hilary reflected on the shrine of the black cross — the symbol of their fledgling order — which had been erected after their formal recognition by the Vatican. And Sister Amanda worried for the property itself — the order's financial safety net, the one thing of value they had to use for barter in troubled times.


The storm began to ebb the following afternoon, and throughout the Seattle area, the citizenry emerged to measure its losses. The sisters, safe at Saint Matthew's, were shocked to learn that across Puget Sound, on Bainbridge Island, a bluff not unlike their own had collapsed, bringing down a large house and killing a young family. Other homes had been severely damaged, and at least two people had been killed by falling trees. Hundreds of live wires had been downed, making the roads treacherous. It was almost two days before conditions were safe enough for the sisters to return to the motherhouse. As they came down the long drive that led to their home, they were relieved to see that the house was still standing. But no one knew for how long. The emergency workers, who had set up bright orange barriers along the bluff, warned that the rest of the bluff could go at any time. Surveyors and engineers couldn't properly inspect the property and assess the damage until the soil had dried — which could be months away. And there was bound to be more foul weather. For now, the motherhouse stood on an uncertain foundation and a prayer.

    Word of the calamitous mud slide spread — widely publicized in the local newspapers, and carried by phone, fax, and E-mail to the outposts, apartments, and modest houses filled with sisters in Chehalis, La Conner, and Everett; the distant missions in Mexico and Alaska; and to the homes of former sisters, now gone from the order to raise families or pursue independent lives. It did not escape notice by some of them that the landslide might symbolize the final collapse of a spiritual foundation that had long ago been irretrievably weakened.

    Three days after the storm, on a cold and sunny morning, a small blue Honda Civic came up the circular path and pulled into a space in front of the carriage house. A tall, slender woman unfolded herself from the tiny car and emerged. Barbara had just turned sixty, but she was still beautiful, her face nearly unlined. When she had been a member of the order, teaching in the local parochial schools, the children always called her "the pretty sister." Barbara was simply incapable of looking plain, even when she wore the bulky serge robes and the awkward square headdress that was the order's habit before the change. She possessed a rulerstraight posture that heavy clothing failed to bow. Her long, slim fingers could make a piece of chalk seem like a magic wand as it flowed out perfect script across the blackboard.

    Bundled against the icy air and the whistle of chill wind blowing up from the Sound, she hurried through the arborway and picked her way along the sodden, muddy lawn. She moved straight against the wind, toward the garish orange barriers standing as warning sentinels across the wounded bluff.

    No longer partially hidden by the tall evergreens, the view across the Sound to the mountains beyond was breathtaking. Barbara got as close to the edge as she dared and looked down over the precipice. The swimming pool and tennis court had caved in, and it seemed that the entire bluff was suspended in the air, as if held by an invisible thread.

    Barbara remembered that when she was a novice, she and the other girls used to pin up their long robes, tie back their veils, and sneak out on summer days to climb down the steep traverse — although now she could see it had been a dangerous excursion. Once at the bottom, the young girls would strip to their bathing suits and dive into the Sound for a swim — laughing at the startled looks from conductors as the freight trains sped by.

    Her novitiate class had been the first at Rosary Heights, and when the sisters moved to the estate, they tried to maintain a quiet presence. The small sign at the front gate was barely visible from the road. For a long time, many of the locals didn't even realize there was a religious order here. Barbara remembered once standing by the gate in the late twilight of a summer evening, clothed from head to toe in her white novice habit. A car sped by, quickly followed by the sound of brakes screeching. She moved deeper into the shadows; perhaps the car's occupants thought they'd seen a ghost. In time, the neighbors got used to the nuns next door and left them alone. Occasionally, high school pranksters would steal the sign that read ROSARY HEIGHTS — SISTERS OF SAINT DOMINIC and affix it to the gate of the Jewish cemetery down the road, thinking it a hilarious joke.

    Barbara also remembered standing on this lawn the first time she ever wore the pure white robe and veil of a novice, feeling the glow of a new maturity and purpose. She was twenty years old, and confident that her life was set on the right course. At that moment, she believed that she possessed everything she would ever need — and perhaps she had. Try as she might, she had never quite managed to recapture that extraordinary feeling of certitude and spiritual calm.

    The life of a religious community had suited Barbara, who tended to be shy, soft-spoken, and naturally drawn toward quiet surroundings. Rosary Heights had been a haven; people didn't stare at her there. They didn't comment on the way she looked, or try to coax a smile or conversation from her. They just let her be. At last she was accepted, for no other reason than that she had felt compelled to answer God's call. When she was assigned to teach at Holy Angels Academy, the girls' high school the order had run since 1907, the very idea had set her delicate stomach in turmoil. Three hundred girls, bursting with energy, hormones, and adolescent savvy — it was an intimidating prospect. But she had been given no choice, so she took on her assignment with grit and determination. To her great surprise, the girls seemed to like her — perhaps because she was young and incapable of the stern manner that radiated from old Sister Albertina, or the intimidating aura of Sister Edwina. Eventually, Barbara relaxed into her role and enjoyed her duties.

    During what Barbara thought of as the Great Exodus of the 1970s, she had remained steadfast. Her love of the contemplative side of religious life provided her for a time with a learned stillness. She didn't relish the rebellious atmosphere of that period, as some of the others did. She loved the religious life. But as the leave-takings mounted, she began to experience them as a depletion of her own life force — as if members of her family were being taken from her one by one. When Mother Dominick initially advised the remaining sisters not to have any contact with those who had left the order, Barbara had suffered terribly. She felt such sadness and loneliness that she could hardly bear it. She at first tried to offer it up as a penance, but her very soul seemed to be fighting for air. She felt suffocated by Mother's rule. Her first act of rebellion was to take the car on a pretense and pay a visit to a former sister at her little apartment in the University District. In the end, Barbara battled mightily with her dark night of the soul, and she lost. She became the last of her era to leave the order. But she still loved the life; she had never quite been able to stay away.

    "It's only land."

    Barbara jumped at the sound of the voice. She turned to see Sister Andrea wading across the sodden lawn, dragging a large garbage bag behind her. She was dressed in a baggy sweatsuit and heavy rubber boots. Her hands were encased in oversized gardening gloves crusted with mud. The sight of her made Barbara smile. Andrea was most comfortable in the loose and grubby clothes of a gardener. She had been the first one — way back in the late fifties — to don a pair of sneakers beneath her robe, creating a near scandal around the motherhouse. When she knelt before the severe and disapproving Mother Frances at Chapter of Faults and confessed her transgression — "I accuse myself of wearing inappropriate clothing" — several of the sisters had to stifle their giggles when they saw the bottom of her black lace-up shoes caked with mud and leaves.

    Now Barbara greeted her with a warm hug. "I had to come when I heard."

    Sister Andrea nodded. "It gave us quite a scare." She pointed down the cliff. "That's where my vegetable garden ended up." Barbara spotted the nozzle of a garden hose and a mottled pile of root vegetables halfway down the slope. "I'll have to find a new place for it."

    "Do you think it will cave in? Will the hillside hold?" Barbara looked doubtfully at the streams of water still trickling down through the fragile soil.

    Sister Andrea shrugged. "The earth will do what it will do."

    Barbara found it hard to meet those steady eyes, and she turned back toward the bluff. Sister Andrea meant it. Imagine such faith, such lack of fear. Perhaps, Barbara thought, suddenly embarrassed, she had no right to cry over lost land. It was she, after all, who had forsaken the motherhouse. But she couldn't help feeling a bond with this place. If Rosary Heights disappeared down the side of the bluff and was consumed in the waters of Puget Sound, she feared that her last link with the sisterhood would disappear with it.


* * *


As the sky darkened on another winter night, the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross gathered in their small chapel for evening prayers. It was Sister Joanne's turn as leader. "I have chosen an opening hymn that was originally sung at the morning office," she said. "I felt it had the spirit of hope we needed, with darkness all around us. Page two twenty-seven."

    In soft unison, the chorus of voices, trained over time to sing in harmony, began.


Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the Word!


    On the second verse, tears sprang to some eyes. Sister Andrea's voice rose above the rest.


Sweet the rain's new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where His feet pass.


    "Let us pray," Sister Joanne intoned, bowing her head. "Lord, who gives us the nourishing gifts of sunlight and rain, we thank you for your many blessings. We ask our father, Dominic, to intercede for us and guide us in fulfilling the mendicant charism of our order, to make the road our home and the suffering of mankind our first thought every day. For this we pray, in Jesus' name. Amen."

    As she lifted her head, Joanne caught sight of the giant cross outside the window; it was swaying back and forth in the wind. She closed her eyes again and prayed for solid ground.

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Table of Contents

1 In the Shadow of the Tabernacle 1
2 Faith of My Father 18
3 Young Women See Visions 38
4 The Calling 68
5 Few Are Chosen 88
6 Crisis of Faith 122
7 Hear, O Lord 139
8 Rebel Brides 154
9 The Labyrinthine Ways 173
10 Tomorrow Land 189
11 Last Call 219
12 The Naked God Quest 236
Epilogue: Higher Ground 245
Glossary 251
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